This weeks installment of my new practice of blog writing takes off from Scott Allen and my encounter with Aidan Harney’s work in the Phronesis podcast episode titled Passionately Detached Curiosity. My first encounter with Aidan was in London at the 2018 ESRAD conference, where he presented his dissertation research. I listened carefully, as he kept using a word that was new for me and I was having to ask myself, did I hear this right? What is conation?

Aidan explained that conation is relatively obscure in Western literature (my unfamiliarity confirming this) but central to Eastern literature. Conation is goal oriented; a purposeful striving involving will power. It also involves enduring perseverance and results in actions, decisions or behaviors that allow for reflexive reassessment. Underpinning this is the notion of conative intelligence.

Like any kind of intelligence, we find that it can have various levels. Aidan’s research looked at the differences in how conative intelligence, conative complexity and conative capability differed between leaders with conventional meaning making patterns (i.e., self-authoring) and leaders with post-conventional meaning making patterns (i.e., self-transforming). The podcast (and in much more depth in his chapter in Maturing Leadership and even his dissertation) goes into key points of these differences, illuminating important factors in leader development and performance.

I want to briefly mention the importance of moral fiber in relation to conation. Aidan talks and writes about this to highlight that this is not a value neutral will to get anything you want done. Conative intelligence is informed by a moral acuity and taking context into account to explore uncharted moral territory.

The key principle and finding Aidan highlights is the importance of curiosity. Not just your run of the mill curiosity about what happens in the next episode of your favorite TV show, but a radical and extreme curiosity that becomes a persistent motivation to continually uncover how to act in service of purpose.

This morning I listened to a podcast from Brene Brown with Lisa Lahey (part 1 and part 2), who took Brene through the immunity to change process. I’ve been using that process since 2009, and typically warn participants to avoid the impulse to jump into an action plan to fix their column two list. Lisa offered a twist on this that I appreciated, and I think fits with how conation and curiosity can work together. She described our bias towards action not as something to bracket or suspend, but more to do an Aikido move with. With a slight tweak, Lisa showed how we can enable our bias toward action to be enlarged, to make it a bias toward acting to learn.

I found this a powerful phrase in this context, and I believe it connects easily to Aidan’s conception of curiosity as an ongoing inquiry into how to act in service of purpose. I often tend to associate curiosity with reflection, pondering on why things happened a certain way, how might it be different and so on. Connecting action with curiosity, the impulse to learn something about ourselves and the world, seems to be at the heart of conation.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to also make a connection to what I find as one of the most powerful ongoing examples of conative curiosity, Bill Torbert’s life and work. His conception of action inquiry has been around a long time now and been a source of inspiration and learning for myself and many others I know.