Co-intelligent leadership enables wise power-with (and we celebrate our Friends of the CII Circle)

Leadership is way, way more than individual leaders. Understanding the dynamics and possibilities present in this larger vision of leadership is an invaluable resource for navigating the complex terrain of the transitional times we are being swept into. In our own work we are buoyed by the leadership of both individual supporters and the larger supportive community with whom we share transformational value and values.


“I applaud your commitment to the concept of co-intelligence and the importance of accessing the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole.”

– Grant D. Abert, a member of our Friends of the Co-Intelligence Circle
(find out more about this remarkable group at the end of this message…)


Co-intelligent leadership is that which enables wise “power-with”

It is natural for us to struggle with the contradictions of leadership in these evolutionary times, fraught as leadership is
* with the subtle and not-so-subtle baggage carried over from centuries of dominator culture,
* with our renewed recognition of the interconnectedness of all life, and
* with the intrinsic uncertainty of our transition through and into a radically unknown future.

Yet I think it is important to add another twist to our evolutionary leadership struggle: Consider leadership not only as a quality or activity of individual human beings – those people we call “leaders” – but rather as a function or property of a system that can show up in many forms, including (but definitely not limited to) certain “leaders” in the system.

Here are just a few of the ways leadership can manifest other than “leaders”: Collective culture and stories lead us to think, feel, and behave in certain ways, as do protocols and processes. A purpose or higher power can shape our lives dramatically and direct us in very powerful ways. Everything from relationships to stories to weather and roads shape how we live our lives. And all these things have histories that have influenced them and that hover about them even as they influence us.

Digging deeper, we find thousands of people and circumstances – some famous, some unrecognized – that have participated in shaping those histories. All of it – all of reality – is interconnected. And it all can be viewed as a complex web or flow of leadership-as-a-function unfolding, with each and all of us inevitable participating in that leadership, whether we know it or not. Even our passive spectatorism and obliviousness perform the leadership role, just as when only the most partisan people show up at a public hearing. Where is everyone else? If we end up with a demagogue as our “leader”, who co-created THAT reality?

And so we find we are already embedded in power-with – our collective co-created power – not only because our collective actions shape events, but also because our individual and collective collaboration with various “leaders” enables them to have power-over our collective affairs. Leaders require followers, a potent understanding of power-with that Gandhi used to transform India. We can generate power-with among ourselves rather than with the powers that oppress us.

In this light we can see leadership – whatever its source – as a force that shapes life. What do we need to know to wisely shape this life-shaping force?

According to complexity theory, a primary tendency – and challenge – of life is to gravitate to the boundary between order and chaos. Any entity that manifests too much chaos dies by dissolving into its environment, unable to hold its form. Any entity that manifests too much order dies through its inability to adapt to environmental changes. So organisms and systems that survive (and pass on their DNA-leadership) tend to have strategies that engage, integrate, or dance with both the forces of order and the forces of chaos.

Chaos contains the energies of creativity and destruction, vital for adaptive change. Order contains the energies of persistence, vital for sustainability and avoiding wastefully “reinventing the wheel”. How do we get the best of both these fundamental forces?

Intelligence – especially in the form of wisdom and presence, its more embracive manifestations – enables conscious responsiveness to circumstances, calling forth various forms of constraining order and liberating chaos appropriate to fit what’s actually going on, moment to moment. Our intelligence in these times – rebelling against established patriarchal orders – has directed us to engage in creative inclusivity, only to find ourselves often swinging too far into chaos. In the face of that, intelligence directs us to create more order, and the order we know best is the order modeled by our past. But we protest how it constrains inclusivity and alive, creative responsiveness to the moment. We seem caught in an unsolvable dilemma.

But what if we sought a different source of order? What if we could more wisely integrate the forces of order and chaos, becoming master practitoners of “chaordic” power and wise intelligence? What if we shifted our attention from leadership, per se, to the collective intelligence and collective wisdom that groups and systems need to direct themselves? What would happen if we saw the primary role of individual leaders not as making decisions FOR the group (as opposed to “letting the group make the decisions”), but rather as creating the conditions under which the group (or system) can and will make wiser decisions than (a) when it is “left” to its own devices or (b) when it is directed by a (hopefully intelligent and wise) leader?

