Fresh Perspectives: Leadership as a System Phenomenon, An Interview with Wessel Ganzevoort

Fresh Perspective / January 2008

Wessel GanzevoortRuss VolckmannWessel Ganzevoort is past Chairman of KPMG Europe and is Professor of Organizational Dynamics and Innovation at the University of Amsterdam. He is a member of the Integral Leadership Review’s Integral Leadership Council and you can read more about him at

Russ: I know that you spent many years with KPMG in Europe. Your role evolved from consultant to the number one guy in Europe for KPMG—is that correct?

Wessel: Yes, that is correct.

Russ: What was the nature of your work with KPMG throughout your career?

Wessel: When I joined the firm in 1970, I joined the consulting arm. I’ve never been in any other branch—I’ve always been in consulting. My education was in business administration and economics, but later on during my employment with KPMG I added a Master’s Degree in Social Psychology to that. In the 1980’s I made partner and soon after I came into the international arena. In 1988 I joined the European Consulting Committee as it was called at that time; it was a steering committee to integrate the practice. The memorandum of understanding for founding KPMG was created in August of 1986, and the firm began forming itself in 1987. I joined that steering committee to create the European consulting practice for KPMG in 1988, became chairman and managing partner for the Dutch practice and then the chairman for Europe in 1989. The year after I was the worldwide co-chairman for KPMG Consulting.

Russ: During those years, was the focus of your consulting principally on accounting and the financial side of the business?

Wessel: No, not at all. When I started in consulting it was audit-related, but it was more focused on information technology and management information systems. Rather soon, I moved more into strategy and organizational change. After a few years, in the mid-seventies, my focus area was organizational behavior and strategy.

Russ: What were the major theoretical or conceptual influences on you during those years?

Wessel: I think Constructionism played a very important role. The paradigm of a social system—which an organization is—is not something you can just design and create, but it’s something that exists in the perception of human beings that are participating or observing it. That was crucial from the beginning. When I became influenced by social sciences in the mid-seventies, the social construction of reality—the Berger and Luckman model—was very important for me and still is.

Russ: I really liked the way you said in one of your writings that organization is people. It is not composed of people; it is people.

Wessel: Exactly. That’s not my ideological point of view; that’s a conceptual point of view. People say it’s the human factor, or people are the main assets. I see that as nonsense. People ARE the organization, and so their perception of their reality around them is key both for leaders and for people who are trying to develop and change the organization.

Russ: As you rose in the ranks of KPMG you took on certain kinds of management responsibilities along the way, but you distinguish between management and leadership. How do you explain that?

Wessel: Let me talk about the dichotomy of leadership and management. We all know the usual distinction—management is more about getting things done and doing things the right way, and leadership is doing the right things and more about people. Management is more about efficiency; leadership is more about effectiveness. We tend to think that management is something of the modern paradigm and leadership is the post-modern or post-industrial paradigm. We tend to say that now is the time of leadership; the time of management has passed. I do think that’s a false dichotomy. It really depends upon the situation or the part of the organization you have responsibility for, on the stage of development of the organization, and how much management and/or leadership you need. I can hardly think of any circumstance where you don’t need either management or leadership.

Russ: When you were rising to the level of responsibility for the consulting arm in the Netherlands and Europe, what leadership challenges did you face?

Wessel: In the beginning, the formal power I had was limited. Bear in mind that when KPMG started it was a bit of a confederation, a congregation of individual practices. People saw the value of working collaboratively, but also had their own interests in mind. It was very important to create trust in the organization among the participants. That was an interesting thing—how do you get trust? How do you make people invest in being able to work together without any guarantee that they will get something back? When you’re working on trust, you don’t have an accounting system where you add the two sides. You have to persuade people to give, to invest, to contribute without any warranty that they’ll get the same amount back. That was our challenge and I can assure you that it was not just glory and hallelujah; there was a lot of disappointment as well.

