Extending Full Circle Leadership
Patterns, loops, and what we can learn from playing with the model.
Since developing Full Circle Leadership, I’ve run numerous workshops and courses based on it, and every time the discussions inspire new discoveries. I love how the model itself is simple, but more depth emerges the more different people explore it. These extensions reveal interesting dynamics about leadership in collaborative groups.
Some people are strong in several adjacent leadership styles. Others operate in the creative tension of polar opposites. I have noticed that lines bisecting the circle describe certain classic personas or paradigms of how people work, each with powers and limitations.
People who operate in one of these dyads are often very good at what they do. But when they bump up against limitations, they need to either branch out their own leadership capacities to more of the circle, or team up with others who complement them.
Sense ↔ Evaluate
Get an inkling or a hunch about something, then gather and analyse all the data about it you can. Then another possibility starts tickling your brain, so you repeat the process again.
This is the mode of researcher at work. Their output and sense-making comes from traversing this dyad.
Research helps us understand what is. We often see other types of leadership complementing it when what’s required is change. To build something or put a new idea into practice, other skills come into play.
Complements: Science communicators or other bridges between academics and laypeople, business people who can commercialise valuable insights, visionaries who can spot links to other fields entirely.
Inquire ↔ Operationalise
Collaboration is simply getting things done with others. You ask questions and listen to understand others’ perspectives and unique contributions, then put what you’ve understood into practice together. You then immediately go back to asking questions of each other and repeat the process again.
This is a natural and delightful mode for spontaneous work among small groups of peers. It starts to show its limitations when what’s needed is scale, structure, formality, time, or pushing into completely new paradigms.
Complements: Administrators who can help make innovations stick, evaluators who go beyond the thrill of experimentation to data about real impact, people who sense and inquire about those not in the room.
Envision ↔ Maintain
Imagine you’re looking out over a vast horizon and deciding where to go. That’s your vision. Then you keep your hands on the steering wheel and your eyes on the dials to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. That’s maintaining. Repeat this consistently and you will reach your destination.
This kind of navigation works very well when you’re driving a little car, flying a small plane, or trekking with nothing but a backpack and a compass. It’s nimble, empowering, and thrilling. But to get a huge ship across the ocean, create a rocket that can reach the moon, or move a large number of people all together, you’ll need a whole crew.
Complements: People who can download plans out of someone’s head so they can be examined and shared, those bringing context not visible from the original vantage point (air traffic control), evaluators who step back and ask if we’re heading in the right direction after all.
Prototype ↔ Optimise
This is the tinkerer in their workshop, delighting in building things with their hands and then tweaking them. This is the coder who whips up a new piece of software in a caffeine-fuelled weekend, then starts working out the bugs and adding more features. This is the inventor, the hacker, the engineer.
The maker mode is perfect for tactile exploration and those who learn and experience joy through building. Where it starts tripping up is justifying where something came from or why it’s needed, designing it to be usable by diverse people, and making something that can hold up under stress testing.
Complements: The person who makes dinner and reminds the engineer to eat it, or who opens the curtains to let some sunlight into the basement workshop, those who can connect up real world needs and customers to solutions seeking problems, and testers, regulators, and those oriented to customer service.
The original Full Circle model is based on recognising the visionary and operational sides of the circle, a key to revealing insights about the multiplex nature of leadership.
So, what happens if we flip 90 degrees and bisect the circle the other direction? What emerges is yin and yang hemispheres.
Yin and Yang is a concept of dualism in ancient Chinese philosophy, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. — Wikipedia
Envision, Prototype, Evaluate, and Operationalise are yang, oriented toward action, judging, and building.
Maintain, Optimise, Sense, and Inquire are yin, focused on holding space, creating containers, observing, and receiving.
These two orientations are not deterministic or even opposite. In fact, they each only exist through and in relationship with each other— similar to how visionary and operational leadership together create a full picture.
In our world, yang leadership gets a lot more airtime. But recognition of the importance of yin leadership is growing, especially among those seeking more humanistic, holistic, equitable ways of working. I’ve seen many yin leaders light up when they encounter the Full Circle model, because they finally see themselves represented in the word “leadership”.
What insights might we discover by examining the balance of yin and yang leadership in ourselves, our teams, and our communities?
Projects never actually proceed in an orderly fashion through each of the eight steps of the circle. In real life different patterns often emerge, for good or ill.
Circles within circles
Most projects operate on multiple levels at once. In the biggest picture view, you might have gone through Sense, Inquire, Envision, and now be on to Prototype, but there may have also been a mini-circle each step of the way.
For example, a circle within Inquire:
First, you sense what inquiry might be needed, then check in with others before proceeding. You envision an approach, like a survey, and create a draft version, which is then evaluated before being operationalised (sent out). That communication channel is maintained as the information is gathered, during which time you probably learn a thing or two that will help you optimise the survey process next time.
Understanding that the circle can operate on multiple levels simultaneously can really help break down big steps into their components and provide some guideposts. Imagine zooming in and zooming out to discover patterns at different levels.
Constructive & destructive loops
Certain loops within the circle are expected and healthy. These aren’t failures, but the system working as intended.
- The assessment reached in Evaluate reveals important issues, so you loop back to Inquire and proceed to Envision a new approach based on what you’ve learned.
- You Sensed something, but during the Inquire step you found out additional context and realised you were on the wrong track. So you’ve looped back to Sense, because you listened.
- Your Prototype was Evaluated and given the green light. But when you actually started Operationalising, you encountered a whole bunch of unexpected complexity. You’re still holding true to the original Vision, but you’ve looped back to Prototype to try a different approach. Great! That’s how you avoid the costly mistake of implementing the wrong solution.
Other loops are unhealthy and reveal systemic problems. By recognising when we get stuck in one of these, we can start to shift the dynamic.
- Getting all the way around the circle, but looping from Optimise back to Maintain instead of proceeding to Sense. Making slight tweaks to what’s familiar instead of opening up to the next stage of evolution. Creates a tight closed loop instead of an expansive upward spiral.
- Sense, Inquire, Envision, Prototype… fizzle. What happens when an “ideas person” doesn’t develop the operational side of the circle or team up with people who have.
- Sense, Inquire, Sense, Inquire: the receptive listener who lacks either the confidence or mandate to turn what they’ve learned into a vision or action. All input, no output.
- The navel-gazing triangle of Envision, Operationalise, Optimise: starting with your own vision then jumping straight to implementation and optimisation, and then moving on to your next big idea—without ever making space for external feedback or other voices.
Sometimes people or organisations get stuck at a single step and thus fail to thrive:
- Envision, Envision, Envision — a dreamer who’s not able to execute and lacks outside feedback or enough empathy for others.
- Maintain, Maintain, Maintain—institutional inertia, fear of the unknown, lack of adaptation to change.