The Human Art of Leading—Part 2

March 2012 / Feature Articles

[Part 1 of this article is: McCaslin, M. & Snow, R. (October, 2010). The human art of leading: A foreshadow to the potentiating movement of leadership studies. Integral Leadership Review, X (5). – Editor]

Practicing the Potentiating Art of Deep Understanding

Mark McCaslin and Renee Snow

Mark McCaslin

Renee Snow

Opening Interlude

It is difficult to fully speak about the gifts of human potential lying dormant in the eco – the sacred habitat where individually held potentials and energetic resources fuse. Etymologically, eco means house and is the root of both ecology and economics science. Ecology originally meant interrelationships among household members and their environment while economics represented energy flows or work effort among household members. For purposes of this paper, eco is the vessel, be it a home, a school, or organization, where creative and spiritual potential is empowered into reality. The challenge to the eco as a whole has always been one of actualizing unrealized potential. Conversations concerning this unexpressed human potential within the eco always seem to end at a vanishing point – that place where our perception and faith meet. Here is the crux of the problem:

It was the opening day of school and my new class was sitting anxiously waiting upon my arrival. I smiled as I walked in and quickly greeted the class. My first task was to call roll. “Susan B. Anthony, Alex Bell, Rachel Carson, Dorothy Day, Amelia Earhart, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Barbara Jordon, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Kennedy, Martin King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Margaret Mead, Pablo Picasso, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Steinbeck …

The potentiator, a leader who practices the Potentiating Arts™, holds the elegant assumption that every class we face, every child we parent, and every associate we work with or lead represents just such a collection of potentials. Again, it simply does not matter what form the eco takes – the home, school, university, or business – the gifts of potential are believed to be present. What the potentiator deeply understands is that while the above historical figures have clearly impacted the world, none of their future influence was known to the world prior to the actualization of their potential. Previous to its actualization, their potential existed only as a myth lingering just out of sight, beyond our perception, on the other side of the vanishing point. Nestled there, just outside the range of our perception, are the hopes and dreams of the individual. To the potentiator such seeds of potential were and are only a question of faith.

Holding this faith is the challenge we face as potentiators. No matter the nature of the eco or where we stand within it, sitting in front of us is always a collection of human potentials, including our own. As potentiators, if we do not come to believe this, to hold the faith, then we will always retard growth of potential, if only in a small way. As a gardener might say, “We will not know how beautiful the rose will become until it blooms”. The gardener nourishes the seed, cultivates its possibility, and anticipates the bloom. Potentiators anticipate beauty; they anticipate potential.

The Will to Believe

Potentiators are not blinded by the vanishing point. They are actually enlivened by the notion that when little or nothing is certain concerning the potential held by their associates, students, and children, all things remain possible. They hold the will to believe in the possible person. With this act of faith they become agents holding a eudaimonistic intention, believers in the good seed of possibility, constantly seeking ways they might catalyze potentials awaiting their full expression. If there is something magic concerning this revelation, it is held by an engaging and pragmatic faith. This act of faith ultimately taps into the relational (ecologic) and sustaining (economic) energies of the essential goodness perennially at play in the eco. It is there waiting for anyone holding the will to believe.

A Socratic dialogue concerning the nature of this vanishing point illustrates the necessity of faith. Meno begins the conversation:

But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know? (Plato, 80d)

These questions are not unfamiliar to us. If we cannot perceive a thing, is it real? What does something invisible look like? Following that, what of hope and faith? Furthermore, how do we recognize these qualities? Empirically, faith would appear an illogical fantasy. Certainly the concepts of hope and faith are real enough, but the elements of that hope and faith are nebulous and hazy. Meno’s lament belongs to us all. If we are able to perceive something we can move toward it, hold it – we can actualize it. This infers movement towards something. It represents a trajectory and a vector. Yet if faith were non-existent there would be no need for movement, for the phenomenal world would be the only world that exists. Socrates responds:

I know what you mean. Do you realize that what you are bringing up is the trick argument that a man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does not know? He would neither not seek what he knows, for since he knows it there is no need of the inquiry, nor what he does not know, for in that case he does not even know what he is to look for. (Plato, 80e)

Surely we know what we know; however, hidden in this dialog is the grand question: how did we learn what we know? Furthermore, why do we leverage our knowing in such a way as to push into unchartered territory? What drives our curiosity and creativity? Each of us recognizes that at the heart of this argument is non-sense; it is non-perception or a belief in the noumenal. To the actualizing soul hope and faith appear to be omnipresent and omniscient in terms of what is possible and may be becoming possible. We know by simply looking back that we learn, grow, and develop. This we can easily perceive and measure in a retrospective fashion. Yet the source of what we can perceive today was as of yesterday merely held by faith and hope.

