July 4, 2023

Bob Anderson – Increasing Collective Intelligence Through Effective Leadership

Thomas is joined by author, leadership expert, and the founder of Leadership Circle, Bob Anderson. They discuss what it takes to be an effective leader in our current era of change and upheaval. Through research and extensive experience, Bob has concluded that the most salient characteristic of an effective leader is their emphasis on relationship, and that this is a universal theme across all cultures. He explains how an effective leader can develop a group whose collective intelligence is greater than any one individual’s intelligence, and that this is where the emergent future lies. Thomas and Bob also explore how to be open to new insights and inspirations in order to take your work to an innovative edge, and the “core tension” between purpose and safety.

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“Relationality is the quality that most defines effective leadership, period.”

- Bob Anderson

Guest Information

Bob Anderson

Robert J. Anderson has been a pace setter in the field of Leadership Development for over 30 years. He is the Founder and Chief Knowledge Officer of Leadership Circle, and the co-author of Scaling Leadership and Mastering Leadership. Bob created the Leadership Circle Profile, a 360° assessment used by organizations worldwide to measure the effectiveness of their leaders (individually and collectively), chart a pathway for their development, and assess their progress as they develop.

Bob received a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from John Carroll University and a Master’s degree in Organizational Development from Bowling Green State University. In 2005, the Stayer Center for Executive Education at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business awarded Bob the Partner in Innovation Award. The MEECO Leadership Institute awarded him the International Thought Leader of Distinction in 2018.

Learn more about Bob and his work at leadershipcircle.com

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • The other major themes of effective leadership: mission-driven purpose, integrity, and presence
  • Leaders must move from a reactive identity composed of others’ expectations to one that is more internally authored
  • When leaders recognize their own contradictions and dualities, they can communicate more empathetically and without projecting their shadow onto others
  • Using contemplative and energetic practices from many traditions to access our higher meta-capacities
  • Leadership lives at the edge, there’s no safe way to be great and there’s no great way to be safe.
  • How intuitive work allows us to listen to the field of collective intelligence and let it speak through us

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome to the Point of Relation. I’m Thomas Hübl, and I’m delighted to sit here with my friend Bob Anderson. So welcome Bob to my podcast.

Bob Anderson: Thank you.

Thomas: And it’s good. So we had in the past already some amazing conversations. And I think we share other interests and we have a lot of resonance in the way we see things. And so that’s why I wanted to have this conversation with you. And since I mean, I think many people know the leadership circle and the work, especially in business. You look at a lot in your life the development of leadership. And since this podcast is called the Point of Relation, it’s about relationality, where we really find point, where we relate and what happens out of that. And I think leadership is a very important place to be relational and to be able to join shared spaces, as we do right now. And I want to maybe start with what do you see or what did you see through decades of work that you have done makes leadership successful. What is actually success when you talk about leadership? What is successful as a leader? Maybe you can speak a bit about this and then we will unfold.

Bob: Well, there’s a lot there. I would just say that one of our working definitions of leadership is creating outcomes that matter. And if you really drop into that, what matters most and how do we do that both individually in our lives, self-mastery, self-leadership, and collectively the whole organization that scales the capacity to create its emergent future, years to say desired future. I think anymore, given the unknown that leaders have to work with or are working more in an unknown emergent future. And so leadership is the capacity at scale to bring that into manifestation, into reality. So that’s a starting place from a working definition.

Well, one of the things that came to mind immediately when you started in there around relationality is we did on a whim with we did a study where I was running out of keynote stuff because I’d been saying the same thing over. So I said, well, what if we looked at our written comments? We have a database of 3 million surveys, most of which have written comments and 300,000 leaders. 3 million surveys. Why don’t we study those to see how do leaders talk about leadership? We separated samples for really high creative leaders and really high reactive leaders. Really effective and really ineffective leader. And the descriptions could not have been more stark, the differences in the way the leaders give feedback to here’s what you’re doing that’s working and not working could not have been more different.