Once I worked with two other practices on a proposal in Turkey. We in the Netherlands had the lead for the proposal and one of the other colleagues blissfully called me and said, “We got the assignment.” I said, “Wonderful. When can we start?” He said, “No, we are starting because WE got the assignment.” I said, “Who is ‘we’?” and he explained that “we” was the practice in his country and not the KPMG practice. That was an example of people working more with their elbows than with their heart.

Russ: As you were going through this in KPMG, there was a similar political movement going on in Europe with the creation of the European Union. Were you ahead of the curve on that, or was KPMG tracking with it?

Wessel: I think we were ahead. As movements were being made in the political realm, similar movements were being made in KPMG, as well. When UK people talked about Europe, they meant continental Europe. That was the same as the British bit in the political arena of Europe. That was interesting. The UK was…

Russ: …on the fringe?

Wessel: Yes, exactly. They joined when they liked it, and when it was not in their interest, they did not collaborate the way we expected. The continental practices were more willing to collaborate and there were practices, like in the Mediterranean area, that very much depended on the stronger practices, so they didn’t have a choice to cooperate. They had to.

Russ: You mentioned trust building as being so critical and that was certainly true both in the political realm as well as what you experienced in KPMG. As you observed other leaders in KPMG, what were the kinds of things that helped to build that trust?

Wessel: Reducing ego and self-interest.

Russ: This is an important theme in your work.

Wessel: Yes, it is. There is some evidence on the subject of servant leadership. In complex international environments, specifically in professional service organizations, concepts like servant leadership and really being there to serve the business are extremely important. This is partially ideological from my side, but on the other hand we’re getting more evidence that a more effective leadership style is to be more serving and less egotistical. Servant Leadership is preferable to being the big boss and using the King Kong-style of leadership.

Russ:(laughter) If that is indeed leadership.

Wessel: Right. If you are playing the King Kong or Tarzan role of masculinity as your so-called strong leadership style, it hardly works in professional practices and professional service firms.

Russ: In your writing you talk about the development of the soul as a kind of palliative for the ego. Can you comment on that?

Wessel: At that time I was not so outspoken about the phenomenon of the soul; that has come more in the past 10-12 years. I do believe that you need consistency or congruence between the soul—or essence—of the leader and the soul of the organization in terms of values and purpose and the real core competence of the leader and the organization. That is a theme that emerged in the last twelve years and is now very prominent in my own thinking and my work with leaders.

Russ: You distinguish between “essence” and “form.”

Wessel: Absolutely. One of the insights I got is that many processes of organizational change and organizational development are wrong, because we try to change the form and don’t touch the essence—we don’t even know what the essence of the organization is.

Russ: What comprises the essence of an organization?

Wessel: It is the purpose in terms of functionality, or the value you add to different stakeholders. Why is it that other groups of stakeholders want you to stay? Why are they prepared to pay you for your work? Why are the staff and employees prepared to get up in the morning to work at your company? What is it that you’re giving them? It is, of course, much more complicated than a product or money; it’s a very essential question to start with. Why are we here on this earth?

Russ: When you think about leaders in the context we’ve been talking about, whether in the KPMG context or any other business-related or institutional context, I’m getting that you do not think about leadership as something that is an ego-state of an individual who is in a formal position, but a phenomena that arises in the life of a system. Is this close to accurate?

Wessel: That is rather accurate, yes. I have to elaborate further on the issue of essence first. I mentioned purpose, and for me, the essence of an individual or organization has three basic components. The first one is purpose, as I mentioned. The second one is the values. In values, many things go wrong today. People think that values are some kind of form and do not see them as essence. Therefore, they think you can design values. So they ask their marketing or corporate communication people to create their core values. What I’m saying is core values are already there in the system, as they are already in the individual.

Russ: I remember a conversation I had with Jerry Porras not long after he and Jim Collins’ book Built to Last came out. We were talking about ways that he and Jim went about working with a large international corporation in the identification of core values. One thing he described was how they trained 150 managers to go out and interview people that were not in their direct line of report, but were at the base of the organization. This generated the data to find out what the operative core values were rather than from the top down. I think that’s what you’re talking about.

