Spaces for Growth
Published in

Spaces for Growth

Transformative Growth in the 21st Century

This is the third in a series of posts written by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara as part of a collaboration between International Futures Forum and Koreo. In the first and second posts, they introduced the structure of the series before exploring the context of our times and how we can learn to read the landscape better so that we feel more at home in it rather than constantly overwhelmed. In this next post they explore the 21st century competencies we already possess and need now consciously to develop in order to operate effectively in powerful times.

21st Century Competencies

Expansion, Development and Growth

By intentionally reading and reflecting on the landscape we inhabit, we can start to feel at home in it: comfortable in complexity. We are no longer flotsam and jetsam tossed on the tide of events. We feel like agents, active participants in the landscape.

If the first step is awareness, the second — given the right conditions and support — will be expansion, development and growth. We will see that we are able to shape and influence the landscape through our own actions and should be able to move through it skilfully and with intention. So what skills, capacities and competencies might we now need to develop in order to act wisely and live well?

In 1993 UNESCO established an international Commission, chaired by Jacques Delors, to investigate this very question. Its visionary final report, Learning: the treasure within, identified four critical arenas of learning for human growth and development to face the challenges ahead:

  • learning to be
  • learning to know
  • learning to do
  • learning to live together

The report remains a fount of wisdom and insight. It has found powerful adherents and has nominally underpinned many education reform efforts around the world. None has yet fully realised the vision, however, still tending to pour this potent 21st century wine into unsuitable 20th century bottles.

The OECD took up the challenge in late 1997. Once again by bringing together international researchers for an inquiry over several years, this time to identify the “key competencies for a successful life and a well-functioning society in the 21st century”.

This inquiry too was deep and comprehensive, drawing on the best available wisdom from philosophers, sociologists, cognitive scientists and others and including consultations with all OECD member countries. It included a rigorous discussion of what might be meant by ‘competence’ in the world of the 21st century.

The authors started by sifting through lists of possible attributes needed to meet the goal of living a fulfilled life in a well-functioning society. Search for ‘thriving in the 21st century’ today and you will find plenty of reports with dauntingly long lists.

They also discovered, as we have done, that in the operating conditions of the 21st century none of these competencies is of any use, nor can it be developed in practice, unless we can first become more adept at reading the landscape and finding our feet in complexity and uncertainty. The first step is awareness.

Further, they reached a powerful consensus that the only way to know whether the capacity to act effectively in complexity is present is to see it demonstrated in practice.

They arrived at a simple definition of ‘competence’ in the 21st century: “competence is the ability to meet important challenges in life in a complex world”.

This is an important insight. It identifies competence not as an attainment but as a practice, a verb not a noun. It implies that you cannot measure or assess 21st-century competencies in the abstract. You can only see them demonstrated in action. They can be inferred from successful performance in complex situations in the real world.

It further suggests that they are also developed in practice. To return to the Federer example, you do not become a great tennis player by reading more books (although that can help) — you have to perform, try things out, learn through experience. It is the same with the 21st century competencies.

We Are Already Competent

Human maturation is not a mechanical, linear development, but an emergent process achieved uniquely by each individual in their historical engagement with the existential demands of their own life. It begins with an embodied potential — we are born to become — and unfolds uniquely, in each moment, with each choice.

The metaphor is organic. When we think of human development it should not be in terms of ladders, or levels, or software upgrades. We are talking about natural human processes of growth, discovery, expansion, transformation.

Donald Winnicott, the pioneering paediatrician and child psychiatrist, offered a beautifully simple formula in talking about child development. He saw the child like a seed or a bulb, planted into fertile soil and containing in itself everything needed for healthy growth and development. Growth, he said, is a natural, maturational process in a facilitating environment.

It follows that we have the potential to be growing all the time, revealing our potential. With greater self-awareness and reflection and with the right enabling conditions for our learning, we will naturally expand to meet the challenges in front of us.

This stance is itself somewhat counter-cultural in the competence development field. Those long lists and inventories betray a fundamentally neurotic response to today’s three emergencies. They are almost compulsive attempts to deny that things are unmanageable, offering instead the comforting promise that the mess can be mastered if only we develop all of these skills.

Each new competence spawns a separate module in a degree course, a tailored workshop from a training provider, or a raft of self-help books and instructional videos. The effect is to add to our sense of overwhelm and inadequacy and further deepen the cultural crisis.

It is possible to start from a different perspective. We are born with the potential and aspiration to express our full humanness but require the right supporting environment for this to develop. Throughout our history as a species, humans have created settings that support this inherent desire to become all we can be.

