6. The Gift and Curse of Interpretation

So far we have discussed the fundamental insights as well as the limits of conventional leadership theories. We learned that all leadership scenarios are “four quadrant affairs” and how to view situations through integral lenses to achieve a more complete and accurate assessment of any circumstance. Most recently, I introduced the “Leadership Rosetta Stone” and explained how worldviews determine which of the four four universal leadership styles people are most likely to follow.

Leadership practitioners are concerned with how to understand, motivate, and influence others—not only employees, but also peers, superiors, vendors, customers, spouses, children, parents, friends, and so on. Clearly, if as a leader you do not understand a person’s worldview (basic assumptions about the world combined with what they value the most), it will be very difficult to motivate and/or influence them effectively. While the person’s worldview is absolutely crucial, and “gets us into the right ballpark,” it is still a broad brush stroke of how they are likely to interpret a given set of circumstances.  To motivate and influence people in specific situations, we need to drill down more deeply into the process of interpretation itself.

Let’s assume that a person has a predominantly Traditional worldview and therefore will be most resonant with Authoritarian leadership approach. Clearly an Authoritarian style will be more motivating and more influential with this person than say a Collaborative or Strategic approach. Yet—staying with our baseball analogy for the moment—there is still a vast playing field with countless different ways the action can unfold. There will be many ways to interpret the unfolding game play, decisions to be made, and consequences to react to.

Assuming a person has a Traditional worldview and that we will be primarily using a more Authoritarian approach with them, we still need to understand how they will use their worldview to interpret the specific details of a given situation. In other words, how will they answer the questions: “What is really happening here?”, “What is most important?”, and “What is needed?” The Traditional worldview, in this example, gives us a lot of clues. They will interpret what is happening based on a conventional (socially-defined) set of beliefs about the world and types of people in it, they are likely to assume that what is important will be defined by traditional (socially conservative) values, and they are likely to conclude that what is needed is to preserve those traditional elements by following the rules that are defined by authority (positional or moral authority). Going still further, how might they interpret your specific recommendations or requests? How will they interpret constructive feedback? How will they interpret details of the changes that you (as the leader in this scenario) are initiating?

One valid way to think of interpretation is “meaning making.”  There are many excellent books on meaning making—In Over Our Heads and The Evolving Self by Harvard’s Robert Kegan come to mind.1 In this current section, grounded in the science of meaning (hermeneutics) and aided by Wilber’s integral semiotics, we will consider the gift and curse of interpretation.


“We see things not as they are, but as we are.”—Anais Nin


The Science of Meaning

Meaning is fundamental practice of Integral Leadership. What things “mean” to people is a function of the process of interpretation. Its important to recognize that this term interpretation is both a verb and a noun: the process of interpretation (meaning making) and the result of that process (made meaning). One of the main difficulties in human relations in general, and leadership in particular, is people interpret similar circumstances, facts and experiences differently. This is simply the reality of the human condition and is in itself not the problem. The problem is that many (if not most) people are unaware that this is occurring! People tend to take their construction of reality in their heads as reality, as a fact of “how it is out there.”2

You do not need to be a scholar who studies hermeneutics and semiotics to be an effective leader. However, if you want to be an integral leader, it is important to have an appreciation of the dynamics of interpretation and grasp both the opportunity and a responsibility to be conscious and deliberate about how you influence others’ interpretations of “what things mean.”

Hermeneutics and semiotics are fields that study the theory and practice of interpretationHermeneutics is concerned with the entire framework of the interpretive process and, encompassing all forms of communication and expression; written, verbal, physiological, sociological, artistic, political, and so on. This also includes nonverbal forms of communication as well as presuppositions, preunderstandings, the meaning and philosophy of language, and semiotics. As a theory of interpretation, the hermeneutic tradition stretches all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy.3 Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood. In linguistics, it is common to speak of signifiers, signifieds, referents, semantics, and syntax.

If we are to have an integrally-informed conversation about interpretation, then a good place to start is Wilber’s Integral Semiotics. First I will define the basic terms and offer a very simple concrete example, then I will introduce Wilber’s four-quadrant explanation of semiotics and apply it more precisely to how people interpret the idea of leader / leadership.

