CRISIS post: The dynamics of social transformation – the need for systemic, evolutionary and synthetic intelligence

Published by Aubyn Howard on

In this final post of a series on the dynamics of transformative change, I turn to the systemic interaction of the elements explored in previous posts (compelling narratives emotionally engaging with tribal identities, catalytic events disrupting the twin barriers of habit and power), within our complex human systems and the capacity of leaders or leadership systems to engage with these as agents of transformative change.

I approach these posts from the perspective of leaders, activists and influencers, in fact anyone interested in bringing about transformative change towards building a better society.

The previous posts have set the stage for this one to be a little different – taking the form of responses to these seven key questions:

  • What must we include in our understanding of human society?
  • What key intelligences do leaders need to develop to lead transformational change?
  • What inner alchemy must take place within the leader?
  • What single quality do we all need more of as leaders?
  • What are the essential differences in the way our societies are led?
  • What personal choices are we facing in this inter-normal space?
  • What can we now do together if this pandemic crisis is going to lead to meaningful change?

What must we include in our understanding of human society?

It is an important step to be able to regard human society as systemic in nature, to recognise the essential complexity of inter-relating elements and forces weaving together into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The postmodern academic world took enthusiastically to the notion of society as a complex social system, made up of countless inter-relationships and interactions which in theory at least might one day be modelled by the most powerful computers and algorithms.  As William Davies, describes in Society as a Broadband Network, 19 March 2020, London Review of Books:

From this perspective, society is a pattern formed from billions of interpersonal connections. Understand the micro-social networks – families, schools, pubs, workplaces and so on – and with sufficient computational firepower, you can build up an image of the macro-system that emerges.

This over-objectifying approach now looks a little dehumanising and it is not difficult to see why. Ken Wilber tells us that that we need to include at least four perspectives if we are to gain a holistic view of what is going on – we need to recognise not just objective but subjective reality, at both individual and collective (so inter-objective and inter-subjective too) levels. Great thinkers ahead of their time who could see holistically as well as systemically, described the multi-perspectival and dimensional nature of human systems in this way. Clare Graves described his conception of the human evolutionary system in terms of having bio-psycho-socio-cultural dimensions, and Roberto Assagioli likewise referred to bio-psycho-synthesis within individual and collective consciousness, in which collective social and cultural dimensions are implicit.

The current coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of the importance of including the biological aspect of human systems. It also reminds us that we are essentially of nature and part of natural systems, rather than apart from nature – and that forgetting this has serious consequences.

There is another dimension that is not included in Wilber’s integral model which is needed to make sense of systemic forces, which is the aspect of time or the historical perspective. We cannot see what is happening within societal systems unless we seek to include the temporal and historical.  An obvious example is why Britain chose to leave the European Union – without understanding the unconscious nostalgic pull of its unresolved history involving loss of Empire, it makes no sense. Another example would be the widespread difficulty seeing the systemic racism within northern democratic societies and the whole global economic system, without taking into account the history of colonialism and slavery.

Our conception of society is therefore as a dynamic, complex bio-psycho-socio-cultural-historical system. We need to somehow hold or include these five dimensions and perspectives when attempting to make sense of compelling narratives emotionally engaging with tribal identities, interacting with catalysts that disrupt the forces of habit and power within the system. The capacity not just to have this awareness, but to act or intervene within the system to beneficial effect, requires new types of human intelligence, which is where we turn to next.

What key intelligences do leaders need to develop to lead transformational change?

Over the past twenty or thirty years, the key intelligences that have been the focus of leadership development are emotional intelligence, social intelligence and more recently, spiritual intelligence and ethical intelligence. The development of these are still necessary but not sufficient to lead change in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world, whether at complex organisational or societal levels.

Although the notion of systemic intelligence is obviously not new, with systems thinking first gaining popularity in the early 1990’s with Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline, I believe that a fully formed approach to its development has been missing (and this is something I will tackle in my forthcoming book).  Alongside systemic intelligence, I am proposing that future leaders also need to develop two related but distinct capacities, which I am calling evolutionary intelligence and synthetic intelligence, described below.

