Intentionality and Creative Leadership
I’m fascinated by the emerging field of ‘experimental philosophy‘, where it seems that philosophers are stepping away from their armchairs and using research methods from psychology to tackle philosophical questions.
This is interesting enough in itself, but just recently I’ve been pondering some of the ideas I heard expressed and saw practiced in workshops here with my friend and colleague Paul Natorp, from the Kaos Pilots. Paul’s gigs were mainly about ‘creative leadership’, the kind of leadership that is appropriate to innovation and R&D. One of the phrases I heard him use, and one that’s cropped up elsewhere as well, is to ‘hold the space’, to indicate the idea that a leader’s role is to dynamically maintain a kind of framework or DNA in which the process can happen and which helps make it happen. This is a useful idea because the ‘creative leader’ may not know the actual destination or solution, perhaps because the code needed for the solution is not the same code used to identify the problem. There has to be structure but there also has to be elbow room – I’m thinking of a kind of suit, perhaps like Dorothy Heathcote’s ‘mantle of the expert‘.
So this ‘holding the space’ idea has me thinking, and I find myself relating it to recent philosophical experiments on intentionality. To give some idea of what that means, I’ll include two cases, the first (the Harm Case/Help Case) from Joshua Knabe, and the second (the Free-Cup Case and the Extra-Dollar Case) from Edouard Machery. Both were conducted using psychology-style surveys.
Harm Case: The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed. Now ask yourself: Did the chairman of the board intentionally harm the environment? Yes or No?
Help Case: The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped. Did the chairman of the board intentionally help the environment? Yes or No?
What’s the difference?
It’s probably unsurprising that most people opt for ‘yes’ in the first scenario, and ‘no’ in the second.
Following through, on Joshua Knabe’s blog, I read that:
“Perhaps, when people are wondering whether or not an agent brought about some effect intentionally, they ask themselves whether or not the agent deserves praise or blame for that effect. That is, they ask themselves whether the person stands to the effect in a relation such he deserves praise if the behavior is good and blame if the behavior is bad.”
Interestingly, Knabe also discusses cases in which people’s concept of intentional action is conditioned by some idea of the ‘skill’ of an agent. (A dart thrower can claim to be able to hit the Triple-20, but her successful throw is only deemed ‘intentional’ if she was good enough to achieve the target in the first place.)
So our moral sense (which may just be innate, though this seems a contentious point), conditions our understanding – and our practice – of intentionality, of the decision that precedes action.
Now the second of the two experimental philosophy cases, these from Edouard Machery.
The Free-Cup Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that if he bought a Mega-Sized Smoothie he would get it in a special commemorative cup. Joe replied, ‘I don’t care about a commemorative cup, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.’ Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie in a commemorative cup. Did Joe intentionally obtain the commemorative cup? Yes or No?
The Extra-Dollar Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that the Mega-Sized Smoothies were now one dollar more than they used to be. Joe replied, ‘I don’t care if I have to pay one dollar more, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.’ Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie and paid one dollar more for it. Did Joe intentionally pay one dollar more? Yes or no?
Again, it’s probably unsurprising that most people answer ‘no’ in the first case, and ‘yes’ in the second, so here we also see ideas of ‘value’ and ‘work’ and even ‘luck’ or ‘fortune’ which seem to condition our view of what is unintentional or intentional, determined or freely willed.
Whichever way we determine intentionality, it seems, the proposition in these experiments – and others – seems to be that we are always constrained in some way by our moral sensitivities and sensibilities, which are contingent values.
Now, to return to the idea of intentionality and ‘holding the space’ …
As I understand it, intentionality is a kind of ‘leaning of the mind’ towards certain kinds of action. It’s an orientation, a location of self relative to others and self relative to situation.
In the moral domain, the domain of the phronimos, this means decision-making which is as aware as possible of the moral-ethical assumptions and prejudices indicated in the philosophers’ scenarios, above, where the decisions of the Chairman of the Board and Joe with his smoothie are seen as subtle and complex and contingent, rooted in a web of signals and meanings and received understandings of the world.
By virtue of the fact that this awareness reveals (or comes closer to revealing) an actual state of affairs, intentionality of this kind (the intentionality of the creative leader) predisposes the self to action which is skilful, by which I mean, action proceeding from reality.
This leaning towards skilfull action is founded on seeing things clearly and experiencing things authentically. So the development of this capacity is, in the first place, the development of the self. This inspires the realisation of the self as a profoundly interconnected and interdependent entity, realised from moment to moment in the phenomenon of being present, of witnessing, of building a bigger container.
A Bigger Container isn’t a thing; awareness is not a thing; the witness is not a thing or a person. There is not somebody witnessing. Nevertheless that which can witness my mind and body must be other than my mind and body. If I can observe my mind and body in an angry state, who is this ‘I’ who observes? It shows me that I am other than my anger, bigger than my anger, and this knowledge enables me to build A Bigger Container, to grow. So what must be increased is the capacity to observe. What we observe is always secondary. It isn’t important that we are upset; what is important is the ability to observe the upset. ( Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, p.49)
Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, p.49)
In ‘holding the space’ the creative leader operates to generate ‘a bigger container’ for herself and also for her team, through the capacity to see reality for what it is (that is, before we append our opinions about it), to see truthfully in the first place, then operate from this place, to sow seeds of insight and awareness which finally yield understanding and compassion.
Practically speaking, what would this look like? How would we know that this is going on in a group, as an outcome of the creative leader’s facilitation? I can think of six indicators.
· First, there is evidence of deep listening in the group – a sense that every suggestion, every input, is received on its merits, carefully considered and incorporated in the process. This might be characterised by moments of intense, deliberative and focused silence.
· Second, there is evidence of generative questioning, questions which take into account everything that has taken place and advance the conversation by reframing experience and operating from ‘a bigger container’.
· Third, there is evidence that emotions are recognised and validated, honouring the value and dynamics of irrational and tacit processes, but not to the extent that emotions confuse or engulf interactions.
· Fourth, there is laughter which proceeds from insight, which surprises and delights as a result of direct, authentic seeing.
· Fifth, and related to this point about insight, there are ‘aha!’ moments – instances of clarity, of falling-into-place, a sense that such-an-such was right, correct, sufficient, just so.
… Mental preparation involving inward focus of attention promotes insight even prior to the presentation of a problem. Therefore, it may be that how a person is thinking before problem solving begins is just as important as the kind of thinking involved in reaching the solution, and perhaps even determines whether the solution will be derived with a sudden insight. (John Kounios, ‘Aha! Favours the Prepared Mind)
· Finally, there is evidence of compassion, of care and the mindfulness of others, of the integration of insight and knowledge with the profound human need to empathise, to share, to belong, to connect.
So the task of the creative leader in ‘holding the space’ is bound up with mental preparation on his part, an inward focus of attention which models self-leadership among the group and thereby generates a group dynamic operating in a ‘leaderless’ way. The creative leader becomes invisible to the group, in the same way as a basin is invisible to the water it contains, or in another way of putting it, where the basin and the water are indistinguishable, a whole.