One of the most salient characteristics of really effective high-creative leaders was the emphasis on relationships: people, people, people, people. It was said in so many different ways that the researchers couldn’t pull it out as just one theme. Six of the top ten most commented upon themes, and this data had to do with relationships, listening, just being good with people, developing people on and on and on. So relationality is the quality that most defines effective leadership. Period. If you’re leading, you’re in the people business. Then it came a second. Themes underneath the six were mission-driven purpose as opposed to self-interest. And integrity. Presence. Those were the defining characteristics. Not from our research we’re going out and creating a theory about leadership. We just looked at what they said and almost none of those show up on the top ten list are the least effective leaders.

Thomas: Wow. That’s powerful.

Bob: It was dramatic. It was dramatic. So we came to the conclusion that leaders actually know what work and know that worldwide – a relationship is a universal thing. Now, we don’t see differences in our data correlations between different dimensions and different cultures. Universally, we have a pretty good understanding of what works.

Thomas: That’s powerful. You also said right now that you don’t see any big difference around different cultural fields, it’s around the world basically.

Bob: Especially in what we call the creative dimensions, the order of leadership competencies. The correlations there are strongly, highly correlated to effectiveness all around the world and they don’t vary. And you get into more reactive dimensions, high control, high compliance, that sort of thing. We do see cultural differences there. Some cultures are more patriarchal. So we’ll see some different patterns, but when we look at what they say is correlated to effectiveness, we always see the same thing. And then the written comments bear that out.

Thomas: Wow, that’s amazing. And you have such a rich database. So that’s amazing. Fantastic. I’m curious also because you said one word, I mean, I’m curious in two dimensions. One is that I had a conversation with Shami yesterday and he put it beautifully. He said, “The future is that which is kind of dependent on you to be manifested.” You said something about the unknown future, so I want to go there but later. And then the other thing that you said now is very interesting to me. How do we create collective leadership? Because I think we are also moving into a time where collective leadership like how do we share leadership space? And because often leadership is connected to okay, it is one person that’s running everything. And I think the next level of it would be how can multiple people or groups develop leadership capacities? And so I don’t know if you looked into that or if you how you relate to that. I’m sure somehow. So maybe you can speak a little bit to what you saw, what you find with you, what you intuit is emerging here.

Bob: So we’ll come back to the emerging future, requiring our cooperation. I love that. I think that’s an important aspect of the emerging understanding of leadership and where leadership needs to go. Yeah, collective leadership. I mean, we’ve been at it for years, participative management involvement, engagement, team leadership and so on. So it’s not a new concept. I do think that mostly when we think of leadership, we do have a kind of heroine or heroic view of it, like the individual leader. Which is very different than, say, how the Tao Te Ching would describe leadership. I actually put one of the statements from a DAO on the Leadership Circle profile as an item. And it goes something like: “This leader is so masterful that the people said, we did it ourselves.” And it’s what we mean by scaling leadership. How do I develop that collective capacity in the team and others to lead in the way that we’re talking about.

Like the primary thing we learned from that research was that leaders scale leadership, they develop that capacity both individually and collectively. How do we show up together, interact, the relationality, as you described it in a way that is optimally effective. Most groups dumb down the collective intelligence below the average intelligence. Versus coming together and conducting the dialog at a level in which collective intelligence is actually higher than the average individual intelligence. And this is where we have to go. I mean, because it’s just an unbelievably complex. Not only are we faced with the complexity of what’s been called VUCA, volatility, uncertainty, complexity now and then parameter, which makes it even more extreme.

We have that challenge as leaders, but we’re also at a time in history where we don’t have the option of positioning our organization in a way that damages our collective welfare on the planet. We have to reposition. So I’m preparing for a meeting with the leadership at Honda and they are in an amazing transformation as I’m reading what they want to brief us on as we do work with them. They’re moving to the entire electrification of their automotive and they’re the largest internal combustion engine manufacturer in the world, and they’re going to go all electric. 1) They know that’s where it’s going, but 2) it’s good for the planet, but they have the challenge of maintaining world leadership in our current offering. And completely reinvent our organization to go all electric. I mean, that’s a level of complexity that’s beyond what we’ve been doing because we have to re-write our relationship with everything. From 0 point up. It’s all one system. There’s only one. We’ve been operating from separateness and it’s reached its limits. The world order as we know it is imploding.

