Imagination, Emergence, and the Role of Transformative Learning in Complexity Leadership

By Aftab Omer for Enlivening Edge Magazine

Imagination, Emergence, and the Role of Transformative Learning, in Complexity Leadership at the Threshold of Organizational Transformation

Introduction by Jean-Paul Munsch, Guest Editor of EE Magazine’s Education edition:

 A sophisticated piece from Aftab Omer, the President of the Meridian University located in the  San Francisco Bay Area. He shows the dead ends of linear thinking, and without diluting his transformational learning concept for leaders, he offers here step by step a path that leads into an Integral Praxis of Wholeness, Empathy and Wisdom.

This article is about how the complexity capabilities that transforming organizations must mobilize to engage complex challenges can be developed through transformative learning.

Let’s begin with a very old story about the holy fool, Nasruddin, whose neighbor asks him to guess what he is hiding in his hand. Nasruddin asks for a clue. The neighbor replies that what he has in his hand is, “Yellow on the inside and white on the outside. It looks like an egg and if you cook it, it gets hard.” Nasruddin replies, “That’s easy. It’s a cake.” The neighbor perseveres in trying to get Nasruddin to guess the right answer, saying, “Here’s another clue: What’s in my hand is laid by a hen.” Nasruddin replies, “Like I said, it’s a cake.”

By example, Nasruddin is demonstrating the failure to integrate information effectively enough to guide responsive action. At an individual level, as well as the collective level of families, teams, communities, organizations, societies, and nations, there appear to be significant barriers in the utilization of information towards shaping collective action.

Complexity capabilities cannot be developed through more information. Instead, what is required is a deepening, diversifying, embodying, and personalizing of experience that enables complexity capabilities to emerge.

As the Nasruddin story conveys, the demands of real and practical learning cannot be met just by more information.

In transformative learning, the emphasis shifts from information to imagination, from intended learning to emergent learning.

Any organization—in order to engage and transform complex challenges—must learn. Organizational transformation is itself inherently a complex challenge. And it is often when organizations act to engage the complex challenges they are confronted by that they can transform to the next stage. When this engenders the experience for organizational members that the organization itself is the complexity challenge, the stage is set for transformation.

We know that organizations can either thrive on complexity or succumb to it. We know that the challenge of complexity leadership in organizations can bring on intense dysfunction and at the same time can be a powerful catalyst for development.

The complexity requirements of leadership have been increasing at an accelerating rate and the fracture lines are ever more apparent in our personal and professional lives. When leaders fail, they are often scapegoated or their failures are denied.

Next-stage organizational transformation requires leadership resourced by complexity capabilities, which in their very nature are attuned to the dangers and opportunities of edges and thresholds.

For the last 25 years at Meridian University, we have focused our inquiries on how the development of these complexity capabilities can be facilitated both at the individual and organizational level. We have been guided by the recognition that:

  1. Life increases in complexity through learning.
  1. Authentic learning entails experiencing. Hence, whatever promotes experiencing, promotes learning. Conversely, whatever diminishes experiencing will hinder learning.
  1. Experience itself arises mysteriously, through the inter-connection between what appears as ‘interior’ and ‘exterior,’ as well as what appears to be ‘individual’ and ‘collective.’ Hence, an integral framework is essential to understand how to promote individual and collective learning that is truly transformative.

I have a complexity challenge and I am a complexity challenge: What complexity capabilities matter most, now?

Transforming complex challenges is an aesthetic process. As a way of arriving at the simplicity on the other side of complexity, we can focus on five capabilities that together constitute complexity capability. These five capabilities, described very briefly, are:

Negative Capability – understood as the ability to surrender creatively and engage the unknown and the unknowable in ways that support creative emergence. We start with negative capability because the ability to be curious, open, and creative in relation to the unknown is primary. Without negative capability we are effectively separated from the complexity challenge and that separation distorts our perceptions of the challenge.

