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Systems, consciousness and leadership

Systems, consciousness and leadership
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How does our consciousness impact our actions? What effect does our mindset have on their outcomes? Heather Monro considers the potential that vertical development theory has to revolutionise the way we operate today.

I have worked in leadership development for many years and have always taken pride in my ability to help clients find solutions to tricky leadership problems, develop skills for navigating stakeholder relationships, and embed practices for thriving in demanding roles.

However, increasingly I have begun to question whether the majority of leadership development, training and coaching is truly serving our coachees, our organisations, our global community and indeed our planet. Client feedback may indicate success based on increased productivity, business returns, personal wellbeing and happier stakeholders, but we cannot ignore the accelerating rate of disruption all around us. We cannot separate our work from the fact that the direction we are heading in as a global civilisation is unsustainable. 

Therefore, the question we must ask ourselves as learning and development practitioners is: exactly how have we been unwittingly contributing to this?

A good place to start is with a piece of Einstein’s wisdom: ‘you cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking and consciousness that created them.’ If we keep applying the same approaches to the same problems we will always reproduce the same unsatisfactory results.

Different ‘levels of thinking and consciousness’ are exactly what vertical development theory addresses. It explores how the lenses through which we perceive and construct our world develop – both as individuals and as a global society. 

In order to explain vertical development theory I’m going to draw on a metaphor used by Otto Scharmer, who describes it in terms of updating our operating system*. Operating system 1.0 is based on a traditional worldview that values duty and loyalty, but produces rigid, hierarchical structures, control and conformity. 1.0 is great for creating stability but stifles creativity and entrepreneurship. OS 2.0 is based on ego-awareness, fostering competition, entrepreneurship, the free market, growth and the accumulation of wealth. However, it also leads to social inequity and environmental degradation. OS 3.0 is the stakeholder perspective – the capacity for empathy and the best possible outcome for all – resulting in institutional innovation, a more networked way of working, and the social market. 

OS 3.0 is where I’d argue much current developmental coaching and leadership development activity focuses. To continue the metaphor, so far we have mostly been nurturing our clients’ horizontal development by helping them to add new apps (skills, strategies, practices) to their current operating system. But, as we have witnessed over the past few decades, OS 3.0 is failing to respond effectively to global externalities and the VUCA world. We can download more and more apps but nothing will change.

What Einstein was telling us is this: the output of our work in a system is a function of the level of consciousness that the people in the system are operating from; we can’t change a system unless we change the consciousness. 

As coaches and learning facilitators, it is our duty to stop going round in circles, adding new apps and practicing horizontal development and instead to help our clients vertically transcend to the next level of awareness. 

An upgrade to OS 4.0 – the shift to eco-awareness – is what we need to address the eco-systemic challenges we are facing. At OS 4.0 we integrate mind, heart and spirit, leading to awareness-based systems change and a co-creative, emergent way of working. 

We need leaders with this integrated perspective: leaders who can transcend the turmoil, cut through complexity, allow emergence, navigate uncertainty, and transform the world by inspiring ingenuity. This is a vertical development challenge and understanding this has transformed my perspective on leadership development.

We need leaders whose operating system corresponds to the complexity of the challenges we face.

We need to let go of twentieth-century linear thinking, expand our minds and unleash our heart and soul potential, allowing a new awareness to emerge.  

For the sake of our collective future, we need to expedite vertical development. Will you join us in this shift?

* It is worth noting that Otto Scharmer’s Operating System numbering does not correlate with the numbering in Stages Theory which draws on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. person perspective of any given stage of development. That aside, however, I find it a useful metaphor.

Heather Monro is an executive coach, leadership consultant and speaker.