Systemic intelligence has three linked aspects; awareness, thinking and action – e.g. seeing bigger pictures of interconnectedness, joined up thinking that sees systems forces, recognising the knock-on effects of what we do in one area on another.

The six principles of systemic awareness that I will develop further in my book are:

  1. Systems are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts
  2. Systems involve a multitude of complex inter-relationships and interconnections between different elements
  3. Human systems are open systems which are interconnected with countless other systems
  4. The way human systems work includes but also goes beyond the personal and inter-personal
  5. All human systems encompass the past, present and future
  6. Human systems work through individual and collective consciousness and unconsciousness.

Evolutionary intelligence: awareness, thinking and action – e.g. awareness of different worldviews or perspectives, working out how to bring everyone with us and continuously managing the overall health of the evolutionary spiral of consciousness.

Familiarity with one of the developmental systems theories is helpful, but many people may have an intuitive capacity to work in this way without having been exposed to one of these – e.g. Clare Graves’ Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory (or Spiral Dynamics), Keegan and Lahey’s levels of mental complexity, Rooke and Torbert’s Leadership Development Framework, Frederic Laloux’s organisational paradigms, and so on.      

The importance and urgency of developing evolutionary intelligence is illustrated by Bruno Latour in ‘This is a global catastrophe that has come from within’, as quoted by Jonathan Watts, in the Observer (07-06-20):

The bad guys are better organised and clearer in knowing what they want. The war we are engaged in is a difficult one. It is not that we are powerless; it is that many of us don’t know how to react.

Evolutionary intelligence is one of the most difficult and sensitive capacities to work with in the current climate of what is being described as the culture wars. To shine the light on and unpack these challenges without inadvertently causing unhelpful reactions will take longer than I have here and will have to wait for another day! In the meantime, these are the key practical challenges of evolutionary intelligence:

  1. Seeing different worldviews, value systems or paradigms in play (in people, organisations and societies), recognising and responding appropriately to them in any situation.
  2. Knowing how to recognise and respond to actions or interventions grounded in less developed worldviews (typically autocratic/impulsive or hierarchical/conformist) that are harmful to the health of the wider system.  
  3. Recognising and responding to conflict, suppression or regression resulting from tensions between different worldviews or paradigms in play in complex human systems (most typically between autocratic/impulsive or hierarchical/conformist on one side and pluralistic/relativism on the other.)
  4. Proactively managing the overall health of the evolutionary spiral of consciousness at organisational and societal levels, by healing or resolving splits in the collective psyche.
  5. Recognising inherent polarity tensions appearing between different worldviews and resolving these creatively in practice through transformational synthesis.  

The last two of these takes us into the territory of the third of these intelligences.

Synthetic intelligence: awareness, thinking and action – e.g. recognising the essential polarities at play in any conflict, engaging with the needs and values at the heart of different polar positions, finding a new synthesis through engagement with a higher principle that transcends either-or dichotomies. Holding this in our awareness, within a psycho-spiritual context of our higher Self and universal Will. Synthetic intelligence is the dynamic capacity to work with dichotomy, polarity and splits within individual and collective consciousness.

Below I summarise an approach to synthetic working involving six steps, as described to me by Alessandra Moretti (IIPE, 2019) at a recent retreat in France: 

  1. Recognising – seeing with new eyes for the first time
  2. Accepting – without prejudice and judgement
  3. Giving expression to the polarities – what needs to be heard?
  4. Understanding the needs of each polarity – what needs to be satisfied?
  5. Valuing the essential qualities and potentialities – which reflect the higher Self
  6. Bringing about synthesis through balancing opposites to find new solutions and outcomes.

The sixth step is the most challenging with many different possible approaches depending upon the situation, which Roberto Assagioli has addressed at length in a paper on Synthesis and Balance of Opposites (contact me if you are interested) and which I have also summarised in my forthcoming book on psychosynthesis leadership coaching.

