Integral North: The Alchemy of Potential

Column / August 2012

Mark McCaslin

Nature strives towards perfection.
– Aristotle

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

I originally began this issue’s column with quite a different idea. I had purposed myself to delve into the notion of Integral Leadership as a philosophy over a defined field. A recent conversation with Russ Volckmann was the catalyst for that idea. Then I learned that one of my early potentiators, Stephen R. Covey, had recently died from injuries he had sustained in a biking accident and that topic was put on hold. I first became aware of Stephen in 1990 when I was asked to develop a rural leadership program in southeast Nebraska. I remember I purchased three books: John Gardner’s On Leadership, Warren Bennis’s On Becoming a Leader, and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen’s book has had a lasting impact on me. Furthermore, I was always struck by his generosity to me and my students. He was a master Alchemist of Potential. This is for you Stephen—for the gifts you have given.

As its core purpose, the alchemy of potential announces a means for reaching our natural perfection and the perfection of others by way of creating changes in how we approach and address (greet) the human potentials of those we would teach, lead, and parent. When I look with intent to discover those human perfections within another; when I really listen for the stories that declare their hopes and dreams; when I truly connect with that seed of potential carried by those I would teach; lead, or parent, I am aligning myself with this core purpose. I become, in the manner of synergism, transformed in the direction of my own innate perfection. The beauty of the alchemy of potential, the truth of its path, the deep goodness that flows from this approach, is that it creates the opportunity to form a synergism from differing potentials. In others words, as a potentiator I not only potentiate the actualization of another’s hope; I also become a potential raised to new levels of hope on the path toward my highest potential.

Alchemy, in this approach, is more than just a convenient metaphor—for within these frames the alchemy of potential embodies transformation. It becomes truly catalyzing in its intent. It promotes agency. It forms synergistic relationships, and it would appear that the alchemy of potential, as an art of human goodness, turns out to be always positively potentiating. Consider for a moment the best day you have ever experienced as a teacher, a leader and/or parent. I want you to really remember the depth of that day. Remember what you were doing. Remember your purpose. Who were you with? What was the scene? Now focus on who you became because of that day. How were you changed? How were those you taught, led or parented changed? Now answer this question: In what ways did this day hold a matchless beauty, an enduring goodness and a great truth about being human? As you consider your response you are indeed considering the alchemy of potential.

Alchemical processes surrounding the full actualization of human potential, as well as the products that flow from a human potential fully actualized, seem to promote and lead toward the fairy tale ending of “and they lived happily ever after.” Certainly, these alchemical processes contain some intent to pull us apart, creating moments of apprehension and doubt. But these necessary separations are common to any alchemy. Its processes seek the “gold” within. However, and this is critical, in an alchemy concerning human potential these processes appear to have tremendous healing properties. The intent of these disintegrations or separations would appear to be intermediary in the push towards some grand wholeness that is embodied by our natural perfection. It would appear that these intermediary disintegrating and separating steps are more about removing ”all of you that is not you” so that an essential union or integration may be revealed. This discovery is nothing less than a whole person in the act of becoming fully actualized.

Perhaps these intermediary disintegrating and separating steps will foster within us a grieving awareness; or perhaps it will promote a letting go of burdens that were never ours to carry; or, perhaps it will be revealed that we are living lives of self-deception—the self-destructive and self-propagated lies of “I’m ok without my dreams, without my greatest potential.” While each individual must address this separation in their own way, there are ways in which potentiators—alchemists of potential—can catalyze these disintegrations and separations while at the same time promoting a healing awareness. This is best accomplished by developing the creative nature innate to all people. The pain of these purifying processes is indeed lessened when, as a direct result of our efforts, we begin to remember, recognize, and finally, see our dreams reborn. Creativity, imagination, inspiration and play are the tools of potentiation and, coincidentally, the tools for fostering a healing awareness.

The purifying processes of the alchemy of potential are about coming clean, about coming home to the true self. To become one’s true self is to become whole. The purification processes of the alchemy of potential embody a transformation of character unique to each individual. These transformations are held by our creative natures. Contained within these alchemical processes is a path towards our greatest potential. The way of these intermediary processes is to strengthen the true self. It gives rise to agency—to empowerment—to health.

I find it fascinating that the very act of using your imagination and the acts associated with creativity are so hauntingly similar to the transformations associated with the alchemy of potential. I believe these processes would not be considered entirely strange by the artist. Michelangelo reportedly studied, for days upon days, a huge chunk of Italian marble resting ominously in his studio without touching a tool. It was like he was seeking all that was unnecessary within the marble, for later that chunk of raw stone would become his David. During a trip to the southwest I experienced a Navaho artisan working a piece of clay into an artistic creation. He held the clay, worked it between his fingers, closed his eyes and said, “I am waiting for the clay to tell me what it wants to be.” These early stages of the creative process are as much about alchemy as they are the final products which are so rich and elegant. The key to these alchemical disintegrations and separations that will ultimately lead to a healthy wholeness is held by their intent—they are always positively potentiating.

Perhaps, as potentiators, our destiny is to become artists of human potential—alchemists of potential. While human excellences may indeed be infinitely varied, our purposes as artists of human potential are not. Our purposes are quite simple and enduring—perennial. Preparing ourselves to reach and greet the rich diversity of human excellences would seem to only require an authentic intention to consider the vast possibilities hidden within those we would teach, lead and parent. When we begin to learn of and believe in the potentials held by the people before us, we are becoming potentiators to the possibilities yet to be revealed and we begin to serve as catalyst towards that reveal. If we are to be of good purpose we must aid these actualizations by way of promoting the beauty of the whole person, the goodness found when we reveal in another their own true power. This is the true nature of empowerment. It isn’t giving away our own power—that only leads to martyrdom. It isn’t lending them power—that only gives strength to the heavy propositions of manipulation, coercion, deception and intimidation. It isn’t finding their power for them—this only creates weakness and dependence in them and control and codependence in us. It is only through teaching in ways that encourage personal agency to blossom, through leading that personal agency towards finding the truth of itself, or by parenting in such a way that nurtures that personal agency to grow towards its own sense of self that we will foster the potential within another to fully actualize. We must learn to listen to these people, to these potentials, in new ways so that we can hear the secrets of their dreams. We must come to this task with the intent to learn if we are to know and understand the human potentials entrusted to our stewardship. Stephen R. Covey knew something about this and through his stewardship we all gained a bit of height and depth along this upward way.

I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a “transformer” in any situation, any organization. Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf. It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader.
~Stephen R. Covey (1933-2012)

About the Author

Mark McCaslin, PhD, is a career educator with a rich history of teaching, educational programming, and administration. His personal and professional interests flow around the development of philosophies, principles, and practices dedicated to the full actualization of human potential. The focus of his research has centered upon organizational leadership and educational approaches that foster a more holistic approach towards the actualization of that potential. At the apex of his current teaching, writing, and research is the emergence of potentiating leadership and the potentiating arts.