As to our dialog, Socrates sums it up quite well. After Meno asks if this perception is the only approach was a good argument, Socrates simply says, “No.” We believe the message is deeper still. We believe what he was really saying was “yes” to all things possible. Yes to learning, yes to curiosity, yes to human potential and yes to the possible person. Socrates was saying first and foremost that the will to believe is the first act of seeing and an act of potentiating. Socrates asks us to see the grandeur of the bloom while it remains hidden in the bud.

Like the process of blooming, the full actualization of human potential is an action. Potentiators do not look on a life of potential from the snapshots gained by passively looking backwards. They understand the drama and trauma they would engender by creating judgments or truths concerning the nature of potential from past perspectives. They know how easy it is to convert these truths into personal prejudices that would depress future actualizations. Potentiators do not look upon us reactively. They are always positively potentiating by looking for how we are moving and if we are not moving how we might move, or, why we have stopped moving. They look for the vectors and velocities of potential. As a consequence of their faith they are able to see beyond the vanishing point into the hopes and dreams of those they potentiate. They know they will uncover potentials currently lying dormant in the eco, this field of potential, because this has been their history; and given their will to believe in such possibilities this will be their future.

Eco Leadership

Leadership is an ever evolving phenomenon as it is directly related to the current condition and needs of the eco. Historically, there have been three great ages of leadership. Namely, there was the great man age, the behavioral age, and the transformative age. The commonality they hold is that they all evolved as a direct result of societal needs. Collectively, they represent a reactive approach to leadership ever lagging in its approaches and procedures. The next great age of leadership, what we are calling eco Leadership, will be  proactive and present. It will require a set of ongoing practices for the leaders, the potentiators, in order to actualize their own potential and the potentials of those whom they lead. It is not a leadership of the reactive push. It is a leadership of the proactive pull. Eco leadership will be such that it will in all actuality lead.

Figure 1: The Potentiating Arts

The potentiating practices that inform eco leadership present the best conditions under the best of intentions for the fullest expression of human potential. To this requirement we offer five basic practices that form the centerpiece of the Potentiating Arts™ (McCaslin & Snow). The five practices, as shown in Figure 1, build on one another and begin with the practice of deep understanding followed by critical reflection, maturity, integrity, and unity. Through these practices the potentiator creates a space within the eco, the community of potential, for intentional living, leading, and learning. Here, flows between economy and ecology naturally balance. Given the idealistic goals of eco leadership it is necessary to explore each of the five basic practices in depth to provide structure for this ambitious undertaking. The purpose of this article is to explore the primary and grounding practice of deep understanding.

Too often the potentials seeking their fullest expression are kept waiting due to a simple lack of understanding. This lack of understanding is often threefold: first we do not understand the depths of our own potential; second we do not understand the depths of the potentials held by others; and, finally, even when we do see such gifts in others and ourselves we remain uncertain about how we might approach these awaiting potentials. Consequently, we leave all hope, the very way of seeking and actualizing the greatest potentials of those placed in our stewardship, to fate. What separates  potentiators from their lesser counterpart is their unwillingness to leave the cultivation of potential to chance. They engage and actively seek potential by opening their awareness through the lens of creativity and learning.

