Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Weakness and Failure as Opportunity

Written by: on December 2, 2021

For a while now I’ve been saying to myself, “I am tired of working for an organization that keeps making the same mistakes and seems unwilling to learn from them. I would like to start an organization where I can put to good use what I have learned from mistakes/failures and then make new mistakes/failures and keep learning.” What a relief and joy to read Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s, “An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization.” These two adult-developmental researchers and practitioners have been collaborating for over thirty years on better understanding how adults grow, change, and develop in their psychological/thinking and meaning-making capacities. “An Everyone Culture” captures their vision and hope for twenty-first century organizations to become deliberately developmental in their culture and practice. They use the acronym DDO to reference a Deliberately Developmental Organization. They want to help businesses and other entities live into Kegan and Lahey’s research-supported belief that human potential and organizational potential are part of the same unified vision and mission. They raise the question, why perpetuate the business model where people waste half their time trying to hide their flaws and mistakes? Instead, they urge leaders to develop organizations that empower people to keep on maturing and growing, thus harnessing all that growth potential for the benefit of the company. They also note the reality of “new incomes,”[1] where people now value meaningfulness, personal satisfaction, and happiness at work, in addition to the more conventional understandings of income.

This book falls under the Social Sciences classification of Organizational Change, Development, and Learning. Their introduction lays out the books purpose and structure in a clear format, along with offering the reader a guide for how best to make use of the book’s content. Organized into seven chapters, the authors use the first three chapters to give the reader a novel taste of a DDO and to lay out their theoretical and research base for making the claim that organizations can indeed be deliberately developmental in their culture and practice. From there they offer a guided tour through the practices of three example companies who are living out the vision of being a DDO. In chapter five they seek to address the “yes, but….” resistance to this business approach. An especially helpful chapter for those of us not yet in a DDO, but wanting to move this direction, the sixth chapter offers a very practical exercise to help the reader discover a growth area/blind spot and begin developing a plan to address it. Chapter seven concludes the book with ideas on how to get started on moving one’s organization in a developmental direction. In the epilogue the authors revisit some of the themes introduced in the book’s opening and end with a call to join them and others on this journey of discovery.

There are three concepts that most grabbed my attention. The first is the authors’ nuanced understanding of happiness. They say: “Unlike happiness as a state brought on by experiencing only the so-called positive emotions, happiness as a process of development includes the experience of loss, pain, and suffering (rather than standing in contrast to it).”[2] This grounding gives their approach some reality-based substance and paves the way for leaders and organizations to develop a culture where it becomes possible for staff at all levels to engage their places of growth with a sense of hope. Failure is not a deadend; instead, it becomes the doorway to a deeper maturity and greater wisdom. Their perspective resonates with the second-half of life journey described by Richard Rohr in his book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”[3]

The second is their adult development sequence that puts to rest the old research that concluded adults do not develop much in their cognitive capacities past the age of 20. What has been learned through continuing research on the brain is that yes, indeed, adults do continue to cognitively develop over the decades, and have the potential of developing greater and greater mental complexity. This is good news for all of us over the age of 20! Three key mental “plateaus” can be part of our journey: the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind.[4] If an adult so desires, they can choose to continue developing their mental complexity capacity.

The third point they raise is the key role played by trust and reciprocal transparency in fostering a healthy DDO culture. Without trust, any of the practices they review can become merely superficial ‘going through the motions’ exercises, and at worst can create a truly toxic and abusive environment. Wise and mature leadership is needed for a DDO to develop in a healthy manner.

The reading of this book comes at a good time for me. I’ve been asking the questions about what type of organizational culture I want to cultivate. Kegan and Lahey have given me a lot of tangible material to ponder and engage. Their work brings me back around to Augustine, Friedman, Walker, Poole, and Campbell’s writings once again, so I’m looking forward to further unpacking this in my syntopical essay.