So leaders are not only dealing with all of that chaos, having to reinvent their business, but do so in a way that positions the organization to be part of the solution of the future. Nobody knows how to do that. It has all of us beyond the edges. I’m in a business that does leadership assessment. With AI coming on, I don’t have a clue what we’re going to face that can put us out of business in the next few years. So we’re in unprecedented territory. Our leaders more and more are challenged to lead collectively because nobody is smart enough. The ability of the collective to tap the informational field that we are in together, that the solutions are in that space. It’s in that intelligence. But we have to learn how to access those subtle fields, both individually and collectively. And that’s where I think the emergent future lies.

So not only do you have to be really good at all the relational stuff we started with. That’s like table stakes now. Now we have to up that end to a level of resonance and dialogue and connection with each other that expands and opens the space of possibilities so we can be informed by an emerging and unknown future that requires our participation. The stakes are high. It’s an unprecedented time for what it takes to be an effective leader today.

Thomas: That’s amazing because the way I look at it is that only the structures in society can fall apart that are based on the past like that are recurrent patterns that are kind of already stuck and old. And they became old because they have no updates. They’re like stuck in the past. But what you’re talking about is also that relationality is the base for innovation because it’s the pure data flow. The horizontal and vertical data flow is what we create together when we are really present with each other. And yes, that’s amazing. And so when you see organizations what do we need as an organization? Is this just happening or does it need some ingredients to develop that kind of collective updating capacity that you’re speaking about. Did you see that happening, in organizations that you spoke right now about when. But like what? What are the ingredients? Why does it happen somewhere? And it doesn’t happen in other places? What’s needed in your understanding?

Bob: Well, what we’re being invited into is that the leadership realizes that a kind of organizational structure, system, culture, performance that they now need to move into. It’s unattainable from their current level of leadership, the way they’re currently leading. We call it reactive. It’s usually pretty hierarchical and siloed and bureaucratic and so on, but developmentally immature. And we could talk more about that. But it’s just not up to that complexity that we’re facing.

So we’re called in a lot to say we need to really up level our leadership all together, which means moving from largely where most adults are, that we’re operating from an identity that is made up by other people’s expectations, I guess. I’m trying to live up to our expectations. Some of that is past, past trauma. All kinds of voices in me that say, I have to be this way or I am nobody. At the core of that identity is you define me. All these voices define me. They’re managing me more than I realize. So something happens and I’m immediately triggered and I’m off to the races, either taking over the meeting or criticizing somebody or getting cautious and backing away. I’m in my reactor pattern before I realize. And generally that pattern is not well-matched to being effective in the situation.

So how do we move from that to being more internally authored on purpose? Not defined externally, but internally. So it’s okay if I disappoint you. It’s okay if I don’t measure up to your expectations. I want to listen to that. I want to be in a relationship with that, but they don’t define me or trigger me to the degree that they have in the past. And now. Now the conversation is about what we want together that’s bigger than either of us. And that becomes a more effective leadership Internal operating system and then how it plays with others is much more effective. And that’s required. That’s like minimum system specs now for leadership. And most adults are working their way into that kind of level of development and the world is requiring that we move even beyond that. So there’s a huge development challenge. And what we’re talking about and. So what makes the difference is whether you go on that journey together or not. If you don’t, you’re just going to be repeating the past. If you do, you have options for really reinventing your organization together.

Thomas: So basically from this reactive mode that is mainly based on the past, we are going into self authorship, which is based on our creativity and our inner self contact and from that relating to the world. When you say we are challenged to even develop beyond that, can we speak a little bit about what’s beyond that?

Bob: I move from self authorship to being authored individually and collectively. So I and we are not authoring the future, it’s authoring us. I’m more and more surrendering my identity into a larger identity. And doing that in a separate identity. I will also start with this move. I’ve done a lot of work on my reactive patterns and the identity that’s often triggered there. And now I go deeper into that terrain and work that you would call trauma work or shadow work. I’m dropping into the core of where I constrict.

