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Higher Level Leadership Capabilities:
Navigating Complex Systems and Interactions 

Developing a Culture that Promotes Cognitive Flexibility

Moving beyond a stance of privileging some knowledge inputs, and disregarding other knowledge inputs, requires cognitive flexibility. Kashdan and Rotterburg (2010) define psychological flexibility as the measure of how a person adapts to fluctuating situational demands, reconfigures mental resources, shifts perspective, and balances competing desires, needs, and life domains. 


Cognitive flexibility complements other leadership capabilities such as being a champion of important ideas and evidence or being a driver of change through an organization or team. The leader’s primary focus is on creating the pre-conditions for collective intelligence to be developed, over time:

Knowing that there are no easy answers to truly complex problems, system leaders cultivate the conditions wherein collective wisdom emerges over time through a ripening process that gradually brings about new ways of thinking, acting, and being. For those new to system leadership, creating space can seem passive or even weak…. And it is not likely to come from leaders who seek to “drive” their predetermined change agenda…

(Senge et al, 2015: 30)

Further, cognitive flexibility is particularly important for any team that needs to be sustained over an extended period of time. Boreham notes that collective competence requires a team to maintain a commitment to interdependency over time. Groups may commence with a high level of commitment from all parties but can fall over or drop back in their effectiveness before the full extent of outcomes is realised. This is often due to the tensions that arise from the different perspectives of participants. Boreham notes that:

... in consequence there is a natural tendency for the group to fragment. To maintain a state of collective competence, the group needs to find ways of preventing such fragmentation. 

(Boreham, 2011: 80)


Thus, leadership capabilities to develop a culture of cognitive flexibility are particularly relevant to sustain groups over time. 

Framework of Reading Strategies

The following framework of reading strategies is presented as a practical resource that can be used by leaders in developing a culture that promotes collective intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

I have used the framework in several ways, namely to:

  • review a pattern of communication and decision-making that has become stuck or a ‘straight-jacket’ 

  • identify ways that readings were becoming polarized or conflicted

  • plan ways to introduce alternative perspectives.

Foundational reading:

Focuses on pre-determined philosophical commitments, professional knowledge, and ethical base

Defensive reading:

Focuses on actual or potential threats

Evaluative reading:

Assesses the effectiveness of ideas, actions, and approaches

Cultural reading:

Focuses on significant meanings and expectations of a culture – e.g. a culture of an organization, community, ethnic group, and/or a profession

Empathic reading:

Imagines and anticipates the perspectives of specific audiences

Rhetorical reading:

Focuses on the ways that meanings are being constructed

Pragmatic reading:

Focuses on outcomes and the practical consequences of actions

Personal reading:

Focuses on aspects that resonate with one’s own experience

Exploratory reading:

Focuses on possibilities, emerging ideas, and new actions

Each of the reading strategies invites a specific meaning perspective and provides a different angle on the issues, with differing benefits and limitations. 


Foundational and cultural readings are consolidating in their effect as they focus attention on current knowledge, commitments, and norms. They position the person as aligned with the foundations, theories, and roots of their practice or profession, and/or aligned with the cultures with which they identify. The central storyline often addresses the question of ‘why’ something should be considered in a particular way. Leaders thus convey the authority of experts and/or elders and represent the standards of practice, as they are already known.


Pragmatic readings are grounding in their effect as they focus on outcomes and connect proposed actions to the likely outcomes. They position the person as aligned with practical realities, and as someone managing a situation within the realities of ‘what is’. The central storyline might address the questions of ‘What do we need to do?’, ‘What can we do?’, and ‘What can’t we do?’. Leaders thus represent the authority and responsibilities of their roles, paying attention to possibilities and constraints in the context of operation. 


Defensive, empathic, and personal readings are broadening in their effect as they focus the practitioner on subjective knowledge that is often intuitive. These readings position the person as one who is aware of people’s perceptions and responses. The central storylines often express experiential knowing and people’s motivations around the issue, e.g. ‘How is it experienced by different stakeholders?’, ‘What has people’s attention?’, ‘What is motivating me here?’. Leaders thus represent the authority of experience and intuitive knowledge.


Evaluative readings are sharpening in their effect as they focus the person towards a process of testing ideas and practices. They position the person as aligned with effectiveness and the knowledge that can be gained from ongoing review. The central storylines often promote critical thinking and may then question current practices and pathways. Leaders thus represent a commitment to the ongoing development of an evidence base.


Rhetorical readings are challenging in their effect as they focus the person on the assumptions that are being communicated through language, and on the rhetorical strategies that are being used in interactions. They position the person within a network of communications and power relations. The central storyline is often one of challenging a proponent of a view about their underlying assumptions. Leaders thus represent a challenge to hold to key values and/or a philosophical stance.


Exploratory readings are nurturing in their effect as they focus the person on features which are emerging andpotential opportunities that are not yet formed. They position the person as aligned with future possibilities. The central storyline often expresses a picture of an emerging trend or an innovative approach. Leaders thus represent vision and hope.