As we unveil the practice of deep understanding we will necessarily address the whole notion of truth. We are going to make a distinction between a manufactured truth and a transforming truth. The practice of deep understanding, as it is with all the practices held by the Potentiating Arts™, follows the flow of forming, communing, purposing, and transforming as the path towards revealing and actualizing potentials currently dormant in the eco. Borrowing Wilber’s Integral AQAL approach, it is a flow that first engages the qualitative individuality of potential, the “I”, by way of inviting it to commune within the “we” before seeking a common purpose within the ”its” creating a transforming and dynamic truth within the “It” (Wilber). This flow is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Potentiating Flow

 The practice of deep understanding necessarily addresses the whole notion of human potential. The practice begins with the self and demonstrates how deep understanding ultimately recognizes the personal worth of another. A sacred space for dialogues and potentiating relationships is generated through this communion. Such presence and openness creates an opportunity for putting wisdom to work in the world. This action has a synergistic effect on the eco as possibilities, relationships, processes, and products become an active potentiating dynamic. While the practice of deep understanding creates an integrative flow among beauty, goodness, works (the practical output of goodness), and truth, it is a practice that is largely centered in the first quadrant of forming called the valuing lens in Figure 2. It is a practice that is focused upon gaining a sense of openness to the potentials being presented. In this regard the potentiator positions himself not only as a leader/teacher but as a learner in the eco. As a learner the potentiator naturally embraces a conscious movement away from prejudgment towards a truer understanding of the gifts of potential held by another and by the self. This stance is deeply rooted in empathy.

The practice of deep understanding is not a directive or controlling position but a purposeful probe into the meaning of the experience shared with another leading to deeper considerations of potential. It is about forming the relational elements needed to move freely and purposefully into the “we” quadrant of communing. It supports the full actualization of human potential without a need for defining or confining and without the need for violence. It is foundational for empowering creativity, curiosity, and wonder. The practice of deep understanding cultivates harmony and stability through building potentiating relationships. Again, deep understanding as a potentiating practice is largely centered in the forming quadrant (Figure 3) and therefore begins the potentiating flow in the eco by building relationships.

Ideally, the eco model (see Figure 3) harmoniously balances the energies of the ecology and the economy or relationships and management. Unfortunately, the current Western representation is out of balance and heavily weighted on the economics side. Those who attempt to balance the eco by adding weight to the ecology side often do so by first trying to manage the energies of relationships or forcing the ecology into economy. The practice of deep understanding corrects this imbalance by entering the eco through quadrant 1, or “I,” of the model where subjective self-awareness is the primary focus. It is the beginning point of the potentiating flow that provides the foundation on which the practices of critical reflection, maturity, integrity and eco unity build.

Philosophical Framework of Deep Understanding

The notion of entering the eco model in quadrant 1 is a concept best explained by philosopher Martin Buber. Buber differentiated relationships into two types; I-You (Thou) and I-It. I-You encounters occur when beings exchange holistic reverence for one another. In contrast, I-It meetings entail partial assessments between beings. Through the practice of deep understanding the potential leader readies him/herself to engage an I-Thou relationship by developing an attitude of openness to self that imparts unconditional acceptance to all potentiating relationships. Existing leadership paradigms usually attempt to maximize a particular quality, either in the leader or follower, for the benefit of the organization. Even the gentle Servant Leadership model asks the leader to forgo his or her welfare, if required, in favor of those being led (Greenleaf). Buber believed this objectification of another or the self, while necessary to live in the world, should never exist on its own.

You must become an It in our world. However exclusively present it may have been in the direct relationship, as soon as the relationship has run its course or is permeated by means, the You becomes an object among objects, possibly the noblest one and yet one of them, assigned its measure and boundary. (Buber, p. 68)

Figure 3: The Energy Balances of eco Leadership

The I-You establishes the world of relation that forms the eco cradle of actual life. From this cradle of unconditional regard beings confront a form of eternal art that begs for expression. Buber’s philosophical framework informs eco leadership. His framework establishes a proactive paradigm that honors all beings and elicits their potential before quantifying their energy flows. Energy flows represent needs, products, and efficiencies of work effort. This rising form of leadership harvests and renews potential instead of employing the destructive techniques of the heavy propositions such as manipulation, intimidation, coercion, and deception found to be common in reactive forms of leadership. Therefore, it attempts to span the subjective/objective (I/It) through an ontological centering (the reality of the I-You centering) in the intersubjective “we.” Again, this “we” space forms the container for creative expression where “Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you.” (Buber, p.83)

In forming the practice of deep understanding we begin with the valuing question, “Am I ready to learn?” This is more than a simple question; rather it is about achieving an attitude of openness that allows the potentiator to approach and penetrate the vanishing point. To see not only what is but to gaze into what could become from others as well as from us. It is this attitude of openness that forms and establishes deep understanding as a potentiating practice. As a potentiating leader we must allow our students and associates to educate us about the nature of their potential seeking its full expression. Through this education we uncover aspects of our own potential that lead us collectively towards a synergistic expression within the sacred habitat of the eco. As Buber knew, “we live in the currents of universal reciprocity” (Buber, p. 67).