And what’s powerful about that is that the more we do that, the more as leaders we realize that I’m not this just a self authoring, authentic, visionary and value driven, purpose driven leader. I’m also the opposite. I have dark and light in me. I am promoting diversity and I find I have an inner racist or sexist in me. It’s there. It’s part of the feel that’s part of the lineage that’s either family or systemic. That is in me, and it’s not a small thing. It’s like these are big awarenesses and big energies, big contractions.
And as I start to see that as a leader, a couple of things shift. I realize that you are not my enemy – you are like me. I have that in me too. Now we’re in a place to talk in a way that doesn’t project my shadow. Maya, on to you. I know that your work moves into this powerfully.

I also started to realize that my position, my well-honed vision, is partial. I don’t have all the answers. And that’s becoming more and more okay. Not only okay, but how could you and I therefore need people, including those that I would call opponents or enemies. Like what correctly were they bringing?f rom my perspective that I don’t have severe embedded conflict, my dear often working families. The reason it’s embedded and protracted in the long term is because there’s a necessary corrective to my understanding that I don’t yet get.

The integral leader can hold that: Oh, there’s something here for me that I am not seeing. As evidenced by the fact that we can’t break through this conflict or that it’s so disturbingly. So I have a whole different relationship with the unfinished. And it becomes too systemic. It’s like, Oh, I’m a constellation of the world and therefore I can engage in a very different kind of dialog of learning and transformation where I have as much to learn as a leader as anybody.

And that creates the kind of field that we were talking about and the coherent resonance in a group that can allow that group to break through or be informed on what’s emergent and must emerge in order for us to be successful. So it takes everything that we’ve called effective leadership and not just up. It is inherently selective and inclusive.

Thomas: And it’s very powerful. And you’re also speaking to in the moment, that I open up these cards in myself where I see the edge of my own awareness, the edge of my conscious universe. I begin to host much more of the world inside of me. And I host you and you host me inside. We actually share a world, and that’s the beginning of true collective space. So this was very powerful because if I open my own shadow areas up so I can receive more of the world and be co-created with more of the world. And that’s powerful. Very powerful.

And as you said, that’s the relationality that we need to be authored and maybe we can speak a little bit like the shift of my awareness from when I go through that integration process. I become more and more open to being in a listening space of what actually needs to become manifest so that maybe you can speak a little bit about how the strength and the heart in us that is listening to the incoming future. And when the future is not the point in time, that is later, but it’s actually something and manifest that is becoming manifest in presence. Maybe you can share a little bit about what you teach and what you think works to expand that, to be authored by something larger that projects organizations choose to come through us? It’s a different way than I’m creating a company.

Bob: There’s so much here. Steve Jobs said in what I think was one of his last speeches at Stanford just before he died, when he was looking back over his life, knowing that he was dying. And he’s talked about looking forward all the dots connect. Well, none of the dots connect looking forward. They only connect looking back. And he used some examples like why did he drop out of college and study calligraphy? When you look back, it makes perfect sense because they introduced all these beautiful fonts and the whole landscape of the computer world changed. And so I’ve had the experience long enough now, and I’ve looked at my life looking back where and I’m in a place that I never imagined I would be.

I’m in a profession I didn’t even know about when I started. And I look at all the ways those threads have woven the people that came into my life and all that happened. And I look back and I go, now it was authoring me. I was just saying yes. There’s a fundamental shift in perspective that I’m not figuring it out as much. Well, if I’ve done anything right in my life, it’s simply to listen to the impulse, the draw and the pull and say, okay, I’m in. Yes. I don’t know where this is taking me. I don’t know if it’ll be viable. I don’t know how it’ll find relevance in the world. But it’s the only thing I am interested in. Or it has captured my imagination. And that’s resulted in a worldwide business.

I didn’t set out with like, Oh, I’m going to go create this. I just followed my nose every step of the way, like a hunter stalking the deer through the woods. And look, where it came. So there’s a fundamental reorientation I think that happens at some point where you go, No, my job is just to listen deeply and say yes. And that comes with various contemplative practices. An energetic and contemplative practice. And so we don’t have to invent that. We already know all that as a species. How do you get still and quiet? Bring more coherence into the whole body, nervous system, energetic field, subtle field so that I can be in-formed.

When we get coherent, stuff comes in. And when we get coherent together, stuff comes in. So there are practices of intuition that open the pathways and we’re starting to teach those. It’s edgy work and we’re starting to say, no, this is actually how reality works. You and I have been in a conversation around quantum physics and what we’re learning from quantum physics. And the thing that quantum physics is completely reorienting us to, everything is an informational field. Everything.

