Governance Holarchy

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Article: Seeing Integral Leadership through Three Important Lenses: Developmental, Ecological and Governance ~ Mark Edwards. Integral Leadership Review. Volume IX, No. 1 - January 2009



Excerpt from an article by Marc Edwards for the Integral Leadership Review.

Go to the original article for the full text and the figures and tables.

The interesting part of the text is that it introduce a 3-fold typology of holarchic leadership which introduces a third form, called ‘governance holarchy’ which seems the most applicable to peer governance contexts.

Marc Edwards reviews the pathologies of all three forms, including extreme bottom-up dislocation as a sign of failed governance leadership. See below in section 2 for the relevant quotation.

Typology: Three Forms of Holarchical Leadership

Marc Edwards:

1. Leadership typology

“A hierarchy is a multilevel system where the constituents of each level are seen as parts of the entire system as well as wholes to its constituent parts. Heterarchy is the relationship between the constituents at any one level. Holarchy is a combination of both hierarchy and heterarchy (see figure 1). That one level, or holon, can be seen as included within another level, or holon, is an example of hierarchy. The relationship between any two elements within the same level is an example of heterarchy.

We can study the multilevel phenomena of leadership through various lenses. These lenses will uncover their own particular insights and be capable of exploring leadership in their own idiosyncratic ways. They will also be subject to their own types of reductionism and distortion and so give rise to particular varieties of social pathology. As Anthony Giddens (1984) has argued that social worldviews not only interpret and filter objective social realities, but they also create, reproduce and shape social realities. The lenses that I will describe in the following sections can be useful for exploring leadership issues as well as the social conditions that produce them.

Holarchies and their constituent holons are non-reductive ways of viewing reality. We use the holon construct when we want to represent something simultaneously as a part and as a whole. Series of holons form multilevel holarchies (Koestler, 1967). Various forms of the holon/holarchy construct have always been evident in the literature on holons. Arthur Koestler (1967) emphasises the ecological form in his endeavour to represent biological, organisational and social levels in a hierarchy of spatial and functional relationships. Ken Wilber (2001), on the other hand, shows how holons can be used to represent the genealogical and developmental relationships between stages of human and sociocultural development. These are very different types of relationships and Wilber, in particular, has extensively discussed this to ensure that they are not confused (Wilber, 2000; Wilber and Zimmerman, 2005). Wilber argues that theorists who do not clearly distinguish between developmental inclusion and spatial inclusion, produce confused holarchies and that the relationships between holons and holonic levels in those holarchies are invalid. This is called the “mixing problem” (Wilber & Zimmerman, 2005). The literature on organisational evolutional dynamics refers to these two different forms of multilevel relationships as genealogical and ecological hierarchies (Baum and Singh, 1994). Genealogical holarchies are based on time and developmental inclusion whereas ecological holarchies are based on spatial relationships and environmental inclusion.

The developmental or genealogical form of holarchy (Wilber) is seen in the leadership theories that focus on the stage-based development of leaders. This is perhaps the most common use of the notion of holarchy in leadership studies and is best represented in the leadership development model of Bill Torbert (2004). The ecological form of holarchy (Koestler) is seen in leadership theories that focus on organisational levels, that is, on the micro, meso and macro levels of organising and on leadership as it is situated within those different environments, for example within teams, organisations, inter-organisational, and broader sociocultural environments. Ecological theories of leadership use the language of executive, middle-level and operational management.

In addition to these two, a third form of leadership holarchy is proposed here—the holarchy. This lens is concerned with the relative organising power or decision-making capacity that exists between different individuals, levels and groups within an organisation. The governance holarchy is not built on the criteria of developmental or ecological relationships but on the governance-related relationships of organising and decision-making power. Governance theories of leadership emphasise the place of formal roles, of power and control and management capacities.

Figure 2 depicts the three forms of holarchical lenses and their internal relationships: i) the developmental or stage-based holarchy describes the growth of leadership stages, ii) the governance holarchy is seen in an organisation’s capacity for autopoiesis, self-regulation, management and decision-making; and iii) the ecological holarchy maps the environmentally nested quality of situated leadership. All three are holarchical forms of explanatory lenses because each is built upon the basic pattern of a part/whole serial relationship. They are all different forms of holarchies because they base their definition of part/whole relation on different boundary-drawing criteria.

Each of these three forms of holarchy is present in the leadership literature (Day and Harrison, 2007). The developmental lens is seen in theories that explain leadership and transformation as a function of the stage-based development of certain organisational entities such as individuals, teams, organisations or organisational environments. The ecological lens is most evident in systems and complexity theories that see leadership as a result of relationships between various organisational positions or situational groupings. The governance lens is predominantly utilised by leadership theories that advocate top-down, bottom-up or reciprocal approaches. Table 1 describes these three forms of understanding leadership in multilevel contexts.