What are some of the different levels at which we might work with polarities?  Here are some examples:

  • In our inner selves – e.g. feeling and thinking, imagination and desire, intuition and sensation, realisation and actualisation
  • In our personal lives – e.g. safety and exploration, self and others, career and family, past and future
  • In organisations – e.g. stability and change, individual and team, development and performance, belonging and growth
  • In society – e.g. conservation and progress, individual and collective identity, freedom and security, local and global

The critical point here in relation to transformational change in society, is that we need to let go of and move on from out of date ideological splits, e.g. left and right, socialism and capitalism, working class and middle class, and instead engage with the synthetic exploration of multiple polarities in all the important dimensions that shape our society – and about which many unconscious choices have long since been buried and need to be re-examined. So for example, rather than simply being a libertarian or a communitarian, I might hold several different preferences in relationship to the individual-collective polarity, depending upon the context.  Socially and economically, I lean towards the need for collective responsibility, in particular concerning macro-economic externalities and social capita, so for example I would support a tax on processed foods.  Psychologically and ethically, I lean towards the need for us to take individual responsibility for our lives, so for example I would decriminalise the taking of recreational drugs. The role of political leaders needs to involve finding the right balance in many of these polarities, as well as creating solutions that meet the essential needs of all constituencies. Roberto Assagioli summarises this challenge well in a paper on Unity in Diversity (again, contact me if you are interested):

one example that is very current, and one of the most acute problems afflicting humanity: the conflict between conservatives on the one hand and revolutionary innovators on the other…

It can also be said that the proportions between conservative forces and innovative forces must not always be the same, but can and must vary according to historical periods.

What inner alchemy must take place in the leader?

Intelligence or brilliance isn’t enough to drive change. History has taught us that significant transformative leadership is very rare and usually involves the combination of three elements – an idea or narrative whose time has come combining with emotional passion and available free will in a person with strong enough character to make it happen. In other words, a synthesis of Mind, Heart and Will is needed.

This essential truth is recognised in many different leadership approaches, including Theory U in which “the preparation for the experience at the bottom of the U requires the tuning of three inner instruments: the open mind, the open heart, and the open will’, the Head, Heart and Guts approach to mature leadership of Dotlich, Cairo and Rhinesmith and the three brain approach that includes the Head brain for Creativity, Heart brain for Compassion and the Enteric brain for Courage.

Going back further to connect with ancient wisdom, for example through the legend of the Shambhala warriors, spiritual warriors who are trained in the two essential weapons of compassion and insight. Joanna Macey, in World as Lover, World as Self, describes how Choegyal Rimpoche described this to her:

You have to have compassion, because it gives you the juice, the power, the passion to move.  When you open to the pain of the world, you move, you act.  But that weapon by itself is not enough. It can burn you out, so you need the other – you need the insight into the radical interdependence of all phenomena (systemic intelligence). With that wisdom you know that it is not a battle between the good guys and bad guys, but that the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart.

We can recognise when this inner alchemy is at work, because a person comes into possession of the two essential qualities of freedom and power in even the most difficult or challenging circumstances – they experience themselves both free and able to act, even when outwardly oppressed or constrained by other people or wider systems.  Of course we are speaking of psychological freedom and inner power, rather than outward expression or action. A most obvious example of this was the way that Nelson Mandela dealt with his time of confinement on Robben Island. A similar example is Roberto Assagioli’s brief time in prison during the Second World War in Italy, which he wrote about in Freedom in Jail:

I had the clear sure perception that this was entirely my own affair and that I was free to choose any or several of these attitudes and activities; that this choice would have definite and unavoidable effects, which I could foresee and for which I was fully responsible. There was no doubt in my mind about this essential freedom and power and the inherent privileges and responsibility: a responsibility toward myself, toward my fellow mankind, and towards life itself or God”

This and other stories of inner choice during enforced confinement have particular resonances in this time of the pandemic crisis and is a useful starting point for our own reflections about how we have been in response to the restrictions, stresses or challenges of the crisis.

What single quality do we all need more of as leaders?