Imaginal Capability – understood as the ability to aesthetically engage the essential heterogeneity of Being in its ever-present wholeness and purposiveness. There is an imaginal core to human experience that functions as a bridge between the interior and exterior dimensions of personal reality as well as the individual and collective levels of social reality. Imagination both integrates and transforms our experience. Imagination helps us to link actuality with possibility, past with future, and self with other. Empathic imagination is the mode of imagination that is most relevant to relationships between humans, as well as being our connection to the more than human.

Perspectival Capability – understood as the ability to take, seek, and coordinate overlapping, conflicting, and interacting perspectives.

Autopoetic Capability – understood as the ability to self-organize in ways that presence the whole in the part. Through this capability the tremendous power of creative emergence can be unleashed.

Collaborative Capability – understood as the ability to not only share perspectives, but even more importantly, to share distinct worlds. Collaboration requires sharing worlds, and shared worlds are an outcome of collaboration. Deep collaboration requires deep accountability for one’s impact on others, regardless of one’s intentions.

Understanding the power of transformative learning

Transformative learning entails shifts that have been variously characterized as shifts in perspective, perceptual lenses, core beliefs, schemas, mental models and mindsets. Such perceptual shifts enable individuals and systems to inhabit new, more complex and emergent landscapes.

Transformative learning is increasingly practiced within multiple domains and levels. Domains of praxis include psychotherapy, spiritual practice, business, education, civil society, governance and the law, and the arts. Levels of praxis include individuals, teams, communities, organizations, and societies. Distinct approaches to Transformative Learning Praxis have emerged within local communities of practice.

An effective approach to transformative learning can be based on four key ideas:

  • All human learning entails experiencing;
  • various personal, social, and cultural dynamics gate experience, thereby undermining learning;
  • appropriately designed learning activities liberate and restore experience, thereby providing fresh ingredients for learning and
  • the experience liberated through learning activities is carried forward through creative action.

The gating of experience: why transformative learning is difficult

A comprehensive understanding of transformative learning calls for an understanding of the dynamics of resistance, and barriers to transformative learning. We have been acculturated to develop habits that resist and avoid the dangers and perils that we sense await us if we were to allow for full depth and measure of our experience to emerge.

As such, a natural tendency, even for those who are drawn to learning environments that aspire to transformative learning, is to avoid being with one’s own experience. If there is no apparent resistance to the learning experience from the individual or collective participating in the experience, then it is likely that a transformative threshold has not yet been reached. In this respect, resistance to experience is a signal that a transformative learning threshold has been engaged.

The core beliefs, deep assumptions, mindsets, and specific perspectives that constitute identity act like lenses in shaping our perceptions. Given this, normative identity can have the effect of a wall that functions as a barrier to carrying forward information into necessary, effective, and creative action. This wall of identity constitutes resistance to both action and learning, and most significantly to action learning. Even the image of oneself as being, for example, “already ecologically minded” can become a barrier to the collective learning and action necessary for structural changes.

Individual and collective identity grounds and stabilizes human experience and communities. Without identity, we find ourselves at sea, homeless, longing for harbor. Yet the conflicts that embroil so many individuals, communities, and nations around the globe are situated within the mindsets that constitute personal and collective identity.

One significant way of working with these barriers involves personifying and externalizing these barriers.

This externalized dynamic, referred to as gatekeeping is conceived as the individual and collective dynamics that resist and restrict experience, preventing the individual from taking risks, seeking out new experience, and shifting out of static and familiar identity.

Gatekeeping is understood as an adaptive dynamic which may arise as a protective measure and can help a living system survive under specific circumstances, but becomes maladaptive when the circumstances change.

Considered more broadly, individual cultures have their own complex, historically-derived belief systems, patterns, and norms of behavior, all of which combine to restrict the experience of their citizens from birth. As with individual gatekeeping, over time these dynamics become internalized.

