Drawing on insights from adult developmental psychology, Matthew
Rich-Tolsma and John Oliver, certified consultants with Lectica, Inc.,
highlight the explicit thinking skills that are unique to the challenges
at the board level, in the context of increasing volatility,
uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) in the world. The
invitation is for boards to think about their thinking skills, with the
help of the latest research in frameworks of integrated thinking skills.
What is it exactly that boards do? As Peter Drucker and others have pointed out,1
many boards seem to perform an essentially ornamental function in the
face of the increasingly complex and competitive landscapes in which
they find themselves. In the midst of this, however, John and Miriam
Carver have been notable in consistently reminding us that boards have
an essential role to play in looking out for the interests of the owners
of businesses and serving to provide essential ethical oversight to
organizations.2 In particular, in setting out the Policy Governance®
framework, they have provided a system of principles and processes to
guide board functioning, but what exactly do these kinds of processes
require of board members in terms of capabilities? In other words, what
distinguishes governing from other work in and on the business, and what
unique thinking skills does it require of board members?
One way that we can appreciate the unique nature of the task
placed before board members is to view it in a developmental context.
Elliott Jaques’s3 theory of requisite organization provides
us with one framework for doing this, building upon seven stratified
levels of work, each with their own hierarchically distinct capability
as identified by Gillian Stamp.4 Whereas the earlier levels
of work are concerned with an organization’s operations and generating
value for the organization in the present, the later levels are
orientated toward generating value for the future of the organization.
These later levels of work complexity involve engaging time scales
extending several years into the future and require an increasing
capacity to oversee entire organizational systems and bring them into
relationship with the ever-shifting complex global milieu in which
organizations must learn to function. In this brief article, we outline
some of the core developmental skills that support more complex ways of
working, by bringing these into relationship with some of the most
recent discoveries in developmental psychology and adult learning
The profoundly challenging demands placed on boards in a rapidly
changing global world lead to four distinctly perplexing conditions:
volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.5
Together, these conditions are often referred to as the VUCA world (VUCA
being a term that was originally initiated by the US military).6
These demands seem to be increasing at a rate that significantly
outstrips the rate at which the individual capability of leaders is
growing (which is in no small part due to the fact that our educational
systems have failed to adapt sufficiently). As a result, the state of
modern leadership seems to be that, in the words of Robert Kegan,
leaders are perpetually “in over their heads.”7 This gap
between the challenge of a task and the capability of the individuals
charged to perform it is what we might refer to as a complexity gap.
This is a concept that has been exposed by a number of theorists8
and presents boards with a dual dilemma. First, selecting board members
is very challenging when statistically only a very small portion of the
population has the potential to perform at the most advanced levels of
complexity of thought (this is further exacerbated by the lack of
rigorous approaches and tools for assessing the developmental capacity
of candidates). Second, the continued support and development of board
members presents a challenge given the limited understanding available
concerning development in most organizations.
During the twentieth century an empirical psychological science of
constructive development emerged as a significant trend in contemporary
understandings of learning and human performance. The history of this
field can be tracked from the so-called genetic epistemology of James
Baldwin,9 through the hierarchical integration of Jean Piaget’s10
understanding, to the work of significant neo-Piagetian theorists such
as William Perry, Lawrence Kohlberg, Michael Commons, Kurt Fischer, and
Theo Dawson. Each of these theorists represents an applied approach to
development consisting of “hard stages” of development that each
individual progresses through hierarchically at variable rates11 through an iterative process of cycles of learning.12
This entails engaging development as a complex system and understanding
the variable roles that emotion can play in shaping development. In
essence, this means that there is a wide range of variability within
individual performances and that people may perform very differently
under a range of different conditions. It also means that people may
perform differently across a range of different skill domains.
