Leadership for a New Era of Organisations 

By Robert Davison

Yearning for a new way will not produce it. Only ending the old way can do that.
You cannot hold onto the old all the while declaring that you want something new.
The old will defy the new; the old will deny the new; the old will decry the new.
There is only one way to bring in the new. You must make room for it.
-Neale Donald Walsch-

We are entering a new era

We only have to ask people about their work to know that in many cases, our traditional forms of organisations don't work anymore. People are tired of politicking, feeling like a cog in a big machine, being constrained by senseless rules and procedures, not fully using their talents and not doing meaningful work. See, for example http://www.globaltolerance.com/news/. We know too, that new and far more satisfying forms of organisation are possible. We are entering a new era. Different kinds of organisations and networks are becoming visible. A societal shift is gradually taking place. These organisations are flatter, freer, innovative, and less rule bound. Capability, not status or hierarchy is what counts. Humanity is designed in. Values matter. These organisations frequently have a purpose that is bigger than their own growth and profit.

However, the vast majority of people still work in old style, hierarchical and bureaucratic organisations. Many of these companies show signs of wanting to change their ways, and are struggling to make it happen. For leaders trying to bring about these changes, it is a big challenge, one that can be perplexing, frustrating and exhausting. The questions raised in this article are: What kind of leadership is needed to help along this societal shift towards a new era of organisations? Are current leadership ideas and practices relevant, helpful and sufficient in these changing times? Are there adequate numbers of leaders with the wisdom and skills to create the more innovative, healthy, humane and ethical organisations we so desperately need? What support and development could really be of use to current and future leaders who are needed to carry this trend?

To address these questions, we turn here to some of the leadership literature.

Post Conventional Leadership

It is a sure sign that a new phenomenon is still in the process of emerging when leading writers and thinkers begin to independently reach for something, but use quite different language and terminology in the process. This is happening now in the field of leadership where in place of our long established ideas about conventional hierarchical “power over” leadership, we are witnessing a growing recognition of another form of leadership: “power with”. This alternative “power with” approach to leadership crops up in various guises and with different descriptions. In this paper I'll refer to it as Post Conventional Leadership.

Although in some academic circles, the phenomenon of Post Conventional Leadership is well known, it is not easy to find examples in many real-life organisations. Until the practice of Post Conventional Leadership reaches a tipping point, I think even our less conventional organisations will continue to be largely in the grip of old “power over” approaches to leadership. I would also argue that it is our deeply engrained ways of thinking about leadership in a “power over” sense that makes new style, less/non hierarchical organisational cultures so difficult to create and sustain. I also believe it is the prevalence of Conventional “power over” leadership that keeps levels of employee engagement so persistently low across the globe, despite the strenuous efforts of some to turn the tide. To misquote Peter Drucker, “Conventional leadership eats new style organisational cultures for breakfast”.

So who are these leading writers and thinkers and what are they saying?

David Rooke and Bill Torbert

David Rooke and Bill Torbert1, writing in the Harvard Business Review, summarise Torbert's many years' work to elaborate seven stages of leadership development. (It is to Bill Torbert that I owe the concepts of Conventional and Post Conventional Leadership). They describe four Conventional styles: Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert and Achiever and three Post Conventional styles: Individualist, Strategist and Alchemist. The Conventional styles are exemplified by actions such as taking impulsive decisions, saying the right thing, the application of learned skills, target setting, goal attainment, measurement and correction and being successful. Qualitatively different, the Post Conventional stages give weight to things like self awareness, through to thoughtful and even paradoxical interventions which create conditions where the whole organisation can have a hand in co-creating or transforming itself. Here the Post Conventional leader leads more from behind or within, than from in front. Rooke and Torbert's research tellingly shows that at the time of writing (2005) 85% of their research sample tended to rely on Conventional leadership actions (including Expert [38%], Achiever [30%]) with only 15% exemplifying Post Conventional styles (Individualist 10%, Strategist 4% and Alchemist 1%). Rooke and Torbert believe that our Business Schools do a good job of Conventional Management and Leadership development, but are quite poor at taking people beyond that. In other words, there is a way to go to design approaches which could equip leaders to create or thrive in innovative, less conventional, high performance cultures.

