"The goal of individuation is wholeness, as much as we can accomplish, not the triumph of the ego."

–-- James Hollis

Moving Toward Wholeness

Not long ago my friend, Ed Batista tweet­ed that he felt inspired by how I had con­nect­ed lead­er­ship to psy­cho­log­i­cal whole­ness in a recent post. That was very kind, and it also plant­ed a seed.

I’ve writ­ten before about what I think whole­ness is for lead­ers, but look­ing back to that 2011 post, I was dis­ap­point­ed — which is a sign, hope­ful­ly, of my own growth and devel­op­ment. Whole­ness is a far big­ger, rich­er top­ic than I was able to con­vey, so in this post let me try to add a lit­tle more of what I think whole­ness is, espe­cial­ly for those in lead­er­ship roles. If you know Fred­er­ic Laloux’s 2014 book, Rein­vent­ing Orga­ni­za­tions: A Guide to Cre­at­ing Orga­ni­za­tions Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Con­scious­ness, you may already be famil­iar with the term, as Laloux uses it exten­sive­ly to help describe cer­tain human­is­tic and spir­i­tu­al prac­tices of cut­ting edge work­places. I high­ly rec­om­mend it.


The way I think of whole­ness is as a kind of ener­gy, already in our­selves, that draws us toward psy­cho­log­i­cal health and well-being. Smart peo­ple in lead­er­ship roles, feel­ing the effects of ‘expo­sure,’ of liv­ing in an orga­ni­za­tion­al fish­bowl may begin to sense that their effec­tive­ness has less to do with what they know tech­ni­cal­ly than who they are as human beings and how this is expressed through what they do. Although at one lev­el they may know their jobs very well, at anoth­er they rec­og­nize that they’ll need more than man­age­ment process­es and author­i­ties to be tru­ly effec­tive. They must use their ener­gy to grow as human beings if they want to address the com­plex human/systemic dilem­mas thrown at them by mod­ern orga­ni­za­tions. Of course, whole­ness isn’t just about orga­ni­za­tion­al effec­tive­ness. It quick­ly bleeds over into a ques­tion of a lead­er’s per­son­al iden­ti­ty. It is the ongo­ing sto­ry of the per­son — a sto­ry that nev­er stops unfold­ing dur­ing her or his life.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, whole­ness is linked to integri­ty, but our eth­i­cal foun­da­tions are only part of what whole­ness means. It is more about bring­ing togeth­er con­scious and uncon­scious parts of our­selves, our quest to “inte­grate” in a larg­er sense. This means that it also has some­thing to do with the res­o­lu­tion of inner con­flicts, and the accep­tance of them: our abil­i­ty to tru­ly and ful­ly live with our­selves instead of caus­ing our­selves (and oth­ers) suf­fer­ing by fight­ing inner voic­es and demons. It means wak­ing up parts of our­selves that we’ve neglect­ed, pos­i­tive­ly or neg­a­tive­ly. It means see­ing our own radi­ance and the shad­ows caused by that radiance.

The fads of the day can pro­duc­tive­ly high­light some of the qual­i­ties of whole­ness, but these are often cul­tur­al­ly shaped. These days, qual­i­ties like resilience, cre­ativ­i­ty, pos­i­tiv­i­ty, mind­ful­ness, open­ness and appre­ci­a­tion for dif­fer­ences show up as key qual­i­ties of whole peo­ple, whole lead­ers. As a con­se­quence there’s a horde of train­ing pro­grams that pur­port to give us ways to ful­fill these qual­i­ties. There’s noth­ing wrong with any of this, of course, but whole­ness implies more, espe­cial­ly a will­ing­ness to ‘do one’s per­son­al work’ on the par­tic­u­lar pat­terns of our thoughts and behav­iors that inter­fere with a mean­ing­ful life. Many of us strug­gle with receiv­ing feed­back about those pat­terns of per­son­al­i­ty and tem­pera­ment. We become defen­sive. We push back on the need to grow. We defend our sta­tus quo. Yet if we devel­op a more con­scious inter­est in our own whole­ness, we’ll begin to be open to more infor­ma­tion about those pat­terns, where they came from, why they are there, and what impact they tru­ly have on our­selves and oth­ers — and we’ll be able to address them. Sure­ly, this is not all com­fort­able work, as a per­son inter­est­ed in per­son­al whole­ness nat­u­ral­ly feels his or her ego and learns to own the chal­lenges that ego cre­ates — whether it’s the need to be seen as ‘right’ or ‘smart’ or ‘authen­tic’ or a mil­lion oth­er vari­a­tions of self-image to which we all too eas­i­ly become enslaved.


