Is Sex Necessary?—James Thurber
Dedicated to the James McGregor Burns Academy of Leadership
The following essay considers useful wisdom and knowledge for the practice, development, and study of leadership. Based on a conviction of the relevance of emergent science and classical humanities as well as ancient teachings, this meditation appreciates Integral Leadership theory as a model that celebrates theory—and, perhaps, helps redeem academe from the Humpty Dumpty reputation which does not do justice to the real-world intelligence and care about the world that defines its work.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes”—Walt Whitman
“ I dwell in Possibility”—Emily Dickinson
Theory and Need.
Imagine yourself starving on a desert island. You need food. Around you circle lobsters. Coconuts strew the sands. Mangos dangle from branches above. Grasses are abundant. The island is not a desert. There is “food,” and it can save and sustain your life. But you have to know it is food. And you cannot live on mangos alone. Your survival requires your ability to recognize that the lobster is edible, the hard brown nut contains juice and nutritious meats, and grass can be pounded into flour paste. In other words, your survival depends upon your having a theory. The first theory is that you need food. The second theory is what we could call “edibility” theory. You have to have an idea that things that do not look inherently…edible, transparently nutritious, and even marginally tasty, can be transformed by you into a daily feast. All you have to do is recognize that what you see is “food.” To recognize—that is a life-saving literacy.
The word “recognize” comes from the root word “cognoscere” (cognition), to know. It is defined as the act of identifying something or someone previously seen or known, based on a prior knowledge of appearance or characteristics. So you have to “know” that food comes in various forms and that pounding, tearing, boiling, mashing, and other cave-people type work reveals the food in these scary and unpromising structures, crawling or inert. Your theory about this unlocks the survival skill to recognize food in its various forms. With such theory, your imaginative mind opens itself to possibility of nutrition, perhaps living to the next day. A desert island is revealed as—and thus converted to– paradise.
James Thurber wrote a book titled, Is Sex Necessary? The humor is the question itself: the notion of sex as an option (one that Thurber purports not to favor). From the above example, I would propose that theory is like sex, in this case, very much like the sex confounding Thurber. Theory is necessary to our survival. It gives us the framework in which to recognize ideas and knowledge we need for a productive and joyous life. Do you remember the rousing folk song, “If I Had A Hammer?” This song is a theory about tools for successful human life—freedom, justice, love. With theory, we have a way to identify resources and use them wisely, to value things, to respect things. But theory may be confounding, demoralizing, and just plain difficult. Ask any English major (What do you get when you cross a deconstructionist critic with a Mafioso? –An offer you can’t understand). When multiple theories exist, they can seem to cancel each other out as equally irrelevant: all cannot be true, and why do we need to bother with them anyway?—i.e., Is theory necessary?
Now let us imagine once again that we are on a desert island and we need theory–that is our theory, and we are sticking to it. Our theory is that we need leadership, which, like food, is going to save us. There are many theories of leadership and human nature and organizational behavior, and most of these theories are vigorously debated in academic circles. (Is Academe Necessary?)
As a participant in a boldly imagined project to promote the relevance of academic and classical scholarship to leadership—or any real world occupation–I have been encouraged to consider what kinds of accumulated wisdom best supports leaders in the most useful of ways. I have been urged to draw from my own experience as a leader. And I have been told to write whatever it is I am really thinking, which I interpret as permission to bring in my identity as a poet and humanities professor, which usually has to be checked at the door. From this perspective, I feel there is no more real-world and practical theory than quantum physics. In order to consider the value and use of this or any other theory or set of theories, this essay employs a quantum approach.
In using the words “real world” and “practical” in the same sentence as I do just now, I am aware that of course I am contradicting myself at the outset. Any reader of Webster’s confirm the public understanding of theory as conjectural, specifically in contrast to what is considered factual. For Unabridged cann academic to make and promote theory is oil on the flames: academic is actually formally defined as studies that are “not vocational or applied…theoretical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful…learned or scholarly but lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality…acquired by formal education.”
