Conscious Leadership for Sustainability: Executive Summary

Barrett C. Brown
March 17th, 2012
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A study of how leaders and change agents with postconventional consciousness design and engage in complex change initiatives....

The overarching purpose of this research has been to better understand how to help address our biggest social, environmental, and economic challenges. The specific area studied is how leaders and change agents with a very complex and rare meaning-making system design and engage with sustainability initiatives. By identifying how such leaders respond to sustainability challenges, we may be able to help future and existing leaders to be more effective. This paper details the context behind the research, describes the methodology and conceptual framework, and highlights the key findings.

If humanity is going to achieve important global objectives like the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and mitigating our impact upon the climate, numerous significant changes in our organizations and social systems are needed. Research and experience suggest that some of our change efforts toward a more sustainable world will work, while many may fail (Kotter, 1995). Amongst the myriad success drivers for a change initiative, a key component is the design of the initiative itself (Doppelt, 2010; Kotter, 1996). In turn, one of the most important influences on the design and implementation of change initiatives is the worldview of the designer(s) (Doppelt, 2010; Sharma, 2000). It is this dynamic – the worldview or meaning-making system of sustainability leaders – that this research focused on.

Decades of research into adult development have shown that the way humans make meaning develops and becomes more complex over time (Cook-Greuter, 1999, 2004; Kegan, 1980, 1982, 1994; Loevinger, 1966, 1976). With each new stage of meaning-making, new capacities arise such as increased cognitive functioning, strengthened personal and interpersonal awareness, increased understanding of emotions, and more accurate empathy (Kegan, 1994; Loevinger, 1966, 1976; Manners & Durkin, 2001). This increase in overall capacity – in turn – has been correlated with greater leadership effectiveness (Kegan, 1994; McCauley, Drath, Palus, O'Connor, & Baker, 2006; Rooke & Torbert, 1998; Strang & Kuhnert, 2009; Torbert, et al., 2004). Thus, leaders with a more complex meaning-making system seem to have access to enhanced and new capacities that others do not. This appears to strengthen their ability to respond to complex, ambiguous, and sophisticated challenges.

Little is known about the impact of a leader’s meaning-making on the design and implementation of change initiatives for sustainability. While the adult development literature (Kegan, 1994; Torbert, et al., 2004) offers some insights, there has been no empirical research in this area until this study. In general, there is very little robust research on the intersection of sustainability and leadership (Cox, 2005; van Velsor, 2009). While there is a consistent call for strong and courageous leadership to drive the sustainability agenda (A. P. Kakabadse & Kakabadse, 2007; Senge, 2008), few studies describe what such leadership looks like in action. This study helps fill parts of that gap, specifically those relating to the design and engagement of sustainability initiatives.

For this study, I drew upon the action logics framework created by Torbert and colleagues (Fisher, Merron, & Torbert, 1987; Torbert, 1987; Torbert, et al., 2004). This framework is based upon Loevinger’s research into ego-development and self-identity (Loevinger, 1966, 1976), which was expanded upon by Cook-Greuter (1999, 2004). An “action logic” fundamentally represents the way that an individual organizes reality. It describes the developmental stage of meaning-making that informs and drives our reasoning and behavior. It includes what we see as the purpose of life, what needs we act upon, what ends we move toward, our emotions and our experience of being in the world, and how we think about ourselves and the world (Cook-Greuter, 1999; Torbert, et al., 2004). There are eight action logics prevalent in the adult population. See Table 1 for a summary of action logics as related to sustainability leadership.

  Action Logic and Focus   Implications for Sustainability Leadership   Strengths & Limitations

The Opportunist focuses on own immediate needs, opportunity, and self-protection

5% of adults


Avoids overt conflict. Wants to belong; obeys group norms; rarely rocks the boat. Supports sustainability questions due to concern for appearances or to follow a trend in established social conventions; concerned with soothing tensions related to sustainability issues within the organization and in relations with stakeholders.

Source of power: Diplomatic, e.g., persuasive power, peer power

How influences others: Enforces existing social norms, encourages, cajoles, requires conformity with protocol to get others to follow


Strengths: Good in emergencies and sales opportunities. May seize certain sustainability opportunities or react quickly in a crisis; superficial actions may be showcased opportunistically.

Limitations: Pursuit of individual interests without regard for sustainability impacts; comprehension of sustainability issues limited to immediate benefits or constraints.








The Diplomat focuses on socially- expected behavior and approval

12% of adults


Avoids overt conflict. Wants to belong; obeys group norms; rarely rocks the boat. Supports sustainability questions due to concern for appearances or to follow a trend in established social conventions; concerned with soothing tensions related to sustainability issues within the organization and in relations with stakeholders.

Source of power: Diplomatic, e.g., persuasive power, peer power

How influences others: Enforces existing social norms, encourages, cajoles, requires conformity with protocol to get others to follow


Strengths: Good as supportive glue within an office; helps bring people together. Reactive attitude with respect to sustainability pressures; consideration of regulatory constraints and the impact on the organizational image.

Limitations: Superficial conformity to external pressures; absence of real reappraisal of how things are done, statements often contradict actions.


The Expert focuses on expertise, procedure, and efficiency

38% of adults


Rules by logic and expertise; seeks rational efficiency. Considers sustainability issues from a technical, specialized perspective; reinforcement of expertise of sustainability services; seeks scientific certitude before acting; preference for proven technical approaches.

Source of power: Logistical; e.g. knowledge-based or authoritative power

How influences others: Gives personal attention to detail and seeks perfection, argues own position and dismisses others' concerns


Strengths: Good as an individual contributor. Development of sustainability knowledge within the organization; implementation of sustainability technologies.

