Leadership For The Great Transition

September 24, 2019

Vertical vs. Horizontal Learning by Brown, 2013.


We are living in a time between worlds (Stein 2018). The convergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the dawn of the Anthropocene and the cultural tension between modern reductionism and postmodern pluralism is amplifying the conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Cariss & Vorhauser-Smith 2017; Carrington 2017; Stein 2018). Within this context, leaders in education, health care, community services and workforce development are on the frontlines of unprecedented disruption (Gahan, Healy & Nicholson 2017).


I am a research-practitioner working in the emergent field of Transition Design Leadership supporting leaders in education, healthcare, community services and workforce development to transition themselves, their teams and their organisations from where they are to where they need to be in order to meet the challenges of this time between worlds (Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise 2015; Stein 2018).


Over the last 24 months I have collaborated with organisational consultants, leadership experts, social scientists, designers, futurists and action researchers, and captured insights from my own cross sector client engagements. The following question has led my enquiry:


What do leaders in education, health care, community services and workforce development need in order to lead change in this time between worlds?


A pattern of needs emerged:

  • Opportunities to trial safe to fail experiments via learning-through-action (Bradbury 2016)

  • Peer learning communities for sharing, storytelling and testing new ideas

  • Structures and tools for imagining and co-designing new futures

  • Sustained blended learning programs that build skills and incubate ideas

  • Holistic mechanisms for measuring impact on the things that matter most (Esbjorn-Hargens 2018)

  • Learning and designing with rather than on, to or for others (Bradbury 2016)

  • Skilful means to navigate complex systems (Snowden 2002)

  • Antidotes for people’s resistance to change (Kegan 1994)


The overarching theme - a leader’s commitment to and passion for learning is essential for leading in this time between worlds. 


According to Brown (2013), there are two types of learning:


Horizontal Learning or competency development,

increases what you know and strengthens technical expertise, is essential for using known techniques to solve clearly defined problems and develops functional knowledge, skills, and behaviours that strengthen your leadership toolkit (Brown 2013, p. 4). 


Vertical Learning or mindset transformation is

the transformation of how a leader thinks, feels, and makes sense of the world… (and) includes the development of both mental complexity and emotional intelligence (Brown 2013, p. 4).


Today in Australia there are social innovation incubators that focus on Horizontal Learning for teams and organisations by applying design and foresight tools to live projects. There are also leader development programs that address Vertical Learning. These programs focus on individual mindset and behaviour transformation in areas such as meta cognition, complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration (Doecke, Lamb & Maire 2017). However, there is a gap in the market for programs that integrate both Vertical and Horizontal Learning at the scale of individuals, teams and organisations.


I have partnered with futurist, Kieran Murrihy at Foresight Lane, to co-design a:

  • learning-through-action simulator 

  • that integrates the benefits of both Vertical and Horizontal Learning 

  • at multiple scales of engagement 

  • in order to support leaders 

  • as they straddle the divide between current realities and future potentials 

  • in this time between worlds. 


Murrihy and I are working on a co-designed prototype for a one-off experience using sport as metaphor, although the intention is to apply the same principles to a sustained program. Ultimately, the idea is to create a field that leaders can step onto and off of, much like a footy pitch. The more frequently they play, the more habitual new mindsets and competencies become, both on and off the field.


Our prototype is under development and will be ready for testing in early 2020.



Bradbury, H 2016, ‘Introduction: how to situate and define action research’, electronic book, in H Bradbury, The sage handbook of action research, 3rd edn, Sage Publications, Singapore, pp. 1-9.


Brown, B 2013, ‘The future of leadership for conscious capitalism’, Journal of integral theory and practice, no 5, pp. 1-22. 


Carrington, D 2017, 'Earth's 6th mass extinction event underway, scientists warn', The guardian australia edn, viewed June 21, 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn>


Cariss, K & Vorhauser-Smith, S 2017, Cliffhanger: hr on the precipice in the future of work, Pageup, Melbourne.


Esbjorn-Hargens, S 2018, 'MetaImpact framework', MetaIntegral overview, viewed June 1, 2019, <https://www.metaintegral.com/>


Gahan, P, Healy, J & Nicholson, D 2017, ‘The future of work in australia: anticipating how new technologies will reshape labour markets, occupations and skill requirements’, Future frontiers analytical report, New South Wales Department of Education, Sydney.


Irwin, T, Kossoff, G & Tonkinwise, C 2015, Transition design: an educational framework for advancing the study and design of sustainable transitions, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.


Kegan, R 1994, In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, 4th edn, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.


Snowden, D 2002, ‘Complex acts of knowing: paradox and descriptive self‐awareness’, Journal of Knowledge Management, vol 6, no 2, pp.100-111.


Stein, Zachary, 2018, 'Introduction: education in a time between worlds, Institute for interdisciplinary research into the Anthropocene', Education in the anthropocene: futures beyond schooling, viewed June 1, 2019 <https://iiraorg.com/2018/04/05/education-in-the-anthropocene-futures-beyond-schooling/>









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