Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change

Summary of: Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, explores and develops the theory of the late Clare Graves - a "bio- psycho- social-" understanding of how human's collectively respond to their living conditions and how these responses prompt the emergence of latent value systems / thinking capacities.


Publication Reference

Published in/by
Blackwell Publishing


  • Beck, Cowan and Graves identify eight different value systems which emerge and change in response to the living conditions of the humans which exhibit them.
  • The value systems, called vMemes in the book, fundamentally shape the decision making of the individuals and groups which share them.
  • The vMemes are can be organized hierarchically on a spiral-like structure, where at the bottom are the vMemes which deals with the most fundamental of human needs, while at the top, new vMemes are emerging in response to the most complex living conditions on the Earth today. In any case (top, bottom or middle), the vMemes which have adapted to any given living condition will be appropriate for those conditions.
  • Recognizing vMemes and life conditions can identify 'hotspots' where the two are out of alignment and generating friction and tension. Varying alignments can also generate innovation and tolerance, and/or fundamentalism and regression.
  • vMemes are found to exhibit reliable dynamics which govern their change as they both ascending and descending the spiral, as well as when new vMemes emerge. These insights enhance cooperating and collaborating, and make possible reorganizing groups of people where thinking capacities can be harmonized with the needs and objectives of the organizations, both internally and externally.

Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, explores and develops the theory of the late Clare Graves - a "bio- psycho- social-" understanding of how human's collectively respond to their living conditions and how these responses prompt the emergence of latent value systems / thinking capacities. Graves proposed "that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating spiraling process marked by regressive subordination of older, lower-order behaviour systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change." Spiral Dynamics is not so much a theory of the evolution of individual consciousness as it is a theory of the co-evolution of human consciousness and its "life conditions". As our consciousness evolves through this co-evolution, we create problems which cannot be solved at the level of thinking where they were created, but at the next level above.

Based upon and extending Graves's original work, Beck and Cowan identify eight distinct value systems (vMemes) and life conditions in the global milieu.

First Tier vMemes address subsistence, fear oriented concerns (Note: the color coding was appended later only as a memory aid and serves no other purpose. The letter coding following the colors is Graves' original system which denotes the value system first and its life conditions second.):

  1. Beige (A-N) - 'Do what you must to stay alive.' savanna grasslands
  2. Purple (B-O) - 'Keep the spirits happy and the 'tribe's' nest warm and safe.'
  3. Red (C-P) - 'Be what you are and do what you want, regardless.'
  4. Blue (D-Q) - 'Life has meaning, direction, and purpose with predetermined outcomes.'
  5. Orange (E-R) - 'Act in your own self-interest by playing the game to win.'
  6. Green (F-S) - 'Seek peace within the inner self and explore, with others, the caring dimensions of community.'

Second Tier transition takes us from the subsistence to the being levels:

  1. Yellow (G-T) - 'Live fully and responsibly as what you are and learn to become.'
  2. Turquoise (H-U) - 'Experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit.'
  3. Coral (I-V) - (Unclear to Beck & Cowan at the time of publication.)

These value systems are called vMemes, or value system memes in reference to Richard Dawkin's term 'meme' (essentially an idea which lives and replicates in the neural substrate of the brain). A vMeme is a wave-like, meta-meme which acts like an attractor for the smaller, content-rich memes that Dawkins proposed. Generally speaking, vMemes possess these basic Qualities:

  1. vMemes manifest the core intelligences that form systems and impact human behaviour.
  2. vMemes impact all of life's choices.
  3. vMemes express both health (for-better) and unhealthy (for-worse) qualities.
  4. vMemes are structures of thinking in that they determine how people think or make decisions in contrast to what they believe or value.
  5. vMemes can brighten or dim as life conditions change.

Each vMeme is ideally suited to the problem solving of their corresponding life conditions. Mismatches of the two can result in many varying behaviors on both the group and individual level, including both riots and warfare or peace and prosperity depending upon the individual vMemes and life conditions and their movements. vMemes can both progress and regress down the spiral, this movement marking the rise and fall of empires and cultures, as well as the major epochs of humanity. While no vMeme is necessarily better or worse than any another, in that each is ideal for its corresponding life condition, the higher vMemes are better for dealing with higher levels of complexity. Further, Graves states that "for the overall welfare of total man's existence in this world, over the long run of time, higher levels are better than lower levels an that the prime good of any society's governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence."

Responding to the contextual life conditions they arise within, vMemes evolve upwards on a spiral structure, embodying higher levels of complexity as they do. The levels of complexity of the various vMemes may be divided into two tiers, but are ultimately unlimited as the Spiral is an open system with new vMemes emerging in response to the co-evolutionary emergence of new life conditions at the top. While an individual, group or organization may be strongly characterized by a single vMeme, they are also comprised of all of the lower vMemes as well. For example, an organization's ostensible motivations and outputs might be reflect one vMeme, while a good portion of the employees' methods of achieving those objectives and outputs might be largely of another. This onionskin-like aspect of the spiral demonstrates one of the fundamental dynamics of vMeme and life condition upward evolution (in the direction of increased complexity), to transcend and include those below.

Spiral Dynamics also lays out nuanced details as to the conditions, pathways and variations of vMeme change on the spiral. These insights in combination with the in-depth details of identifying and interacting with the various vMemes, provide a 'field manual' and 'templates' for restructuring and fine tuning organizations of all types. Through the development of an appreciation and understanding for the need for varying value systems in corresponding work and living contexts, more nuanced and effective engagement, cooperation and collaboration with individuals and groups, both on the local and global levels, becomes possible.