The most important quality for any leader? Humility, which manifests in (i) the ability to say when we’ve been wrong or made a mistake and (ii) the ability to ask for appropriate help and be open to feedback and (iii) curiosity about others, how they see and experience the world. Humility is the natural but sometimes painful antidote to the most serious trap of high positions of leadership; hubris and ego inflation.

Roger Evans describes this quality in terms of DL5 within his Five Dimensions of Leadership (2020):

If I am open enough and sincerely ask for appropriate help and support, then humility comes in and ensures that what is happening is not a power trip or just inflation of the ego.

In this inter-normal space of the crisis, or anthropause as one of my colleagues described it yesterday, the quality of humility is particularly important for us all.  Political leaders who can admit when they have made mistakes clearly stand out from those that insist that everything they do is world-beating or beyond reproach – and this will have significant consequences for public confidence and cohesion going forwards.

Personally, I have found this period a valuable time to reflect upon where I may have been wrong in my thinking or worldview in the past. It feels like tectonic plates shifting around in my mind in response to new realities and perspectives revealed by what is happening in the world. To give one example: my view about globalisation has changed significantly in response to the exposure of unconscious choices and systems forces that are behind the way globalisation has worked in the past.  I feel naïve and even embarrassed about my uncritical view of how global trade and unfettered tourism has developed over recent decades. It seems that Europeans have been happy to turn a blind eye to outsourcing low standards of employee and environmental care in return for cheap stuff made in the developing world. Developing countries likewise have become too dependent upon serving world markets based upon transitory cost advantages rather than developing their economies and society in ways that are right for them.

As we start to see the way out of the pandemic crisis, the ability to see and work with the intersection of the pandemic health crisis, the ensuing economic crisis, the continuing climate crisis and the reemergent racism crisis (and maybe some others) is critical. Within this intersection, lies the nature and functioning of humanity’s global systems of interaction and exchange – or globalisation. Each of these crises in their own way demand that we create a new vision for global relationships, exchange and development. Now is the time this might be possible.

What are the essential differences in the way our societies are led?

There is a continuing lack of critical awareness and meaningful debate about the different democratic and political systems in play in today’s modern societies. Although there has been much attention on the rise of populism and its consequences, for example how countries with populist governments have fared by far the worst in the coronavirus crisis, wider issues of the mostly unconscious choices societies have made are seldom analysed (the occasional excellent article excepted and I am sure I will find some good books on this subject in my research, so apologies to whoever these are due). In Britain, the disenfranchised ‘Liberal Remainer’ community can sometimes be heard bemoaning missed opportunities to shift towards a more proportional system of representation, but otherwise the paths that led towards the deeply split and polarised society Britain has become (and therefore possible pathways out of this) are little understood. Much the same is true for the USA. 

As usual, any critical analysis starts with making some key distinctions. Although I am not a political scientist and have not formally studied this subject, from following politics across the globe over the last few years, I have observed five essentially different societal leadership approaches or systems:

Autocratic – usually patriarchal leadership by a parental figure who maintains power and control whether through faux-democratic or other means including corruption, oppression, fear, threat or force, this is the ideal to which strong men and women (with Marine Le Pen as the gender exception) populists aspire to creating by eroding or removing the separation of powers and other safeguards of democracy. Viz: Erdogan, Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban, etc. 

Ideological – dogmatic adherence to a cherished set of ideals, principles or values, which obscures or overwrites the rational and critical faculties of the protagonist.  Of course we might all be prone to this from time to time with the ideals, values or principles we hold, but our capacity to disidentify enough to allow doubt, uncertainty and humility (see previous section) is what saves us. In the past, we have tended of think of ideological politics or government as describing the big ideological movements of the twentieth century, such as fascism, communism, totalitarianism, nationalism, socialism and capitalism (including free market capitalism or what is now described as neo-liberalism). Most of these pure forms of ideology have become discredited or gone underground, although we also see them re-emerging in modernised versions with previous hard edges softened, often with the prefix neo- added. What we can now observe is the rise of more nuanced forms of ideological politics, where the underlying ideals are hidden and presented as anti-establishment populism.  This can take the form of an ideologically bound coalition within the establishment elite shaping narratives that speak to the frustrations, grievances and fears of disenfranchised societal tribes that this elite themselves contributed to. So, for example, what started out as the cleverly pitched Brexit Leave campaign narrative (for example, disguising centralising control at national government level, as taking back control from trans-national cooperation level) has now morphed into a conservative government ideology of exceptionalism, centralism and libertarianism. By some curious quirk of fate, as soon as this government came fully into power following the last election, they were presented with a situation uniquely unsuited to adherence to this ideology, and which has cruelly exposed its shortcomings, with tragic unnecessary loss of life.           

