Viewing the world through a quality transformation lens offers a new challenge for leadership, David Schwinn believes.
My life and perhaps many of yours, profoundly changed on June 24, 1980, when I watched an NBC White Paper entitled “If Japan Can…Why Can’t We?” The program aired at a time when my employer, the Ford Motor Company, was experiencing a shift as challenging as when General Motors began producing non-black cars.
By 1980, we realized that Toyota and other Japanese cars were generally about $2,500 per car less expensive to produce. At the same time, those cars went back to the dealer for warranty repairs only once, if at all, at a time when cars produced by domestic auto makers went back about four times. Ford Motor Company’s survival was seriously at risk, and the implications extended well beyond the auto industry. I was recently reminded of Lloyd Dobbins’ closing lines in the NBC White Paper.
Throughout history, our parents expected their children to live better than they did, and that has always been true. We lived better than our parents and they lived better than their parents. Unless we solve the problem of productivity, our children will be the first generation in the history of the United States to live worse than their parents.
These days I teach at Lansing Community College. My students, many of whom are the age of my children and grandchildren and whose roots, in many ways, mirror my own, are struggling to maintain their families, their own children and grandchildren, health, income, and just putting food on the table in ways I never dreamed of. Real median household income in the United States has stagnated or even fallen slightly since the turn of the century. Dobbins’ foretelling may be coming true.
The change in my life took me from an executive’s life in the auto industry to a calling to help organizations and communities around the world adopt the philosophy of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. That work evolved to include the theories of Peter Senge, Meg Wheatley, Peter Block, Gerry Nadler, Tom Berry, Russ Ackoff, Jamshid Gharajedaghi, and others. That new work was rewarding while we were actively engaged with an organization or community. Too many times, however, the results didn’t stick and, even more importantly, the challenges became even greater.
In the late 1990s, I came across a book titled The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra. Capra argued quite persuasively that our species is at a turning point. He provided extensive evidence that if we continued to operate from the dominant, Cartesian-Newtonian world view of reductionist, mechanistic science, our species was doomed to its own destruction. On the other hand, he painted an optimistic view that if we adopted a more wholistic, systemic, organic world view, we could thrive beyond our current visions. I concluded that we could go either way, but I could not find a specific enough description of this new way of viewing the world to inform my own actions and contributions. I began a more concerted search for this better way with an eye toward how I could help managers and leaders better operate from this new perspective.
In 2004, I was offered a chance to teach full-time in the classroom. After years on the road, it seemed like a good, alternative way to try to improve the quality of management and leadership development. As a faculty member, I am blessed to have a sabbatical every seven years if I so choose. When I was offered my chance in 2011, I wanted to do something worthy of the privilege. I decided to use that sabbatical to try to figure out what I could do to help managers and leaders guide the necessary turn that Capra had outlined.
Based on my own observations and data (including the Gallup Organizations’ recent polling research that only 33 percent of U.S. company employees are engaged at work while 16 percent are actively disengaged, as compared to 70 percent engaged at the world’s best organizations), I decided that I needed to search for more highly conscious managers and leaders who were operating in a way that was consistent with Capra’s “new” world view. We asked colleagues and thought leaders whose work we admired for the names of managers and leaders who exemplified the “new” way of managing and leading. Because this turning point involves all human beings, we asked for folks in all sectors and around the globe. Carole and I traveled to 14 countries on four continents, met with 41 leaders and obtained more than 60 hours of videotaped interviews during my sabbatical.
The people we interviewed were inspirational, transformative, insightful, talented, brilliant, and heroic. In retrospect, when I wrote up my findings from my sabbatical, I unintentionally wrote up what I learned from the wrong perspective. I wrote up what I learned from my notes in the form of best practices, organized in a slightly adapted framework of traditional management functions: planning, organizing, leading, learning, and communication.
After I finished my sabbatical commitments, Carole and I took a breath and decided that what we learned was so important that we needed to do something to illuminate the work of these magnificent leaders. As we reviewed the videotaped interviews, a common theme emerged. Over and over again, the conversations with these leaders turned to how workplaces can become contexts where everyone is simultaneously accomplishing the goals and purposes of the enterprise while becoming more and more of who we are meant to be as human beings. We shared these sabbatical stories along with research based on adult development theory and called the book, The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity and Peace (Transformations Press UNLTD., 2015). In the book, we suggest that:
Somewhere between ‘living to work’ and ‘working to live,’ there is room for work that transforms us as we transform it, where we can grow lives of purpose and passion, where all people may prosper, and where we can contribute to a better and more peaceful world. Given how much time and energy most of us expend in work, let us hope that work of this kind one day becomes the standard by which we all measure our labor.
Since the publication of the book, we have turned our attention to developing a new approach to leadership development that we are tentatively calling Practicing Wholeness: An Experiential Guide to Vertical Development for Leaders and their Teams. While the origins of the term vertical leadership development are uncertain, one early differentiation was made by the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) John McGuire and Gary Rhodes in their 2009 book, Transforming Your Leadership Culture. In their book, they argue that “Organizations have grown skilled at developing individual leader competencies, but have mostly ignored the challenge of transforming their leader’s mindset from one level to the next. Today’s horizontal development within a mindset must give way to the vertical development of bigger minds.”
Practicing Wholeness is meant to be used in any environment where there is a recognition that developing more highly conscious people who can work together to find innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems is the key to creating a world that works for all. It is an approach that is based on the idea that it is possible to advance one’s capacity for more complex and conscious ways of thinking and being by acting as if one has already become more highly developed. In other words, the focus is on engaging in practices that are already the hallmark of highly conscious people.
Practicing Wholeness is organized around a process of engaged conversations among two or more people who commit to being together for a minimum of twelve meetings. Each of twelve conversations focuses on a practice or discipline designed to deepen self-awareness; strengthen relationships with others; and, heighten perspectives. Resources provided include:
- A pre-reading that describes the practice, along with references to additional and optional readings and resources;
- One or more questions or conversation starters for individual and group reflection;
- Suggestions for taking the practice into participants’ daily lives.
Our own and our colleagues’ experimentation with Practicing Wholeness has been extremely successful, and we are now inviting others to beta-test the approach with their own leadership teams. If you’re interested, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.