Dr. Bill Torbert, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Expert in Action Inquiry, and seasoned Author, Trainer and Consultant

#054: Transforming the Action Logics of Leaders, Teams and Organizations through Action Inquiry

Join Dr. Krister Lowe and today’s featured guest and leading organizational scholar and practitioner Dr. Bill Torbert—a Principal at Action Inquiry Associates—for this week’s episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast!  Bill Torbert received a BA in Politics and Economics and a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Yale University.  He served as the Founder and Director of the War on Poverty Yale Upward Bound program and the Theatre of Inquiry.  He taught leadership at Southern Methodist University, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and from 1978-2008 at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College where he served as the graduate school Dean. He later served as the Director of the Organizational Transformation Doctoral Program.  In addition to consulting to dozens of companies, not-for-profits and government agencies, Bill has served on a number of boards including notably at Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare and Trillium Asset Management.  As of 2014 he serves as Principal of Action Inquiry Associates and is a Founding Member of the Action Inquiry Fellowship.  Bill has published a range of books, papers, psychometric assessments and has created a number of training programs and fellowships in Action Inquiry as well.

On this episode of the podcast Dr. Torbert shares his journey first growing up abroad as the son of a father who worked in the Foreign Service and where he had to learn a number of languages. These early experiences set the stage for his future work around “developmental action-logics.”  Bill shares some of his experiences as a student of Chris Argyris at Yale and his work trying to create a collaborative program between blacks and whites in the Yale Upward Bound program.  He discusses how the work in this program led to his interest in understanding the developmental stages of leaders and organizations.

Themes covered in the podcast include: developmental stages among leaders; the Global Leadership Profile; Action Inquiry; single, double & triple loop learning; 7 Developmental Action Logics – Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Redefining, Transforming, Alchemical; unilateral and mutual power; humanity’s evolution across three stages of action-logics: dependence, independence & inter-independence; action-logics at the team and organization levels; stories applying Action Inquiry with teams; redistributing leadership roles in the team; the moderating role of the CEO’s action logic; the action-logics of coaches; the role of conflict in Action Inquiry; time frames for change and more.  Bill shares an interesting tip involving coaching with your eyes closed.

Specific resources mentioned in the episode include: Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership; www.actioninquiryleadership.com; 3 day Action Inquiry Workshops including the Global Leadership Profile; the 3 day Alchemists’ Workparty; the Action Inquiry Fellowship; and the 2005 Harvard Business Review article The Seven Transformations of Leadership.

This episode provides team coaches with yet another priceless opportunity to learn from a legend in the field.  This is an episode you will surely not want to miss!

Listen Now


Contact Bill

Resources Mentioned

  1. Torbert, W. (2004). Action Inquiry: The secret of timely and transformational leadership. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  2. actioninquiryleadership.com
  3. 3-Day Action Inquiry Leadership Workshops & Alchemists’ Workparty
  4. Action Inquiry Fellowship
  5. Rooke, D. & Torbert, W. (2005). Seven Transformations of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76.

Listen to the Episode:






Part 1 – Getting to know the Coach: Bill Torbert


  • Based in Boston, MA
  • Recommended by Dr. Sandra Hayes
  • BA in Politics & Economics, PhD in Individual and Organizational Behavior from Yale
  • Founder & Director of both the War on Poverty Yale Upward Bound Program and the Theater of Inquiry
  • Taught leadership at Southern Methodist University, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and 1978-2008 at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College where he served as Graduate Dean
  • Consultant for companies, non-profits, and government agencies
  • Served on board of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, and at Trillium Asset Management
  • Since 2014 has been a Principle of Action Inquiry Associates and is founding member of the Action Inquiry Fellowship
  • Spent most of childhood abroad as father was in foreign service, learned Spanish, German, and French as a child. This set the scene for interest in development and communication.
  • Chris Ardrus was his teacher at Yale – interwove teaching, action, and research

Journey into Coaching

  • Riots during 1967-68 presented an opportunity for collaborative programming through Upward Bound in New Haven
    • Applied Group and Individual development (Erikson)
  • Research and consulting work since then has been to understand the developmental level of each of the players – individuals, leaders, etc. through Global Leadership Profile to determine a person’s and a team or organization’s Action Logic; then formulated approach based on this
    • Refined this working at SMU, and then working at BC