Wessel: Russ, that is exactly how it should be done. Leadership and organization development starts with the actual reality of this moment. It’s finding out what’s really there, and particularly with values—you need to make the distinction between the values you use and the values you espouse. In 90% of the cases they invent and design values that become espoused without any value because people don’t recognize them in the environment in which they work.

Russ: So we have purpose and values. What’s the third?

Wessel: The third is good old core competence. What I found out is that almost everyone forgot what C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel once meant. Core competence is the unique, deeply imbedded ability of an organization—something that the organization is really, really good at—as a starting point for strategic development. That’s how they meant it, and it’s a turning point in thinking about strategy, because it’s almost the starting point of the so-called resource based approach. It’s saying that it’s not just the outside world you have to respond to, but to a larger extent, it’s the capabilities that the organization already has. That’s the third component. You can imagine that if you have consistency between purpose, values and core competence, and the heart and soul of the corporation are clear to everyone, you have a very strong core.

Russ: Can we use that same lens to look at something like the European Union?

Wessel: I think so. It’s applicable to any social system, and the EU is some kind of a social system. So, yes, you can.

Russ: When you look at it today, and I know this could be an extraordinary excursion, but I’m wondering if you could summarize how you see those three variables operative in the EU today.


Wessel: I’m not a public administration voice, I’m just applying it to normal organizations.

Russ: I was thinking politically.

Wessel: I need more time to think about that.

Russ: What if we focused on the Netherlands?

Wessel: Yes. When it comes to the core values of the Netherlands, it’s words like equality, cooperation and dialogue. In terms of Spiral Dynamics, we have a rather green country. Purpose…we’re very much on this planet to create safety, even more than prosperity and wealth for our people. Trust plays an important role here, and transparency is another word that I would add to the picture of the Netherlands.

Russ: What does that mean?

Wessel: We literally keep our curtains open during the evenings.


Wessel: If you walk around Amsterdam…well, I don’t know if you’ve seen that…

Russ: I thought that was only in Amsterdam.

Wessel: Nothing to hide you know?

Russ: How interesting.

Wessel: The core competence of the Netherlands is we are…that’s a difficult one.

Russ: Maybe it’s more than one.

Wessel: I think we are very able to translate science into practical solutions. That would be a core competence for the Netherlands.

Russ: Do you have an example of that?

Wessel: Our research institutions are quite good and we know how to create innovative products out of research. A company like Phillips is an example of this. They know exactly how to translate science into very practical devices. We have to do that in the chemical industry and pharmaceuticals and the chip industry—IT, hardware—and our education is at quite a high level. The effectiveness of our research efforts is quite high, so that the amount we are spending on it is not sky high, but the effectiveness of it is. I think we can say that in the Netherlands our core competence would be translating science into practical and commercial solutions. We like to sell it as well. By the end of the day, we love to make money on it.

Russ: In recent years, in particular, there’s been growing diversity in the Netherlands in ethnic, religious and developmental levels…maybe not in the developmental levels. Maybe they’ve always been there. How does that affect the nature of the Netherlands as a developing community?

Wessel: In the past we have been quite successful in integrating people from other cultures like Indonesia and Surinam. We were quite good at it with people from the southern parts of Europe like Spain and Portugal. They also came by the thousands from the Mediterranean area. With people from Turkey, it went quite well also. Now we’ve had quite an influx from Morocco and we have a problem. In Spiral Dynamics terms, these people are quite red and purple. As I said before, our culture is very green with some yellow and some orange. Green doesn’t have the right response to red and purple. Green thinks we’re all equal and we all have to show respect and communicate with each other.

