Developing as a Leader, through Action Inquiry

Awakening to action and inquiry in different territories of awareness

One way to frame the concept of leadership is that being a leader is about leading yourself with integrity by staying in alignment with your values. As you engage with others, a leader’s concern becomes mutuality. This is about your interaction with others, reciprocation, and interdependence. And, as you engage with the world, you may be compelled to lead in a way that contributes to sustainability. These three different goals of leadership (in bold) may be framed as different perspectives on the same practice of leadership.

The specific practice of leadership that can integrate these three goals of leadership is Action Inquiry. Action refers to doing something (e.g. physically, verbally) and inquiry refers to reflecting and questioning (e.g. in your own mind, or in conversation with others).

According to Bill Torbert, Action Inquiry is about discovering the interaction between personal passion, compassion and dispassionate objectivity. These qualities can be developed simultaneously:

  • 1st person (‘I’) integrity and passion can be developed through understanding and acting in alignment with your values,
  • 2nd person (‘We’) mutuality and compassion can be developed by creating a shared vision and acting in collaboration with your team,
  • 3rd person (‘It’) dispassionate objective and sustainability and can be developed by taking a very broad perspective and seeking to influence culture towards maximising happiness within ecological constraints.

To develop your capacity to contribute to these three goals and work from these three perspectives, the Action Inquiry model makes distinctions between four ‘territories’ of an individual’s experience. These territories are always present, but we are not always conscious of their influence on our behaviour. They are:

1. Context (including Intent, purpose, and awareness)

2. Frames (including Strategies, plans, ploys, and tactics)

3. Actions (including Behaviours, skills and performance)

4. Results (including Outcomes, assessments, and consequences)

An illustration of the territories of Action Inquiry in practice could be while you are working to reduce your carbon footprint by making less single-occupant car trips and reducing home energy consumption. At any point in this Your attention might be on:

  • Measurement of the Results of your actions, and positive consequences of emission reductions,
  • Your new Behaviours e.g. Increased skill at recruiting people to share rides, and your management of home energy usage relative to your desired performance
  • The Framing of those actions e.g. Your strategy for how your individual actions reduce your feelings of guilt, positively influence others, and contribute to national targets for carbon reduction.
  • The Context e.g. Your new awareness of global issues, the changing economics that make energy reduction more attractive to you, and your emerging desire to leave a positive legacy for your children.

Action Inquiry advocates a goal of becoming fully and simultaneously aware of all these territories, at all times, and across all time-frames. This way of always learning and adapting, based on the outcomes of your action and inquiry is defined as triple-loop learning:

These three ‘loops’ show the different extents to which you can be aware of, act on, and inquire into the different aspects of your experience. Single-loop learning means you act, and able to reflect on whether that action achieves the result you wanted. Double-loop learning means you may act, and use what outcomes result to not only reflect on your actions, but also on the logic and plan that made you choose that action over other possibilities. Triple-loop learning may mean that, in the case of the carbon footprint example, you additionally reflect on how your beliefs, assumptions may be challenged or reinforced by what you observed were the consequences and outcomes of your actions in the world.

As a leader, you don’t only want to just learn new behaviours or evolve how you frame challenges and develop strategies. You also want to be consciously aware of the context for those strategies and, and how that affects strategy, performance and outcomes in the real world. Stephen Covey, in his book ‘The 8th Habit’ suggests this can take you from effectiveness to greatness: “If you want to make minor, incremental changes and improvement, work on practices, behaviour or attitude. But if you want to make significant, quantum improvement, work on paradigms… perception, assumption, theory, frame of reference or lens through which you view the world.”

These are four very different territories of attention, and each is a critical area of development for a leader. But increasing your awareness of them, ability to switch between them in-the-moment is something that requires practice.

You might already think of things that would increase your capacity for consciously shifting your attention, becoming more aware of your frames of reference and intentions, and of the consequences of your actions for others. These might include articulating your professional goals, seeking peer feedback on your communication style, or even meditating.

Your own ideas and practices may be complemented by some simple practices recommended by Torbert and his colleagues. Try doing each activity for a week or two to support your own inquiry:

  1. Set your watch to chime every hour. When it beeps, notice what your attention has been on e.g. Your body, behaviour, past or future interactions with others.

  2. Increase consciousness of your energy, mood, and attention by noticing what happens as you transition from one activity to another e.g. bed to the kitchen, class to home.

  3. Keep a regular journal that explores these different territories of your own experience, your attention, and what you learn.

  4. Practice being explicit in your conversations about your Framing (your intent behind this conversation), Advocating (what your theory of change is, or what strategy you recommending), Illustrating (What you think the implications of this conversation are for action – verbal or physical) and Inquiring (asking questions of others and listening for the impact of your conversation)

In the case of this last example, two contrasting conversations may help illustrate what is advocated for. Sticking with the carbon example, imagine the scenario of talking to your spouse about your new commitment, specifically about their behaviour. Compare these two conversations:

  • “You’re setting a bad example for the kids by driving to work everyday and leaving the lights on all night”.
  • “I am more and more aware of how our everyday actions influence the climate, and affect our kids. I want to reduce our emissions, mainly through sharing car trips wherever possible, and doing things at home like turning lights off when not needed. Is that something you are interested in too?”

You can play out in your own mind how the rest of the conversation would unfold. My suggestion is that the latter dialogue would be one that proceeded in a more open, and transformative way that facilitated mutual understanding, and was more likely to result in collaborative action.

I believe

– making distinctions between these territories of experience,

– developing your attention and awareness, and

– practicing Action Inquiry

can enhance your moment-to-moment experience and development as a leader.

As the model says, Action Inquiry improves your integrity (alignment and awareness of your values and intentions), mutuality (teamwork, collaboration, communication) and ultimately your impact on the world – towards sustainability!

If you are interested in how this form of conversation can be applied within organisations (e.g. as part of leadership development programs) or you want to know how it relates to other ways of frameworks for conversation and action (e.g. Non-violent communication, ORID / SAID, U process, Ladder of Inference etc.) then feel free to get in touch.


Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership, Bill Torbert with Associates. San Francisco CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2004.

Seven Transformations of Leadership, Rooke and Torbert. Harvard Business Review, Apr 05


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