Post-Conventional Sustainability Leadership Using Action Inquiry

The adaptive changes that are necessary to create sustainable organizations and societies call for more leaders who exhibit post-conventional qualities.  Action Inquiry is discipline that promises to help leaders develop both the internal and external capacities needed to lead transformative change.


Developed by Bill Torbert and Associates, Action inquiry is a disciplined leadership practice in which action and inquiry are practiced concurrently from moment-to-moment. Rather than being a leadership style or theory to be learned and applied in a formulaic manner, action inquiry is a lifelong process of learning in which an individual or organization becomes more attuned to the dynamic interplay between internal awareness and external contexts in the midst of acting to accomplish aspirations and vision.

Main Features

Working from the inside out, action inquiry involves developing a quality of attention in which one investigates the congruence between one’s intentions, strategies, behavior and results in the external world (Marshall, Coleman, & Reason, 2011). Clarifying one’s intention is critical in this process as well as evaluating one’s current capacity to realize this intention. The three primary aims of practicing action inquiry are:

  • To act with integrity by honestly evaluating the gaps between our intentions, our actions and their effects.
  • To generate a constructive mutuality in all relationships by recognizing the power dynamics in each relationship and working to form shared visions and creative ways of collaboratively developing strategies to actualize common goals.
  • To achieve sustainability in the ongoing relationship dynamic between an organization, society and the environment as inter-related complex systems.

action inquiry

Action inquiry involves continually engaging in cycles of action and reflection with awareness of subjective and objective data while observing the external world. Based on systems theory, Torbert identifies three realms of awareness and learning:

  • Single loop feedback involves inquiring into, and reflecting on the effects of our actions and behavior.
  • Double loop feedback is attuned to examining the effects of our strategies.
  • Triple loop feedback has to do with looking into the effects of our attention, intention and vision. This level of feedback demands a high degree of clarity, self-awareness and personal integrity.

In each of the above types of learning, the practitioner is looking for gaps between what one espouses and what is actually manifested. This demands a degree and range of awareness and attention that is quite rare in normal everyday life. In order to consciously stretch and deepen this awareness, it is helpful to become more mindful of what Torbert calls the four territories of experience.

  • The first territory relates to observing the consequences of our behavior and their affect on the external world.
  • The second territory is more real-time in that one is aware of how habits and behavior patterns are affecting the outside world as they are happening.
  • The third territory relates to action logics, which are common behavioral modes or strategies from which a person tends to function.
  • The fourth territory, as with triple loop learning, is subtler and inward focused since it relates to the quality of one’s awareness and deepest held intentions.

These territories mirror the maturation of an individual and organization throughout its life. Progressing to the point where one is able to consciously operate in all four territories is uncommon, however. Developing the capacity to do so is an important skill that enhances one’s ability to lead oneself and others in transformative change. Action inquiry helps develop this capacity; understanding one’s action logic is a critical part of this process.

Action Logics: Stages on the Path

People respond to challenging situations in different ways. How we respond is often a function of a conditioned and habitual way of thinking and acting that Torbert refers to as action logics. Presented as developmental stages through which people progress from childhood to adulthood, the first four are considered to be conventional since they are common to most people’s development.

Conventional Action Logics

The Opportunist is self-centered in their aims and actions; the Diplomat conforms to norms and other’s expectations and standards of behavior; the Expert relies on demonstrating a mastery of a particular skill or field. The Achiever integrates the qualities of thinking, action and outcomes present in the first three action logics in ways that are geared toward achieving success in the overall system. Most managers in Western organizations demonstrate the characteristics found in Experts and Achievers (Marshall et al, 2011).

While Achievers can be highly effective in accomplishing goals and helping organizations successfully carry out their strategies, they are unaware of their own conditioned and self-limiting way of viewing situations. When faced with challenges that call for an adaptive response, they typically frame and address the problem as if it were a technical problem (Heifetz et al, 2009). For this reason, Achievers are not very effective at responding to situations that call for more radical or transformative leadership.