And thus here we have a delicious conundrum: academics (who have not gone out and shot themselves hearing this perception of our work) develop and assess theory (defined by the public as “not practical, realistic, or directly useful”) for people in really real-world need of reliable good sense. As my father would say, “hmm!”
In quantum theory, which is probably one of the most entertaining sets of ideas of the human imagination, when you include quarks, dark matter, and a concept of “flavors” of “up” and “down” and “charm”—no poet could make this up–there is the idea that (and I am paraphrasing here, so remember that you are reading a poet and not a physicist) what you see is what you expect to see. The world is composed of matter that is both wave and particle at the same time. You cannot SEE the wave and particle as one thing, however. Each state appears or manifests itself according to what you are looking for. If you look for a particle, it appears as a particle. If you look for a wave, it appears as a wave.
It has always seemed to me that this is surprisingly, even suspiciously, cooperative of the universe, obliging to the point of fawning. At the very least, it is rather namby pambyish: it smacks of “whatever.” You say wave, I say particle lacks decisiveness and focus and a certain discipline. It does not seem like a way to run a universe. (And make up your mind!)
And yet I believe in the correctness of this theory. I believe that our world does consist of co-existing diverse, mutually exclusive, contradictory elements, and it is not just because I am a mother of two.
So we need a way of seeing that embraces the contradictions.
I also believe that we play a great role in what we experience and discover; I do believe wholeheartedly the philosophy promoted by scientists and clinical practitioners in What The Bleep Do We Know that we create a great deal if not most of what we experience. We co-create our fates by the attitudes and expectations we bring to any experience—by our theories.
And yet I also believe in our capacity for surprise, in finding things we do not expect, and even when it turns out we have been wrong, I love to find this out. It gives me immense hope every time I discover that I am wrong about something, because that means I may be wrong about the things that worry or distress or discourage me. I wonder with excitement, what else could I be wrong about? And it is so easy to find out ways that we are wrong. On the airplane, I read the airline magazine map, and I realize that Mexico is not directly below California but very much to the east; South America is beyond the U.S. East Coast. Now I have lived in California for much of my life and traveled to Mexico, but in my mind, I see it as due south and South America south of that. Somehow just realizing how I do not have an accurate mind set about the world, do not know where things even are, gives me hope about so many other things I think I know, and I begin to wonder about all these things that I could discover I am totally wrong about.
The benefits of finding out how we are wrong about what we think we know are multiple. If we are demoralized, it may be because…we are wrong! But also, from this perspective, discovering we are “wrong” means only that we are learning, and opened (however painfully) to new thinking, which is exciting progress for human development.
But it is not usually so simple as a matter of being wrong. More consistently, it is a matter of waves and particles—diverse and seemingly competing kinds of evidence, theories, systems of knowledge, schools of thought. Looking around our world, this diversity, whether appearing as glorious garden or confusing hodgepodge, is reality. It consists of so many different things looking and behaving differently. But each of these elements is expressing, albeit in different formats, the same Truth and Beauty—Keats’ term for a core wisdom that embraces spiritual and moral as well as intellectual, empirical, psychological, and physical concepts. A world view in which intelligence can include the ethic of goodness, for example, expressed as love or justice or redemption or law: that is the gift of vision of quantum theory.
Considering how the human mind sees complex reality, quantum theory seems to bear on our perceptions and expectations of any topic. Leadership is one of those topics that have occupied the human mind since recorded history. Humanity is obsessed with leadership, because so much is at stake for our life together on earth in the way we develop leaders. Scholars of leadership and people who serve in leadership positions conceive leadership each in a different way and debate these ideas. There are multiple sources of knowledge. As we assess knowledge that can help those who play these roles, we can make our academic support of leaders genuinely useful by a theory or theories that incorporate the different ways reality appears.