Part 2 – Perspectives on Team Coaching

Approach: Action Inquiry

  • Idea came from Yale Upward Bound: contrary to the ideas of modern science and social action, action and inquiry should not be separated to make them more effective
  • “The right kind of inquiry won’t slow down action; it will make it more effective and more transformational”
  • We have to learn how to do action and inquiry at the same time – how to do that under the pressure of different agendas, mistrust, etc?
  • Learning and Performance?
    • Enormous overlap; Single Loop inquiry: how to achieve a particular goal better by changing behavior?
    • Double Loop feedback: considering that the strategy of an “effective” approach is flawed (avoiding conflict, using expertise and rationality) à how can a team step back and be more strategic?
    • Triple Loop feedback: there is feedback which transforms one’s awareness at the moment it’s given à permits one to develop a new sense of vision which then leads to a new strategy, action, and more effective outcomes

Engaging Groups through Action Inquiry

  • Developmental Action logics are examples of these emotional/rational strategies
  • Action Logics: an assumed strategy for facing the world and one’s self – one’s deepest construct
    • Opportunist: there’s nothing but self-interest, everything is a war of the self against others
    • Diplomat: Looks for harmony, peace, conflict-avoidant
    • Expert: Using science, rationality, and reason
    • Achiever
    • Redefining Action Logic
    • Transforming Action Logic
    • Alchemical Action Logic
  • We become better and better at action logic as we move toward the end of the list; the same is true for organizations in a general way
  • Global Leadership Profile gives teams more information about where they are
    • E.g. sentence completion test
  • Until 1500, most societies were dominated by Opportunist and Diplomat mindsets; more recently we used Expert and Achiever action logics, now an increase in people who score as “Redefining”
    • Shift from using power mutually instead of unilaterally
  • Now so many of our problems are interdependent: refugees, environmental, etc
  • Aggregating Action Logics in Teams?
    • Looking at characteristics among team members à where is the center of gravity? What do we want to change?

Action Inquiry Approach

  • Initial Assessment: Global Leadership Profile + Individual Interviews (Described in detail in Action Inquiry book)
    • Assessing individuals’ perception of conflicts, performance, team functionality
  • Specific Case:
    • Person on latter end of action logic scale was seen as most problematic because he suggested ideas for changing approach to the work
    • This person went first, president confirmed that he wanted more team members to behave this way
  • How to deal with self-report bias?
    • Difficult to “game” the test because you don’t know how it’s being scored
  • As a coach, strategize about how to move the organization one step further developmentally
  • Each team member is assigned a leadership role (agenda creation, etc), then roles are switched after 6 months
    • This sometimes trickles down; leaders take this idea to their subordinates
  • How long does it take to make developmental shifts?
    • Co-evolution in individuals and collective context?
    • About two years for a person to make a full transformation
    • Research shows that where the CEO is developmentally is important: later action logics allow for more successful coaching engagements
    • Organizational shifts support individual development
  • Coaches and consultants: Have to be willing to face into conflicts that come up at later action logics
  • Groups can transform in a number of days, but individual transformation requires long-term engagements
  • Ongoing engagements: change takes time
    • Now creating regular set of intellectual and GLP practice seminars – will be ready in next few weeks

Part 3 – Resources, Parting Words, and Contacting Bill

Resources for Coaches

  • Book: Action Inquiry
  • Website: williamrtorbert.com or actioninquiryleadership.com
  • Workshops: Spain and Sweden in September, Boston in November
    • 3 day: Action Inquiry and the Global Leadership Profile
    • Basic training for people to become certified coaches
  • Alchemists’ Work Party
    • Challenging people towards the later action logics
    • Everyone takes a leadership role
  • Fellowship

Trends in Team Coaching?

  • New practices: [family] constellations work: non-verbal, powerful for self-awareness and looking at organizational dynamics
  • Practice: stepping into different roles instead of focusing only on cognitive theory

What’s Next?

  • Book called Wealth, Power, Love and Inquiry
  • May release parts of autobiography

Parting Advice for Coaches?

  • Shortest way for people to get a feel for these ideas is the 2005 HBR article: “Seven Transformations of Leadership
  • If you can find exercises and approaches that involve you and client closing eyes and having some dialogue creates a different conversation


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