Buber’s universal reciprocity shares the affiliation we hold for a eudaimonistic philosophy of potentiation that instructs humankind to commit its entire being to soul inspired deeds. Although this entails sacrifice and risk where “experiences of encounter were scarcely a matter of tame delight; but even violence against a being one really confronts is better than ghostly solicitude for faceless digits!” (Buber, p. 75). Buber’s belief evidences that it is better to live fully and bravely than to rest in what we call “desperate neutrality.”           

Desperate Neutrality

We believe there remains little doubt within any of us who choose the Potentiating Arts™ as a way of living that if we were able to actualize our fullest potential and the potential of those we love, lead, and teach that there would be little need for self-created suffering in this world, even when suffering would seem warranted. We recognize the boldness of such a statement for it places the onus of potentiation squarely upon our shoulders and simultaneously declares the majority of suffering as avoidable. Perhaps you are now asking, what is the foundation of a statement so bold? Lacking surprise, you may have moved straight to the point – how do we begin building a world without unnecessary suffering?

On the boldness of this declaration we would reply that a daimon fully actualizing its potential would suffer little, for life itself would be viewed from a deep and powerful center of purpose. The very best analogy we can evoke is that of play. A daimon fully actualizing its potential is at play. As you hold that thought, take note of the emotions induced: joy, happiness, delight, and bliss. Suffering begins at the moment of play ends when the daimon is denied its purpose—its possibility.

None of us really wish this. None of us like this and we never have. As we contemplate our agreement, we begin to wonder how this happens to us and to those we potentiate. Knowing the possibilities held by goodness it seems unlikely that we would ever fall from this grace, yet it happens. We must hold within our awareness the ability to recognize a slip, a loss of balance, a fall, and to catch ourselves with the awareness that forgiveness and compassion are ever reachable. When we lose our balance, it appears we have fallen into some horrific fiction of a life. Life becomes a predictable nightmare predicated upon the Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest or the survival of the most dangerous. This fiction knocks us off from belief in possibility, even if for a moment, and in that moment we, the potentiator, become just as dangerous. Perhaps it is a snide comment to a student; maybe we engage in office gossip about another’s pain; or maybe we make a joke of someone’s suffering the butt of which is too often the weakest in the room; or maybe we yell, or attempt to arouse guilt within our children. We engage fault, shame, and humiliation all aimed at the weak, the frail, the feeble, and the pathetic.

Two vectors (see Figure 4) become immediately present in the act of potentiating that is generated through deep understanding. If we are being powerfully and positively potentiated, our vector is arcing upward and we are seen as actualizing our potential. On the other hand, if we are being negatively potentiated, our vector is arcing downward towards a personal corruption, or worse; we may begin actualizing the dark art of evil. We understand these vectors and project them upon one another. There is a third vector in which we find ourselves without momentum. In this vector, human potential has fallen quiet, static, and still. We have become stuck. As we observe the nature of human potential it is in this middle vector of desperate neutrality where we find most people existing. Desperate neutrality contains a cold paradox in that we seem to go around and around a big “something” without ever arriving anywhere or addressing anything. Desperate neutrality is that place where nothing is really wrong and nothing is really possible. There is an absence of potentiating flow.

There is an odd innocence to be found in desperate neutrality in that, as we slumber in the doldrums, we do so politely; we suffer quietly. It is not that we do not believe in our own potential – we do. But, as David Norton reveals, “this small conviction is wholly unequipped to withstand the drubbing it takes from the world, and from which it all too often never recovers” (Norton,  p. x). Being desperately neutral we may still dream of our own irreplaceable worth, yet may have lost our momentum. We may have lost our way and the vision we once held of our potential.