Navigating Across Reading Strategies

Leaders can exert influence within the web of narratives, both by contributing their specific knowledge and preferred reading strategy or by navigating among the different reading strategies. Leaders can look at patterns in the conversation and decision making; considering the ways that different perspectives are battling, disregarding, mocking or marrying one another? (Bruner 1986: 7)


I have been interested in the ways that leaders are able to assist people to move beyond ‘stuck’ patterns of interaction and consider new possibilities. In my doctoral study interviewees discussed times when, although they were very confident in using some key reading strategies, they realised that their usual reading strategies and interventions would only exacerbate the dilemma that everyone was facing (Apte 2003). They stepped back and drew upon a different way of reading the issue and then introduced it to others; in this way they were able to lead transformative shifts.


Sometimes leaders address such an impasse by using their authority to assert the primacy of one of the readings. Alternatively, a leader could introduce an additional reading strategy into the conversation. This alternative reading strategy then takes its place alongside the others. The alternative does not have to claim to be a better representation of events, but it can have benefit in the way it impacts on the interaction pattern. One of the facilitators in the study described her intervention as “pulling apart” the various stories and teasing out new ways of combining diverse ideas:

What it required me to do was to hear their stories, to provide some synthesis and analysis that was not constrained by rules, and to put some creativity and some reframing in, so the analysis made sense to people coming from different perspectives. I was able to hear everybody's positions and synthesise where they came from and actually reinterpret them back to the group, using language that suddenly made the click happen for them.

(Apte, 2003)


She described her approach as being like kneading and twisting dough until the dough was in a suitable shape around which everyone could move forward. 


This presents a particular view of authority that can emerge in groups, as leaders seek to promote collective intelligence. As Davies outlines, leaders can promote professional identities of practitioners and leaders based on:

A sense of oneself as one who can go beyond the given meanings in any one discourse, and forge something new, through a combination of previously unrelated discourses, through the invention of words and concepts which capture a shift in consciousness that is beginning to occur, or through imagining not what is, but what might be. 

(Davies, 1991: 51)



Apte, J. (2003). The Facilitation of Transformative Learning: A Study of the Working Knowledge of Adult Educators. Doctoral thesis, University of Technology Sydney.


Boreham, N. (2011). Competence as Collective Process. (pp 77-91) in Catts, R. et al. (Eds). Vocational Learning, Technical and Vocational Education and Training: Issues, Concerns and Prospect. Springer, UNESCO-UNEVOC Book Series.


Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Davies, B. (1991). The concept of agency: a feminist poststructuralist analysis, Social Analysis. 30: 42-53.


Fish, S., Munro, E., & Bairstow, S. (2008). Learning together to safeguard children: developing a multi-agency systems approach for case reviews. London: Social Care Institute for Excellence.


Kashdan, T. & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health, Clinical Psychology Review, 30 (7): 865-878.


Senge, P., Hamilton H., & Kania J. (2015). The Dawn of System Leadership, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015.

Yeatman, A. (1996). 'The roles of scientific and non-scientific types of knowledge in the improvement of practice', Australian Journal of Education. 40 (3): 284-301.


Learn more

Apte J (2018) Leadership Capabilities For Inter-Professional Collaboration: 

The Contribution Of Reading Strategies. Developing Practice, no. 49, 2018. Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies and NSW Family Services Inc, Sydney.

Organisations work collaboratively in many ways and inter-professional teams can bring fresh thinking towards complex problems and support innovation in service delivery. Senge, Hamilton, & Kania (2015) outline the potential benefits that can flow in a service system if effective, collective system leadership can emerge:

As these system leaders emerge, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were previously seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation. Short-term reactive problem solving becomes more balanced with long-term value creation. 

(Senge, Hamilton, & Kania, 2015: 28) 


Towards this, I consider leadership capabilities in developing a culture that values collaboration and collective intelligence. I then present and apply a framework of reading strategies that can be used by leaders to plan ways to develop this capacity. The framework was initially developed from my doctoral study of professional leaders who facilitated significant transformative learning (Apte 2003) and has been refined through my work as a workforce development consultant. 


A reading strategy is a strategy that is used to interpret what is going on in a situation. People can read their experiences as they read a book: interpreting storylines, responding to characters, and anticipating various conclusions. Bruner writes that reading isn’t arbitrary – people read with purpose and organisation:

Readers have both a strategy and a repertoire that they bring to bear on a text. 

(Bruner, 1986)


Different people bring different reading strategies to a situation and leaders need to manage the interactions between diverse ways of interpreting ‘reality’. When an area of work is complex and ambiguous, people are even more likely to bring diverse readings to events. These readings might battle or mock each other, competing for legitimacy:

The alternate ways of reading may battle one another, marry one another, mock one another...

(Bruner 1986: 7)


Alternatively, diverse readings might marry each other; at times this can create a richer appreciation of things, while at other times it can create enmeshed and entrenched perceptions. 


This paper points to a particular perspective on authority, based on the leader’s capability to read and mobilise the different reading strategies in a fresh way. 

Framework of Reading Strategies

Framework of Reading Strategies
Cognitive Flexibility
Navigating Across Reading Strategies
References & Learn more
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