What is “Wholeness”?

This is a term that is often thrown around to describe a goal of individual growth and development, and so it shows up in wellness, psychological, and spiritual literature. But what does it mean, really, and how does it apply in terms of readiness to lead others? One way to look at this is that wholeness has four aspects, each a complementary “power.” A leader who is “whole” can:

1. Live from a sense of deep self-worth. This includes the capacity to honor a unique life path and to set boundaries with others.

2. Love others and value their deep worth as well. This includes the capacity to sacrifice personal desires and ambitions in favor of what benefits others; to be generous and to be compassionate.

3. Trust others and the universe. The includes the power to live neither above or below the world, but with faith, openness, engagement, equality, and mutuality.

4. Operate with personal congruence, based on an ethical core and value-based principles.

When these capacities are in balance, it seems to me the person both experiences “wholeness” and others sense it, too. But, of course — and this now applies to virtually all of us — we are not totally in balance. In fact, our overuse or underuse of these powers often appear as fairly predictable behavioral patterns, with overuse typically less conscious, more defensive, and therefore more defining of the shadow side of leadership style. An overuse of self-worth can be control and narcissism, for example. An overuse of love can lead to self-effacement or victimization. An overuse of trust may become denial and fantasy. An overuse of ethics can be righteousness and “values bludgeoning” of other people. So when we talk about “wholeness” it’s keeping the noble aspects of these four powers in balance — and that’s often a long-term learning curve.


Similarly, there are most often powers we do not activate so well in our lives. The underuse of self-worth may be compliance and accommodation. The underuse of love could express itself as disconnection and a sense of personal emptiness. The underuse of trust may lead to a state of tension, suspicion and inability to adapt. The underuse of congruence may show up as being driven by impulse, with many broken promises to self and others. There are as many variations on these themes as there are people.

The important point is that balance — the experience of wholeness — is someplace in the middle, and that we grow into it over time. Our longer-term life stories, the stories of our successes and failures as leaders, may simply be reflections of patterns of overuse and underuse, and our gradual learning how to get it right. Perhaps there is even a sense of “redemption” in our learning how to do all four well. Like compass points, I sense they work together to provide meaningful direction. If we understand them and pay attention, we are more likely to get where we want to go.

In one of my first jobs and in my 20’s, I was asked to help the owner of an employment agency put together a career development arm to assist people looking for work. The goal was to help those clients who didn’t have goals, who often had communication problems, who didn’t seem to be personally responsible, and worst of all, according to the owner, were not “positive people.” I think that was actually the first place I ever heard the term, “wholeness,” outside of school. The owner used it in the context of helping these “underachieving” clients get work. The people who would be most successful placements, she said, were likely to be the “whole people.” I don’t know if I ever really knew or agreed with her about what she meant, and I didn’t stay with the project for long. I was still learning, still trying to find my own wholeness, I suppose. But the thought stuck that there might be some things that are core, why some of us show up more easily as leaders and others never do.

Wholeness, I’d say, is not the whole story, but it is a factor worth considering, especially if it has something to do with the four sources of personal power I am expressing here. It is a way of seeing, and if it helps, that’s a good thing.

One last point is worth considering, I believe, especially if you agree with me that receiving feedback is something every leader should learn to do well: the road to wholeness both requires feedback and makes it easier. Even when the feedback is tough, the person who knows for sure he or she is on that road in a profoundly personal way is more likely to listen, reflect, and act on what he or she has heard. To me that’s an enormous advantage, to the individual, and to whatever enterprise is also in the balance.

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  • Hi Dan,

    I was intrigued by your post title, “wholeness”. A french equivalent of this word would typically not be used in the context of leadership. I guess we would say a good job candidate, or a good leader, is “balanced”, “broadly skilled”, …
    The word “wholeness” also raises other thoughts in my mind. Carl Jung explained a long time ago the “individuation” process, by which a person becomes more and more aware, more and more integrative of its various inner components, even – especially – of its self-contradictory inner components.
    I think self-worth, love, trust, ethics have a particular flavor, a particular mix in each of us. In my opinion, wholeness is not only a question of the right balance & mix. It is also a process of expanding awareness, becoming aware and familiar with all the other flavors of (self-worth, love, etc.) around us, realizing that we are also somehow like that, that these other ways of functioning are also part of us – but we still retain our own preferred, consciously preferred mix & flavor.

    Wholeness here would include an encompassing capability, an openness to differences outside and inside – I believe this kind of wholeness does have leadership impact…


  • Pascal — I’m glad to have your partnership in exploring this topic. I agree completely with your perspective and the references to Jung are on target. To me, there is a quality of being at home in oneself associated with wholeness and also a quality of expanding awareness via individuation, based perhaps in what dancer and choreographer Martha Graham called our interior “blessed unrest.”

    I deeply believe in the kind of expansion that comes through the mirrors the world naturally provides — if we can be open to them. Especially by noticing our projections onto others and others’ projections onto us we can learn in profound ways — that is one of the reasons feedback and reflection are such important considerations for growth.

    You raise another important issue, as well, that the term “wholeness” may not always seem appropriate to a topic as business-hardened as leadership. Perhaps this hardening is in part a result of the fear that opening the door to such subjective considerations will erode easier, more ostensibly measurable concepts, miring us not only in an exotic psychology of leadership, but an exotic poetry of it, as well.

    I especially like your beautiful statement that wholeness is becoming “familiar with all the other flavors, realizing that we are somehow like that,” that they, too, are “part of us, an openness that “does have leadership impact.”

    It seems to me the dominant challenge is simply helping ourselves and others turn to the needed inner work, being of mutual aid whatever personal vocabulary we may choose for this reflective turn. In this sense, perhaps we could say that “wholeness” has the power to rub off.

    Thanks again for the comment, Pascal. I am emailing you with some additional thoughts I hope you find of interest.

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