Margarete van den Brink

On a different, yet parallel track, Margarete van den Brink2, in her book “Transforming Organisations”, outlines her own interlinked seven phase model of Individual, Team and Organisational Development. I touch here on her middle three phases only, taking the Individual frame of reference. In adulthood, at phase 3, the ego phase, independence grows. There is a feeling of being able to stand on one's own two feet and that you can manage without others. At least you think you can! This can be the ground for the practice of solid, Conventional Leadership. Phase 4, which van den Brink refers to as the turning point, individuals often hit some kind of crisis; a crisis in relationships or in working life, where old remedies and perspectives no longer seem to work. Often, the support of others in similar straits, with similar questions, becomes unexpectedly consoling and necessary. Suddenly, that go-it-alone energy and belief in independence is confronted with a new reality; the reality of helpful dependence on others. Enter here (powerfully and importantly, experientially), the realisation that interdependence is a fundamental building block of how the world works. Sooner or later, life provides us with these lessons in humility! So during phase 4, as new perspectives fall into place, “to fulfil life's mission”, says Margarete, “it becomes more common to put your qualities and capacities at the disposal of others and the greater good”. (This is often how a Post Conventional orientation begins to emerge.) ”In this way” she says, “from being an ego person, 'a taker', you gradually become a giver”.(p 41/42) This shift, which continues through phases 5 and beyond , “leads to you being more able to commit to increasing numbers of people, groups and larger entities and contribute to their development.” (p42). The implication in van den Brink's writing is that Post Conventional Leadership may more often be visible in those who have already navigated certain life crises and stages, and may be less available in some who are still journeying through the important and necessarily thrusting second and third decades of life.

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley3, the respected leadership writer and consultant, speaks about Conventional Leadership using the metaphor of “Hero”. In her view , the persistent idea of the “Hero” leader who is in control and who has all the answers is totally unfitted to today's complex and interconnected world. Attempts to lead in this way, while often done with the best of intentions, reliably end in burn-out and tragic failure. Often the remedy is to search for yet another willing Hero to take over the reins. And then another! She implies that we need to accept, nowadays, that organisations cannot be controlled (certainly, not by one person) neither can leaders be expected to be wise enough, knowledgeable enough, or informed enough to make all the decisions. She posits the idea of “Heroes” transforming into “Hosts”. Hosts ignore organisational charts, become curious about who is in their organisation, and who then put the skills and insights discovered in others to good use. Hosts know deeply that people willingly support plans they've had a part in creating. Provocatively, she says: “Well, it is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only breed dependency and passivity and that do not give us solutions to the challenges we face. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us.
It is time to face the truth of our situation — that we're all in this together, that we all have a voice and (can) figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.”

Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona and others4 , writing in the Harvard Business Review, “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader”, echo Meg Wheatley's position that conventional Hero leaders are past their sell-by date. They put forward their own picture of Post Conventional Leadership stating “It's time to end the myth of the complete leader: the flawless person at the top who's got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be. In today's world, the executive's job is no longer to command and control but to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others at all levels of the organization. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete—as having both strengths and weaknesses—will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others.” They go on to elaborate their own model of distributed leadership, with four key capabilities being sensemaking (understanding the context in which a company and its people operate), relating (building relationships within and across organizations), visioning (creating a compelling picture of the future), and inventing (developing new ways to achieve the vision).

Simon Western

Simon Western5, formerly Director of Coaching at Lancaster University (UK), in his book “Leadership a Critical Text”, identifies three relatively recent phases of leadership, which he refers to as “discourses”:. These are Leader as Controller (traditional top- down, power over, typical in Manufacturing) , Leader as Therapist (all the humanistic and psychological approaches) and Leader as Messiah (similar to but possibly more extreme than Meg Wheatley's Hero). These, we can classify as falling broadly within Conventional Leadership practices. He then identifies the emergence of a new type of leadership (Post Conventional) which he calls “Eco Leadership”. Of this he says: “The Eco-leadership discourse is about a new paradigm of leadership. Eco-leadership recognises that within an organisation there are interdependent parts which make up a whole, this goes for all stakeholder relationships, and in ever widening circles that eventually reach the air that we breathe. It is about connectivity, interdependence and sustainability underpinned by an ethical and socially responsible stance.” (Western, 2007). Its also important to note that Western does not dismiss the first three leadership discourses out of hand, but shows how they can be folded into the Eco Leadership perspective.

Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer

Interestingly, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer6 in their 2013 book, “Leading from the Emerging Future”, warn we have entered an Age of Disruption, a process of death and rebirth. A dying old civilisation where the mindset of “maximum me”, (maximum material consumption, bigger is better etc) is giving way to a new kind of world which recognises interdependency on our planet at many levels. Without any reference to Simon Western, they speak about the transition from Ego-system awareness (our own small- minded self focussed concerns) to an Eco-system awareness (the wider multi-faceted and interconnected context in which we exist); or from Ego leadership, to Eco leadership. They highlight the importance of conversations in creating organisational life and culture. Conversations which arising from an Ego consciousness being predominantly unilateral and linear, low on inclusion and transparency and organised by an intention to serve the wellbeing of the few. In contrast, they describe conversations from an Eco consciousness as being typically multi-lateral and cyclical, high on inclusion and transparency and organised by an intention to serve the well being of all. Their Eco- system leadership, then, is close to Western's definition and captures an approach to leadership more suited to sustaining new forms of organisation than a conventional Ego-system leadership style.

