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How to Grow Wise Organizations

Your organization is not prepared. You may have the right structure, business model and  revenue streams for today, but your organization is not ready for what’s next.  It is not for lack of trying.  But organizations in the future are not going to get points for the good intentions that blossomed right before their failure.

In fact, no organization is set up for what is coming because we have no idea what is ahead.  With the speed of change and technological revolution upon us, our models of work itself—appropriate for the world we have lived in until now—are wearing threadbare. In this third revolution in human experience, we will need to invent new ways of working together.

This is a daunting discovery that calls for wholesale adaptation, not just the shifting of an organization chart. In most organizations, we are using the wrong tools to try and face into these dramatic changes.  As AI augments what is possible alongside humans, there is a great opportunity to leverage what is possible inside humans: our own development and growth. We can accelerate our maturation and find wisdom. The wiser we become, so too will our organizations.

Growing wise humans isn’t generally an outcome organizations think much about. Instead, we build products or services and try to make a living. That will need to change. Wisdom takes experience and reflection, yet with the rapid pace of technology ahead of us, we are in a time where accelerated maturation to advanced levels of human consciousness is a requirement. The need to make a living and also grow wise humans means a shift to the a focus on how to more quickly evolve ourselves and our organizations.  Every organization will grapple with its ability to accelerate human capabilities. The ones that grapple with the most success will succeed while others simply fall out of the race.

What is getting in the way?

Just wanting to make that shift isn’t enough. We know that about  60% of organizational changes fail, according to recent research by Nick that looked at 1,200 changes in 11 organizations. It turns out we tend to focus too much on the business results we want and not enough on the human forces that create those results.

When senior leaders are asked what the goals of the organizational change are, they’ll often say things like: be No 1 in our industry, grow by 10% and increase profits by X%. They usually also have a smart strategy for how to achieve these outcomes.  These are the goals we tend to look at as we try to make our businesses ready for what comes next.

But the real lever to organizational change isn’t in shifting outcomes, it’s in understanding what creates outcomes. Uniformly, that’s people. The sort of leadership behaviors needed to implement relevant business strategies are agility, risk taking, entrepreneurial aptitude and collaboration. Yet, this is not how leaders are acting today. Most leaders are siloed, tactical, in the weeds, and domain experts.

The emerging question to be addressed is “How do we shift these behaviors?” The answer lies in leaders who are thoughtfully evolving from what used to make them successful (e.g. deep expertise) to what will make them successful in the future (wise and evolving leadership). As Bruce Avolio noted in his recent book Organizational Transformation, the first principle of shifting an organization is the need for a leader’s self-concept to change. And it doesn’t need to just change once. It needs to change again and again. It needs to become a self-transforming engine toward wisdom.

A way forward

One high hurdle to this change is that we don’t have much of an orientation towards our own developing wisdom. It’s as if we know there’s some kind of pathway towards being wiser and towards having wiser organizations, but we don’t have the map.

But psychologists are finding that there is a map. It shows us that our time on the planet doesn’t just change our physical shape; it also changes our emotional and mental shape—what we think of as our “forms of mind.” Just as a baby becomes more able to handle the complexities of her life when she learns to walk and talk, and a young child becomes more able to handle the complexities of his life when he learns to read, so to do our new ways of being in the world shape our ability to handle the complexities in our life. Unlike our early changes, though, our adult changes don’t tend to show up with new skills or a new physical growth spurt. Generally, you can see them most easily when you get really interested not just in what someone knows but in how she makes sense of what she knows.

For example, early in our adult lives many of us rely on outside perspectives to tell us how we are doing—what is right and wrong, what is successful, what is valuable. This outside perspective can come from a set of relationships (with your family, with your friends, with your colleagues at work or in a religious institution) or from a set of principles or expertise (from your training or from your professional experience). In each case, the truth about us tends to come from our social surround, which is why we call this the socialized form of mind.

There are some people who live in the socialized form of mind for their whole lives. Others, though, when faced with the confusing complexity of different opinions and pressures and professions, come to understand the limits of looking outward. Over years or even decades of development, those people add a kind of Chief Deciding Voice to the crowd—their own voice.

We call this the self-authored form of mind because now we do not want to be written by our circumstances; we figure out how to pick up the pen to write our own story. We no longer turn outside us to gain direction about what’s right and wrong, good and bad, but bring that compass inside as we cobble together our own set of values and beliefs by which to make our own decisions. This doesn’t mean that we no longer care about the opinions of others or of our societies or our professions, but when those opinions clash, it is not a crisis of self for us; it is a tricky set of decisions to make, but we have the self-authored form of mind to write those decisions for ourselves.

Some people find that the complexity of the world is still too great for this self-authored mind to handle. They see that they are not the pure writers of their lives, as if their lives took place on a blank page. Instead, they see themselves as both the writer and the written. They have some control over their lives, but they do not have total control; they are jazz musicians riffing along with others rather than believing life can be rehearsed and perfected.

We call this co-constructed and emergent form of mind the self-transforming form of mind because people with this form of mind are always searching for the next thing that might challenge a deeply held belief system. They spend less time creating and defending a particular version of themselves and more time letting life transform them. It is this mindset that early research points to as most helpful for leaders who face great complexity or who are transforming organizations.

If we focused our organizational change energy on both people and strategy, and we knew that our job was to accelerate the growth towards the wisdom that lies in the farther reaches of the adult development map, we could create organizational and leadership shifts that wouldn’t just make us better today, but that would help us be better long into the future.

And this is where leaders and leadership come in. As the linchpin, they can create the conditions for individuals—and thus the organization—to evolve faster. No competency model or list of skills will create this type of transmutation. It is up to leaders to access their own identity, values and assumptions, about themselves and about how the world works, to have a look at their own developmental map and to keep supporting the development of those around them. We can’t predict that future and we can’t prepare for it except to grow our most important resource: our wisdom and humanity.

About the Authors

Jennifer Garvey Berger, the CEO of Cultivating Leadership, helps leaders to thrive in complexity. Her books are Simple Habits for Complex Times (with Keith Johnston), Changing on the Job, and the forthcoming Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps. You can find her at or

Ciela Hartanov is the Head of Research for Google’s leadership development group and directs projects to ensure leaders are future ready. She shares her thinking at conferences across the globe and through occasional posts at  You can reach her at

Nick Petrie is Faculty at Center for Creative Leadership and co-founder of the Vertical Leadership Incubator. His specialty areas are: CEO led leadership development, Resilience under pressure and Lean leadership development (for busy managers). He is the author of the book Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success. You can find him at or


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