Leadership Meta Framework

Executive Summary of Consilience: A Meta Framework for Leadership, Team and Organizational Performance

As a culture, we are fascinated with leadership. What is a leader? (Am I one?) What is good leadership? (Am I a good leader?) How do leaders develop? (This is hard! How can I get better at it?) How can I help develop other leaders? (They are struggling to be effective. How can I help?) We are fascinated, because we regularly experience the meaningful difference between strong and weak leadership and it is hard to lead effectively. Leadership is fundamentally a social act, involving other people, with their own personalities, histories, aspirations, needs, strengths and challenges. At the same time, leadership starts with ourselves. As challenging as other people can be, we can be our own worst enemy – even the most experienced leaders find themselves inadvertently getting in their own way. Meanwhile, the external context is constantly changing, throwing up new barriers and creating new opportunities. Navigating self, others, and the external landscape – all to achieve worthy goals – that is challenging!

What is Leadership? What Are the Essential Components? What Does “Good” Look Like?

We are all leaders of something: our own lives, families, and relationships and/or a project, team, business unit, organization or nation. Leadership is not the sole domain of the highest authority in a hierarchy or even of a single individual, but can include individuals and collectives, at all levels, in a variety of systems and structures. Leadership can be demonstrated at the individual level (e.g., leadership of one’s own personal or professional responsibilities), at the group level (e.g., within or across teams, business units or families), at the enterprise level (e.g., within or across nonprofit, for-profit or governmental organizations) or at the supra-enterprise level (e.g., within or across industries, sectors and nations).

At its most basic, there are three legs to the stool of leadership: ideas, action, and relationships. See how these are depicted in the Venn diagram below, with ideas, relationships, action, and one’s inner essential core converge to achieve key outcomes.

Three Legs of the Stool of Leadership

These three legs of the stool are the basis for the three essential components of leadership: effective leadership envisions (holds a vision, strategy, idea), enrolls (engages others to participate), and enacts (catalyzes or generates action) to achieve desired outcomes. The Performance Prism depicts how these three components overlap and intersect in the middle (with leadership’s essential core acting as the grounding source for the other three) to achieve critical outcomes.

The Performance Prism

Results matter; effectiveness of leadership is measured by the degree to which critical outcomes are achieved. Leadership is contextual; effective leadership achieves these outcomes, in the face of specific, real barriers and opportunities. Because every situation and context are different, effective leadership is able to read the context to understand what is needed and versatile enough to access what is required. Leadership development is needed when the demands on leadership exceed its current capability to envision, enroll and enact, in service of generating desired results.

The most effective leadership is coherent and cohesive, reflecting a balanced alignment between leadership’s internal physical, intellectual and emotional systems and its “core” (i.e., their values, intuitive wisdom, creative potential). When this happens, leadership is able to access a greater field of information and operate at the emergent edge of creativity, responding to challenges and opportunities with greater intelligence, adaptability, and agility.

How Does Leadership Develop?

There are four meta competencies that are at the root of and thus accelerate leadership capability and development: seeing; connecting; doing; and being. How leadership “sees” includes how it perceives reality and its ability to be aware of and tune its own meaning-making capabilities to “see more.” How leadership “connects” includes how it attunes to social and emotional cues, and harnesses the power of human emotion and relationships. The “doing” meta competency is the domain of action, the muscle of leadership that propels progress. The “being” meta competency is the state from which leadership operates, and thus is the foundational wellspring, from where the other meta competencies originate.

The seeing meta competency represents as one of leadership’s most valued attributes – its sense of direction, vision, strategy, agenda, goals and purpose – the sense of “where we are going,” “why,” and “how.” Fundamentally, the seeing meta competency is about how humans make meaning – what we notice, how we interpret what we notice, and how that drives our conclusions, beliefs, mental models and actions – as well as what we notice in the future. These meaning-making mechanisms operate at the individual and collective levels. Leadership is often propelled (for better and worse) by how it perceives reality, and thus the seeing meta competency is paramount to leadership. It includes everything from how leadership perceives industry trends (and thus strategic challenges or opportunities) to how leadership perceives itself, others or the task at hand. Leadership with a well-developed seeing meta competency not only has a wide, deep, and textured lens through which it senses and interprets the world, but also an awareness of that lens and the limits to it. It seeks to expand and challenge its lens by asking more and different questions. It operates with “strong ideas, loosely held,” simultaneously maintaining conviction and cultivating curiosity about other legitimate views. It maintains an alertness and openness to feedback. It also understands its own and others’ propensity for bias and encourages respectful, rigorous debate, where diverse perspectives are welcomed. By practicing executive control of attention, leadership can learn to slow down automatic thought processes, notice errors and limitations, and intervene to disrupt less productive, often habitual, interpretations and reactions. These approaches to “seeing more” can be both cultivated at the individual and institutional levels.