Pragmatic – also called technocratic. In such systems, ideology or consensus play secondary roles to what works, to good governance for the good of the people. It may only be a stop gap at a time of crisis (see recent Italian politics). Of course, the best governments and political systems will have an element of this pragmatism in their mix and it is particularly important for this to be present in growing and developing nations, with Seretse Khama’s leadership in Botswana as an excellent example, as this is what takes the nation as a whole towards sustainable economic development. The British civil service is apparently famed for its pragmatic efficiency, but the erosion of its political independence will clearly threaten this.

Consensual – most notably in northern European and Scandinavian democracies but also elsewhere, forms of proportional representation have led to the widespread acceptance of a very different kind of politics, in which a process of dialogue and compromise leads to a consensual agendas and coalition governments which may not please everyone but are better at recognising, representing and reconciling the needs and aspirations of multiple broad constituencies. The adversarial and polarised nature of politics is usually reduced within such systems and psychologically adult to adult discussions become the norm. There is debate about which designs of proportional representation work best which I won’t engage with here, but the key point is the cultural shift that any such system both reflects and represents within society.

Visionary – history has a curious way of delivering visionary leadership when it’s most needed but withholding it when we crave it. My guess is that the challenge many societies face right now is to establish good enough versions of pragmatic or consensual political systems, from which new visionary leaders and leadership may emerge.  The problem is that autocratic and ideological incumbents are unlikely to cooperate with this process. The visionary leaders we might recognise today (depending upon our biases), such as Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel, are operating within broadly consensual systems of politics. The hope that a visionary leader might emerge directly out of nowhere to challenge the likes of Trump is the US is wishful thinking – the polarised system may need to go through more fundamental change first.  In my view Barack Obama was a visionary leader who was hidebound by a system he could not change and it would be understandable if Michelle Obama is reticent to step up to the presidential role given that experience and seeks to lead change in other ways. 

Why is vision so critical? From a very current paper by Petra Guggisberg Nocelli on ‘The Pandemic: an opportunity to cultivate a bold vision’:

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “when there is no vision, people perish.” Perhaps in this very idea of “vision” lies one of the possible keys to accessing the inner freedom so well described by individuals who have shown themselves able to access the freedom to choose the most courageous and creative responses, the most mature responses, seem to have one important characteristic in common: they were all supported and guided by a broad, clear and inspiring vision.

From the testimonies of Gandhi, Mandela, Frankl, Hillesum and others, we know that those who are animated by a bold and meaningful vision are more likely to survive and to live positively even in very intense crises. Having a vision that gives meaning to our experience is therefore very important, especially in difficult times.

How might we support evolution away from autocratic and ideological systems towards consensual and visionary societal leadership? The broad church approach of traditional political parties is one way that ideological and polarity politics can give way to consensual politics. We are witnessing this currently in the UK as new Labour leader Kier Starmer seeks to navigate out of the fetid ideological swampland of his predecessor, whilst the Conservative party have almost completed the reverse journey away from the broad church of Cameron’s caring conservativism to narrow ideological fanaticism with broad populist appeal. The other way is to create a new platform or movement that hopefully transcends the old polarities, as Emmanuel Macron did successfully from the centre (neither left nor right) in France and various movements in the UK have failed to do (The SDP, Blair’s third way, Change UK, etc.).  Both ways are less than optimal, not least because political parties (e.g. the Republican and Democratic parties in the US) will always be vulnerable to ideological groups within their parties seizing control in the name of rescuing the party.