Figure 4: The Vectors of Human Potential

Failing to break the cycle we adapt ourselves to an unsustainable ecosystem and adopt survival strategies of predetermination and of prejudgment in the form of a bias based not in hope but in hurt. Instead of possibility, capacity, and potential we begin standing in judgment of possibility in another. We move away from the spiritual grace of empathy on which the practice of deep understanding is built. We begin a funneling process of sorting the haves from the have nots where standards, regulations, and rules replace compassion. Instead of potentiators we become gatekeepers allowing only those genetically correct few to pass without harm while others are barred entrance by pressures they don’t understand and count as unfair. Some give up, some get mad, and some become sick. Some fight back while others never really knew they were sorted out as not possible and live lives of desperate neutrality or worse – they become automatons of a systemic whim.

As a point of fact, most of us hold a greater possibility for ourselves than we would admit to another. We surround that hope with the internal flame of our potential. When we see others who are engaging their flame of potential brightly, we are often shaken by the reality of possibility. Yet slumber is difficult to resist. Our “if onlys” seemed to be slowly replaced by a “why bother.” In some ways we even conspire with each other’s desperately neutral occupations, because misery loves company. Work lives are too often dull, suffocating, and uninspiring. Family lives feature struggle, children who are acting out, or overweight, or depressed, or even suicidal. Marriages lack passion, hope, or any hint of a future beyond a partnership of pain, financial stress, and over indulgence in food, drugs, and/or alcohol. Our health suffers, our family suffers, our work suffers, and we suffer. We forget ourselves and our possibilities and we go to sleep. If it were not for that tiniest flame still flickering within, we would surely die. The real issue for the potentiator is that you never know when you will find yourself face-to-face with an anesthetized soul.

Potentiators hold a resolution for desperate neutrality. It is not that they are somehow immune to the pitfalls of desperate neutrality, for they will experience it in life just like everyone else. They will experience the loss of a parent or loved one, the difficulties and challenges of raising healthy and whole children, or the conflicts of the workplace. They experience all these very same moments, but they experience them differently. They have learned how to live and therefore how to grieve deeply and with compassion for others as well as for themselves. They connect to their children with purpose and fortitude, and they approach all conflict with opportunity and strength of character. They forgive the transgressions made by others and of those made by their own hand, and by doing so eliminate nearly all need to suffer through life; instead they live life. They have learned to love who they are, even in their most clumsy and difficult moments. All this begins with achieving the openness found through the practice of deep understanding. The question for each of us is, “Am I ready to learn?”

Becoming Wonder-full

If our perception, our ability to recognize real promise, is colored brilliantly by faith and hope – call it super-optimism or creative over-estimation or an elegant prejudice – then what emerges out of that vanishing point is a cornucopia of possibilities and potential. The eco radiates. Everything and every individual is elevated because everything and every individual has been made possible. “Wisdom begins with wonder” (Plato, 155d). Perhaps this declaration is the most intimate reflection of Socrates’ character and was his philosophy. Perhaps he understood that when nothing was certain all things remained possible. He kept his eye on the possible as he was full of wonder. To be full of wonder, to be wonder-full, is what it means to be a potentiator. When we are wonder-full nothing possible escapes our perception. When we are wonder-full we see as the gardener sees; we see bounty in a seed. When we are wonder-full human potential and therefore the Potentiating Arts™ become our purpose.

Yet, if we stand in that very same place with doubt, disillusionment, disparagement, and disinterest, then this very same vanishing point turns inward like a black hole consuming all, as nothing escapes its darkness. The problem and the opportunity are choices. We must understand right from the beginning, as potentiators, that we are not acting out of some benevolent, holier-than-thou, self-sacrificing attitude that wallows in a self-consumption martyred in the name of the potential of the “unnamed other.” All this will yield is a codependent “I’m doing this for your own good” attitude when there is nothing good about this strategy. When we potentiate we have hope and faith concerning the nature of human potential. We hold the will to believe in our own potential as well as the potentials of others. As we welcome these potentials, including our own, we are adapting ourselves and our potentials to the world. The eco, the house of human potential, responds to the accommodating and adaptive potentiator by evolving towards a synergistic society.

