Leadership Development in Circling Europe’s SAS Training

Leaders with a higher developmental capacity are proven to perform better in unstable, complex environments with many stakeholders and constant upheavals … This means that how we think—instead of what we know—is the most important leadership trait for the 21st century.

Circling as Adaptive Leadership Training

Developmental Capacity and Transformational Success

Leaders with a higher developmental capacity (also known as action logic) are proven to perform better in unstable, complex environments with many stakeholders and constant upheavals—in short, the way our world is increasingly operating.[1]

Higher development also correlates with higher positions of power and influence in the workplace,[2] and has been shown to be more successful in transforming the world.[3]

What Makes 21st Century Leadership Training Different?

This means that how we think—instead of what we know—is the most important leadership trait for the 21st century. But most of the programs claiming to teach “how to think” are still teaching skills that could be outdated in a few years. All the “hows” in the world will expire, except one: how to transform ourselves.

Learning how to develop your ego—your sense of self, your point of reference—is like learning how to learn, on a whole different scale. The rewards are exponential.

Unfortunately, our current educational systems rarely account for this developmental complexity. And most leadership trainings teach what to do, not how to evolve our sense of self so that we are doing, being, and thinking from higher levels of complexity.[4]

This ability to transform the way we transform is exactly what the SAS Advanced Circling Leadership Course trains. Through continued exposure to uncertainty, discomfort, emotional upheaval, moment-to-moment feedback from large groups of people, novel perspectives, managing multiple stakeholder interests and toggling between myriad sources of input for decision making and group leadership, leaders learn to respond creatively and with agility to even the most unexpected and calamitous surprises.

Circling and Developmental Complexity

The essence of increasing developmental complexity, according to Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, is making subjective experience an object in our awareness. Whereas before we were simply “angry,” (subjective experience), now we are aware of that anger, what it does to us, and what it is like for others to experience it (we see it as an object in a more expansive subjective awareness).

The primary mode of increasing developmental complexity in the SAS Advanced Circling Leadership Course is an intersubjective awareness practice known as “Circling.”[5] Circling consistently takes our in-the-moment, subjective experience and places it in conversation as an object, building this critical self-reflective capacity[6] and increasing interpersonal and emotional intelligence through receiving instant feedback from others.[7]

The Importance of Community

Almost all developmental researchers agree that the larger systems and communities one is a part have a gravitational effect on individuals. If you spend the majority of your time in a particular culture, you are likely to be influenced by it. While this is basically common sense, making a deliberate effort to spend time with people who can push your developmental edges and support your growth is a difficult process—it often involves taking a risk to get more intimate with people we usually admire from a distance, and spending less time with people who reinforce ways of being that are no longer serving us.

For this reason the SAS Advanced Circling Leadership Course emphasizes four- day community intensives spread out over six months, with continual communication over video chat, forums, and personal coaching. The program is designed to leverage the strength of community to integrate new leadership capacities into daily practice.

[1]“With vertical development, leaders perform better across a host of mission-critical domains: • Think strategically • Think systemically • Think contextually • Decision-making • Lead transformational change • Inspire vision • Build relationships • Collaborate • Create innovative solutions • Tolerate ambiguity • Resolve conflicts • Develop themselves and others • Facilitate learning • Reframe challenges • Seek out feedback” From Barrett Brown’s The Future Of Leadership For Conscious Capitalism,, Phyllis. (1997); Bushe, G. R., & Gibbs, B. W. (1990); Eigel, K. M. (1998); Eigel, K. M., & Kuhnert, K. W. (2005); Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2010); Lewis, P., Forsythe, G. B., Sweeney, P., Bartone, P., Bullis, C., & Snook, S. (2005).

[2] “80 percent of upper level management have higher levels of mental development. And, 80 percent of junior managers have junior levels of mental development.“ From The 80/80 Principle by Robert McNamara:

[3] Seven Transformations of Leadership by David Rooke and William R. Torbert, Harvard Business Review 2005.

[4] Some of the most progressive companies in the world are doing just that, and are becoming incredibly successful because of it. See Making Business Personal by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, and Matthew Miller, Harvard Business Review, April 2014. An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, and Matthew Miller, Harvard Business Review Press; ((March 22, 2016). And Laloux, Frederic, Reinventing Organizations. Nelson Parker; 1 edition (February 20, 2014).

[5] Like meditation, or like a good meal, Circling is something one must experience to fully understand. Some people call it “intersubjective meditation,” others “unique self communication.” Regardless of what one calls it, one of the fundamental principles is to be with whatever is present in the moment. Ironically, through the subject-object dialectic, this welcoming space actually allows for rapid development. It also highlights the vast array of complexities, polarities, and contradictions we hold within ourselves and within a group, in any given moment. This builds our ability to see and manage complexity and contradiction outside of ourselves as well.

[6] This in-the-moment inquiry about how one thinks is also known by Bill Torbert, former Director of the Organizational Transformation Doctoral Program at Boston College, as Triple-Loop-Awareness or Action Inquiry. See Torbert, Bill,Toward Triple Loop Awareness,,%202005.pdf

[7] Emotional Intelligence is considered as important in leadership success as IQ. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books, 2005.