The Fourth Paradigm in Leadership (Part I)

Since I’m living my fourth life and have been writing a lot about the Fourth Paradigm in Safety, it should not be a surprise that I’ve recently ‘discovered’ the Fourth Paradigm in Leadership[i] and Leadership Development.

Since several years – in fact since I’ve become a grandfather – I’ve asked myself questions like: “How are we going to prepare the leaders of the future?” Or perhaps, “Where are the leaders of the future going to come from?” Whether you are a human resource manager, a corporate executive, a professor, a manager, an employee, or just a concerned citizen then you have probably asked yourself those same questions.

Two contradictory themes in modern life are at the very base of those questions. Although the world seems to be smaller, and its people brought together by communications and transportation advances, they seem at the same time more fractured and divided, less cohesive. It appears that as we humans come into closer contact, we are simultaneously retreating from one another into enclaves of special interest, whether formed by race, gender, nationality, religion, profession, or economic status. As we struggle with becoming more inclusive, we are continuously tempted to become more exclusive.

This causes thoughtful people to worry about leadership in the future. Since leadership is supposed to be about getting people to work together toward common goals, the spectacle of such diversity of special interests and the force with which people are asserting their particular points of view throw the prospects for effective leadership into doubt. People ask, “How can we in this organization (or community or nation) find a leader who can articulate a vision that brings together all of our various agendas, values, needs, and differing perspectives?” It is a poignant question because the insistent, implied answer is: ‘We can’t. Such a leader no longer exists.”

Yet, along with this sense of pessimism, a new note of optimism is also arising. It is being sounded by people who sense that perhaps a leader is not the answer, that leadership is larger than the actions of a single person. Although it is a young idea, its meaning far from clear, many people in organizations and communities are beginning to think of leadership as a distributed process shared by many ordinary people instead of the expression of a single extraordinary person.

It is to this new spirit of leadership that this blog is addressed. This envisions the fourth paradigm in Leadership in which a significantly larger number of people in organizations and  communities will want to, and be required to, participate in leadership. What will leadership development look like in this new paradigm? How can we begin to make a transition from developing individuals as leaders toward developing whole groups of people as participants in the leadership process?

The paradigm concept was first coined by Thomas S. Kuhn is his book ‘The structure of  scientific revolutions’[ii]. A Paradigm is, according to Stephen R. Covey[iii], the way we ‘see’ the world – not in terms of our visual sense of sight, but in terms of perceiving, understanding, interpreting.

Paradigm Steven Covey — In Memory of a Master

As a metaphor, I like to compare our paradigms to the colored lenses in our glasses.  What we see isn’t a completely accurate reflection of reality, it is shaped by our attitudes and perceptions.

gekleurde bril









Fig 1 Paradigm Metaphor ‘colored glasses’ (based on The Ladder of Inference of Chris Argyris[iv])

Paradigms are mental models, frames of reference, … that help us to see the reality and to solve our problems. Charlie Palmgren thought me to use the concept ‘mindset’[v], a paradigm is a frame of reference for our body of thoughts, a model that we use in order to understand and to explain certain aspects of the reality.

The term paradigm shift was also introduced by Thomas Kuhn in the same book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn shows how almost every significant breakthrough in the field of scientific endeavor is at first a break with tradition, with old ways of thinking, with old paradigms.  A paradigm shift, then, is a change to a new game, a new set of rules. Each Paradigm Shift is more or less a reaction to a crisis. Sooner or later, every paradigm begins to develop a special set of problems that everyone in the field wants to be able to solve and no one  has a clue as to how to do it. How are those special problems going to be solved? By changing paradigms, by a paradigm shift! In this paper I use the representation of a Paradigm and a Paradigm shift presented by Joel Barker in his book ‘Paradigms’[vi].

Figuur Paragdigm curve







Figure 2 The presentation of a ‘Paradigm’: the Paradigm Curve

First let’s label the axes in Figure 1: the horizontal (or x axis) represents Time; so if we move to the right, time is passing; the vertical (or y axis) represents success or ‘Problems solved’ using the prevailing paradigm. So if we moving upwards more new problems are solved at a specific time. The process starts not at zero, because problems were solved in the past without a particular set of rules (or Paradigm). Note that there is a slight slope to the A phase: problems are solved in a slow way until we fully know and have refined the problem-solving rules of the prevailing Paradigm. If you are successful in this then Phase B follows. The dramatic change is the angle of the curve in Phase B indicates that you fully understands the paradigm. You have become efficient in identifying problems that can be solved using the paradigm and effective at applying the rules to discover solutions. You’ll notice a break in the B segment of the line. The more powerful the paradigm, the more problems it will solve over time. Let’s take a look at the C phase of the Paradigm shown in Figure 1.We see the rate of problem solving begin to slow down and the time between problems solved increases, our solutions breed new problems. As we climb higher on the curve, the problems remaining typically increase in their difficulty.  The Paradigm Curve is a simple and useful way to depict the life span of a paradigm.


[i] Chapter 13 Approaching the Future of Leadership Development (Wilfred H. Drath) of The Center of Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development: Ellen Van Velsor [Editor] Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1998

[ii] Kuhn, Thomas S. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

[iii] Covey, Stephen R. The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Fireside (Simon & Schuster), 1990

[iv] Argyris, Chris. Overcoming Organizational Defenses. Needham, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1990

[v] Palmgren, Charles L. Oral statement, Stone Mountain, Ga, Summer 1994

[vi] Barker, Joel A. Paradigms. The Business of Discovering the Future. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993