Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Conscious Leadership for Sustainability:
How Leaders with a Late-Stage Action Logic
Design and Engage in Sustainability Initiatives

Barrett C. Brown
Integral Sustainability Center
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

First published in Integral Thinkers, 5 April 2011
Reprinted with Permission

Abstract: This is an empirical study of rare leaders from business, government, and civil society with a developmentally mature meaning-making system, or late-stage action logic (Cook-Greuter, 1999; Loevinger, 1966, 1976; Torbert, 1987). It explores how they design and engage in sustainability initiatives. Participants were assessed for their action logic using a variation of the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (Loevinger & Wessler, 1970). The sample has more leaders with documented, advanced meaning-making capacity than any other leadership study (six Strategists, five Alchemists, two Ironists). This study has significant implications for sustainability leadership theory and constructive-developmentalism. The results provide the most granular view to date of how such individuals may think and behave with respect to complex change initiatives. The leaders in this study appear to: (1) Design from a deep inner foundation, including grounding their work in transpersonal meaning; (2) Access non-rational ways of knowing, and use systems, complexity, and integral theories; and (3) Adaptively manage through "dialogue" with the system, three distinct roles, and developmental practices. Additional results include: 15 leadership competencies; developmental stage distinctions for six dimensions of leadership reflection and action; and 12 practices that differentiate leaders with a unitive perspective (Alchemists, Ironists) from those with a general systems perspective (Strategists). A constructive-developmental lens is shown to provide important insight for sustainability leadership theory. Finally, it is recommended that all leadership programs work to develop meaning-making capacity because of the enhanced abilities that emerge with each new stage.

Key Words: Leader, change agent, sustainability, sustainable development, constructive- developmental theory, adult development, action logic, leadership development, conscious leadership, conscious business, conscious capitalism

Note: This material has been excerpted from: Brown, Barrett C. (2011). Conscious leadership for sustainability: How leaders with a late-stage action logic design and engage in sustainability initiatives. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California, USA. For the complete text of the dissertation, click here. For a PowerPoint presentation, click here.


The purpose of this research has been to better understand how to address our biggest social, environmental, and economic challenges. The specific area I have studied is how leaders and change agents with a complex meaning-making system design and engage with sustainability initiatives. By identifying how such leaders respond to sustainability challenges, future and existing leaders can be taught to be more effective.

If humanity is going to achieve important global objectives like the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and mitigating our impact upon the climate, we will need to change. Research and experience suggest that some of our change efforts toward this more sustainable world will work, while many will not (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 of change initiatives is the worldview of the designer(s) (Doppelt, 2010; Sharma, 2000). It is this leverage point – the worldview or meaning- making system of the designer of sustainability initiatives – that I have studied. Leaders with a more complex meaning-making system have access to enhanced and new capacities that others do not. This strengthens their ability to respond to sophisticated challenges (Kegan, 1994; Rooke & Torbert, 1998; Strang & Kuhnert, 2009; Torbert, et al., 2004). By better understanding how these individuals respond to sustainability issues, we can foster the development of more of such leaders.

Little is known about the impact of a leader’s worldview on the architecture and development of sustainability initiatives. 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.


I used a variation of the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (Loevinger & Wessler, 1970) to assess the meaning-making capacity, or action logic, of 32 leaders and change agents from business, government, and civil society who are engaged in sustainability work. From this sample, I identified 13 who measured at the three latest stages assessed by this instrument. I interviewed them about their experience and process regarding the design and engagement of sustainability initiatives. Through thematic analysis of the interview data, and building upon insights from my literature review, I then compiled a set of propositions and findings about this topic.

Conceptual Framework

The conceptual framework that has guided my inquiry is composed of two theoretical lenses: constructive-developmental theory and sustainability leadership theory. Constructive-developmental theory (Cook-Greuter, 1999, 2004; Kegan, 1982, 1994; Loevinger, 1976; Torbert, 2003; Torbert, et al., 2004), a branch of psychology, is a stage theory of adult development. Research indicates that there is a range of worldviews, meaning-making structures, or action logics through which adults have the potential to grow. Roughly, each of the stages of development involves the reorganization of meaning-making, perspective, self-identity, and the overall way of knowing. I have used the lens of constructive-developmental theory to identify and differentiate the meaning-making structures amongst the research participants. Additionally, this theory informs my framing of how change agents design and engage with sustainability initiatives. The findings of constructive-developmental theory ground my belief that holding a late-stage action logic, all other factors being equal, may grant a significant advantage to change agents who design sustainability initiatives. Later action logics offer a broader vision and deeper understanding of the territory (Cook-Greuter, 2004; Torbert, et al., 2004). Similar to scaling a mountain, the higher one climbs, the further one can see.

My second theoretical lens is sustainability leadership theory. This field goes by many different names, depending on the perspective it addresses. These titles include corporate social responsibility (CSR) leadership, environmental leadership, and ethical leadership. The most relevant dimensions of this literature for my study are those that identify the values and worldviews (Boiral, Cayer, & Baron, 2009; Shrivastava, 1994), competencies (Hind, Wilson, & Lenssen, 2009; N. K. Kakabadse, Kakabadse, & Lee-Davies, 2009), and the behaviors (Doppelt, 2010; Quinn & Dalton, 2009) that sustainability leaders need. Most of this research is exploratory, and, until this study, none of it has measured the influence of developmental maturity on sustainability leadership. Nonetheless, some studies (Boiral, et al., 2009; Doppelt, 2010; Hames, 2007; Hardman, 2009) strongly support the need for leaders that have a sophisticated worldview and have begun to document what such a perspective looks like in practice. I have used this literature to gain insight into how leaders with a late-stage action logic might design sustainability initiatives.