The connecting meta competency includes the social, emotional and relational capacities that fuel high performance. Leaders demonstrate this competency in their ability to:

  • Sense, identify, regulate and harness their own and others’ emotional experience to support progress
  • Authentically (and skillfully) relate with others to build resilient relationships
  • Surface and create value from the differences between people and diversity within groups
  • Genuinely care about others, as well as appreciate their own and others’ contribution and value
  • Create an environment where people feel trusted, motivated, engaged, and committed – to contribute their best selves and best effort.

Emotion is the fundamental building block of this competency, and it is ruled by our limbic system. Emotional intelligence, relationships, trust and psychological safety, interpersonal communications, and organizational culture are all examples of where the connecting meta competency plays a critical role in achieving performance. Human neuro biochemistry underpins the connecting meta competency; this meta competency is based in hard science and can be learned and taught. Physiologically, our brain, oxytocin and the vagus nerve interact in a powerful reinforcing system dynamic. Shared positive resonance boosts physical health, social bonds, positive personality traits, and resilience, which in turn boost shared positive resonance. Vagal tone promotes greater attunement to others, which promotes greater shared positive resonance, which then drives higher vagal tone. (Higher vagal tone also drives higher agility and flexibility in the face of challenge.) Trust triggers oxytocin and oxytocin increases trust, by both reducing fear of strangers and increasing discernment about who is trustworthy. (Also, oxytocin drives creativity and thrives in a calm limbic system; stress can diminish oxytocin and shut down the ability to create.)

The doing meta competency is the domain of action, the muscle of leadership. Action is the concrete manifestation of ideas, emotions, and states of being in the physical world that most directly influences results. It includes:

  • The propensity of leadership for action (vs. inaction), as well as the ability to execute effectively and efficiently.
  • The physiology of the human body that generates action and plays a key role in learning.
  • The structures, systems, and processes that support organizational action (e.g., org design, technology systems, work processes, incentives, decision rights, etc.).
  • The subtle, underlying structures that underpin human interactions (i.e., conversations, relationships, etc.).

Effective action (that is aligned with a compelling, meaningful direction in the context of productive relationships) propels progress. Action plays an essential role in learning, which is why experiential learning is more effective than research-based learning. Repetitive action (i.e., practice) creates the neural grooving that is essential to embedding memory. Action causes reaction and thus feedback which is fodder for learning. Our physiology is so instrumental to deep learning it is also called “embodied” learning. Specialized organizational processes take advantage of the role of action in learning to boost performance.

The notion that our bodies carry out the orders of our brains, in some kind of one-way command-and-control style system, has been debunked. Holding context constant, individual actions flow from a complex mix of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, habits, experience, instincts, and states of being, and, they conversely, influence how we think, feel, and experience ourselves. Our thoughts, feelings and beliefs directly shape our physiology. Conversely, our physical activities directly influence our mental states and our physical posture can affect our social status.

If the implementation of strategy is slow or inefficient, it is often because the action propensity of leadership is insufficient or the organizational design elements (e.g., org structure, technology systems, work processes, incentives, decision rights, etc.) are insufficient, unclear, or misaligned. “Stuck structures” (caused by repetitious patterns of actions) in relationships, conversations, and group dynamics can also stall progress and be exceedingly frustrating. Significant energy can be released and reclaimed by aligning organizational design elements or unearthing and shifting an underlying stuck structure.

The being meta competency refers to leadership’s internal state, which sets the stage for how leadership sees, does and connects. When we are leading from our core, in alignment with our being, we are able to see more, connect more and do more. Thus, the being meta competency is the wellspring, from which the others flow.