Frederic Laloux

Finally, Frederic Laloux7 in his 2014 book “Reinventing Organisations”, builds on Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, and sets the development of Organisations and Leaders against a vast 100,000 year context and shows, how we are on the cusp of a new emerging phase of organisational life. These new forms of organisations, from a leadership point of view “involve taming our egos and searching for more authentic , more wholesome ways of being.” (p6). In these new organisations, Laloux states , “the operating principles run deeply against the grain of accepted management thinking, and so a critical role of the founder/CEO is to hold the space for ... [these new] ... structures and practices. Whenever a problem comes up, someone, somewhere will call for tried-and-proven solutions: let's add a rule, a control system; let's put the issue under some centralized function, let's add a layer of supervision; let's make processes more prescriptive; let's make decisions at a higher level in the future. The calls come from different corners ..... Over and over, again, the CEO must ensure that trust prevails and that traditional management practices don't creep in through the back door.” (p240/241).

New kinds of organisations

These writers and many others are pointing to the potential for a new and enlightened world of Post Conventional Leadership and new kinds of organisations. These leadership forms, variously described, are slowly emerging in practice. However it is well documented that many (if not most) attempts to change organisational cultures or to create more engagement, falter and fail. Some newer style organisations thrive but some, due to tough economic times or when taken over, quickly revert to conventional leadership and management practices. It is as if aeons of human history has hard wired us for hierarchy.

Traps for the Post Conventional Leader

Leading from a Post Conventional mindset, is not easy. I have my own experience of being philosophically and politically deeply wedded to Post Conventional Leadership practices, only to discover (with the benefit of hindsight and some painful self examination) how easy it was, when co-leading a business in crisis, for me to experience a strong and unfamiliar need to control the uncontrollable and manage the unmanageable in, at times, alarmingly “power over” and Conventional Leadership ways. None of this could I see at the time. Looking back I realise that my behaviour was partly driven by an unhelpful tendency to own more personal responsibility for the company's survival than was reasonable. Nevertheless under challenging circumstances, I allowed myself, quite unconsciously, to override some of my core values.

And there are many other traps for the Post Conventional Leader. For example, leaders who have unmet needs for power, status, or control; or leaders who are still in the necessary process of developing and demonstrating their capability and worth, either to themselves or to the world, will struggle to embody aspects of Post Conventional leadership. The best leaders I have met and experienced in innovative, flat, high performance cultures have been remarkably free of these ego drives and have at the same time been willing and able to create a context in which others could flourish and grow. For us mere mortals, it's not as easy as it looks!

On the cusp of a new era of organisational forms

Looking at the big picture, if we are indeed on the cusp of a new era of organisational forms, if the momentum is to be maintained and strengthened, and if we are to reach a tipping point, then an important task of our times is to develop and release these advanced human capabilities and qualities in our current and upcoming leaders. Much mainstream leadership education and development, with some notable exceptions, has focused on Conventional Leadership skills and, it could be argued, is still largely lagging behind what is needed for the leaders of tomorrow's organisations.

The central question

I therefore believe there is a central question to be urgently addressed:

“What are the features of the highest quality Post Conventional Leadership education and development imaginable, and through which channels should it be designed and offered?”

Robert Davison

June 2015

  1. David Rooke, William R. Torbert , Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, April 2005. Accessed at: https://hbr.org/2005/04/seven-transformations-of-leadership/ar/1
  2. Margarete van den Brink, Transforming People and Organisations: The Seven Steps of Spiritual Development. Temple Lodge 2004. See also: Stages of the human evolution in www.margaretevandenbrink.nl
  3. Margaret
 Wheatley, with 
Frieze, Leadership 
Complexity: From 
 Host © 2010 published 
in Resurgence
 2011. Accessed at: http://margaretwheatley.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Leadership-in-Age-of-Complexity.pdf
  4. Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge, In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, Harvard Business Review, February 2007. Accessed at http://www.lifechallengeprogram.org/praise.pdf
  5. Simon Western, Leadership: a Critical Text, 2nd edition, Sage 2013. See also www.simonwestern.com/pdf/leadershipacriticaltext.pdf
  6. Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, Leading from an Emerging Future ~ from Ego-System to Eco-System Economies, Berrett-Koehler 2013. See also https://www.presencing.com/ego-to-eco/overview
  7. Frederic Laloux, “Reinventing Organisations ~ A Guide to Creating Organisations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness” Nelson Parker, 2014. See also: https://youtu.be/j79QIs9e-nU

An earlier version of this paper was presented at a conference on High Performing Organisational Cultures, 21-23 June 2015 at Gut Ising by Chiemsee, Germany. The Conference was sponsored by The Center for Innovative Cultures. www.innovativecultures.org

Robert Davison has worked in Organisational and Leadership Development for 30 years. He can be contacted at:


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