It is important that these three different ways of conceptualising multilevel leadership be distinguished from one another for several reasons. First, the untangling of these explanatory lenses enables the contributions of each to be recognized and more usefully appreciated in the practical exploration of leadership issues. Second, the criticism of hierarchical approaches to leadership has tended to ignore, or at least be unaware of, the different representations of hierarchy. Consequently, different ways of considering the multilevel nature of leadership have been tarred with the same brush. For example, feminist critiques of top-down leadership often do not consider ecological or developmental holarchies in their criticisms. And so there is a tendency to be critical of all hierarchy and to favour heterarchical forms of organising irrespective of the forms of holarchy involved. Finally, describing these three multilevel approaches with greater clarity can help to differentiate between different understandings of leadership and how it can be scientifically examined in terms of its developmental, ecological and governance dimensions.” (

Governance Holarchy explained

Peer governance as balancing leader/follower capabilities in each individual:

“The governance lens is sensitive to the multilevel nature of power and decision-making throughout the organisation (Hofstede, 1991). From this perspective all individuals can be regarded as leader-followers (Reicher, Haslam and Hopkins, 2005), as servant-leaders (Fry, Vitucci and Cedillo, 2005) and relational leaders (Uhl-Bien, 2006). In this approach the holarchy of leadership becomes the territory for discussing the issue of power in organisational context. For example, it is in using this lens that some postmodern approaches to management and leadership uncover assumptions about coercive power, the top-down institutionalisation of embedded privilege the experience of powerlessness and of being trapped within “the blender” of organisational change (Badham and Garrety, 2003).

A more balanced appropriation of the governance lens sees leadership and followership as co-creative partners in the production of systems of organisational management and regulation. A more astute use of this lens will uncover the multilevel nature of leadership and followership throughout all layers of organisational activity. For example, followership has been neglected as an essential quality of leaders at the executive level of management. The qualities of good followership, for example, of being able to listen, to provide and seek feedback, of loyalty and of signalling errors and anomalies have been undervalued at senior levels of executive leadership.” (


The pathology of peer governance: failed coordination?

Marc Edwards:

“it must be stressed that in its healthy form this relationship is not one of dominance or exclusion. Where governance becomes simply a matter of top-down control there is a pathological distortion in the communication and leadership process. Bottom-up causation and emergent capacities become thwarted by distorted hierarchical control and management. This type of governance pathology often results in the type of non-adaptive conservatism that ignores the signals of change and opts instead for embedding upper-level privilege and status. In this instance, the allure of translational increase is substituted for the vision of transformational growth.

Another, and perhaps less common, type of pathology can occur when bottom-up or emergent forms of governance overreach their co-ordinating roles and distort the information-gathering and evaluation process. In this case lower levels drive the agency of higher levels without sufficient co-ordinating capacities. It is common in such instances for revolutionary change to occur without the vital step of integrative renewal being followed. When bottom-up processes drive whole-of-system behaviour, there is a danger of fragmentation and anarchy at the local level and the breakdown of whole-of-system of communication and decision-making. For example, the attempt of a number of organisations to introduce semiautonomous work groups and self-managed work teams was often not successful. Many of them failed because they lead to fragmentation and no clear direction. In its moderate form this bottom-up type of leadership pathology can be seen when various levels of leadership, whether that be among operational staff, lower or middle-level management, or senior executives, stymie or ignore the regulatory coordination that flows from the upper levels of the holarchy. Some universities, which are based on collegial forms of governance, display this kind of pathology. Departments and their academic heads have a lot of power and the central university administration tries, but is unable, to bring a central direction to the university.” (



  • Fallis, K. and Altimier, L. (2006). “Shared Leadership: Leading from the Bottom Up,” Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews, 6, 1, 3-6.
  • Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed Leadership as a Unit of Analysis. The Leadership Quarterly, 13, 4, 423-451.
  • Reicher, S., Haslam, S. and Hopkins, N. (2005). “Social Identity and the Dynamics of Leadership: Leaders and Followers as Collaborative Agents in the Transformation of Social Reality. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 4, 547-568.
  • Uhl-Bien, M. (2006). “Relational Leadership Theory: Exploring the Social Processes of Leadership and Organizing,” The Leadership Quarterly, 17, 6, 654-676.

Author Bio

Mark Edwards has a PhD and M.Psych in Developmental Psychology from the University of Western Australia. He has worked with people with disabilities for almost twenty years. He is the author of numerous papers and articles related to integral theory. He is currently writing a book on the interpretation of sacred writings from an integral theory perspective. He can be contacted at [email protected]