Diverse fields of study and practice offer pieces of this puzzle of collective wisdom. We find insights and tools in group process, group dynamics, organizational development, deliberative democracy, collective consciousness, psychology, neurology, information theory, complexity science, indigenous cultures, game theory, systems science, evolutionary science, and more. Few people involved in those fields see their work as potentially important for increasing the collective wisdom of groups, communities, and societies. But that potential exists nevertheless. Developments ranging from Dynamic Facilitation, Open Space, the World Cafe, Future Search, and Theory U… to permaculture, collaborative software, multiple intelligences, feedback analysis, and storyfields – to name just a few highlights at the tip of the iceberg – offer practical applications of this understanding as they evolve towards reshaping each other into novel, increasingly potent practices. We could wake up to the value of speeding and enhancing this evolutionary process – and actually do it.

I would like to suggest that the most appropriate vision for leadership in these transitional times – and possibly longterm as we realize that all times are transitional – is catalyzing and/or establishing conditions whereby the led groups and systems are increasingly able to consciously and wisely lead themselves. This vision of creating wise self-organization and self-governance does not mean that groups and societies should be leaderless. It suggests instead that they should be LEADERFUL – and that that fullness of leadership should come from all the people in the system (in all their rich and currently problematic diversity), from the stories and processes they use to lead themselves (including how to use all that rich diversity creatively), and from every other possible source they can muster to generate and follow the collective wisdom they need. (For a compelling critique of “leaderless” meme in the Occupy movement and elsewhere, check out “REVEALED: The inside story on what really caused the Occupy Wall Street movement to collapse”.)

From my vantage point it seems we are at the “Kitty Hawk” stage of developing our capacity for functional collective wisdom. Mataphorically, we now know how to get our self-powered airplane hundreds of feet down the beach. Although we are far short of the kind of (leaderful) international jet travel we need, the developmental direction is clear. We just need to unhook our thinking from “leadership as leaders” the way the Wright brothers unhooked their thinking from “flight as birds” – and evolve from group management and inspiration to collective wisdom. In this effort we may find the breakthroughs come from the lowly people who repair the metaphoric bicycles of our collective journey.

– – – –

In closing this year I want to take a few moments to acknowledge 25 special individuals – the Friends of the Co-Intelligence Institute Circle – those who have been particularly supportive of our work during 2015, each donating between $200 and $10,000 this year. I imagine reading their names out, loud and clear, and giving each one a cheer and a toast as I go…

Mike Abate
Grant Abert
Dick Atlee
Rachel Bagby
Manju Bazzell
Naomi Bunis
Michael Dowd
Peggy Holman
Bruce McConnell & Margaret Anderson
Richard Moore
Diana Morley
Bruce Nayowith & Rosa Zubizarreta
Kevin Reidy
Tyrone Reitman
John Steiner & Margo King
Lynne Swift
Heather Tischbein
Bill Veltrop
Elizabeth York
as well as three generous donors who have chosen to remain anonymous
(but they are certainly visible to us!!).

One of these special Friends of CII – long-time colleague and dear friend Peggy Holman – shares why she chooses to support the Co-Intelligence Institute:

Wholeness, co-intelligence, wise democracy…these powerful concepts have informed my work with organizations, communities, and journalism. Tom Atlee’s generosity in sharing ideas and making patterns visible has added depth and breath to many a project for me and for many others. His partnership in exploring what evolution can teach us about changing social systems opened a door to new thinking and contributed to my own theoretical and practical work, notably Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity. The Co-Intelligence Institute fills a critical niche on the verge of an ecosystem of thought by envisioning a future that accesses the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole. We’re all better off because it exists.

In addition to authoring the remarkable “Engaging Emergence”, Peggy is the lead co-author of one of the first encyclopedias of powerful group processes, “The Change Handbook” which, in its most recent edition, contained descriptions of 61 of today’s best methods for engaging whole systems.

We are tremendously grateful to the growing number of folks in our Friends of the Co-Intelligence Circle and also to the dozens of other donors who have chosen to support us during 2015 and for the two decades before that. Hundreds of other donors have given $5-150 – or even $5-15 per month – and we clearly could not do what we do without them all and without the feeling of support we get every appreciative message we get, even when the writer cannot afford to donate. We are embraced by this community.

We welcome your continued support – in all its forms – as we venture into new levels of our work, engaging hundreds of people in groundbreaking courses and mutual support for their own work helping create a wiser civilization that works for all.

Blessings on the Journey!


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December 2015 Co-Intelligence Institute Fundraising Campaign note: So far 41 people have supported us with $22,165. Join them in supporting our work. Our target is $25,000. Please donate now. It will make a big difference and your donation is fully tax-deductible in the U.S.

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