Our being is who we are at our essence, our innermost core self. It is the site of our internal presence (i.e., our internal state at any given moment) and the seat of our intuitive wisdom and creative potential. While “being” is rooted in our internal experience, it manifests externally to the outside world through our external presence, persona and stance. Being is the base platform from which leadership operates. When we are leading from our core, in fluid alignment with our being, we are able to see more, connect more and do more; we operate from a grounded, centered, calm, curious state, which enables us to generate more effective ideas, actions and relationships in the external world.

Operating from a honed being meta competency enhances leadership performance in numerous, profound ways. Operating with equanimity, it enables us to operate with greater spaciousness, access more information, focus our attention, act from intention, connect with others, host a greater variety of perspectives, avoid getting triggered and distracted, be more compassionate and resilient. Related directly to performance in the external world, it contributes to improved decision-making, creativity, relationships, reaction times, mental clarity, personal balance, intuitive insight, fulfillment, resilience, health, kindness and compassion, adaptiveness, cognitive function, self-regulatory capacity, emotional stability, attention level, motivation, perceptual sensitivity, and emotional processing capability.

Mindfulness practices are a powerful way to build a honed “being” meta competency. Though mindfulness practices, we can purposefully change the neurobiochemical pathways in our brain to change our experience, emotions, behavior, outlook, and health. This provides the basis for new habits that become our automatic responses, when our subconscious rules our behavior.

Your being, your own deepest self, your true essence, is a gateway to an even more expansive Being. It is the nexus between oneself (and humanity overall) and an infinite reservoir of creativity, intelligence, beauty, love, peace, unity and joy. Through deep presence and stillness, we can gain access to the infinite, underlying, causal, intelligent, creative force of the world, the source of intuition and inspiration and the playground of innovation. Discontinuous insight, growth, and progress can be achieved by tapping into this meta context. This is essentially a journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth that is consistent with many religious traditions, but exclusive to none.

Great leadership comes from honing self as an instrument. How? By developing our Neutral Witness, the part of us that observes ourselves, without judgement, while we think, act, and feel. Our Neutral Witness stays calm, alert, curious, compassionate, wise and engaged in high-stakes situations. It steps back, to get a broader perspective, while we are engaged in the action. It is our source of emotional intelligence. It is our seat of self-awareness that empowers self-management. It helps us respond, rather than just react. Our Neutral Witness is the leadership super power inside us all. By cultivating, attuning to, and acting from our internal Neutral Witness, we increase our external leadership capacity – to envision a winning strategy, to enroll critical stakeholders, and to catalyze action -- to achieve the results that matter most in the world.

The Neutral Witness, and thus the being competency, can be cultivated in multiple ways, including: mindfulness practices, methodologies that train leadership’s eye to see underlying structures and system dynamics, and through cultivating empathy.

The path to developing leadership capacity lies in developing the leadership meta competencies, through a five-step process.

Five Stages of Change

Awareness: An awareness of a gap between desired and experienced results creates the impetus for change. Awareness is achieved at the confluence of “being” (a stance of curiosity, openness, non-defensiveness) and “seeing” (noticing the gap, often through critical feedback).

Map the Territory: The approach to change is informed by understanding the gap, its root causes, what is needed to close it, and the barriers to and opportunities of that change. This high-quality diagnosis helps ensure that the successfully implemented change will actually improve results.

Seek Opening / Disrupt: Original patterns must be disrupted before new strategies can take hold. Our Neutral Witness helps us sharpen our understanding of our current approach by helping us become keen observers of ourselves, helping us “think about how we think” (and feel and act!). This enhanced awareness helps us increase our range of strategies and choices in any given moment, thereby expanding our capacity for more effective action.

Experiment: It takes experimentation to find a new approach that is more effective and we can use authentically. Drawing on the meta competencies, there are four approaches to experimentation: imagining your way to new actions, acting your way to new thoughts, relating your way to new thoughts and actions, and operating from a different state of being and thus shifting your thinking, feeling and acting. Ongoing assessment provides feedback that is critical to discerning which experiments are working and why.

Practice: It is only through repetitious practice that new strategies become ingrained. With an open stance, clear understanding, commitment and frequency, high quality practice of the new, more effective strategies helps drive deep, sustained change.

How Can This Leadership Model Be Used Practically to Enhance Leadership of Individuals, Teams and Organizations?

Leadership can employ the Performance Prism, the meta competencies, and the Neutral Witness to accelerate its development. There are many applications of this model, including:

© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham