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2011 December |

Sustainable Business & Attention: Vertical Leadership Development

December 7, 2011

Leaders in the sustainable business movement are not automatically inclined to come up with the most innovative sustainable solutions in the way that Ray Anderson of Interface did (see my last post for context on this). There are solutions categorized as the “low-hanging fruit” (like recycling office paper and offering carpool and public transit assistance) that are relatively easy to conceive and execute. According to the “Leadership and the Corporate Sustainability Challenge” research report by McEwen and Schmidt of Avastone Consulting (2007), the more innovative solutions require a different mindset. McEwen and Schmidt write, “Mindsets, the nature of their development, and the headway gained through the expansion of consciousness, are often overlooked in the larger sustainability discussion” (p. 4). Mindsets in this context are defined as “interior patterns of mind, or frames of reference, from which individuals see sustainability and its importance” (p. 6). It is the vertical development of one’s mindset that is important, hardest to attain and thus most overlooked. As mindsets expand vertically (to greater depth and thus less familiar territory), “an individual’s current way of meaning-making [shifts] to a broader, more complex mindset(p. 6).

The figure below is adapted from Susanne Cook-Greuter’s (2004) article Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective. vertical-development1Horizontal development is “expansion at the same stage (developing new skills, adding information & knowledge, transfer from one area to another)” (p. 3). Vertical development is “transformation…new more integrated perspective, higher center of gravity” (p. 3). Downward development is “temporary or permanent regression due to life circumstances, environment, stress and illness” (p. 3).

This vertical development is well researched and documented in various leadership developmental theories such as those by Susanne Cook-Greuter (2004) and William Torbert (2004). The innovative sustainable solutions, beyond the low-hanging fruit, require a leader to have “a broader, more complex mindset,” i.e. a mind at the later stages of development. The vertical development of a leader’s mindset is a “core underlying force for accelerating sustainability gains” (p. 4).

The Ray Andersons of the world are few and far between. According to research conducted by Joiner and Josephs (2007) on leadership developmental stages, “less than 10 percent of managers have mastered the level of agility [more complex mindset] needed for sustained success in today’s turbulent business environment” (p. v) . The later stages of leadership are “where people can tap into their creative potential by participating in the development of solutions that benefit multiple stakeholders” (p. 94). One becomes available to engage with stakeholders beyond just employees, suppliers and shareholders – e.g. the natural environment and affected communities (p.113)(p. 270) — making business challenges (and business solutions) much more interesting, more complex and more sustainable.

It is through the “capacity to live ‘in attention’ that you can move into and through” the later leadership developmental stages (Joiner & Josephs, 2007, p. 221). Joiner and Josephs found that, at the later stages, leaders are much more likely to have an attentional practice. This includes psychotherapy, shamanic drumming, yoga and various forms of meditation (p. 222). Attentional practices help to create leaders who can identify and implement the more innovative sustainable business solutions; the leaders who can pick the high-hanging fruit.

Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the founding chair of the Presencing Institute, would agree. He has co-designed and delivered award-winning leadership programs for clients including Daimler, Pricewaterhouse, Fujitsu, and Eileen Fisher. Scharmer (2009) recognizes the challenges that humans face:

  • We have created a thriving global economy that yet still leaves 850 million people suffering from hunger and 3 billion people living in poverty (on less than two dollar per day)…
  • We invest significant resources on our agriculture and food systems only to create nonsustainable mass production of low-quality junk food that pollutes both our bodies and our environment….
  • In spite of alarming scientific and experiential evidence for climate change, we, as a global system, continue to operate the old way—as if nothing much has happened. (pp. 2-3)

According to Scharmer (2009), identifying and implementing innovative sustainable business practices that will contribute to solutions for the challenges above requires a recognition of the blind spot in leadership—“the place from which our attention and intention is happening….the inner place from which we operate” (Scharmer, 2009, p. 11). “[T]he essence of leadership is to shift the inner place from which we operate both individually and collectively” — this inner place is the “structure of attention” (p. 11).

Joseph, Joiner and Scharmer agree that one’s attention plays an important role in leadership development and sustainable business. Joseph and Joiner’s (2007) work focuses on a leadership developmental theory, and Scharmer’s (2009) work focuses on a social field theory. While a leader’s attention plays an important role in their theories, these thinkers do not provide practical instruction for the cultivation of attention. The Buddhist practice of shamatha does provide practical instruction on cultivating one’s attention (see my post on this). And, as Joseph and Joiner have indicated above, there are other choices. With regards to my attention coaching, this attention cultivation practice is not meditation based. I will be sharing more about my practice in this blog in the future.

This blog post, and those before it, have been an exploration of the following question: In the quest for sustainable business, how might the cultivation of attention contribute to the process of leadership development? This journey started in October 2011. These posts have been a result of my work in my PhD studies at California Institute of Integral Studies. (Possibly you were wondering why my writing appears so academic. Now you know why!) I plan to continue to blog this PhD research journey, but at a slower pace. Do come and visit my space when you can. I promise to share faithfully and honestly about my journey to help change business for the good.

Cook-Greuter, S. R. (2004). Making the case for a developmental perspective. Industrial and Commercial Training, 36(7).

Joiner, W. B., & Josephs, S. A. (2007). Leadership agility: Five levels of mastery for anticipating and initiating change (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Schmidt, J. D., & McEwen, C. A. (2007). Leadership and the corporate sustainability challenge. Roswell, GA: Avastone Consulting.

Torbert, W. R. (2004). Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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