Our expectations of what leadership is determine our ability to recognize it in action, and hence, to learn from it and about it.
What is leadership? What theories best support its development? These questions could be written off as academic and thus of theoretical valueand not of practical use, but I have come to think that it is tonic to realize how many ideas about leadership there are, especially if one is in a leadership role and is accountable to people who themselves may have different ideas about what leadership is. We are judged and helped depending on the model that people have of Leadership, and we ourselves make decisions and play roles according to models of our own. I think of a metaphor that Ray Bradbury creates in The Martian Chronicles, in which spacemen from earth arrive on a planet that is incredibly beautiful. But they can’t see the beauty—all they can see are parking lots and fast-food stands. They can only see what they already know. To use our island example, if all you know of food is granola bars, seeing a lobster is not going to help you.
Our assumptions of leadership determine what leadership models are available to us to study and learn from. Our models may limit our learning and our ability to recognize something that is useful to us and even necessary. If I have a theory about leadership as a wave, I will be looking for a wave. I will find a wave. The fact that it is also a particle means that there are aspects to the subject that could be very valuable to me that I literally just can’t see—because I don’t know about the particle. So if I see a particle, I will not recognize it. It will be useless to me as information. For example, if leadership is considered to be power over others, the ability to “move men,” then people will look for examples of power, defined as moving men, literally or metaphorically. If someone defines leadership as inspiration or a “servant leader,” one may not recognize or value other kinds of actions as “leadership.” If I think leadership is about being decisive, identifying competing objectives and choosing one and “staying the course,” then I will consider a person who acknowledges the logic of co-existing multiple truths to be “weak”–“not a leader.” Leaders thrive or not, depending on prevalent ideas in their communities about what a leader is and does. That is to say, of course, leaders succeed according to the theories that people share about what leadership is.
Looking for effective leadership models, I could be seeing very important models for my learning, but I might not recognize them. I would be limited in my ability to learn essential lessons about leadership by my expectations of what leadership is (wave or particle). The deep structure of leadership could be manifest in many simultaneous states but I would not draw from what is available to me to learn from: I would be like the spacemen in Bradbury’s Mars…I would be starving on a paradise island.
We each have models or theories of leadership that we simply take for granted as universally held that potentially keep us from experiencing paradise. If our theories do not match leadership practice that may in fact be going on in “the real world,” we lose the opportunity to benefit from useful models and perspectives. In knowing it is a quantum world out there, we can open ourselves to the possibility that we have leadership all around us and within us, wonderful models to learn from—if only we knew.
If!—the great liberating word of human creativity, unlocking the imaginative realms of science and art. When we say “if,” more than one kind of reality is entertained by the mind. To accept a quantum model is to believe that there is in fact an essential core knowledge that manifests itself in various shapes and forms. Protein exists in squawking chickens, gaping-mouth fish, reindeer (I’m sorry), seaweed and green plants, beans, beans and rice in combination, milk and cheese, powders and pills. There may be formative ideas about leadership that are common to various theories, in various behavioral models. A quantum model enables us to recognize and discover access points to knowledge that exists in different spheres and contexts. It enables us to add up and find a common denominator in sums that otherwise would not be in the same equation.
So how do we find out the equivalent reality about leadership that is the quantum world; how do we expand our resources available to us?
Integral Leadership Theory
This is the mind set in which I conceive Integral Leadership theory. The concept of Integral Leadership theory is a vision that can develop and illuminate bridges between and among existing theories, enabling us to see the connections in ideas and peoples and modes of research and goals for a more powerful and focused understanding of leadership knowledge. People’s work on leadership, separated as it is by physical location, mission, discipline, culture, language, and methodology, can be seen as a part of a whole system.