Post-conventional Action Logics

Given the increasingly complex nature of the problems facing our society, new creative responses and modes are called for on the part of individuals and organizations. The post-conventional action logics that offer the greatest capacity for leading transformative change are more advanced and subtle than the four summarized above. The Individualist begins to break free of the Achiever’s conditioned world-view by surfacing and questioning its underlying assumptions. The resulting expansiveness of view can be profoundly unsettling and confusing. What were once perceived to be solid and reliable are often revealed to be provisional constructs; useful in the past, they increasingly act as hindrances in new emergent contexts (Marshall et al, 2011).

Tempered radicals straddle the fault line between personal values and the dominant culture

The Strategist action logic is able to work with the Individualist’s more open and unsettled perspective by creating a place to stand that is contingent and appropriate for the unique situational aspects of each moment. Increasingly comfortable with paradox and ambiguity, the Strategist is able to practice a type of leadership and engage in double-loop learning in addressing perceived gaps in purpose, strategy, action and outcome (Marshall et al, 2011). Though highly effective as a change agent, the Strategist is still susceptible to the trappings of ego-reinforcing power.

The rarest, highly developed and effective action logic is that of the Alchemist. At this stage, the person has shed the ego attachment that can still plague the Strategist, and demonstrates a complete freedom to skillfully and appropriately use single, double and triple loop feedback across all four territories of experience. The Alchemist is able to ascertain the fresh imperative of each moment and creatively apply the strengths of any of the other action logics in ways that fit the situation. Alchemists are dedicated to transforming both themselves and society with wisdom, compassion and integrity.

The dedicated practice of action inquiry helps a person to understand their dominant action logic and to use all three forms of feedback and learning to advance to more effective action logics. Frequently those who are at the threshold of moving from one level to the next engage in personal changes such as taking up a new spiritual practice, forming new relationships with people who manifest higher action logics, and joining new organizations (Rooke & Torbert, 2005). Functioning at each subsequent level enables the person to increase their effectiveness as a leader, with the three post-conventional action logics demonstrating the greatest potential to lead transformative change.

Leading Sustainability Change Efforts Using Action Inquiry

Making the transformational changes at the personal, community, organizational and societal levels that are necessary to meet peoples’ needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs is a growing imperative. Finding ways to live our lives and run our organizations more sustainably presents us with myriad complex challenges. These challenges are not technical problems that can be solved with existing knowledge through the application of well-coordinated expertise and authoritarian management. Leading sustainability change efforts is an adaptive challenge since it requires fundamental changes in people’s mental models, beliefs, habits and priorities while finding ways to thrive within new limitations and constraints (Heifitz et al, 2009).

Leading efforts to make the external changes necessary for moving down the path toward sustainability requires internal changes. Making these changes involves understanding our “tuning”, or our default settings in how we view and deal with our environment and relationships (Heifetz et al, 2009). These are largely a function of our conditioning and correspond to our dominant action logic.

Rather than responding to situations reflexively based on our conditioned past, single, double and triple loop learning helps us to understand and change our tuning and improve our improvisational ability to respond to the uniqueness of the moment in appropriate and timely ways (Heifetz, 2009).

Dealing with challenging situations using what Torbert and his colleagues call the “four parts of speech” is one way that leaders can help individuals and teams develop and apply action inquiry. Rather than being applied sequentially or linearly, the following parts can be applied in any order:

  • Framing involves explicitly stating purposes and questioning assumptions.
  • Advocating involves asserting a point of view or opinion.
  • Illustrating helps to give a more concrete example of what is being advocated.
  • Inquiring is an open stance where opinions and interpretations are held lightly so that any of the above can be questioned and clarified.
    While it is common for most interactions to involve a disproportionate amount of advocating and illustrating, a leader can help improve the quality and effectiveness of this interaction by skillfully demonstrating more framing and inquiry (Marshall et al, 2011, p. 63).

Action Inquiry as a Path To Sustainable, Shared Prosperity

Action inquiry is a discipline that when taken up as a committed life-long practice promises to help anyone engender internal and external changes that can lead to living more sustainably. The sweeping adaptive changes that are necessary to create sustainable organizations and societies call for more people and organizations that function at the strategist and alchemist profiles. Studies indicate that only 5% of leaders function at these levels, while 85% function at the conventional levels (Rooke & Torbert, 2005).

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