Bill Torbert is publishing his memoir: Numbskull: Born Again & Again & Again: Transforming Self, Communities, And Scientific Inquiry.
I am honored to write the forward for his book. Here it is in pre-publication form.
In a moment of leadership gone awry, the young Bill Torbert dives headfirst into a shallow creek and splits his head on a rock — becoming the titular Numbskull of this memoir and eventually a man of knowledge.
Such early attempts at artful tripping—and there are a variety here – developed into a life of intentional action inquiry and an enormously powerful and far-ranging scientific theory. In a world that needs it, this bubbling memoir is a guide for those who might similarly choose a life of theory building and testing based in work, play, love, and the exercise of mutually transforming power.
I am deeply grateful for the life, for the theory, and for the friendship. I have known Bill Torbert since his service at Boston College as Graduate Dean of the School of Management.
Since the mid-1990’s Bill has provided essential guidance to our research at the Center for Creative Leadership, on our central themes of relational leadership and leadership culture. Bill’s methods for human transformation based in interwoven first-, second-, and third-person inquiry, in the midst of work and leisure, are closely aligned with the beliefs and practices of CCL and have greatly enhanced our work. He taught us his unique brand of action science in 2005, resulting in the founding of the CCL Organizational Leadership practice which continues to thrive as a hotbed of vertical leadership theory and practice. In recognition of his contributions to the profession Bill was awarded CCL’s 2013 Walter F. Ulmer Applied Leadership Research Award.
He continues to inform and inspire. He and his business partner, Elaine Herdman-Barker, are shaping the design of our Transformations card deck, which models his Seven Transformations of Leadership framework, with the shared goal of reaching practically everyone on the planet in an artful, affirmative, and developmental way.
His memoir has a wonderful voice, intimate, vulnerable, and lively. It has rhythm and it rocks. Artistically, he may well be playing with his own life in the perpetually-evolving Theatre of Inquiry that he co-founded in 1977. He leads the reader through doorways and hidden openings. Bill often writes as if at a close distance, confiding his secrets and special places. I am a bit more awake as I read it.
What kind of a theory are we talking about here? It is a theory about what it is to be and to grow as humans, individually and collectively. It says that people evolve in particular patterns in the ways we make meaning in moments and over long periods of time. It is a theory of conscious, intentional social alchemy – of how consciousness and culture and science can transform again and again. It is a theory for practice, of practice, and to be practiced. It’s a theory about how we can work together to solve complex problems and weave together action and inquiry in timely ways. It is a theory which is tested less on other people and more by trying to put it into practice oneself.
Formally, it’s called Collaborative Developmental Action Inquiry – action inquiry for short. It is the best theory I am aware of for problem-solving contexts, including our most difficult ones.
This memoir made the theory come alive for me in a certain way that it never had before. This is the story of the theory and its origins as told from the inside-out rearview mirror while riding up the highway, as if riding shotgun with Bill. There are “certain bones” buried here and it was a pleasure to find them — and then, all of a sudden while reading, to wake up as a man of 62 years of age. I had shocks of recognition as I read Bill’s review of E.F Schumacher’s book Guide for the Perplexed, a book which altered my own path in 1977. Much of my digging is done now, but the idea of hidden bones and a practical theory of knowledge is still appealing. There — right there, reading that book by Schumacher — is where I started a key part of my own journey when I was a 23-year-old, reading a lot and trying to perceive beyond the obvious façades of people and things. We were asking, “What are the sources and varieties of consciousness, and how can that knowledge serve higher ends?”
The 60’s and 70’s were a period of seeking and sometimes finding more adequate forms and methods of knowledge and wisdom. This memoir conjures, redefines and transforms many of the best spirits of that era and makes them timely now — as Bill likes to say, “in the spirit of inquiry.”
Charles J. Palus
Center for Creative Leadership