Integral theory incorporates systems theory and leadership knowledge from different disciplines, showing the relation and value of different theories. The word integral is the key to the philosophy and goal of such a theory: “pertaining to, or belonging as a part of the whole…necessary to the completeness of the whole.” The emphasis is on the intrinsic value of the whole, and hence the relevance of its health, its needs for completeness to function vitally. We may not think of theories or whole organizations or ourselves or our ideas as parts. To understand oneself as “integral” is to see oneself as important and essential, specifically through our belonging to something larger than ourselves—valued as a function of belonging.
It seems to me that although what is being discussed here are ideas about how the world works and what our practical and ethical roles are in effecting change, stability, systems of respect and maintenance for humanity—that is to say, leadership—and is a seriously intellectual enterprise, all about the ability to conceptualize complexity itself, at the heart of all this is how people and ideas and earth itself are valued: how and why we belong to each other and the earth. To me, this is the Big Question, the question that is like how physicists assure us about the world of matter—it was always there and it will never go away. Art and science strive to know and express this. Our survival as a species and as a world depends upon how we figure this out. For all that we have lived here on earth, we struggle for this knowledge.
For a leader to be able to imagine the whole, to see how and why we belong to each other and the earth, and to communicate it, is to provide essential wisdom for the human question of identity (trees don’t wonder who am I, although John Muir would argue with us about how much we know of the plant world’s feelings, and he is probably right). The longing to belong, which in many places on earth is a practical desire not to be killed, and in the corporate world not to be fired, and in the academic world to win tenure; the quest for respect and justice, upon which societies and systems of government are based: these are value-based ideas that are in the deepest realms of emotion and spirit. To integrate is “to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole…to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit, as parts do …to unite or combine.” The ethical and philosophical implications inherent in this definition are seen explicitly in the word integrated, defined as “having on a basis of equal membership individuals of different racial, religious, and ethnic groups . . combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide a harmonious interrelated whole . . organized or structured so that constituent units function cooperatively. . pertaining to a group or society whose members interact on the basis of commonly held norms or values.” The very fact of inclusion is key to a system’s health. We can see this principle operate in physical terms for a body. But ancient myths tell us what happens when people are devalued and left out of events and decisions, and the catastrophes that result both for individuals and for the societies to which, regardless of how individuals are treated, they do belong. Fairy tales warn us not to leave out the thirteenth fairy just because our dinner set is for twelve. Shakespeare shows us the evil set in motion when children are made to feel left out of the formal family structures (like Edmund in King Lear) or when people are shut out of community. In fact, if we go to the very next word in the dictionary following the “integral” series, we see integrity. In this context I find myself now newly alert to its definition: “soundness of and adherence to moral principle and character; uprightness; honesty…the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished…a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.” Being whole, being moral, being perfect, and “undiminished:” in a few short definitions side by side, we have gone from social and physical sciences of systems organization to language belonging to Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Nikki Giovanni or Mark Twain or Martin Luther King or William Faulkner. Fundamental to the properties of “the whole” is a core set of values, whether we know them or experience them as idealistic, religious, scientific, organizational, philosophical, poetic, or pragmatic.
Integral theory uses a word familiar to Americans to express the value of diversity when building either a nation or a biosphere: pluralism. E Pluribus Unum–the paradox of a vibrant coherent whole constructed out of seemingly disparate parts. In his book Integral Spirituality, Ken Wilber develops a vocabulary to describe the dynamics of the intersection of parts and community. He takes terms from every academic sector, from the English major’s structuralism and hermeneutics to the anthropologist’s ethnomethodology and psychologist’sphenomenology. In a term called “methodological pluralism,” for example, he sets out various perspectives from which a point of view is developed. There is a cultural component, a social sphere, a behavioral aspect (from atoms to the neocortex), and a personal one (our feelings, logic, perceptions, sensations). He organizes these components into what he calls interior (subjective) and exterior (objective). In a quadrant model, we see phenomenology, which he links to structuralism, autopoisis (cognitive science), which he links to empiricism (e.g., neurophysiology), hermeneutics, which he links to ethnomethodology, and social autopoiesis, which he links to systems theory. For him, this is all, and necessarily, related: every kind of thinking belongs. Everyone is invited to the feast.