And so what Emerson said is now leading science, that we lie in the lap of an immense field of intelligence and we are the receivers of its truth and the organs of its activity, which is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s authoring us. We are the receivers of its truth, its inside, its breakthroughs and the organs of its activity. And so how do we use the contemplative and energetic practices that’ve been worked out in many traditions and access our higher mental capacity. That’s very doable. I did that once and learned to exercise again when I first started playing with intuition. I teach it now and call it the teacher exercise where you have a conversation with your teacher. And every time we do it, it blows people away, the insights they get. They immediately start writing. It’s a very simple exercise. Well, when I first learned it, I thought, well, we’ll see. I don’t know. We’ll see. So I’ll experiment with it. I went on a trip around the world with my wife before we had kids. And I did that every day and wrote down whatever I got every day for three and a half months. As an experiment to say, Well, I won’t judge it till I get home. And when I get home and later be a bunch of junk or it’ll be whatever it’ll be. And it blew me away. It blew me away. My wife will often now remind me: “You remember when you wrote that down? Well here it is. Just tap. Exactly as you described. So the future was pulling me. That was 1986. Future was pulling me into what is now this manifestation. I was just learning to listen and say yes. And that’s the I think, the orientation that we’re talking about.

Thomas: And it’s beautiful. I mean, I so much agree with everything you said right now you put it as beautiful individual words. It is obviously very necessary that you said before, because I often call it that we can put your foot down before the floor arises so that we can walk and we are aligned with that kind of emergence. So we say be trusted with this word and trust. I think the reverse is more interesting when we’re afraid and we need to control reality. And that’s why the step that you said before, we need to do a certain level of integration work. Otherwise we are too tired and sometimes or too scared to follow that voice. And I think you mentioned that. Because there was something open in you, obviously that was able to listen and say yes. That dimension for many people might be, Oh, how do I even get to that kind of strong insight that I can say yes to? Because once you feel it, something is already open in you.

Maybe you can share a little bit about that because I think many listeners might maybe ask, okay, I would love to follow my inside, but it’s not coming to me.

Bob: Well, one of the things I noticed and when I first started working with Purpose in workshops, I would lead an exercise where they were still out there with the highest aspirations for their life. I call them “must.” What must I be about in this life in order to live the life I came here and not someone else? That was the question that captured me as a young man. What must I be about in order to live the life I came here to live and not someone else’s?

And so that became an exercise in the workshop and one at that when we were debriefing with one group, this guy says, “I got a new problem.” I say what’s that? “The life I was looking at is not the one I’m living.” That life scares the crap out of me.
So I began to realize that we do have glimpses, but we are in such a reactive relationship with fear that we dial it back before we even let ourselves know. Like it’s automatic nahhh dial back. So I say to myself, I don’t know what it is, not realizing that life is giving us information all the time, but it scares us. And so we dial it back too much to make it more practical, more realistic. Well, maybe next year, whatever.

Leadership lives at the edge. That’s the deal. There’s no safe way to be great. There’s no great way to be safe. It’s a polarity that we’re constantly in, and we call it the core tension. Tension is between purpose and safety, and there’s no way out of it. Either move toward the purpose. Or, as David Whyte says in one of his poems, “the body fills with dense smoke.” It’s non-negotiable. And it’s an acquired taste. I loved your notion of like, we have to put our foot down before with a floor below it forms. And because it takes that. At whatever stage, I’m moving into an unknown future. I’m in another evolution in my work, so I’m back in the whole experience again. What is this? How is it going to be relevant? Am I wasting my time? I’m back in it again. And after I get done beating myself up for it. I go, wait a minute. I’ve been here before. Meditation recently and I went, Oh, my job, my job, not saying other’s job. My job is to live at the edge of irrelevance. I live at the edge of irrelevance and then try to distill it back into here’s what’s emerging at the edge of our field. How do we make that now, the next relevant piece of work? It kind of constantly being in the relationship that there’s no floor underneath a step I’m taking. And that is the capacity of being conversant with the unknown. It’s not empty space. It’s a pregnant space. But it’s also full of possibilities. Yeah. Emergent.

Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. That’s very powerful. And also you’re describing in a way how we create out of something that’s not manifest and that needs us to be courageous, to listen to it and in a way channel that through our bodies and our current systems to make it happen. And I love that phrase, like to go to the edge of irrelevance. I think that’s in a way, the risk we need to take in order to be innovative and to be inspired.

I think you see it also in many artists, the artists that constantly stay on the edge of new relevance and bring new insights and new music, and they’re kind of surprising you again and again. What artists that fall into the trap of becoming hooked up by success? And then the music becomes more and more shallow or like repeating itself as it formal of versus literally bringing new inspiration that is new. And yeah and I want to talk with you a little bit because and maybe just before we finish our conversation. Because for me it feels like we’re willing to make a step before the floor appears. It’s like we create something out of nothing.

For many people, speaking is a premeditated process. I tried to say something that is good. I tried to say something that’s accepted or I think many of us know the moments where we say something. You’d be surprised by what we said right now. And it’s actually good. And in those moments I actually can become a quality that we live in more and more. So actually information or life can come through us and author us. And maybe you can speak a little bit to that experience, like your own experience there that maybe also in your work with leaders this moment where that is not premeditated, that is literally a virgin birth. It’s like it’s coming through and it’s not. It’s new.

Bob: That’s what I mean by collective intuition or this dialog, creating the space where something can happen. We’re speaking from the space. Not speaking from our ideas or pre thought out. Now we’re listening to what’s emerging and then speaking from it.
So this has been an emergent practice of mine. I’ve done a lot of that keynoting and when I first got into it, it terrified me. And so I had every single thing thought out on that keynote. I’m talking the second I knew what I was going to be saying at our presentation and it wasn’t memorized or stiff. Actually, once I got into it, that gave me strength, a scaffold and a structure to relax into, and then I could show up.

But more and more my practice is both in, say, coaching or in a conversation with the leader. How do I listen deeply? As you said, new arise in me and I arise in you. And then in that deep connection, something new wants to be said. Something that surprises both of us. And they’ll often have the experience of saying, “Could you say that again? That was really powerful.” And I go, “What did I say?” I can’t recall it because it just came through.

Just last week I made the choice that I was going to do a keynote with no preparation. And I literally walked on stage and I didn’t know what my first line was. I had some things prepared in terms of experientials that I wanted to lead them through the rest of it all, the wrapping around it and how to introduce the work and so on. No, I wanted to drop in and get really present with them and then speak. And it surprised me where it started. I kind of in my mind went, Oh, we’re going to start here. Okay. And it was the first time I’ve really tried in front of 250 people to improv, be spoken through, listen to the field and then speak what’s there.

And I got an email recently. We’ve been working on this with some leaders. I got an email from one senior leader, health care, lots of complexity through COVID and so on. He said, “I’m wrapping up a very important meeting. And I’m talking from my head to close the meeting and I look out and I can see it’s not connecting. And so I just stop. And I got silent. I went silent for a minute and everybody went silent with me. And then I spoke from there. And when I was done speaking, the room was galvanized and the senior health care administrators said this is exactly what we needed to hear and where we should end in this meeting.” That’s the speaking being spoken through or speaking from the intelligence that’s there rather than that’s a practice. But it also presupposes the intuitive work that I described and the learning how and the shadow work to open the field so that the flows of energy and information can actually course through our body, and then we’re in a state of grace. It’s a state of grace that’s authoring us that moment.

Thomas: That’s beautiful. I think that’s a lovely way to end this conversation. I hope we will have some other conversations. I mean, there’s so many other things we could talk about now, but it was beautiful what you said about your own keynote and about being authored in that moment and how that feels also and how that connects people, because we are all interested in freshwater. They don’t want to swim in standing water. You know, we need some fresh water to fill us.

Bob: And when you’re in that space, there’s a whole different resonance. And the resonance is the transmission. And people get it at a much deeper level, at a level where they’re not defended.

Thomas: That’s beautiful. Bob, thank you so much for this. This was a great round. I really enjoyed the arc that we went through. It’s really beautiful. It is a beautiful piece. Thank you very much.

Bob: Thank you. Wonderful to be with you.