Feature Article: Leadership as Opening Space

November 2007 / Feature Articles

jonathan reamsIntroduction

I have always been interested in the intangible, even ineffable aspects of life. This interest has guided a number of areas in my life, including my inquiries into leadership. I have sought to understand leadership from a view that focuses on the sense of space that some people are able to create and maintain, regardless of their formal role or position. From this, I will propose a definition of leadership as the act of opening space.

In order to describe what I mean by this definition, I will lay out some foundations, some of the implicit view, or horizon of pre-understanding that has informed the meaning these terms have for me. I will draw on elements of work that has influenced me and weave them together based on how they reflect aspects of my own intuitions about how the world works. I will then make the link to my definition of leadership, hopefully infusing the words with meaning that enables you as the reader to apply them to your own experience. I should also say that while I see leadership as being possible from anywhere, it is also clear that those who hold formal roles in organizations can have a huge impact by the degree to which they do or do not open space. To illustrate this I will begin with two examples.

I recently consulted with two agencies. They both faced accreditation reviews, and I was hired to facilitate preparations for them. However, the attitudes of the two Executive Directors were very different. The first felt it was a hoop to be jumped through, and then go back to the comfort of business as usual. The second saw the process as an opportunity for growth and revitalization in the agency. Both were ultimately successful in terms of gaining accreditation, but the impact of the processes on their organizations was markedly different. For the first ED’s agency, it was indeed back to business as usual, with everyone relieved that the extra work had passed, and they could get back to “normal.” They simply added some paperwork onto the surface of how they went about their work, but nothing fundamental changed. For the second ED’s agency, it was a transformative process that was followed up by a staff driven strategic planning process to articulate a new vision for expanding how they did their work. The integration of the preparations for the accreditation review with a very authentic inquiry into how things had come to be as they were healed divisions that had been left by the preceding ED and enabled everyone in the agency to reframe their work in ways that could enable growth.

A few years ago I attended a “dialogue” between two prominent figures in the field of new paradigm thinking. A couple of friends who knew very little about these speakers came along as well. We listened as each speaker took turns offering their thoughts on the topic of the evening and each other’s remarks. After the event, my friends commented on how much they were “put off” by one of the speakers, feeling like he had been pontificating, talking down to them, and almost demanding that his views be accepted, not only by the audience, but by implication all those who thought differently on the subject. They then commented on how with the other speaker they felt invited into an inquiry, encouraged to think for themselves and had a sense of a heartfelt connection.

I believe many of us can relate to the experiences these two examples describe. I use them to point to the contrasts in how I experienced a space being opened with the second ED and the second speaker, while it was closed with the first ED and first speaker. While my definition of leadership as opening space may describe such experiences with a degree of intuitive resonance, how can it add to our understanding of leadership in a way that is different than the multitude of existing definitions?

Notions of Space

To go beyond this intuitive resonance, I will begin by briefly exploring a few of the more common domains of how “space” is experienced. The goal of this is to draw out how fundamentally important the quality of our space is in everyday life. This includes the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of our lives.

At a very basic level, space (along with time) is a central mode by which we order experience. Pribram (in Talbot, 1991) has shown how the brain functions by translating the raw input of sensory data in terms of frequencies at various vibrations into time and space coordinates. Thus our physical world is perceived in terms of space. We travel from one place to another through space. We feel that certain physical spaces have more or less desirable qualities to them. The view from a mountaintop is different than the view from a back alley in an inner city.

There are also emotional spaces that we experience. A healthy and loving relationship can have a flow to it that opens up possibilities and gives us a sense of freedom and choice. A codependent relationship (speaking from personal experience) has a very different quality of space to it, one that can close down the possibilities for choice and restrict freedom. Goleman (1995) talks about emotional intelligence in ways that illustrate how we can become aware of the emotional spaces that we create and live within.

Then there are mental spaces, found in beliefs, ideologies, or cognitive development. Beliefs can be more or less functional in guiding our actions in life. Ideologies can liberate us from oppressive beliefs, but can also restrict our freedom of thought. The process of cognitive development can open up new possibilities for us to expand our range of choices. How the notion of space relates to the spiritual dimension of life is subtler. Some might point to the ways in which various religious practices create different spaces, while others might counter that these are primarily beliefs, and relegate them to questionable mental phenomenon (Harris, 2005). In my view, the realm of Spirit is transcendent of time and space, and people are unable to conceive of its essence through traditional spatial modes of ordering experience.