In fact, I would say that when we real­ly start focus­ing our atten­tion on whole­ness, we can see how a great deal of the prob­lems of indi­vid­u­als, teams, orga­ni­za­tions and soci­ety at large are caused by the false means and med­i­cines that peo­ple use to try to achieve whole­ness uncon­scious­ly. We all know what those meth­ods and means are — from focus­ing on per­son­al stature, com­pe­ti­tion, exces­sive wealth and pow­er, moral supe­ri­or­i­ty to self-med­icat­ing with drugs and alco­hol and oth­er self-defeat­ing behav­iors. And we are darned clever in the vari­a­tions on these themes.

True whole­ness pen­e­trates — and reveals — the heart and soul of a per­son. It’s one thing to say, well, let’s all study ’emo­tion­al intel­li­gence’ — or more like­ly say, “my man­agers need train­ing in emo­tion­al intel­li­gence.” It’s quite anoth­er to own my unex­pressed per­son­al anger or address hav­ing been con­di­tioned by my fam­i­ly to think of myself as ‘self­ish’ or ‘inad­e­quate,’ or to strug­gle with the ‘reac­tiv­i­ty’ I express that leaves oth­ers feel­ing dis­cour­aged and dis­tant and makes me feel ashamed. My inner work as a per­son is unique. It defines who I am to me. It defines how I want to lead and who I real­ly am as a leader.

Whole­ness is not just about every­body going to ther­a­py (although more of us lead­ers could). Ulti­mate­ly, I believe, it’s about under­stand­ing how in teams and orga­ni­za­tions and soci­ety at large we can help each oth­er grow — if only we have the col­lec­tive courage to acknowl­edge our per­son­al paths and chal­lenges. Tak­ing the risk to dis­close opens us to dis­cov­ery and help and reas­sur­ance that we are not alone. If we do take that risk, whole­ness also begins to expand to mean being part of a sto­ry much big­ger than us — one that has been wait­ing all along.


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  • see­ing our own radi­ance and the shad­ows caused by that radiance

    I have often reflect­ed on the dou­ble (or mul­ti­ple) edges of every sword, and this beau­ti­ful­ly evoca­tive and poet­ic expres­sion of that con­cept real­ly res­onates with me.

    At sev­er­al points while read­ing this post, I was remind­ed of a line from Zor­ba the Greek, whose def­i­n­i­tion of cat­a­stro­phe is close­ly aligned with my under­stand­ing of whole­ness, and which pro­vid­ed a cen­tral moti­vat­ing theme in Jon Kabat-Zin­n’s book, Full Cat­a­stro­phe Living:

    Am I not a man? And is a man not stu­pid? I’m a man, so I mar­ried. Wife, chil­dren, house, every­thing. The full catastrophe

  • Joe~

    A favorite quo­ta­tion of mine, as well! We bet­ter have a glass of wine and talk about it!

    Best to you

  • Great stuff, Dan–so thought-pro­vok­ing, as always, and I’m hon­ored to have played a small role in the process.

    I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by your com­ment on the “false means and med­i­cines” we employ to pur­sue a sense of whole­ness. I agree that some­times we do this uncon­scious­ly, but I also think that some­times we do it with par­tial and even full aware­ness. We know it’s not the best way to go about it, but it’s the best we can come up with in the moment. Or it’s the way we’re used to, and we don’t want to change. Or we’re fool­ing our­selves, for any one of a mil­lion rea­sons, and hop­ing things will work out, even though we have a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion they won’t.

    That’s when I think “false means and med­i­cines” are actu­al­ly most dangerous–not when they’re tru­ly uncon­scious, but when we’re aware of them and our egos or some part of our iden­ti­ty is wrapped up in them and reluc­tant to let go (or down­right deter­mined not to).

  • Ed~

    Yes, you have def­i­nite­ly played a role in the process! 

    I love your com­ment, and agree — those false means and med­i­cines are some­times uncon­scious, but aware­ness comes in grades and lev­els of denial and ratio­nal­iza­tion. Our per­son­al work is always avail­able to us. Our very defen­sive­ness about cer­tain inci­dents in our life tells us where some good “places to dig” might be. So, too, our con­tra­dic­to­ry actions.

    I was watch­ing “Chef’s Table: France” last night on Net­flix, about chef Ade­line Grat­tard. The food she serves is evolv­ing every day and there are no writ­ten recipes at her restau­rant. Each table gets a dif­fer­ent vari­a­tion made with knowl­edge and intu­ition and a cer­tain soul­ful­ness. Explain­ing her phi­los­o­phy of cook­ing she says near the end of the episode: “Your cui­sine is a reflec­tion of your inner life.” How beau­ti­ful­ly suc­cinct. What we pre­pare for oth­ers is a reflec­tion of our inner being and expe­ri­ence, which is anoth­er way of defin­ing what a per­son­’s lead­er­ship is all about.

    Thank you, Ed, as always for your sup­port and friend­ship and inspi­ra­tion — and genius.


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