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Action Enquiry and the Leadership Development Framework

Normally we publish a summary of our book club discussions as a sort of review; for this book we thought that it might be more helpful for us and anyone reading this to try to summarise the key ideas covered by the book instead – we’ll explain why at the end.

Action enquiry is the practice of closing the gap between what we want to do and what we are able to do – in other words, it is the act of conscious adult development.

We close that gap by first appreciating that it is there; then by deciding to learn to close it; and then by reflecting on how successful we have been in our endeavours. In other words, it is a combination of action learning, self-reflection, and objective self-appraisal.

At its heart lie curiosity, objectivity, a desire to change, an appreciation of others and self-awareness – developing higher-level action logics depends on an ability to reflect and learn at three levels (triple-loop learning):

1. the issues at hand and what we learn from the WORK

2. the system in which the issues exist and what we can learn from the PROCESS

3. Critically for action enquiry, how we are in that system and what we can learn from our SELF

Our ability to learn at those three levels depends on our perspective and ability to accommodate complexity, paradox and ambiguity in our thinking. Meaningful changes to the way we interpret our surroundings develops in discreet stages called action logics. Most leaders as they mature move sequentially through three or four ‘conventional’ action logics:

Conventional Action-logics


Focus on personal power, status and reputation. Self-oriented; win-lose mentality; manipulative and distrustful; out for themselves; uncritical of themselves; judges performance based on what they can get for themselves; short-term thinker who does not consider the group or deal with complexity.


Focus on pleasing others, especially seniors. Conformist who does what is expected and right. Uses the expectations of seniors and organisations to decide the right thing to do; focuses on norms and evaluates their success through the eyes of the group. Desperately avoids disapproval and is motivated through the feedback of others.


Process and knowledge-based leadership style; rules-based perfectionist; is only interested in technical feedback from other experts; focus on efficiency and product rather than the wider system; thinks in absolutes and rules; judges self based on the quality and efficiency of their product.


Focus on results; initiates and drives change; considers the system and how they can use it longer-term to get results; is appreciative of others and works with individuals at all levels in service of results; ‘blind to their own shadow’, and is still subject to their own emotions and thinking styles

Only a handful of leaders progress to the ‘later’ or ‘postconventional’ action logics, which enable them to act as transformational leaders for those around them. The three ‘postconventional’ action logics represent a move to systemic thinking (double- and triple-loop learning), complexity, and an ability to celebrate and work with difference and complexity:

Post-conventional Action Logics


Is working through conflict and paradox; much more open to alternative perspectives; challenges own self and way of thinking; is striving to become more objective; seeking their own unique voice and self-expression, and encouraging it in others; less judgemental and more open to alternatives; looking for patterns and explanation or truth over advocacy and absolutes; becoming more comfortable with the ideas of fluidity, ambiguity and complexity.


Higher focus on alternatives, judgement over rules, autonomy and incorporating multiple perspectives; balances goals and processes; thinks systemically and incorporates the perspectives of people throughout the system; continually aware of their own thinking and how they show up, and balancing that with the thinking and perspectives of others.


Thinks at the ‘third loop’ level to learn from their own thoughts and actions to counter their own subjectivity; moves beyond their own ego to consider what is best for the system as a whole, in search of a

Two reflections on the higher levels:

1. In the later levels, especially ‘alchemist’, there is a spiritual angle to development that becomes increasingly challenging to pin down; by definition people at the higher action-logics are continually changing and are unique

2. If there is judgement in the above descriptions, that matches our own experience as we read this book; the model does feels judgemental, and sets out a challenge for leaders to move through the action logics.

So what?

The implication then is that by reflecting with an open mind and curiosity on the three levels allows us to build greater self-awareness, capability and ultimately the ability to lead and change others. Much of what is at the heart of this is a desire (and ability) to see objectively who we are in relation to others, and respond accordingly. We see the principal as closely related to action learning, experimentation, self-reflection and even the scientific method.

In that sense, this is very similar to many other widely accepted adult development models. In our own experience and work, adult development and progression through the action logics are facilitated by:

· Letting go of ego and status

· Objective curiosity (enquiry) about how we are, through self-reflection and seeking feedback

· A desire to learn, take an objective stance, flex and adapt

· Deep interest in others and a willingness to learn from those who are different to ourselves

· Exploring paradox, nuance and dilemmas

In the fourteen or so years since this book was published, the ideas have appeared in many other adult development frames, and the action logics align closely with them. Here’s a quick sketch of how they overlay with a couple of other action-logic models:

In writing this I was also struck by a possible alignment with transactional analysis – which in turn might have some connections with the emotional-rational-experiential thinking styles covered by writers like Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow) and in books like The Chimp Paradox and Steve Peters (The Chimp Paradox). I’ve put them in here to stimulate a bit of debate.

There is a great deal of complexity and depth to the ideas covered by Action Inquiry and the LDF, and it’s possible to build an entire practice on exploring and understanding them. This write up is not designed to remove the need to go deeper or spend more time understanding and reflecting on the principles; I wanted to find a way to bring some of that complexity to people accessibly and quickly, and by working through this, to cement some of my own learning about the frameworks gathered from a range of sources including the book.

Footnote and issues

This book frustrated all of us. The ideas inside it have been fundamental to adult development over the last years, and Torbert’s work and reputation precede him as a key thinker and practitioner in the field. But the way he presents his work and ideas here is unhelpfully opaque, vague, self-indulgent and poorly written. All of us (adult development practitioners) felt the book was an ordeal; that we had to re-read chunks of it multiple times. A friend, pushing the book away, said that he wanted to ‘leave this book behind’; I compared it to jazz, in that it was almost certainly more fun to write than to read (amusingly, Torbert himself highlights a time in his career when his lectures were excoriated for similar reasons). We agreed that an interpretation or summary of the most important ideas contained might be more helpful than critiquing Torbert’s presentation of them.

For more on the subject, we like the work of Jennifer Garvey-Berger; her books, ‘Changing on the Job’ and ‘Simple Habits for Complex Times’ both build on Torbert’s work and are more accessible without losing the nuance.

The Centre for Creative Leadership have produced two white papers on vertical development, which explain vertical development and examine the conditions that need to be present for it to occur.


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