Foundations of My View


So how is my view of leadership as opening space related to Spirit if it cannot be conceived in terms of space? The key is in the mode of ordering experience. Shortly, I will describe a different view on this I hope will make clear a crucial distinction underlying my view. But first I want to name another foundational aspect running through my experience; that we are Spiritual Beings having human experiences. This orientation has been central to the unfolding of my view of leadership. Many years ago I heard a talk (who the speaker was escapes my memory) where Spirit was defined simply as “always becoming more than itself.” This definition has helped me see how while Spirit may not be conceived (a mental or epistemological process) in terms of a spatial order, it is the source of opening space by virtue of always becoming more than itself.

This insight addresses a rather logical question that can arise in this context, which is: how can space open itself? Any change in form or order, (such as space), must come from a form or order that is qualitatively different in significant ways. Thus the source of, or power to, open space can be posited to come from beyond space, and while I will draw on other sources to describe this, I will also simply state that Spirit is required to open space. There are a number of writers in the field of leadership who espouse this view as well, and I will describe some of their works later.

Quantum Physics, Consciousness and a Process Model

Beyond simply stating the views I have articulated above, what kind of models are there for supporting this view and understanding the “mechanics” of how it operates? For this I will take us on a journey that will go a bit deeper into the realms of quantum physics and a process model in order to outline what I have perceived as insights that inform and support the view I am presenting. I have found the works of David Bohm (1980, 1992, 1993), Amit Goswami (1989, 1993), and Bonnitta Roy (2006) to provide a framework that can enable the mechanics of how Spirit opens space become clearer.

Bohm (1993) focuses on introducing a new concept of order, the implicate order, that I perceive as meeting the need for a qualitatively different order to be able to open space. In discussing how the findings of quantum physics affect concepts of order, he describes a disparity between physical models based on the Cartesian notion of order and the mathematical concepts essential to quantum physics, pointing to the need for a kind of order that he calls the implicate order that can address both.

Bohm (1980) addresses this need by using a holographic metaphor to convey his sense of this implicate order where “in some sense each region contains a total structure ‘enfolded’ within it” (p. 149). This total structure or a “ total order is contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time” (p. 149). The implicate order is in a continual process of unfolding into an explicate order, or the everyday order of time and space and the material world. “Clearly the manifest world of common sense experience refined where necessary with the aid of concepts and laws of classical physics is basically in an explicate order” (Bohm, 1993. p. 362).

The explicate order then enfolds into the implicate order, creating a continuous movement that Bohm (1993) refers to as a holomovement.

Recalling that the essential qualities of fields exist only in their movement we propose to call this ground the holomovement. It follows that ultimately everything in the explicate order of common experience arises from the holomovement. Whatever persists with a constant form is sustained as the unfoldment of a recurrent and stable pattern which is constantly being renewed by enfoldment and dissolved by unfoldment. When the renewal ceases the form vanishes. (p. 357)

Roy (2006) describes a similar view in her Process Model of Integral Theory. She distinguishes an epistemological field from an ontologicaldimension of Being. In the Process Model she describes the relationship between these as the process of wholeness continually liberating into multiplicity . This is consistent with Bohm’s description of the holomovement and the implicate and explicate orders. Roy goes into rigorous detail about the precise nature of how this process of wholeness liberates into multiplicity, or an explicate order.

Roy uses Jason Brown’s (1991, 1998, 2002) concept of cognitive microgenesis, which in essence says “consciousness is a symphony-like process in which innumerably simultaneous “waves” advance from an unarticulated core through discrete steps (micro steps) toward a more and more fully articulated cognition, and then recede back to the core through the same steps” (Roy, 2006. p. 138). This process mirrors Bohm’s (1993) description of “the unfoldment of a recurrent and stable pattern which is constantly being renewed by enfoldment and dissolved by unfoldment” (p. 357).

In order to address the means by which this process occurs, I find Goswami’s (1989, 1993) approach of monistic idealism to be helpful. Goswami proposes a view in which consciousness is seen as the ground of all reality, and that matter does not have an ontologically independent existence of its own. It is given existence and form through consciousness. Within the quantum field of probabilities, (which could be correlated with the implicate order and ontological dimension) consciousness shapes the form (or explicate order) in which matter appears by determining the collapse of the wave function. Goswami is clear that it is not the everyday consciousness of the self that produces this collapse, but a fundamentally different order of consciousness.

Bohm (1980) also sees how consciousness (not our conscious thoughts and feelings) is primary. He proposes “that the more comprehensive, deeper, and more inward actuality is neither mind nor body but rather a yet higher-dimensional actuality, which is their common ground and which is of a nature beyond both” (p. 209). In this view, consciousness is the ground from which mind and body are generated in the explicate order. Goswami (1993) makes the relationship clear by saying that “consciousness is the agency that collapses the wave of a quantum particle in the world of manifestation.” (p. 60).