In other words, the 21st century competencies are innate. We come designed for a complex world. It is true that our socialisation processes can tend to prune away these natural capacities over time. At birth, for example, we are capable of learning any language, a capacity that wanes as we become socialised into just one or two. But it is still there.

Likewise, we may encounter discrimination, inequality, injustice, abuse, structural and systemic violence of different kinds that poison the environment for learning, fail to provide a facilitating environment and thwart our natural development. Yet still at a fundamental level, as human beings, we have all we need and can in time, together, triumph even in adversity.

This is the message of Vaclav Havel’s prison essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’, for example, inviting us in the face of totalitarian oppression to straighten our backbones, assert our human dignity and “live in truth”.

Havel is drawing on a view of the human personality as always whole and entire. Our needs are complex, fluid and dynamic. All possibilities are always present. Which will manifest is contingent on experience in the world. Persons exist in an ever-shifting and exquisitely attuned engagement between our interior lives and the external universe and it is in this engagement that ‘being’ proceeds. There is always more to discover.

Enabling Growth and Development

The Core Stance

How can we support this natural process of growth? The challenge in our environment might naturally call our 21st century competencies from us. But so too will people, groups and patterns of relationship. How might we more effectively facilitate and support the growth and development of others?

Decades of research validate the person-centred approach of Carl Rogers, who put his faith in the future and in human nature. He saw human beings as full of potential and fundamentally oriented toward the good.

His approach assumed that any group or individual person, if encountered and accompanied in their discomfort by a non-shaming other and discouraged from denying reality or collapsing into fantasy or worse, will self-right, self-regulate, find a way through. Sooner or later a new pattern of coherence will emerge out of confusion and conflict. And it will be unique to the circumstance, the individual or the group. “Wanderer, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”

Technically, Rogers suggested that the approach involves being ‘congruent’ or real with the other person, offering ‘unconditional positive regard’ and ‘empathic understanding’, communicating faith in people’s inherent capacity to grow, create and transform.

Charlie Miller, the Edinburgh hairdresser, revels in the story of having a person-centred therapist ‘in his chair’ as a client for many years. When he heard him talking about the Rogerian approach to enabling growth and the full expression of the human personality, Miller immediately realised it could apply equally to the relationship between stylist and client.

He reframed it in his own terms as the basis for training new recruits:

  • Authenticity: be honest, only offer what you can genuinely deliver, walk the talk;
  • Empathy: don’t impose on the client, remember it is their hair and their choice;
  • Non-invasive warmth: establish a warm relationship (‘going anywhere nice on your holidays?’) but don’t get too familiar (‘who are you going with — and what will your partner think about that?).

Katie Colombus’ excellent book on How to Listen is laced through with these same principles. It includes this vivid image: “One of the things that stood out for me in my training was being told to imagine someone who’s having a hard time… as if they’re sitting in a pit. What friends and family will do, with the best of intentions, is to try and help them out of the pit. But as Samaritans, what we do instead is get down into the pit and sit alongside them to explore with them what that feels like…. One of the fundamental principles… is the belief that everyone knows what’s best for them.”

Alicia Garza’s memoir about Black Lives Matter, The Purpose of Power, offers a societal example. She describes her experience of building movements across boundaries to ‘interrupt’ existing patterns and historical prejudice and open a space for new patterns to emerge.

She too describes a listening practice — her early experience of mobilising community going from door to door in West Oakland:

“I learned how to really listen for what was underneath ‘No, I don’t think I can make it’… I spent countless hours in kitchens and living rooms, on crowded couches and porches, and in backyards. I learned how to engage other people in the slow process of changing the world.”

The message is clear. To support growth and development we need to meet people where they are and then provide a space for them to grow. Equally, our effectiveness in nurturing such growth will depend crucially on what we view as possible for the human being or beings in front of us.

On this last point we follow the lead of the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger, who offers an expansive perspective. Unger describes himself as a ‘radical pragmatist’, grounding his knowledge in the one thing he can trust — his own experience.

But what is that experience? Like all of us, he is conscious of living in a decaying organism (as he puts it), a living, vulnerable human body that over time starts to wear out. Yet at the same time he also has an equally real, pragmatic, lived experience of a God-like, infinite imagination.

As a politician (he has served in the Brazilian government) he observes that our public institutions pay far more attention to the first aspect of himself and his experience than the second. He insists that we should “revise the institutional organisation and the ideological assumptions of society” to pay attention to our infinite capacity. We can then enable “a larger life — a life of greater intensity, of greater scope, and of greater capability for the ordinary man and woman.” This is a developmental stance — permeating relationships, culture and institutions.

