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Enhancing the creative capacity of the organization to create its desired future is the simple definition of leadership RCSA International Conference keynote presenter Bob Anderson formulated many years ago.

This definition remains highly relevant today, as it responds directly to key themes that emerged from the most recent IBM CEO studies (2010 and 2012), each involving more than fifteen hundred leaders. The first issue, CEOs grapple with how they can meet the challenge of escalating global complexity – and in fact, they’re losing sleep over this issue.

“I call it the ‘4 o’clock in the morning club’, where you’re lying awake wondering how to lead through this much complexity,” Bob Anderson, who is CEO of The Leadership Circle, explains. “CEOs in the 2010 study talked openly about feeling over their head and wondering if they had what it takes to lead through.”

The second main theme in the 2010 study is how to develop the creative capacity of the organization to meet this challenge of escalating complexity. In the 2012 study, the two main themes were how to develop highly collaborative organizations and how to achieve radical innovation. “So to put all this together, CEOs are focused on how to collaborate for radical innovation, to enhance the collective capacity of the organization to meet complexity and to thrive in the midst of it. This ties right into my definition,” Bob says.

A second definition, which he wrote in the eighties, goes like this: Leadership is the life stance of continuously focusing your attention and commitment on a desired future, and in the midst of the current realities, taking authentic, collaborative, and systemic action to bring that vision into being over time.

“Leadership is a life stance. The hallmarks of it are this constant focus on purposeful vision – on a vision you care about deeply – and building alignment among key stakeholders for that desired future,” Bob explains. “So the centrepiece of leadership is constant attention and commitment to a desired future. When you study the literature on leadership, purpose and vision are right at the centre.”

No Safe Way

Bob observes that in most organizations, people are waiting for the right set of circumstances, the right boss, the right culture, the politically risk-free environment, in order for them to be great. “It’s a long wait. The hard news is, there is no safe way to be great. There is no safe path,” he points out. “And frankly if one exists, leadership isn’t required. Leadership is needed when there’s risk and uncertainty, when the outcome’s in doubt, when there are differences of opinion. In the midst of all this, leaders emerge.

“So leadership is focusing on the desired future in the midst of the current realities in which there’s no necessarily clear or risk-free path, and then working authentically, collaboratively, and systemically over time,” he says.

Stages of Leadership

What tends to happen, though, is reactive short-term fire fighting and problem-solving rather than the long-term systemic building capacity in the organization to create its optimal future.

“At The Leadership Circle, we work with a model of stages of leadership. This model has three distinct stages which we call Reactive, Creative and Integral,” says Bob. “I’ve pulled this primarily from the work of Robert Kegan at Harvard University, a foremost researcher on stage-of-development, as did Steven Covey. Covey describes this in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he talks about stages of ego development as they relate to leadership: dependent, independent, and interdependent. Our framework is basically the same.”

Effective leadership is beyond the Reactive stage, Bob continues: “It has developed to least stage two in this three-stage model, what we call the Creative level of development.”

Bob estimates eighty per cent or more of managers undergoing a thorough assessment of stage-of-development will test out at Reactive level. “So the question becomes, how do we meet escalating complexity? Is our stage of leadership complex enough to meet the complexity we face?

“If the problems and challenges are more complex than our internal operating system, we’re out-matched. This results in the experience of being in over your head, the experience where CEOs lie awake asking, How do I deal with escalating complexity, and how do I build a creative capacity in the organisation for radical innovation, and real partnering? These questions are pointing beyond the Reactive to the next stage of development: Creative. This is the kind of leadership that’s required now, but most leaders are not functioning in an operating system designed for this,” he says.

A Blend of Consciousness and Competence

Senior leaders need to be focused on how effective leaders are being developed, now and for the future. “We need to view this as a blend of consciousness and competence,” says Bob. “We use the terms ‘learning’ and ‘development’ interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Skill learning, technical learning and knowledge learning are all really important, but development is evolving your internal operating system, the internal system that defines your level of effectiveness.

“Developing leaders is about much more than skill development, but this is where our field has tended to focus. If we’re really serious about developing leaders, we need to also understand how to develop their complexity of mind to meet the challenge of escalating global complexity.”