Limitations: Limited vision and lack of integration of sustainability issues; denial of certain problems; has difficulty with collaboration.


The Achiever focuses on delivery of results, goals, effectiveness, and success within the system

30% of adults


Meets strategic goals. Effectively achieves goals through teams; juggles managerial duties and market demands. Integration of sustainability issues into organizational objectives and procedures; development of sustainability committees integrating different services; response to market concerns with respect to ecological issues; concern for improving performance.

Source of power: Coordinating (coordinating the sources of power of previous three action logics)

How influences others: Provides logical argument, data, experience; makes task/goal-oriented contractual agreements


Strengths: Well suited to managerial roles; action and goal oriented. Efficient implementation of ISO 14001 type management systems; follow-up of sustainability performance; more widespread employee involvement; pragmatism.

Limitations: Difficult questioning management systems in place; conventional sustainability goals and measurements; lack of critical detachment with respect to conventions.










The Individualist focuses on self in relationship to the system and in interaction with the system

10% of adults


Interweaves competing personal and company action logics. Creates unique structures to resolve gaps between strategy and performance. Inclined to develop original and creative sustainability solutions, to question preconceived notions; development of a participative approach requiring greater employee involvement; more systemic and broader vision of issues.

Source of power: Confronting; used to deconstruct other's frames or world views

How influences others: Adapts (ignores) rules when needed, or invents new ones; discusses issues and airs differences


Strengths: Effective in venture and consulting roles. Active consideration of the ideas and suggestions of diverse stakeholders; personal commitment of the manager; more complex, systemic and integrated approach.

Limitations: Discussions that may sometimes seem long and unproductive; idealism that may lack pragmatism, useless questioning of issues; possible conflict with Experts and Achievers.


The Strategist focuses on linking theory and principles with practice; dynamic systems interactions; self- development and self-actualization

4% of adults


Generates organizational and personal transformations. Exercises the power of mutual inquiry, vigilance, and vulnerability for both the short and long term. Inclined to propose a pro-sustainability vision and culture for the organization, more in-depth transformation of in-house habits and values; development of a more proactive approach conducive to anticipating long term trends; marked interest for global sustainability issues; integration of economic, social and sustainability aspects.

Source of power: Integrative; (consciously transformative)

How influences others: Leads in reframing, reinterpreting situation so that decisions support overall principle, strategy, integrity, and foresight


Strengths: Effective as a transformational leader. Changes in values and practices; real integration of the principles of sustainable development; harmonization of the organization with social expectations; long-term perspective.

Limitations: Approach that may seem difficult to grasp and impractical; risk of disconnect with pressures to produce short-term profits; scarcity of Strategists.


The Alchemist focuses on the interplay of awareness, thought, action, and effects; transforming self and others

1% of adults


Generates social transformations. Integrates material, spiritual, and societal transformation. Re-centering of the organization's mission and vocation with regard to social and environmental responsibilities; activist managerial commitment; involvement in various organizations and events promoting harmonious societal development; support for global humanitarian causes.

Source of power: Shamanistic (through presence)

How influences others: Reframes, turns inside-out, upside-down, clowning, holding up mirror to society; often works behind the scenes


Strengths: Good at leading society- wide transformations. Active involvement in the comprehensive transformation of the organization and society; concern for authenticity, truth and transparency; complex and integrated vision.

Limitations: Risk of scattering managerial and organizational efforts, to the benefit of the common good; losing touch with the primary vocation of the organization; extreme rarity of Alchemists.


The Ironist focuses on being as well as on witnessing the moment to moment flux of experience, states of mind, and arising of consciousness.

0.5% of adults


[Under research] Institutionalizes developmental processes through "liberating disciplines." Holds a cosmic or universal perspective; visionary.

Source of power: [Under research] Unitive worldview, transcendent awareness

How influences others: [Under research]


Strengths: [Under research] Creates the conditions for deep development of individuals and collectives.

Limitations: [Under research]


Table 1: The eight most prevalent action logics amongst adults, framed for sustainability leadership. The direction of development for action logics goes from the Opportunist to the Ironist (and potentially beyond). Table compiled from three sources: (Boiral, Cayer, & Baron, 2009; Cook-Greuter, 2004; Rooke & Torbert, 2005)


I focused my research on very rare sustainability leaders and change agents who hold one of the three latest, or most mature, action logics identified to date (i.e., Strategist, Alchemist, and Ironist). These individuals represent approximately 5-6% of the general adult population (Cook- Greuter, 1999, 2004). At these stages of development, many additional capacities seem to arise, beyond those previously mentioned. These include the ability to: take a systems view and even a unitive view on reality; simultaneously hold and manage conflicting frames, perspectives and emotions; and deeply accept oneself, others, and the moment, without judgment. Research on these stages also suggests that such individuals have a deep access to intuition and perceive their rational mind as a tool, not as the dominant vehicle to understand reality. They appear to deeply tolerate uncertainty and even collaboratively engage with ambiguity to create in the world. Finally, they are subject to frequent “flow” and “witnessing” states of consciousness (Cook-Greuter, 1999, 2000, 2005; Joiner & Josephs, 2007; Nicolaides, 2008). Ultimately, I was curious about how leaders who hold these late action logics engage in change initiatives.


Want to read more? Download the full pdf here!


And be sure to check out Barrett's fascinating discussion with Ken Wilber:

Conscious Leadership for Sustainability

In this remarkably in-depth discussion, Barrett Brown talks to Ken Wilber about his recent thesis, titled "Conscious Leadership for Sustainability", in which Barrett explores the extraordinary overlap that exists between leadership, sustainability, and the highest reaches of adult development.

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