Another stand-out example would be Dr Ludwig Guttmann, who in 1944 became the first Director of the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He entered a world in which soldiers crippled on the front line were regarded as good as dead, living out the rest of their short lives under sedation, waiting only to be moved to the mortuary. Based on the evidence on recovery at that time, this was a perfectly rational approach. The men even arrived at the centre in coffins.

But Guttmann refused to accept that narrow view. He sensed the humanity and the potential in these people, people just like himself. He thought sport would be a good way for them to build up physical strength and to restore some self-respect. He staged the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, the year of the London Olympics. By 1952 there were more than 130 competitors from around the world and the event, the Paralymic Games, is still run to this day.

Guttman did not see corpses — he saw potential. Even as these men lay in their coffins, he saw a possibility to support their growth and transformation. Tellingly, their growing competence was expressed through action.

The Facilitating Environment

We understand that the ‘facilitating environment’ for growth and development that Winnicott talks about must include people with a certain regard for humanity and the potential in all of us, and the capacity to enter into a warm, trusting, Rogerian relationship with others.

Beyond that, what are the practicalities of establishing learning environments embodying these qualities? What does it require to create and to ‘hold’ such spaces in practice? And beyond these foundations, what else might be necessary to support the growth response to powerful times?

A natural place to look might be to our institutions of education and formal learning. Yet in practice, with some notable exceptions, most have been unable to absorb the lessons of the OECD study identifying 21st century competence as a practice rather than an achievement. They have likewise struggled to do justice to the Delors Commission report even when they have tried to do so.

Nor are such spaces routinely found now in the world of work, where we might expect to learn through practice, working with others, on the job. IFF’s work with the public sector, the private sector, the third sector and the arts suggests that in practice opportunities for transformative growth at work are few and far between.

If anything, the opposite is the case. There is plenty of evidence that the way we live and work today is leaving us unsatisfied, unfulfilled, unhappy and in many cases suffering mental distress. There is a yearning for something more fulfilling.

Gallup’s recent research on ‘How Millennials Want To Work And Live’ found that Millennials in the US “don’t just work for a paycheck — they want a purpose”, they “are not pursuing job satisfaction — they are pursuing development” and they “don’t want bosses — they want coaches”.

This is no surprise. It reflects a trend that has been growing over twenty years at least. The psychologist Ian Mitroff found in 2005 in a series of interviews likewise conducted across the corporate world in the US that:

“First, people desperately want an opportunity to realise their potential as whole human beings, both on and off the job. Second they want to work for ethical organisations. Third, they want to do interesting work. And while making money certainly is important, at best it is a distant fourth goal for most people.”

At all levels and in all sectors, people are looking for a more fulfilling, more wholesome and more developmental work experience. Not only for selfish reasons, but from an instinctive sense that the reductionist, instrumental alternative is a failing paradigm choking off the growth response across the board.

Part of the appeal of the non-profit or social sector, by contrast, has always been its ‘expressive’ value — the opportunity it gives people to express their values through their work. Yet even here, for decades, investment in personal growth and development has taken a back seat to the ever-present demands of delivery.

The pandemic has dramatically disrupted the working environment for many, shifting processes online, replacing ‘the office’ with remote working, forcing a new balance between work and home life. There have been benefits for some, including the loss of the daily commute. But those benefits are unevenly distributed, and there have been considerable downsides.

In one recent poll almost half of managers in the UK said they were afraid their employees would burnout, through social isolation, general worries about their families and loved ones and the state of the world, and the erosion of the boundary between their personal and professional lives.

Maintaining connection and feeling part of a larger, stable and supportive whole can help. But here again surveys suggest that the longer remote working goes on, the more employees struggle to connect to and really feel part of their organisation and its culture. And all these trends tend to be worse for younger generations.

There is clearly an urgent need to create and maintain more spaces for growth, development and learning and to make them as open and accessible as possible in response to today’s emergencies. There is an abundant latent competence in humanity, which we need to develop — but equally increasing evidence that existing patterns of working and organising are instead putting people under barely tolerable strain and choking off more generative possibilities

We need to move beyond denial before it’s too late, to admit the diminishing returns to our existing systems of education, work and training and begin consciously and intentionally to invest in spaces supporting human growth and the transformative growth response.

By Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara, International Futures Forum



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


A learning consultancy dedicated to imagining and building a better world.