Our efforts to integrate people, particularly from the Moroccan culture, have not been very successful. There we have a problem. We thought we were able to, but apparently we are not. There is not any consciousness yet. The country is more or less divided with people saying we need to start a dialogue because we are all equal and we speak a very green language—and it’s being met with aggressive, reactive responses that demand discipline. It’s probably the better way of responding because we need a lot of blue to discipline the red and purple influences in our society today. So yes, on the one hand, we have a problem with diversity. On the other hand, we are still very good at it. In a city like Amsterdam we have 176 different nationalities all living together in peace. The city is prosperous and we appreciate each other.

Russ: And the safety?

Wessel: It’s much safer than almost all western cities. There are strange pictures of Amsterdam in the outside world. The number of drug addicts in this country is much lower than in surrounding countries.

Russ: What do you see as being the major leadership challenges for the Netherlands?

Wessel: I think it’s very much the quality of people in terms of education and in terms of consciousness—having a view on the planet, on society, etc. It is far more education and development of consciousness. I think our focus should be there and it is to a large extent. We are more focused on that. Of course we have to focus on being competitive as well. What we’re trying to do here is be competitive through people. As I said, we’re quite good at it.

Russ: When I look at what’s been going on in international business in recent years, it does seem that Europe and Asia, but particularly Europe, has been growing in strength in terms of its business operations compared to the United States. Is that a fair assessment?

Wessel: Yes, absolutely.

Russ: And when you look at leadership in Europe—or specifically in the Netherlands—what are they doing that’s helping that happen? Or is it about other things and not leadership?

Wessel: It’s a matter of politics and particular economic policies. We see the advantages of a common market and a European Union. Apart from leadership, there is a strong political engine running. It says if we cooperate and we enhance exchange of labor and money, that is a strong effect in itself. On the other hand, it has to do with leadership as well. If you look at people like Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and Sarkozy in France, they are people who have the interest of their own country in their minds and they are also very willing to serve a common purpose. There is an atmosphere of cooperation between the countries and it’s growing. So yes, it has to do with both political and corporate leadership. If you look at the pace at which people from different nationalities are now on board with larger companies, it is changing so rapidly. There is no really large company that searches for leaders from just one country. The leaders in private companies have become very pragmatic about this.

Russ: You have mentioned Spiral Dynamics a few times in this conversation. Can you tell me about your introduction to Spiral Dynamics and how it has influenced your thinking?

Wessel: For me, it’s the most validated—and from a conceptual point of view—the strongest theory and set of instruments we have when we’re talking about values and culture. The interesting thing is it’s about development and not a static taxonomy. Previous stages stay important. If you lose your purple, you can’t go to blue. You must go through purple and red. At the same time, if you’re green and you’ve lost your purple or your red, you’ve really lost a lot of your spirit and your ability to compete. This mantra of “include and transcend” is a very strong one in this developmental theory. There are a few aspects that I’m not sure about. One thing is that Don Beck says that only when you’re yellow can you really understand and respect the previous tiers. That sounds plausible, but I’m not sure that’s true. It may give us a next phase—they’re working on what comes after turquoise—it would be interesting to look at that. There are a lot of challenges when you’re talking about spiral dynamics. We haven’t used 20% of the strength of the concept.

Russ: It would be fair to say that with Spiral Dynamics, along with other innovative approaches, we’re in a process of developing our thinking and our understanding around these things. The comment you made about whether or not you have to be second-tier to relate to lower levels in the hierarchy of spiral dynamics is an interesting one to me. On some level, I’ve taken that as an assumption, and you’ve raised my consciousness that it’s an assumption well worth questioning. Are you suggesting then that through some kind of training or educational scaffolding process, we can teach people in green or in orange to be able to account for, communicate with and comprehend the purple/red/blue range?

Wessel: Absolutely. I’m convinced of that. That applies to more typologies, but it’s so important to be able to say, “This is who I am, and I see who you are, so there is no judgment. It’s an observation.” Maybe the biggest contribution of spiral dynamics is people can learn to observe instead of judge.