This kind of discussion, by Wilber or even myself, is what gives academics a bad name, and held in suspicion of being detached from the real world we all know and eat Cheetos in. But it comes from a helpless love of language and desire to organize it, to break it down and put it back together again. It is the academic effort to restore Humpty Dumpty—a vision of the world in which everything belongs harmoniously.
What we get with such a theory that brings everything under one tent is a community to which we each belong, and what comes with this sense of belonging to something larger and more complex as a field: an understanding of the significance and need of each of our own particular work. Each person’s contribution is essential, and provides a window into the larger whole. We can see different theories from the academic and professional sectors illuminating aspects of the whole field of leadership studies, ideas about leadership that are fundamental across culture, time, or discipline.
Sources of wisdom about the realities that inform the practice of leadership
When we look for and at leadership, it presupposes an idea of leadership–theory. But where do we get our original ideas about leadership that generate how we learn about it and are able to know and recognize it?
In reflecting on how the discovery of many sources of wisdom on leadership has shaped and changed and critically informed my own experience of leadership in the most practical of ways, the quantum model is an example of a counterintuitive kind of thinking that has been very useful to me personally. I pack the quantum model into my mental backpack, a window into a more coherent reality that exists but is not apparent unless we have a more complex understanding of—a theory of–what is there to see. I know I rather facetiously suggested quantum theory as the Yes Man in the Universe, a foil to our Hamlet imprisoned in the “to be or not to be” dialectic, telling us “oh very like a whale!” when we attest a cloud formation is like a whale or any other thing. If we say wave, it says wave. It would so bend to our will and possibly lead us astray if in fact we are wrong.
But perhaps the apparent contradictions are in our minds after all; it is our model that holds things to be either/or, black and white, be or not be, one thing or another. The reality, scientists inform us, is that matter is complex and consists of contradictory elements simultaneously. Of course, the poets knew it all along, and Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself?/Very well, then, I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes” is a fairly accurate depiction of the reality of the universe in the revelations of emergent sciences.
And in fact, I see a tremendous amount to learn about leadership from the poets and the scientists who are—as waves and particles—expressing the same wisdom. From this point of view, then, we can explore the idea that our mental models of leadership include a diverse and integrated set of behaviors and approaches to vision, conflict-management, problem-solving, goal-setting, assessment, personal relations, motivation, group dynamics, and other aspects that define a leader’s role in any community.
The advantage of recognizing leadership in different states and modes, it seems to me, is that we increase our opportunities to recognize relevant wisdom about leadership and from leadership that may in fact be “real-world.” I consider the “real world” (even if it chooses to construct itself in wave/particle-quarky-dark matterish-up/down/charmingly obscure ways) an excellent model for long-term practicality. It seems if academe is going to become more relevant to people who have to succeed in the “real world,” being practical and useful are the goals we have to shoot for in any writings on the subject.
To take up a quantum approach to leadership, then, is to accept the scientific theory that reality is comprised of diversity and contradiction and complexity, and this makes total sense to me. After all, if we look at any entity we think of as a whole, beginning with the earth, we see immediately that it consists of contradictory elements. At the very same moment in time, looking at earth from space, it is morning, teatime, the cocktail hour, dinner. It is raining; it is sunny; it is an ice storm; it is humid. There are clouds, the skies are clear. It is flat, it is mountainous. It is sand. It is water. People are speaking French. People are speaking Farsi. People are silent. People are slaves. People are free. People are men and people are women. All of these are facts and they are true and true at the same moment; these differing states co-exist simultaneously.