How do we perfect the world? We perfect the world by perfecting ourselves. How do we make the good person? We make the good person by way of the good society. How do we make the good society? The good society is made from the faith and hope of the perfecting soul. Potentiating is an action and an art. It is the will to believe in the possible person. The Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-arising, as an example of this phenomenon, affirms that the quality of a society is the result of the virtue of all its members. As individuals influence others, they reap the rewards of living in the society that manifests from all these influences. Thus, a seeker who rises in consciousness advances the consciousness of the community and moves it towards a synergistic society (Sizemore & Swearer). Applying this reasoning to the nature of eco Leadership, we see that by potentiating ourselves we assist others toward the actualization of their own innate potentials. Guiding this process is our transcendent life purpose.

Some would call such a notion naïve. To that we would agree, but only after declaring it, as did Maslow, a Second Naïveté. It is a grounded naïveté that is not at all innocent but purposeful. It is a naïveté that is infused with deep understanding. The gift we hold within is for the others we meet without. We each hold the capacity for embodying this force of potentiating, because each of us holds a special gift for the world. All it requires for its actualization is faith and hope. All it requires is the will to believe in the possible person and the courage to learn. We can all ask ourselves if we are ready to learn.

The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. (Thoreau, p. 4)

Significance to Leadership Studies

Wisdom begins with wonder” (Plato, 155d). Wonder imparts an open curiosity with respect to the world around us. It is because of wonder that we have survived as a species, learned to evolve, and are still evolving today. Yet, within the simplicity of this statement there springs to life a complexity of human action and inaction; of hope and desperation; of peace and war; of religious fervor and spiritual enlightenment; of the connection with beauty found of a nature that is deep and personal. To the extent the community fails to recognize any value of these individualistic proclamations is to the extent the community fails to build a reality of potential. Oddly, all conflict comes home to this simple phrase, “wisdom begins with wonder”.

With conflict arrives our collective need to be right, that is, to make known like fact, like law, that which may indeed be unknown or uncertain. For it is the unknown we fear most of all. This outcome occurs when we take a shortcut through the eco model (see figure 3) and move directly from “I” to “it,” bypassing the “we” quadrant. In this state, our fear powers this masquerade of knowing and maintains this knowing faҫade of fact. What is most troubling in this is the outflow of these fictions; our prejudices become a necessity in order to support shallow and faulty reasoning and to prevent the “other” view from even being heard. For what we find in the shallows is that the need to be right is oftentimes of greater need to us than it is to breathe. Our very survival is jeopardized for the righteousness of what we hold true. What we value and now hold as truth was once simply what we found to be beautiful. Upon declaring this value “most beautiful” we set up the need to defend that declaration. How ironic that now, in the defense of beauty, we find no sharing, no relating, no understanding – no “other” view. This is what happens commonly when the ecology is forced into the economy.

Our individually held truths are but a reflection of what we find beautiful. There is nothing immediately foul concerning this reflection. Beauty is beauty; however, it is the way in which we too often greet beauty that becomes troubling. It starts innocently enough; it begins as it always has with an act of creative expression. Whether such an expression was a sculpture, a water color, a poem, the playing of music, the singing of song, the telling of a story or charcoal scratched upon the cave walls of our ancient homes – beauty is an expression of creativity. In addition to these the emotion of finding something beautiful is within itself an act of creative expression.

There is truly some goodness to be found at this point in the I-Thou. That goodness is found as we move towards qualitatively interpreting the meaning and significance of the very experience of creating, experiencing a creation, or how such experiences inform our species’ most central nature – creativity as a way of being. If we bent our purpose to understanding, appreciating, valuing, and experiencing our true nature, there would be only goodness built from the very nature of this sharing. We would come directly to this reality so wonderfully and multiply varied. We would come to expect it, search for it, imagine it – we would come to play with each other in this wild and magical place of our creations on the field of possibilities.

If, on the other hand, we immediately engage in the I-it the magic slips away. Truth is a problem. For if instead of goodness we turn to truth, then we approach one another from an entirely different perspective. We begin to ask about the truth of the creation. We say, artlessly, “I like this one better;” and in that moment we have ceased valuing and began evaluating. We begin quantifying creativity. In this way we begin to coalesce around the similarly held truths of others, which then collect into belief systems that will, unintentionally, in the end cast a value shadow on the whole of the ecology. Sadly, this is also the learned source of the phase, “I am not very creative,” and in direct terms of leadership, “I am not a leader.” Born from the fact that what we are, who we are, what we would grow to become is now hidden by what our daimon fears most of all—to be prejudged and found wanting by a truth too shallow to find the real nature of its tender beauty.