Integration and Implication

Absorbing these concepts over time, I have come to a view that we as Spiritual Beings having human experiences differentiate Spirit (unbroken wholeness always becoming more than itself) into a multiplicity of manifestations. In each moment, the pulse of life emanates from Spirit through us into the manifest world. In this process of differentiation, we have choice, (which Goswami sees as being the fundamental mechanism by which consciousness creates experience) and those choices have a kind of fundamental orientation, which can be viewed as either opening or closing space. Closing space restricts the flow of Spirit, while opening space increases it.

From this, the question arises (at least for me) about what is behind our choices at this level? It seems to me from the previous discussion that the deep and radical nature of this choice will not be conscious in our normal mode of living. It appears tied to Goswami’s (1993) notion of the quantum level of consciousness, in which consciousness is one undivided wholeness, as well as Bohm’s (1980) notion of the implicate order. Bohm notes that we do not generally notice the primacy of the implicate order, wholeness, and consciousness because “we have become so habituated to the explicate order, and have emphasized it so much in our thought and language, that we tend to feel strongly that our primary experience is of that which is explicate and manifest” (p. 206). This capturing of our attention by the explicate order, thought, and the feelings associated with our bodies is seen to fool us into thinking that thought and the material world are the basis and totality of reality.

These patterns of choice become habituated over time, and operate in a mechanical manner that led Bohm (1992) to describe thought as a system of reflexes. This system creates images of reality and then inserts those images into perception, fooling us into thinking that we are perceiving reality rather than our own images. The system of thought then builds up defensive reflexes, as it identifies a self-image as part of this system and then defends its existence, no matter how incoherent this becomes. Thus we end up with Gurdjieff’s notion of “mechanical man” who operates within those reflexes and is in some sense not really alive until woken up to the awareness of the self that is beyond this system of thought reflexes.

So what is the key issue in our attention being captured by thought and matter? Bohm (1992) examines this question in depth, with the main insight emerging that “the point is to have the notion of a creative being rather than of an identified being” (p. 169). He sees that the identified sense of being is part of the explicate order and has only a limited significance, but that we tend to give it a “fundamental deep eternal significance” (p. 170). The key then to gaining control of our attention is to counter the process of identification, place it in a context that does not allow its significance to expand out of proportion to the greater wholeness of our Spiritual Beingness.

Leadership and Spirit Opening Space

This brings us back to the topic at hand. The above inquiry into the realms of quantum physics and process philosophy has hopefully revealed some of the implicit meaning and view lying underneath my definition of leadership as opening space. It should also be clear from this that my conception of leadership has a spiritual core to it, and some of what is implied by using the term spiritual. Opening space can be seen as allowing Spirit to create opportunities for people’s views to be infused with more capacity to come from a place of wholeness.

While this is a very abstract description of the implication and value this view has for leadership, there are very practical and tangible gains to be had from it. In this section, I will illustrate this through literature from a variety of sources. While this is not the dominant view in leadership literature, it is being put forward by a number of writers and researchers in the field.

One example of this comes from Harald Harung (1999), who talks about “invincible leadership.” He sees organizations as fields of consciousness, and the culture of an organization will have its source in the collective consciousness of its people. Harung’s primary principle for invincible leadership is “that how people perform, individually and collectively, is fundamentally controlled by one factor – human development” (p. 7). He uses Torbert’s (1991) description of levels of leadership and consciousness as a basis for showing how the practice of Transcendental Meditation can have a positive impact on leadership development. He explores the relationship between consciousness as the causal factor in human activity, and individual and organizational effectiveness.

How much leaders, or relatively small groups of individuals, can have an impact on the collective consciousness of an organization, or even an entire city, has also been studied by Dillbeck, et al. (1987) and Hagelin, et al. (1994). These studies indicated that statistically significant increases in quality of life measures could be achieved through focused attention on higher states of consciousness. This can be interpreted as opening space for life to become more than itself.

Harrison Owen (2000) writes “from the belief, and experience, that Spirit is the most important thing” (p. 1). He notes that “when Spirit is fully present and working well, transforming in an ongoing search to more adequately fit its environment, good things happen. Organizations become exciting, alive, and profitable, if profit is a major concern” (p. 201). Owen focuses on a common sense approach to Spirit as the vitality of our Beingness in the world.

His definition of leadership is that “leadership appears where passion appears and takes responsibility” (personal communication, September 28, 2001). These principles shaped how Owen created Open Space Technology (OST). OST is a facilitation process that creates space for Spirit to appear and be present in what people do. It is based on people’s natural tendency to self organize (Owen, 1997). Owen (2000) is emphatic that “there is no such thing as a non-self-organizing system” (p. 56). His experience is that any true productivity does not result from well thought out planning that creates rules or procedures. Instead, productivity, creativity, and innovation all occur when space is open and Spirit can flow. He notes that for leadership to open space like this, “What it’s really all about is to let go” (personal communication, September 27, 2001), indicating a similar process to letting go of identification with forms in the explicate order.