He explains that this is what leadership expert Ronald Heifetz talks about when he describes adaptive challenges: the challenges so complex our current way of thinking can’t solve them. They can only be solved – as Einstein said – at the next level of consciousness, not from the level that created them. And that, Bob says, is an adaptive challenge. Great leadership, the kind that is up to the challenge, is well-honed capability arising on a higher order of mind: when these two arise together, extraordinary leadership can emerge.

“In our zeal for describing leadership and what makes leaders effective, we’ve looked at great leaders and asked, What do they do? And we’ve done a good job of that. We’ve extracted the skills, capabilities, competencies, and behaviours that make them effective,” Bob continues. “What we haven’t noticed is the internal operating system that allows them to do all this so elegantly. In paying attention to the outer game, we’ve missed the inner game: the structure of their mind, the way they think, their habits and patterns of thought, have actually shifted from one stage to the next, which allows for much more capacity to effectively meet complexity.”


Of the 18 dimensions The Leadership Circle measures in this creative space, the two most highly correlated to leadership effectiveness are purposeful visionand teamwork. Purposeful vision is the hallmark of the creative level of mind. It’s a passionately focused leader who distils this passion into clarity of vision personally and for the organisation.

The second dimension is teamwork, and related to this is collaboration. “This takes us back to the definition of leadership and to the CEO studies,” Bob says. “Effective leadership depends on how well we build alignment and teamwork around a common vision that people care about enough to bring into being, or care about enough to risk for, or care about enough for it to be larger than the things that divide them. When this kind of alignment emerges around vision, it results in high-performance teamwork: it’s the hallmark of this creative-level operating system.”

So boiling it down into the key areas: what really makes for effective leadership? “I’ve talked about purpose and vision, and of course this needs to be translated into strategy, execution and results. We’ve mentioned collaboration and teamwork: the ability to work well with people, relate well, build teams, and collaborate. When you put those together, you define real effectiveness,” he says.

Difficult Conversations

Two additional dimensions of effective leadership that show up a lot our research are authentic presence and systems thinking. “Authentic presence is leadership of high integrity and authentic,” Bob says. “This kind of leadership requires the courage to be vulnerably honest and authentic in every encounter.”

Consistent feedback from the leadership teams that The Leadership Circle has worked with over a year or more indicates the “difference that makes the differences” is that they can now hold the difficult conversations. They can tell the truth to one other. Therefore, they can cut through complexity because they’re no longer dancing around issues.

“Many years ago Peter Senge remarked that the collective intelligence of a leadership team is often lower than the average intelligence of team members,” Bob says. “The reason is that when they come together, a lot gets stifled. The conversations don’t happen. What’s required to enhance our collective effectiveness is first, creating alignment around what matters more than our differences, and then developing the capability to have authentic conversations. Leadership teams need to be really good at having difficult conversations in a way that cuts through tough issues.”

Designing the System

Another hallmark of effective leadership is systems thinking instead of problem solving.

“At the reactive level, leaders focus is on fixing problems,” Bob explains. “In the creative leader, systems thinking starts to boot up, and the focus is on how to design or optimize the system so problems disappear. It’s a more complex way of understanding the organisation. You’re designing the organisation for the future, so it is fit for purpose. And in the process, you’re not so much focusing on fixing and patching problems, which actually make the system more complex and cumbersome, you’re redesigning a system to make it more elegant and effective in the midst of complexity.”

Competitive Advantage

There’s never any argument that effective leaders out-perform ineffective leaders. “At The Leadership Circle we regard effective leadership as a competitive advantage,” Bob says. “So the question is: how much investment are you making in the development of your own effectiveness as a leader, and in the collective leadership of the organisation?” He adds that most organisations way under-invest in leadership.

Leadership defines the mission/vision/values that set the direction; it defines the culture; it’s the primary force in architecting the system to translate vision into strategy, and strategy into execution. “So if an organisation’s leadership system isn’t optimised, its whole performance is compromised.

“Is the collective leadership of the organization developing at the pace at which complexity is escalating? If the answer is no, then your leadership is becoming a competitive disadvantage,” he adds.


An interview with Bob Anderson. Originally published in the RCSA Journal by Rosemary Ogilvie.

Douglas Day

Author Douglas Day

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