Reimagining Sustainability Leadership: Integral Action Research in a Non-Profit Organization

Reimagining Sustainability Leadership: Integral Action Research in a Non-Profit Organization

Justin Robinson (Royal Roads University, Canada)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5873-6.ch016
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This research explored how the stakeholders of Integral Without Borders (IWB)—an international think tank and NGO focused on applying integral metatheory to sustainable development—might reimagine sustainability leadership to increase their collective capacity for wise and transforming action in the world. Applying an integral action research methodology in the context of an action research engagement model, eight individual interviews, two focus groups, and an open space lab were conducted with participation from an international cohort of IWB's stakeholders. The study identified fertile territories from which the possibility space for sustainability leadership might be expanded, specifically “four Rs” of integral transformation praxis: (1) revive, (2) reidentify, (3) recode, and (4) reconfigure. Recommendations relevant to IWB's specific leadership goals and development as an organization were also proposed.
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This study focused on implicit and explicit dimensions of Integral Without Borders’ sustainability leadership. Integral Without Borders (IWB) is a non-profit society1 incorporated in British Columbia (BC), Canada that operates like an informally structured community of development practitioners and social change activists working in a number of countries around the globe (IWB, What we do, n.d.). IWB fosters impact by “supporting practitioners and organizations to bring greater clarity, depth, and rigor to their global development efforts” (IWB, Vision and purpose, n.d.). The board is committed to helping agents of social and environmental change generate deep transformation, by providing “support for the advance of an integral approach” within their initiatives (IWB, Vision and purpose, n.d.).

At the nucleus of this global community is the IWB board consisting of eight people: one currently based in Vancouver, one in Latin America, one in the California, two in the United Kingdom (UK), two in Norway, and Ken Wilber, the originator of Integral Metatheory (IM), in Boulder, Colorado. Wilber is less involved operationally and acts more as a special advisor to the board. Periodically, additional field-based volunteers participate in specific projects and engagements from other locations.

Unlike many international development organizations, IWB does not focus on a single issue or methodological approach to change. Instead, it seeks to positively impact a broad range of issues and approaches through the application of IM: a framework that bears significant potential as a source of robust solutions to the multidimensional, interlocking, complex dilemmas currently faced by the human species (Hedlund, Esbjörn-Hargens, Hartwig and Bhaskar, 2016; Stein, 2105, 2016, in review; Edwards, 2010). In practice, IM has been used in numerous contexts to expand the possibilities for positive change. For example, IM has been applied in the areas of climate adaptation and mitigation (Esbjörn-Hargens, 2010; O’Brien & Hochachka, 2010), international development (Hochachka, 2008), psychotherapy (Witt, 2014), addiction (du Plessis, 2013), organizational development (Laloux, 2014), education (Stein, 2009, 2013), and other fields. One of IWB’s principal interests is how an approach informed by IM might produce or enable transformations at the level of planetary systems and culture, leading to a more just and sustainable future for humanity.

In the months leading up to and during the study, IWB was in transition. Four new directors joined the board, two stepped down, and the long-standing Executive Director moved out of her role (although she continues to serve on the board of the organization). As these shifts took effect internally with IWB, unprecedented worldwide geopolitical, cultural, and technological changes also surfaced the possibility—or perhaps more appropriately, the necessity—of rethinking how IWB can best contribute to planetary transformation. Specifically, IWB’s intent participating in this integral action research project was to harness these internal and external shifts to build energy and capacity for bringing-into-being the highest possibilities for “what sustainability leadership actually is or could be in today’s moment” (G. Hochachka, personal communication, March 1st, 2017).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Action Research: Action research is a general term that refers to research developed with and/or by the people being studied and involves both taking and reflecting on actions to solve problems or create desired change.

Integral Metatheory (IM): IM proposes organizing principles concerning theories about reality, and offers a framework for understanding how particular theories disclose and account for phenomena in the ways that they do, on what terms they should be evaluated, and how they relate to each other.

Integral Action Research: In this study, the phrase integral action research is used to represent a form of action research that (1) is broadly informed by integral metatheory, (2) emphasizes the integration of first-, second-, and third-person perspectives, (3) takes an enactive stance on reality in which the observer and the observed are understood to be part of the same process, and (4) adopts an emancipatory predisposition.

Transformation: A term used in this study to indicate deep or revolutionary change, particularly involving structures in the lower left (cultural) and lower right (systems) quadrants.

Integral Without Borders (IWB): IWB is an international think tank and NGO focused on applying integral metatheory to international development. IWB is incorporated in British Columbia (BC), Canada as a non-profit society, and operates as an informally structured community of development practitioners and social change activists working in a number of countries around the globe.

Sustainability Leadership: Sustainability leadership has been problematic and challenging to define, but for the purposes of this study was taken to entail the realization of adequate responses to the metacrisis.

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