Debashis Chatterjee (1998) states that “leadership is not a science or an art, it is a state of consciousness” (p. xix) and that “we can now begin to grasp the phenomenon of leadership as the field of awareness rather than a personality trait or mental attribute” (p. 24). Senge (1990) describes personal mastery as one of the core disciplines necessary for a learning organization. For Chatterjee, personal mastery includes being able to still the restlessness of the mind and tame the impure emotions such as anger, arrogance, indecision, opinionatedness, and attachment, which can derail our best intentions. This can be viewed as another approach to describing the letting go of identification with the forms of the explicate order or manifest world.

Chatterjee sees this personal mastery as a journey toward integral beingness, or being in harmony with ourselves and the universe. He says that “personal mastery is a function of the quality of our seeing” (p. 1). His notion of seeing is similar to Roy’s notion of view. Roy (2006) makes distinctions between a structural view (which would come from the explicit order) and a process view (arising from the implicate order). “Structural approaches and process approaches can cover the same territory, through all the various perspectives, yet a process approach will have a completely different view of reality” (p. 120).

The view Chatterjee is proposing for leadership emerges from an Indian culture. For instance, in talking about “dharshan,” the Indian word for seeing, Chatterjee (1998) says that “sight as well as insight constitute a perspective” (p. 2). This combination of sight, or observing the world around us, and insight as the depth or quality of our interpretation of what we observe, creates the meaning and order we give to experience, and represents our view. “High-energy seeing enables you to touch events or persons with a quality of awareness” (p. 3).

The depth of seeing or view is also tied to a leader’s degree of awareness. This is also described by Greenleaf (1977), who says that one qualification for leadership is to be able to sustain a high degree of perception and awareness of the world as it truly is, rather than through the usual very narrow filters that we tend to live with. Greenleaf also warns that opening up to this greater perception too rapidly, or without sufficient preparation, can be dangerous. From this he sees that a leader needs to engage in self-discipline, or personal mastery, as a way of preparing for this growth in perception and awareness. Harung’s (1999) argument for an intellectual component to the transformation of consciousness prepares the individual for his or her new experience, mitigating suffering arising from the resistance of thought to changes in its system.

Quoting Gandhi, Chatterjee (1998) describes the power of lessening this resistance by getting self, or our identity, out of the way to allow the higher Self, consciousness, or Spirit to flow through. “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero” (p. 51). Chatterjee notes that “in reality an object is something that objects or hinders the flow of consciousness” (p. 52). In this way self, our self-image, or personality, is an identified sense of being. This reinforces the view expressed above that the very process of identification itself is the greatest source of resistance to transformation and the flow of the creative sense of being or Spirit.

Carey (1992) also addresses how self can block this flow by tending towards self-embeddedness, leading to a dysfunctional growth of, and attachment to identity that brings out the dark side of leadership. His response is to point to a fundamental option or choice we each have for self-transcendence. Chatterjee (1998) makes a distinction about this by saying: “Transcendence in the context of leadership does not mean transcendence of action; it simply means the transcendence of self to Self while in action” (p. 73).

In this context, Vaill (1990) describes executive development as spiritual development. He is adamant that “we cannot afford the luxury of silence about the spiritual condition of our leaders” (p. 333). He frames spiritual condition as “the degree to which the person acts on values that transcend the sheer material events and conditions of the world” (p. 334).

What would it look like for leaders to see and act in the world in this way? The Indian mystic Krishnamurti (1994) states: “When we remove the division between the ‘me’ and ‘you,’ the ‘we’ and ‘they,’ what happens? Only then and not before can one perhaps use the word ‘love.’ And love is that most extraordinary thing that takes place when there is no ‘me’ within its circle or wall.” (in Chatterjee, 1998, p. 165)


And here is where we will leave off for now, at that place where leadership becomes an act of love made possible through the transcendence of self. This act of leadership, of love, is inspiring, opening space for Spirit to flow through our lives, allowing our view to be uplifted into this consciousness.

Each of us can realize such acts of leadership in the circumstances of our manifest lives. It does not require us to gaze at our navels contemplating the universe. It does require us to let go of the illusion of control, take up responsibility for our choices, and listen deeply to the still small voice that can guide us everyday. How we treat our co-workers, followers and leaders, and how we approach each task in our day, can all be instances of leadership opening space.


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