Summary of Findings

There are three major propositions I make based upon the findings of this study. They are: (1) These leaders design from a deep inner foundation; (2) they access powerful internal resources and theories to distill and evolve the design; and (3) they adaptively manage the design. These propositions, respectively, relate to three different aspects of change agency: Being, Reflecting, and Engaging. "Being" refers to fundamental or essential qualities of these individuals; that is, it has to do with characteristics of who they are. "Reflecting" concerns how they think about and gain insight into the design. "Engaging" addresses the actions they take to develop and manage the design. Each of the three propositions are supported by two or three major findings, and all are summarized in the figure below.


I have consolidated further details about these findings into two tables below. The first concerns sustainability leadership competencies, and the second relates to the role and approach of sustainability leaders with a late-stage action logic.

Note on the Concept of Action Logics

"The term action logic describes the developmental stage of meaning-making that informs and drives an individual’s reasoning and behavior. Torbert created this phrase to describe the stages of ego development in a way that was more aligned with the language of organizations and leadership. The action logics framework utilized by Torbert and Cook-Greuter (Cook-Greuter, 1999; Torbert, et al., 2004), based upon Loevinger’s original ego development framework (Loevinger, 1966), offers a nine-stage model. Table 2 provides a brief overview of the eight most prevalent action logics. (The complete model has an earlier action logic most reflective of a child’s center of gravity). As individuals advance through the stages, they organize their experiences according to an increasingly complex logic (e.g., needs, system effectiveness, most valuable principles)." Barret C. Brown's Ph.D. Dissertation, page 34.

If more complex meaning-making systems are correlated with greater leadership effectiveness (Eigel & Kuhnert, 2005; Fisher & Torbert, 1991; Harris & Kuhnert, 2006, 2008; McCauley, Drath, Palus, O'Connor, & Baker, 2006; Rooke & Torbert, 1998; Strang & Kuhnert, 2009), then sustainability leadership development should focus on building the meaning-making capacity (i.e., action logic) of leaders and change agents. An important implication of this study for sustainability leadership theory is that the existing suite of leadership competencies identified in the literature may be insufficient for addressing many sustainability challenges. New leadership competencies are likely needed to help cultivate leaders who can handle complex global issues. Based upon the results of this study, I propose 15 competencies (see Table 1). These are likely appropriate for change agents and sustainability leaders who hold a late-stage action logic. Development of these competencies may help facilitate their growth into the later action logics of the Strategist and Alchemist, and therefore unlock the capacities offered by those ways of making meaning. This should not be considered a definitive list, but rather a first step toward a competency model for sustainability leaders with a late-stage action logic.

Table 1
15 competencies that may support development of sustainability leaders with a late action logic

This study also revealed, for the first time, empirically identified variations in how individuals with late action logics perceive and act in three important dimensions. These are: (1) the principal role they take as a change agent; (2) their perspective on service; and (3) the general approach they use when designing change initiatives. None of these dimensions have been articulated in the constructive-developmental literature or sustainability leadership literature before. These findings are synthesized in Table 2.

Table 2
Comparison of role, service, and design approach of research sample participants


In my opinion, the widespread development of leadership consciousness is integral to global sustainability. This work is a vital piece of the puzzle, as postconventional meaning-making offers significant advantages and abilities over earlier worldviews. With this research, I have attempted to accomplish two things. First, I wanted to strengthen the linkage between the fields of leadership development for sustainability and constructive-developmentalism. Secondly, I wanted to empirically identify specific actions and capacities of leaders with a late-stage action logic. These, in turn, can be used to help guide the development of leaders and change agents into the postconventional realm, thereby aiding them to unlock greater potential. I believe that I have made strong advances in both of these areas.

From a scholarly perspective, I recognize that the propositions, competencies, and practices postulated in this study are hypothetical and subject to validation and refinement. I invite other researchers to do this work and therefore drive our collective understanding of developmentally mature leadership. However, from a practitioner standpoint, I believe that now is the time to act. We have enough evidence to make bold strides forward regarding the design of leadership development

programs for change agents globally. I have looked closely at the existing research, studied peers who are sustainability leaders, and personally served as a sustainability leader using many of the competencies and practices discussed here. From this empirical and experiential research I can state unequivocally that there are considerable leadership advantages to holding a late stage meaning- making system. We should, therefore, shift our attention to embedding practices that foster developmental maturity into leadership development programs whenever possible.


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About the Author: Since 1995, Barrett C. Brown has worked in nine countries as a consultant and entrepreneur in the areas of leadership, organization development, communications, and sustainability. He has helped launch a dozen organizations, led executive teams through strategic alignment, developed multi-year leadership development programs, delivered leadership initiatives for Fortune 500 executives, and briefed high-level officials at the United Nations Development Programme headquarters and the US State Department. He specializes in the intersection between organization development, leadership development, and global sustainability.

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