Evolutionary Leadership

How to recognize and nurture it to avoid extinction.

By Deborah Busser, Consultant, Camden Consulting Group

Google the word, “leadership,” and you will get thousands of entries on leadership styles, leadership qualities, leadership training, leadership skills, leadership challenges, leadership techniques, leadership tools, and so on. The good news is that organizations recognize they need strong leadership to achieve results. The challenge is that there are so many different definitions, explanations, training programs, and interventions that it can be difficult to get a grasp on what leadership is, why you need it, and how to nurture it.

Evolutionary leadership is one of the newer terms related to leadership. It offers a multi-dimensional perspective drawn from the latest business school research, as well as positive psychology, integral theory, and spirituality. One definition of “evolution” is that it is a gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually better or more complex form. Other definitions talk about change that occurs over successive generations. So how do evolution and leadership come together?

Evolutionary leadership has less to do with what you do, and more to do with what you believe in and value. Evolutionary leaders are, by definition, self-aware and constantly strive to keep their egos in check. They are connected to a higher vision and know that becoming the best leader they can be is a process they will never complete. Instead of finding this discouraging, however, they are motivated and fueled by their sense of purpose to keep learning, and to push the boundaries of what cutting-edge leadership looks like, not only for themselves but for all of those who will follow. Craig Hamilton, the former editor of EnlighteNext magazine and the founder of Integral Enlightenment, elaborates on many of the concepts below in workshops he runs for thousands of learners all over the globe.

Evolutionary leaders:

  • Are committed to transformation. This applies to all realms—their organizations, their teams, and themselves. Business continues to move at unprecedented speed, and though incremental improvement has been touted as an operating strategy in the past, it is no longer adequate. Evolutionary leaders are willing to not only shift the paradigms in which they operate, but to blow them up and create new ones.
  • Don’t believe in individual heroics. They know they need the hearts, minds, and commitment of everyone on the team. Self-reliance as a leadership value no longer works in the interconnected, social media age. What matters is exposure to new ideas, perspectives, and insights, and work environments that foster greater personal connection. Enlightened leaders know they are only as good as the people around them, and in their increasingly global networks. And they know their teams know this, too.
  • Recognize the interconnectedness of all their stakeholders. They have a broader view of whom they need to serve and count their employees, customers, vendors, and shareholders as equally important constituents to whom they are accountable.They have moved beyond win-lose thinking and are interested in developing long-term relationships that benefit everyone involved. The Conscious Capitalism movement, and books such as “Firms of Endearment,” highlight the opportunity to maximize potential and profits when leaders insist on creating value for all invested parties.
  • Take interpersonal risks. They are authentic, transparent, and willing to be vulnerable.This requires having enough confidence to be wrong in front of others. However, evolutionary leaders don’t really get hung up about being wrong. Making adjustments when presented with new ideas or approaches is a necessary step on the way to achieving the organization’s goals. In their willingness to be open, they actually de-personalize the outcome of any endeavor by focusing on the larger vision or goal. Personal risks seem small when placed in context with the goals of the larger organization.
  • Let go of the tried and true to make room for the new and innovative. Usually the people at the top are there because of their deep expertise and track record of success. Evolutionary leaders, however, are familiar with the concept of the Goldsmith book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” and have developed enough self-awareness to deliberately enter into “beginner’s mind” when facing new challenges. They are willing to throw out what they’ve known to work in the past to learn what new approaches might work in the future, and they actively solicit new ideas from the people closest to them and their customers—the people in their organization.The best leaders create active ways to continually get input from all areas and levels of their company.
  • Know that they are always “on stage” and are always an example. As we have seen with some of our political leaders recently, someone is always listening (or recording) everything leaders say and do. Leaders are accountable for how they show up to others, all of the time. However, evolutionary leaders don’t let this burden them. Instead, they accept this as the privilege it is. What they say and do matters to people. A recently promoted CIO asked me when she would be able to take a break from constantly worrying about how others would perceive her. And although it would be helpful for her to better channel her “worry,” the truth is that she will never be off the hook. However, if she uses her role effectively, her visibility will be all to the good.
  • Are committed to their own growth and evolution in service to the larger whole. They are self-aware and make personal reflection, and spiritual development a priority. In the book, “Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery,” Joiner and Josephs outline the work they have done assessing different levels of leadership agility. One characteristic they have found to be almost universal in those leaders rated at the most effective and evolved end of the spectrum is an ongoing commitment to a meditation or spiritual practice. The best leaders seek to continually expand their own consciousness, in service to the whole.
  • Are able to listen deeply. You have read about leaders who live inside the bubble, and how difficult it is for them to accurately assess their environment and receive clear information and data. Evolutionary leaders make an effort to interact with diverse groups inside and outside of their organizations, and to listen without ego or judgment to hear what is being said—even if the words aren’t clear. Listening with the expectation of hearing important and valuable ideas from the people around them calls those great ideas forth. Stakeholders feel seen, heard, and valued, and want to offer more. Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer, discusses his epiphany around the importance of listening in a recent McKinsey Quarterly video.
  • Clean up their messes. Miscommunication and interpersonal conflict in organizations are inevitable. Evolutionary leaders are secure and mature enough to know that just as they are evolving, so is everyone else around them. They will make mistakes, and rub people the wrong way from time to time, but they know that being uncomfortable goes with the privilege of being a leader. Instead of ignoring interpersonal tension, they continually strive to resolve any and all issues quickly and completely so their teams can build and create from a clear space.

Evolutionary leaders are committed to the continuous growth and evolution of themselves and those around them, and have consciously chosen to use their roles to accelerate climates of learning and growth in service to their stakeholders, their communities and the world.

Deborah Busser is a consultant at Camden Consulting Group (http://www.camdenconsulting.com), and brings more than 20 years of corporate leadership experience in talent development and acquisition, employee relations, and marketing to her work with senior executives in financial services, high technology, health care, biotechnology, and higher education. She has served as an executive coach and mentor, facilitating leadership development programs and delivering coach training programs within the U.S., United Kingdom, Israel, Ireland, and Cyprus. Busser spent 10 years in various HR and line roles with Fidelity Investments before starting her own consulting firm that works with senior business leaders to maximize individual and team performance. Additionally, Busser has partnered with Keystone Associates and Camden Consulting, respectively, to provide career management and executive coaching to senior clientele. Busser has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing, and a Master’s degree in Community Social Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she has also been an adjunct professor.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.