Russ: And yet if we’re in a leader role or in a group dynamics process, being able to not only identify but also relate to those levels besides our own seems very important. It may be that when we’re calm and rational that we can learn to do that, but under stressful conditions it may be more difficult for us.

Wessel: We can also measure how we react under stress in terms of Spiral Dynamics. It is more difficult, but you can come quite a long way with good training. Spiral Dynamics—and I could be exaggerating a little bit—could become a way of living; more a state of being rather than just teaching people for a few days how to apply the methodology. It’s a state in your own development to become aware of all the aspects of spiral dynamics.

Russ: So, to become aware of the spiral within, if you will…

Wessel: Exactly. We need more teaching and more education than just a few days. It’s something more people should integrate into their being.

Russ: Using Spiral Dynamics as a jumping-off point, you’ve moved into the field of education. I assume that since you’re teaching leadership, you’re teaching potential leaders. Are you using Spiral Dynamics or other models to help develop more effective opportunities for leadership to emerge?

Wessel: When I’m supporting people in their leadership development as a consultant in companies and institutions, I do use Spiral Dynamics. When I’m doing it at the university, I mention it but it’s not my focus. When I’m developing potential leaders in the university I am focusing on and making them aware of the three elements we just discussed. Those are the three basic questions for leaders. “What is your purpose? What is your reason for being on this planet? What is it you contribute? Why do people want you to stay?” The next question is, “What are your real values? Not the values that your parents taught you, but your real values?” Question number three is, “What are your real talents?” In particular, the second one is a confusing question, because they start talking about integrity and fairness, etc., but they find out the values they’re talking about are superimposed values. They’re not really their values. When you ask them about their talents, they don’t have a clue.


Russ: That’s interesting. Why do you think that is?

Wessel: Now we’re getting into psychoanalysis. You may know that since 1996 I have been participating in the School for Transpersonal Psychology.

Russ: No, I didn’t know that. Is that in the Netherlands?

Wessel: No, it’s an American school. It’s the Diamond approach, developed by A. H. Almaas. It’s located near San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado, and now there are many European groups in Germany, the UK and Netherlands. It’s quite an important organization. They say there is no such thing as a happy childhood. Dad and mom did not allow you to become who you really are. They were so afraid that if they allowed you do that, they would lose control of you. You don’t even know what your real values are because your parents’ values are still so dominant, regardless of your age. Also, when it comes to your real talents, many parents, teachers, etc. did not allow their children or pupils to become who they really are. The underlying process of leadership development is the process of realizing who your authentic self is. I’m a protagonist of the authenticity school.

Russ: So you like Bill George’s work?

Wessel: Yes. He’s not my biggest favorite, but he’s also important. Leadership development is getting rid of the limiting beliefs and getting awareness of aspects of why you are here, what your talents and values are. Knowing that creates such an enormous strength within people—you’d be amazed what happens to people who discover themselves.

Russ: Can you give an example?

Wessel: It very often has to do with the devastatingly stressful effect of people not being and not living who they really are. Last year I was working with a senior management accounting officer of a large oil company. She really felt her purpose on this earth was teaching people how to communicate and helping them to collaborate. She was forced by her father to become an accountant. She was a good one, but finding out what her real purpose was felt so liberating for her, and on the other hand, going on with management accounting was such a burden for her. Can you imagine what that’s like—to help someone discover themselves and how much that contributes to becoming an authentic leader?

Russ: You mentioned transpersonal psychology, and when I think of that, I think of the work of Ken Wilber—not because he identifies himself as a transpersonal psychologist, but because he came up through the ranks from humanistic psychology into this world of his own—into the world of integral. Have you been at all influenced by his work?

Wessel: Well, if someone were to tell me that they know everything about Ken Wilber, I would never believe it.


Wessel: There’s Wilber I, Wilber II; there may be a Wilber III at the moment.

Russ: Wilber V, actually.

Wessel: Oh, is it five already?


Russ: Yes, according to Frank Visser, it is.

Wessel: Well, yes, I know Frank quite well. They have a conflict, Frank and Ken.