Practicing Deep Understanding

The practice of deep understanding, as with all practices, begins with the self. Having felt the pain of separation the small self seeks a connection to something greater, something eternal. Through this quest, the ego surrenders to providence and becomes a servant to the daimon. Recognizing and transcending our own struggle allows us to appreciate and value the same in others. We then become open and others have become possible.

Again, deep understanding begins in quadrant 1, the forming quadrant, and asks the question, “Am I ready to learn?” This question sets the stage for an I-thou encounter. This attitude allows the potentiator to embrace a conscious and open movement away from prejudgment towards a more true understanding of the gifts of potential held by another and oneself. It is an attitude that is deeply rooted in empathy by way of recognizing the beauty and value of another being. As such, it is not a directive or controlling stance but a purposeful probe into the meaning of the experience shared with another. In forming the relationship of potentials, deep understanding supports the full actualization of human potential without a need for defining or confining – without the need for violence. This attitude is foundational for empowering creativity, curiosity, and wonder in and about all beings.

The signs of our own potential are everywhere – we all know this is real. In the quiet of the day our possible self still speaks to us. Too often the voice of our potential sounds so farfetched. Waking from a daydream, the voice of our potential sounds like a distraction made of things we could do had we the luxury of endless time and money. Yet, every day in some way our potential presents itself and every day we come face to face with the evidence that is our own potential awaiting its full actualization. How shall we greet our potential today? How shall we come to greet the potential of others? How can we begin today to brighten our hopes and dreams of our possible selves? How shall we greet beauty? A single answer here is not possible; but a simple one might suffice for now. We simply submit that there is something unique and wonderful about every person when we simply look for it and believe in it. This would include everyone – no exceptions. There is a gift for the world held within every person making every person a possible being. There is something deeply sacred concerning human potential and the sacred is always simple.

Deep Understanding: A Learning Journey

At the root, deep understanding is a practice to engage, rather than an ideal read into reality. Like all spiritual practices, deep understanding must be learned experientially. In this article, we have attempted to impart the beauty of the practice, but its full effect will not be known until it is embraced through action. The action is a choice to accept a holistic paradigm for ourselves and those we encounter. The practice of deep understanding holds at its core a creative intention. This creative intention sets the practice in motion upon the field of learning. It establishes an attitude of openness along this upward way of a learning journey.

“If you think of the person, the creative person, as being the essence of the problem, then what you are confronted with is the whole problem of transformation of human nature, the transformation of the character, the full development of the whole person”. (Maslow, pp 70 -71) This “full development” in turn opens the opportunity to address the life philosophy of being open to learning about the nature of human potential, to embrace an innate stream of human goodness flowing through each of us differently. The dynamic nature of this learning journey includes all of the end values (as held sacred to society) as they interact with our own code of ethics (as held sacred by our own being) and the placement of our own value within society. The problem for this learning journey is in fact a consideration of a collective approach to creativity and individual autonomy. The learning journey concerns itself with how we arrive at the philosophical home of human potential grounded by relationship, autonomy, and  creativity that is always emerging from the goodness of a potentiating reality. The practice of deep understanding seeks to illuminate this potentiating reality.

“No issue is so relevant to our inner life and at the same time so elusive as beauty” (Ferrucci, p 187). As we experience the full measure of our own creativity and the creative endeavors of others, what crashes into our souls is the spontaneity and wonderfully unpredictable nature of creativity. It saturates our consciousness. The aesthetic experience, the creative experience, takes place in front of us – always just in front of us and with eyes open, senses connecting with feeling to the creative nature playing upon us. Learning is just such an event.

