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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