Let’s start with a very simple, concrete example from the natural world:

  1. The written word or picture of a “bird” is the signifier.
  2. The image or idea that comes to mind when a person reads the word “bird” or see’s the sketch of the bird is the signified.
  3. The actual (living breathing) bird is the referent. This is what the signifier is actually pointing to (referring to).
  4. The semantics of the word “bird” is its meaning (how an individual or group interprets the signifier).
  5. The grammatical structure that the linguistic word “bird” exists in is the syntax.

Members in a group who share a common set of knowledge and experience will have a shared way of interpreting symbols. This is a prerequisite for meaningful communicative exchange to occur. Members have enough experience with the referents to interpret the correct signified upon encountering the signifier.

For our community of Integral Leadership students and practitioners, a more relevant example (than “bird”) might be people’s interpretation of a word such as “integral” or the phrase “late stage of development.” In this example, some members would see those two signifiers signifying two different things (referents) while other members might interpret these two signifiers as pointing to the same referent. (These are not the same yet many new students of integral theory fail to differentiate them.)

In contrast, those outside a given hermeneutic circle who lack critical experiential referents will likely misinterpret the sign language involved in the group’s dominant mode of discourse. Example, people with no background in integral theory would have a totally different interpretation of the word integral or the phrase integral leadership. They might simply interpret the word integral to mean “essential” or “complete.” While these later interpretations are useful (and I deliberately use the words this way on occasion), this is not what students of integral theory mean when they use these phrases.

While all those who have reached linguistic competence in a given subject area can share signifiers, only those who coexist within the worldspace of the referent and have experienced the referent can share signifieds, make accurate interpretations, and meaningfully participate in the discourse. Therefore, since people are frequently exposed to concepts that are outside their area of expertise (even linguistic competence, much less shared worldspace), it is not an exaggeration to say that most people are constantly misinterpreting the information around them. This explains a lot if you ever watch Fox News (U.S. television network) or any number of other media outlets that showcase wildly inaccurate interpretations of facts, without apparently being aware of the nature of these gross misinterpretations.

When you are with a group of people who share the same values system, if you pay attention to their language you will notice that they have a way of communicating with each other that reflects their common values and beliefs. Ken Wilber refers to this as the “Dominant Mode of Discourse.” I use the shorter term “Values Dialect” (or simply dialect). Building on the example of Fox News, if you are around a group of people with a strong Traditional worldview, you will notice that not only do they agree with the extreme interpretations of the facts that Fox News broadcasts, they are likely to believe that any other interpretations (for example as seen on other news networks such as CNN or MSNBC) are wrong or even deliberate lies!

One of the main questions in semiotics is how to relate these various symbolic entities.  However, upon careful inspection (and the good fortune of having Ken Wilber explain this to me), it became clear that these four main entities (signifier, signified, semantic, and syntax) correspond, precisely, to the four quadrants of the integral model.  (See illustration.) Thus, signifiers are seen in the Upper Right quadrant (the exterior words and written symbols); signifieds in the Upper Left (the interior ideas including worldview as well as psychological states evoked in the person’s mind by the signifiers); syntax in the Lower Right (the formal linguistic system and its grammatical structures of a person’s social system); and semantics in Lower Left (the collective cultural meaning, values, referents, and again worldviews).

Take, for example, the broad concept of leadership, or even more simply the term “leader.”  The written or material word “leader” is the signifier.  The idea that comes to a person’s mind when they hear or read the word “leader” is the signified. The actual person in the role as leader is the referent. The grammatical structure that the linguistic word “leader” exists in is the syntax. The semantics of the word “leader” is its subjectively interpreted meaning, which, as we saw in the last section and will be explored more deeply in this section, tends to be dramatically different for people based, in large part, on their unique worldview, and further differentiated by their own unique set of life experiences, assumptions, biases, subject-matter knowledge (or ignorance) and so on.

Integral hermeneutics in general, and Wilber’s integral semiotics in particular, shows that it is impossible to ensure that a message will be received in the way it was intended if the relationships between the signifier(s), signified, and semantics are not taken into account. Conventional leaders who are unaware of the semantic implications of how different people make meaning are often incapable of understanding why their followers “misinterpret” their communication. Conversely, integral leaders understand that meaning making is an ongoing dynamic interdependent process that involves both objective (signs, symbols, behavior, systems) and subjective dimensions (worldview, psychological complexity, thoughts, feelings, culture, and relationships).

The Ladder of Inference

In our Integral Leadership Program, we have used a simple metaphor to good effect to help leaders work more skillfully with the process of interpretation. The “Ladder of Inference” was conceived by Harvard’s Chris Argyris and later popularized by MIT’s Peter Senge and proponents of the field of organizational learning.4

We Observe an Event

We witness an observable event. In doing so, we experience sights, sounds, and feelings.