Russ: It seems that way, unfortunately.

Wessel: Anyway, knowing and understanding everything of Ken Wilber is impossible, but I’m quite familiar with his work. He is of course, the master of typologies and taxonomies.

Russ: Yes.

Wessel: That helps a lot to raise consciousness with people.

Russ: It helps us provide a lens through which to look.

Wessel: Exactly. The thing about Spiral Dynamics is you come from judging to observing. What is essential for me when it comes to transpersonal psychology is we keep the judgment out, particularly when we come to what I call the essential level as opposed to the form level. If you come to the essential level of being a human being, judgment is absolutely useless, or even counterproductive. I think Ken Wilber helps to get the judgment out.

Russ: That’s a very interesting perspective. The mapping—I’m not sure if you’ve been following it—but in the Integral Leadership Review , Mark Edwards and I have been working with integral mapping and elaborating on Wilber’s ideas and doing some variations on them. For example, we have seven episodes of our dialogue published at this point, and in the last episode, we have grown the four-cell matrix into a 15-cell matrix. That doesn’t mean that a four-cell matrix isn’t valuable, but as I suggested to Mark in one of the conversations, what we’re about is not just creating an integral map but an integral atlas. By looking at different variables, we can use integral mapping to see the whole picture, but to do that we need an atlas, not just a map.

Wessel: Interesting.

Russ: Do you introduce any of the integral taxonomies in your teaching?

Wessel: Well, in particular, the four-quadrant alignment ideas. Alignment has always been one of the key issues when you talk about leadership development and organizational development. From a very practical point of view, if you take notions from social psychology, like Karl Weick, for instance, consistency and alignment is such a key thing to do. Of course, there should be a contextual fit, but the internal coherence and consistency of a social system is even more important than whether it matches the external environment. So the four quadrants would be an alignment model. That is a practical, useful thing to use in organizational development.

Russ: Yes, I have a process orientation to the way I like to look at things, and in my work I was using the term “alignment” to talk about the relationship between one’s own internal aspects, values and intentions in relation to the culture as one understands it. I used to call it “alignment”—that what we’re constantly involved in is trying to align our values with what we’re experiencing in the life conditions that we’re a part of. I changed the term because it became apparent to me that this wasn’t an end state; alignment implies an end state, a place to be, but it was more of a process, so I changed the word to “attunement.” How does that resonate with you?

Wessel: Yes, that’s interesting. I use that word as well, and I have to give it some more thought. In Dutch, we don’t have real word for “alignment,” and we’re already using the word “attunement” there. In Dutch it’s afstemmen, like the German abstimmen.

Russ: When this whole subject of language and meaning emerges, how do Spiral Dynamics and integral translate into Dutch? Is it a loose translation?

Wessel: We don’t have many problems with that. It lands quite well in this culture. Being green, our taxonomy helps us to understand other phases and stages and appreciate them.

Russ: In your work, what are the challenges you face today? Where do you see your work going from here?

Wessel: I decided quite some time ago that if you want to work on leadership, the only place to start is on the Board level. If people on the top level of an organization are not prepared to really start reflecting on who they are and what their values and talents and purpose are, I don’t think other efforts for leadership or organizational development make any sense. I’m now only working on the top level of organizations, and I’m quite amazed how prepared many people are to really look at themselves and start working. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I never make proposals—they invite me to come. They know me, so they know what they get. This is not necessarily a representative picture of what’s happening in this country—it is biased by who I am—but it’s amazing. If you look at my clientele from the last few years it’s a mix of a large IT company, large academic hospital, large insurance company. I have very interesting clients and the people on top levels are really ready to change and increase their consciousness and insight.

Russ: I’d love to read a case study of one of those experiences for The Integral Leadership Review. I think it would be very interesting. I really appreciate you taking the time for this. It will be a great addition to this special edition in the Netherlands, and I thank you.

Wessel: Thank you.

Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality. New York, NY: Doubleday.