These culturally-sourced dynamics serve to restrict experience as Cultural Gatekeepers. Cultural gatekeepers are the restrictive and resisting forces in individuals, families, organizations, communities, and societies that ensure conformity with a culture’s current rules, norms, values, and taboos via a cultural trance. Cultural gatekeepers then are the personification of collective dynamics in a given culture that resist cultural transformation. The Matrix movie is a metaphor for this phenomenon.

Transformative learning works through encountering failure: certain beliefs, belief systems, mental maps, and even our identities must “fail” in order for more complexity to emerge. However, this kind of failure can be risky. Just as the caterpillar who fails to emerge from the chrysalis as a butterfly is doomed, individuals can become stuck in the failed places and not emerge into more complex levels of perception.

“We can see that transformative learning necessitates bringing discipline to the experience of failure.”

Such discipline entails the understanding that without failure, there is no transformation—and so we need to relearn our relationship to failure. Transformative learning flourishes when learners act with developmental humility and facilitators act with developmental compassion.

More than any other developmental line, self-identity plays the most critical role in ensuring sustained and transformative leadership. Individual and collective practices can be utilized to bring attention to self-identity in ways that are healing and transforming, enabling more resilient collaboration in service to our collective initiatives.

Individual and collective human capacities that emerge out of a conscious engagement with emotion, enable collective action to be sustained by ongoing, collective learning. The integration and expression of emotion develop capacity that is embodied at the individual level, and institutionalized at the collective level.

Learning to follow imagination is a competency that is achieved through liberation from narrow, culturally-enforced identity frames that constrain imagination. Imagination is deepest and most valuable when it is allowed to arise and flow spontaneously, without being subjected to policing by personal identity and/or representatives of culture. Like breathing, imagination has its own flow and rhythm that is reciprocally shaped by the ever-changing human and natural landscape.

Integral practitioners and collective wisdom

Any enterprise or initiative that aspires to long-term sustainability requires strategic leadership that can connect the why with the how. Weaving together strategic vision, core values, strategic planning, and operations in the service of a significant initiative requires individual and collective complexity capability, distinct from those leadership skills that are only technical and context-specific.

An integral vision of transformation requires an integral praxis, understood as the integration of theory and practice.

“Complexity leaders are integral practitioners who lead through facilitating transformative learning and are transformative learners themselves.”

They recognize that one only perceives the next horizon from where one stands, and that the task is to arrive at the next horizon and then be able to perceive further horizons. With complexity capability, the practitioner/leader is able to include, with increasing depth, perspectives and worlds that have been marginalized at the periphery of an organization or society.

Entranced by the mystery of development, we often confuse integral mental models with an Integral I. While integral models strive for comprehensiveness, the community of discourse and practitioners has challenges to overcome in achieving sufficient inclusivity of consciousness structures, genders, cultures, theories, and models. Self-enclosed identity impoverishes our enactment of leadership roles and leader identities. Despite our focus on ego development and action-logics, an opportunism untethered to the sacred distorts our individual and collective lives.

Given the inherent multiplicity of Being, otherness presents an essential challenge to self-enclosed identity. This challenge calls us to deepen inclusive processes, both individually and collectively. Deep inclusion is necessary to actualize both an authentically Integral I and a generative globalization that could be compassionately responsive.

AftabAftab Omer, Ph.D., teaches in the Organizational Leadership graduate program at Meridian University. He is a sociologist, psychologist, futurist and the president of Meridian University. Raised in Pakistan, India, Hawaii, and Turkey, he was educated at the universities of M.I.T, Harvard, and Brandeis. His publications have addressed the topics of transformative learning, cultural leadership, generative entrepreneurship, and the power of imagination. His work includes assisting organizations in tapping the creative potentials of conflict, diversity, and complexity. Formerly the president of the Council for Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies, he is a Fellow of the International Futures Forum and of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Recently, Frederic Laloux and Aftab Omer conducted an online conversation on the topic of Power, Authority and Accountability in Organizational Life, which is also published in Enlivening Edge Magazine.