[1] Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Laskow Lahey. 2016. An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press, 8.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Rohr, Richard. 2011. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Kegan and Lahey, 62ff.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

9 responses to “Weakness and Failure as Opportunity”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, wonderful interactions with this book! I appreciate all three of your concepts you took from the material. I especially resonate with the issue of trust as a linchpin for health and growth. It made me think of Simon Walker and his explanations of power and trust within the life of a leader. At the beginning of your post, you reference an organization that makes the same mistakes over and over and does not learn. In light of that, what ways can ministries cultivate openness to hear the sometimes hard truths about what needs to change? It seems especially challenging in ministry contexts for people to “speak the truth in love.”

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy. Thank you for your thoughtful question (what ways can ministries cultivate openness to hear the sometimes hard truths about what needs to change). This is a journey my current organization is undertaking. It has taken new leadership with heart courage to prioritize hearing the voices of those who have been previously marginalized/devalued/unvalued while at the same time communicating and demonstrating that those who have previously held places of privilege are still valued members of the community and organization. This has not been and is not an easy journey. Our new executive has been willing to do the hard work of closing the gap between our long held rhetoric/confessions/policies and our organization’s actual practices. It isn’t a perfect process by any stretch, but it is a good beginning. Our new executive has made sure to include multiple ways for staff to give feedback (both anonymously and with names attached). She has made sure that the leadership team is responsive to this feedback by acknowledging it, reaffirming that we are on a longer journey of generational change/transformation, urging patience and kindness towards one another, giving weekly updates on the journey and other organizational matters, and regularly clarifying that while all feedback is reviewed, not all feedback will be utilized because we are being guided by collectively discerned values for our future (so some things will need to be let go while new things are taken up). I have been helped by her regular communication and her non-anxious presence and her regular request for feedback from all staff. This is a new way for our organization to move through change and it is a work in progress…but shows some signs of having learned from some pretty traumatic past processes. I’m grateful for that.

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie: What a thoughtful reflection with this work. I can resonate with the frustrations when working for an organization that doesn’t learn or change over time. I’ve had a few experiences where I say “it/we could be so much better” but without leadership change, there’s little hope in organizational change. Do you feel in your current context and sphere of influence that you have room to cultivate a different culture or will you be limited by the confines of the organizational challenges?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for your thoughtful question. Right now in my organization, I don’t hold the kind of role that can actively cultivate a new organizational culture. I feel my part is to do the best I can to support our new executive director in her commitments to bring about a generational transformation in our organizational culture. I’m aware that my own trust has been violated by other top-level leadership over the years, so I’m working on that wounding and making a commitment to not get in the way of the new because of the hurt I experienced in the past. I’m not sure yet whether or not there will be a place for me in the new that will be emerging over the coming 3 years, so I’m continuing in my discernment about that. But until next steps are clear (to leave or stay), I want to do everything I can to support the change process and not be a barrier to the new thing the Spirit may be doing in our midst. So, I suppose, in a more distanced way, that is my contribution to the change journey :).

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: Great essay. My favorite part was your comment about the author’s view of happiness. It isn’t a simple equation as one might think. Richard Rohr’s book that you mention I have read as well and it is an incredibly helpful book. When discussing about the human spirit, it is never an elementary discussion and this book does a great job of talking about this, especially as it relates o our professional ambitions and how we work them out in the workplace.

  4. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, I couldn’t help but chuckle that we sort of started in a similar place….definition of insanity 🙂
    I too was struck by the 3 plateaus. What correlations do you see between those and the levels of critical thinking in the Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking?
    As you discern from your experience, what are productive ways to garner trust and do you find connections in those ways to Friedman’s call for self-differentiation?

  5. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Elmarie, I appreciate your engagement with the book. I’m curious how you can maintain your calm, gracious attitude in the midst of the struggle of navigating the contrasting approaches? I don’t think I’m doing a very a good job. I’m also wondering what specific values, concepts, etc. that you are hoping to implement from the authors you listed?

  6. mm Eric Basye says:

    Excellent post! I also would agree that there are a not of connections to the other books we have read. I personally found this to be a great book as I consider the culture of the organization I lead.

    As to the point about people continuing to learn, I have some great examples of “learners” on my staff. It is really enjoyable to work with them as I, in turn, am constantly learning alongside them.

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