We offer a general summary of the two most common broad
development levels that are likely to show up at board level. We then go
on to explore how these two development levels are likely to relate to a
number of specific skill domains that we consider as particularly
relevant to the task of board service. Thanks to the latest research in
adult developmental psychology, we now have robust data on the
distribution of these developmental levels across the adult population.13
The first of these levels is what Stamp4 refers to as a
modeling capacity; this is a sort of complex systemic thinking capacity
that occurs in around less than 6 percent of the adult population13
and is generally found in senior levels of organizations (or at the top
level of smaller organizations). People operating at this level of
complexity can describe multiple complex systems and identify many of
the common elements that serve to connect them. This is sufficient to
maintain a strategic overview of a small organization and coordinate its
multiple parts; they are likely to have a time horizon of about five
years on their work. The second of these levels is what Stamp4
refers to as a weaving capacity; this sort of integrative or principled
thinking is generally found at the senior levels of large global
organization and tends to occur in less than 3 percent of the adult
population.13 People operating at this level of complexity
can describe a range of abstract principles and relate to them in terms
of the overarching principles that govern their interaction; they are
likely to work with time spans ranging as far as twenty years into the
future. This is generally the type of oversight that is required at
board level, especially in larger organizations.
We hope that the preceding exploration has illustrated the complex
and dynamic nature of skill development. While it is easy to become
seduced by the notion of everyone moving to a higher capacity level,
this may not necessarily serve optimal human performance. There are a
number of reasons for this. First, it is important to realize that
different tasks (each of which generate different types of value) in the
organization all require different types of developmental
capability—this is precisely why some people are well suited to serve on
a board while others are better suited to practical hands-on
involvement in the operations of the organization. It is generally
unproductive to mix up the two. Second, the robustness and stability of
learning depends on the robustness and integration of the neural
network—in other words, on the breadth of our learning, not just on its
depth. Learning is like building a skyscraper; the number of stories we
can build is dependent on the solidity of the foundation we have built.
Optimal development requires that we focus on being curious,
developing a reflective disposition, and cultivating a capacity for
mindful self-awareness. We should constantly seek opportunities to apply
our learning in real-world contexts and seek feedback from those around
us, in the context that even as adults we are continually developing.
Effective learning means effective goal setting, which requires
effective measurement. This is why it is useful for board members to
identify the optimum leverage points on their learning edges, on which
to focus their own continuous development. The future of measurement
tools in this space is particularly exciting, with new levels of
objectivity now available that support adults in identifying and
leveraging their own unique development and learning.
Matthew Rich-Tolsma and John Oliver are, respectively, Master and Associate Lectica Consultants (www.lectica.org),
and cofounders of Purple.Plus+, a recruitment interview platform that
leverages Lectica’s artificial intelligence engine applied to natural
language. Matthew has consulting practices in transformative learning
and organizational development (www.rich-tolsma.com). They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. See, for example: Drucker, P. F. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York: HarperCollins, 1974); and Mace, M. Directors: Myth and Reality (Boston: Division of Research, Harvard Business School, 1971).
2. See, for example: Carver, J., and M. Carver. A New Vision for Board Leadership: Governing the Community College (Washington, DC: Association of Community College Trustees,1994); and Carver, J., and M. Carver. Corporate Boards That Create Value: Governing Company Performance from the Boardroom (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
3. Jaques, E. Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century (Arlington, VA: Cason Hall, 1996).
4. Stamp, G. The Essence of Levels of Work (Johannesburg: Bioss Southern Africa, 1993).
5. These distinctions are clearly explained in Bennet, N., and G. J. Lemoine. “What VUCA Really Means for You,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/01/what-vuca-really-means-for-you
6. Stiehm, J. H., and N. W. Townsend. The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002).
7. Kegan, R. In Over Our heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
8. See, for instance: Jaques, E. A. General Theory of Bureaucracy (London: Heinemann Educational, 1976); Habermas, J. Legitimation Crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1975); Kegan, R. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); and Bell, D. The Coming of Post-industrial Society (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
9. Baldwin, J. M. “The Genetic Progression of Psychic Objects,” Psychological Review 11 (1904): 216–221.
10. Piaget, J. Moral Judgment of the Child (New York, NY: Free Press, 1932).
11. Fischer, K. W., and T. R. Bidell. “Dynamic Development of Action, Thought, and Emotion,” in Handbook of Child Psychology: Theoretical Models of Human Development, W. Damon and R. M. Lerner (eds.) (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006), 313–399.
12. Dawson, T. L., and Z. Stein. “Virtuous Cycles of Learning:
Redesigning Testing During the Digital Revolution” (Presented to the
International School on Mind, Brain, and Education, Ettore Majorana
Center for Scientific Culture, Erice, Italy, 2011).
13. The latest estimations around the distribution of
developmental levels in adulthood can be seen in Dawson, T. L. “Lectical
levels in adulthood,” November 17, 2015, http://theodawson.net/?p=447.
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