Again, from Petra’s paper:

What makes a vision truly such, what distinguishes it from a momentary fantasy, is its transformative power. Authentic vision is rooted in the here and now, in the real. It produces change. The vision leads, it induces action: it activates our will, it moves our being in a precise direction. 

The only reliable path out of the ideological swamp is a change in the democratic context as well as the electoral system away from first past the post or two-party oppositional duopolies towards proportional representation or other systems involving multi-party coalitions that force either compromise or consensual dialogue between different viewpoints and constituencies in society. There is little immediate hope of this happening in countries such as the UK or US, at least partly due to a continuing underlying appetite for tribal divisiveness in both politicians and peoples (usually heard as ‘we want a strong leader’). Ireland has landed itself in at least a temporary version of this due to the unique circumstances of the last election and it will be interesting to see whether the respective parties can take coalition (sharing of power) into the realms of creative collaboration.

The other way out is to the sunny uplands of visionary leadership, but in most societies this is a dim fantasy as present – which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t now seek to create the conditions, build the foundations, develop the future leaders who might make this a reality. This work is where my vision lies.

What personal choices are we facing in this inter-normal space?

From Petra’s paper on ‘The Pandemic: an opportunity to cultivate a bold vision’.

It is not at all easy to access the freedom to choose… such freedom is not gained once and for all. It must be regained again and again, every day, every minute…

To change, to achieve our essential freedom, we must give up the childish attitude of looking to the future with naïve hope and expectation that others will take action.

Petra goes on to say how the pandemic crisis has reminded us of “the power and responsibility each of us has, in determining the well-being of the global community.”

Reflecting upon the gift this period has been for me, I can acknowledge some important choices and changes in my life.  For example, to live more ecologically and sustainably, to live more in the present and appreciate what I have in my life, to slow down so that I do this, to tolerate ambiguity and experience mystery, to be less inhibited about what I have to say, to listen more, to reach out to others through my relationships and the noosphere. Some of this may sound like good intentions that may lapse, but the change in my experience has been real.  How about your reflections?

What can we now do together if this pandemic crisis is going to lead to meaningful change?

First we can understand and remember what this crisis has taught us – about consciousness, choice, change, habit, power, narrative and identity for example and be ready to forge new transformational catalysts for change, once the disruptive catalysts (of the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis) have subsided.

We can recognise that our individual experience is intricately and inextricably connected with our collective shared experience of society, that what takes place in our hearts and minds impacts us as a whole. Individual, collective and cosmic consciousness are of the same weave, from same source.

We can nurture systemic, evolutionary and synthetic intelligence in the leadership systems within which we participate. We can continue seeking the mysterious marriage of mind and heart, the connection of thought and feeling that ignites the spark of transformation in our lives.  We can practice activating will in our lives through taking small steps out of conscious choice, building our capacity for free will that makes a difference. We can support others to do this through coaching, facilitation and education.

We can reach out to others, in our own or other fields of endeavour, to make connections and share common ground, seeking synergy and synthesis where it might be possible. We can emphasise what we share rather than for what divides or separates us.  

One final quote from Petra’s paper:

Will we be able to distil from this painful experience the gift it is able to offer us?  Will we be able to draw from it a positive vision that can inspire us? A vision we can continue to cultivate in a free and conscious way even when the shadow of the pandemic has loosened its grip?

So I end with a call to leaders, activists, influencers and agents of change everywhere – within organisations, whether businesses, public services, institutions, social enterprises, charities or humanitarian organisations – within professional communities, voluntary services, media and publications, sporting activities, creative projects and the arts – and within political parties, national and local government, campaigning and reform movements, research projects, religious communities, alternative communities, local communities and families.     

For all of us, the work of creating that vision starts now.


Aubyn Howard

Aubyn Howard

Aubyn has 30 years’ experience as an organisational consultant, facilitator, educator and coach, supporting transformational change and leadership development with leaders.