We Select Partial Data

We look for, notice, and select certain data to emphasize while (often unconsciously) ignoring other data.

We Filter That Data Through our Worldview

We filter the selected data through our worldview. Our worldview includes our values and general beliefs (about people and the world), as well as specific beliefs about the type of situation currently being perceived. It is our worldview that initially transforms objective data (facts) into subjective meaning (interpretation).

We Make Assumptions

We rarely (if ever) have all relevant information and perspectives at our disposal concerning a given situation. There are details and nuance that are invisible to us, these include: facts we lack about what happened (is happening), the intention/motivation of people involved, and the consequences (often yet to be seen) of specific actions. Because people are not omniscient, and time rarely permits obtaining and verifying every piece of relevant information, in order to draw a conclusion it is usually necessary to make assumptions based on a subjective assessment of which facts are most relevant using a variety of generalizations (general principles or broad patterns of behavior) in order to draw an informed conclusion.

We Draw Conclusions

Based on our climb up the ladder, we form an inference, a conclusion. These conclusions, in turn, inform the actions we take. Our conclusions influence our beliefs about the person or situation as well as influencing which data we will look for, notice, and emphasize the next time we are faced with a similar situation. In this way the Ladder of Inference is self-reinforcing. Put another way, we interpret situations through our worldview which reinforces the subjectively perceived validity of the worldview.

With each step up the ladder, there is an opportunity for different people’s stories to diverge. Interpersonal communication (and relationships) become difficult when people stay on the highest rung of the ladder (conclusions) without stepping down to where most of the real action is: the way we interpret the data to arrive at different conclusions.

The golden key to unlocking interpersonal communication, relationships, motivation, and influence is to focus not on the conclusions but on the way people interpret information.  Integral leaders adopt practices—both individual and interpersonal—that help them refine their awareness of their own and others processes of interpretation. By doing this, first, their own interpretations tend to be more accurate. Second, the previously obscured process by which others interpret situations / information / communication becomes far more transparent. Not only can integral leaders recognize how others are interpreting things, more importantly, they can deliberately and precisely influence those interpretations. This is why the “gift and curse of interpretation” is the bridge between an integral leader’s ability to understanding people’s worldviews and being able to actually motivate and influence them with skill and precision.


[ Continue to the next section: Solving the Motivation Puzzle | Or Return to Table of Contents ]




  1.  In his work, Kegan underscores subtle distinctions between “meaning making”, “made meaning,” and the “meaning maker.” For our basic, introductory purposes here the meaning maker is simply the individual (the self) and meaning making can be thought of as the way that individual makes sense out of their experience. In strict terms, a person can either adopt a worldview or construct a worldview. Once adopted or constructed—as we saw in the previous section—that worldview becomes a primary way a person filters and interprets information and experiences. The academic field devoted to the study of this subject is called Constructivist Developmental Psychology. The process of “meaning making”—whether simply filtering information through an existing worldview or constructing a new worldview—is influenced by many things, including a person’s environment, culture, and stage of development cognitively, socially, emotionally and so on. As students of integral theory know, stage is particularly important because it is an indicator of how equipped a person is to construct meaning of a given situation. However, this manifesto is intended to be a mainstream-friendly introduction to Integral Leadership, as such, I will not be going deep into the technical process of worldview construction; rather, I will focus primarily on how people use their existing worldview (whether legitimately constructed or merely adopted / espoused) to filter information and experience as one part of the complex process of meaning making.
  2. See Kegan’s In Over Our Heads, chapter 6.
  3. The term hermeneutics covers both the first order art and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expressions. Hermeneutics as conventionally understood is not technically “integral.” Jürgen Habermas criticized the conservatism of conventional hermeneutics because it does not adequately account for social criticism and transformation. Habermas incorporated the notion of the “lifeworld”. For Habermas, hermeneutics is one dimension of critical social theory.
  4. The ladder of inference was first introduced by Chris Argyris in Overcoming Organizational Defenses (1990). It was later popularized by Peter Senge in his best-selling book The Fifth Discipline and by many other leaders in the fields of Action Learning and Organizational Learning. The version illustrated here has been slightly modified for greater clarification and easier application, and to assist the readers’ ability to integrate Ladder of Inference with the various Integral Leadership practices.

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