Transformative leadership education: a cybernetics-inspired approach

Building on previous sections that focused on what we need to learn to lead change, from a cybernetic viewpoint, this section will now bring in our insights from the Master of Applied Cybernetics, an experiment in transformative leadership education. It particularly focuses on the environment we need to create so that we can learn. Think of this as the how of leadership learning.

Insights from an experiment in individual and collective transformation

How can we use cybernetic leadership education experiences and tools, such as collective making, multi-perspective systems analyses and speculative futures, to create different neural pathways to imagine and enact change? How can we ensure that our educational experiences build their own momentum?

We have learned a great deal about cybernetic leadership from the Master of Applied Cybernetics at the Australian National University, an experimental program that we have run since 2019. By way of background, the program is a year-long, full-time, in-person, immersive experience for between 10 and 20 students. Around 6 educators do the majority of the teaching, with a range of guests and external perspectives brought in at various points in the year.

The program is specifically developed in place with connection to Country — at the Australian National University that is the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples in the region where Australia’s capital city Canberra now sits. Students are welcomed onto Country, and those Countries that are connected are brought into dialogue through the program, whether through student, staff, partner or guest connections.

The program engages heads, hands and hearts. Students build with hardware and software in a dedicated lab space and discover new insights through interactive activities (hands). They are encouraged to engage personally with the content, to surface and reflect on their values in connection and interaction with the values inherent the course material (hearts). They are taught critical question asking and to engage their critical brain at every step (heads).

Although the objectives of this program are linked to integration of new technologies into society and environments, they share similarities to some other cybernetic programs for training people in systemic change and leading future product design. Over several iterations of the program, staff and partners from within and beyond the university have woven together multiple cybernetic threads, adding to and amplifying those noted in the sections above:

  • multi-modal communication approaches including for memorable story-telling, and learning/development of new languages and translation between these and other languages—for this case it includes the Python computer language, and systems and cybernetics theory terminology and modelling schema;
  • multi-faceted approaches to creativity and prototyping through designing and building technology with both reclaimed and harvested materials, as well as those employing more advanced manufacturing and visualization technologies;
  • embodied, analytical and reflective exercises to enhance critical and computational thinking, and selfreflexivity, including those needed to reflect on multiple values and what imagining and building safe, sustainable and responsible futures might entail; and
  • facilitation skills to support collective learning of others by effectively acknowledging multiple ways of knowing, being and doing and deploying methods and analytical frames
    that support pluralist analyses, boundary spanning and critical action.

Skills and formats for learning to lead: insights for leadership training

We discovered that the structured spaces we created, where individuals with diverse profiles from different organisations come together, freed learners up to play, imagine, create, unlearn and relearn who and what they seek to do in relation to each other and the wider world – in the context of scaling technology and AI for a safe, sustainable and responsible world. The very specific challenges we assigned to work through together were deliberately designed to provoke the productive discomfort that arises from the presence of different languages, values, cultural constructs and ways of knowing, being and doing in the world. This enabled students to hold difference together in creative tension.

Two critical cybernetic themes we experimented with in the program are context-awareness and feedback. Encouraging similarities and differences to be identified and respected, and allowing ideas and people to transform through learning, interaction and feedback from others in and beyond the learning system space, provoked the generation of alternative views in individuals. This act created safe and (re) generative spaces for individual reflection and support to imagine, challenge and renew amongst moments of collective and peak

Overall, we found that the program helped students develop their own individual and collective syntheses that led to deep personal learning and change. We have discovered that transformation is cohort specific, dependent on interactions between students and staff. We have observed that staff are a necessary part of the transformational experience and undergo their own journey. Each year we have noted the development of new collective imaginations and differing levels of productive discomfort. These appear to be fit for the purposes and systems of interest of the learners involved – a genuinely novel synthesis.

The program commenced in 2019. That means we have now guided 2 out of the 3 cohorts of Masters students through a COVID-aware world, where we value — but cannot always achieve — embodiment. We must embrace, and strive to improve, hybrid experiences: cybernetic principles of feedback, interaction with technology, selfreflexivity and connections strongly support our efforts in this area. Here we summarise some of the key cybernetic ingredients to facilitate leadership learning that support the principles noted in the earlier
sections in this paper:

Embodied experiences

We refer to embodiment to capture all those elements of learning that involve other parts of the learner’s body than their mouth and ears (talking and listening). Embodiment might include physical activities, sensory exploration, or making. The act of making — both individually and collectively — is a key element of learning in the Masters program, designed to go beyond typical intellectual traditions. We employ it to support learning through frustration and the unknown/unpracticed, but also to hone an ability for purposeful composition and an understanding of interactions and dynamics. Not least of all, making allows learners to achieve a sense of accomplishment and often wonder from the experience of exploration or

Creating space for self-reflexivity, courage and creativity

When there is enough trust in the space, leadership skills such as self-reflexivity, embracing vulnerability, respectful and persuasive communication, imaginative speculation and a range of systems analysis and intervention methods can be unlocked. As well as creating this for our students, we teach by example how they can create this space for themselves and their teams. Creating space is a key leadership skill we demonstrate and foster in the student cohorts.

Facilitating viable strategic and collective action

Understanding how to structure, support and facilitate collective action in desired directions for change is another specific leadership skill for driving systemic change. Viable pathways and new interconnections/assemblages/cybernetic feedback cycles can be developed for future complex systems operations leading processes of managing alignments and opportunities. This requires convening and communicating skills including storytelling49 and deep listening as a basis for facilitating cybernetic conversations as a platform for change. These all feature in our program.

Navigating and supporting creative tensions

Understanding and providing tools for respectfully disrupting assumptions, developing multi-sensorial and multiperspective awareness and encouraging it in others to acknowledge where tensions might stem from and that all sides hold particular values and beliefs; learning to boundary span, connect and translate between multiple languages and to acknowledge the system viability benefits of the hybrid.

Stay tuned, next up is the final in this series of extracts, we will bring you – Next Steps; scaling capability