What we find most fascinating and also troubling is our current lack of understanding and ability to embrace the way of wonder held by the practice of deep understanding. We declare that creativity and its expression is the key to teaching and learning – to potentiating. By way of example consider children and adults at risk where the risk might be described as having their innate creativity discounted and devalued. In those groups we often find two populations, the depressed, weak, and fragile population that have, in fact, had their creative urges extinguished by some unforgiving creativity-killing monster, and the others who are full of fire, strength, and intensity holding an in-your-face attitude that screams, “you can’t have it and I will fight to my death to keep it.” The root source of their struggle is our struggle – they cannot live without creativity or creative outlets. We die by daily inches of a creativity taken or fight each day in an effort to keep it. The whole spiritual/emotional being is what is at stake. Perhaps what Natalie Rogers was referring to when she saw the therapeutic value of creative arts therapy was in fact a window to rescuing our very spiritual natures. In our learning journeys it holds true – what is creative is also spiritual. How will you value this? Let us help you the reader, and as a result help ourselves as well, for when all is said and done, “our true nature is our creativity (Fox, p. 28).” Deep understanding, being open to learning, is being available to the creative intentions of others and ourselves. Learning and creativity are spiritually bonded.

The Valuing Lens

The first quadrant approach to deep understanding, forming, holds a valuing lens. It is in essence a way of greeting the beauty of potentials held by ourselves and others. Without this intention of openness, this readiness to learn, we begin looking at the world and others from a very narrow aperture. The narrowness of this view too often leads us towards defining others and arresting our own development. We lay down judgments that convert to the quasi-truths of prejudices presenting approaches to life that objectify rather than building potentiating relationships. We begin to confuse security for creativity, order for freedom, classification for beauty, structure for imagination, conformity for elegance, and standards for potential.

If we only teach, parent, and lead from whom we are and how we now believe, then we have effectively done two things. First, we have constructed an artificially shallow perspective of the world and view our task from the narrow window of our entrenched experience, values, and beliefs. From that perspective all our approaches will force and deform the multiplied and varied excellences placed in our stewardship through that narrow window. Second, having closed off the “other” we will have closed ourselves off from learning – learning about the rich diversity of gifts of potential before us and learning about the full potentials of our own unique gifts.

Deep understanding concerns itself with deep penetrating awareness. While meditative practices in general would make the experience of deep understanding richer and more meaningful for the practitioner, the heart of the practice of deep understanding is at its core becoming creatively open to learning. Deep understanding blends an eagerness to learn with the joy of creativity. In that regard the potentiator is not only deeply valuing the potential held by another, as witnessed by that eagerness to learn, but also empowering action through encouraging creative expression.

Transitions: A Healing Awareness

Our orientation is wonder; our motivation is creativity; our purpose is to potentiate. Wonder promotes understanding and autonomy; creativity promotes healthy wholeness; deep understanding promotes the well-being.

It would appear that these Potentiating Arts™ concern themselves with the revelation of something hidden rather than a simple correspondence between thinking and seeing. What we are referring to, of course, is our ability to become more aware of our own presence and how we are impacting the environment coupled with willingness to engage another through understanding. In this light we need to address two critical questions:

  • How will we value our experiences with human possibilities that lead to wisdom?
  • How will we put these wisdoms once found to work in the world?

These questions are ultimately full of wonder in their making – they are reflective and seek a creative response. They have at their core a deep curiosity and a hope for discovering wisdom through a penetrating understanding. In this way perhaps wonder itself can serve as a healing awareness. Deep understanding is a practice. Deep understanding presents opportunities to become critically reflective on the nature of human potential, including our own potential. This much we know to be true: the nature of exploration and learning is no difficult journey. It is not carried well by compulsion nor inspired by fear, nor is it informed by pain. True wisdom, true creativity, true learning, and true teaching, are formed by an act of love. Potentiating is simply and completely an act of sharing—a sharing of the secrets, the sharing of wisdom, the joy of creativity, and the love of dreams great and small.

Searching for human potential within the family, school, community or organization is like searching for hope. What does that mean to those now serving as leaders – as potentiators? For us the search for human potential sets in motion the “why” and, following that, the “how” of the Potentiating Arts™. It introduces the highest purpose of leadership because at its very best leadership is a potentiating art. As leaders we are potentiators (the “why”) and we are learners (the “how”). The hope we hold for potential (ours and those we are in relationship with) firmly anchors deep understanding, the first practice of the potentiator, as a central approach to human potential and introduces the complementing practice of critical reflection as the second practice of the potentiator. The potentiating practice of critical reflection will be discussed in Part 3 of this series.


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 About the Authors