Or we could take a look closer to home. Look at our families. We are young and old, we agree on some things and don’t agree on others. We process information rapidly and we are slow. Listen through a window of house or car, and hear that collectively as a unit we love Hip Hop and we love Bach and we love Gershwin. We are vegetarians and our favorite meal is steak. As a unit we are composed of diverse interests and world views and psychologies and genes, but we are still a unit, bound to each other inextricably, even if we stray off and never come home.
Or look closer yet: your relationship with a lover. Here you are a special romantic unit and yet look at all the ways you think and move and decide differently. Or even a closer look: the mirror. Think of all the things you are thinking about right now even as you read this sentence, your set of desires and fears and goals and ideas that co-exist and contradict themselves. You want a lemon meringue pie (I know I do) yet you want to fit into the outfit you are going to wear at lunch tomorrow. Both desires define me and they cancel each other out. It is a matter of wave and particle; look now and I want to eat pie; look again and I am an aesthete and dreaming of buttoning my top. Or take it inside, to the kinds of activities happening right now in your own biological system, a Whitmanesque set of occurrences containing multitudes and contradictions that add up to the coherent living system that is you. To understand such coherence out of seeming chaos requires a model that is complex and realistic.
I was once giving a workshop for educational leaders at California State University Fresno, arguing the case for chaos theory as a useful model for planning curriculum, and the well-organized meeting ended peacefully enough, but outside there was a fierce storm. Amazed at the rain on the plain of Fresno, with water five inches deep in the parking lot, I took shelter in a local Barnes and Noble. I gathered books and magazines and bought a cup of tea to drink in one of the large striped cushioned chairs. Oh, I was happy. I had an architecture magazine, Scientific American, Best American Essays, Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and a surfing magazine. I opened this first. I am fascinated by waves. There was a picture of a wave with a triangular shape at the top of it, and the caption read, December 23, this is the last time Donny Solomon was seen.
The story below the photo said that this surfer apparently decided not to take the enormous wave at the last minute, and was found floating tied to his surfboard fifteen minutes later. I puzzled over the picture. How could you drown from a wave you did not in fact take? Does not the wave break forward? If you were behind it, you would not drown. Right? Consulting my map that rainy, rainy day, I got into the rental car and drove west on Highway 152, crossed the great North-South arteries 199, 5, and 101, and proceeded as far west as I could go, onto a parking lot overlooking a Pacific beach. I sat in my car and stared at the waves, trying to see how they broke, but I could not see a way to understand. A surfer with a knit hat on was getting into a station wagon. “Excuse me,” I asked (the lady in the navy blue suit), “can you tell me what happens if you do not take a wave? I do not understand what happened to Danny Solomon.” “It’s Donny,” he said, apparently not surprised to have a stranger bring up this story. He described to me the way the waves actually break, as opposed to the way I see them break in my mind, as a towering crest forward. They topple both forwards and backwards at the same time as they break. He explained to me that Donny had been caught in a three-story waterfall in the backwash of the wave. In Donny’s case, it was a matter of life and death to know the actuality of how waves break.
Academics aside, I doubt that most people go around conscious of having a “theory” about things that governs our approaches to decision-making. Yet my point is that we each have ideas about the world and how it works that determine what we see and how we experience it. Theory may be conjecture, but it matters–vitally. We get into trouble when our mental models do not match realities. Yet even when I took to my books to learn how waves break, and try to see waves in this new way, I really cannot do it; waves continue to flow forward for me in a neat coherent trajectory. I struggle to see what I now know is how they act.
My mental model is so much more powerful than what is literally before my eyes. But this humbling cognitive struggle makes me more conscious that what I see and assume about reality is probably not the actual case. In quantum physics, we learn that our perception of the solid table on which we write is too simple. Our table is a set of quivering entities appearing and disappearing with more space than matter. Knowing this, the act of seeing and thinking becomes undermined in a wonderful, achy-breaky way of country music lyrics and a lyrical post-structualist’s English graduate student’s theory dream.
The knowledge that the world works in mysterious ways proclaimed by poets, ways that are continuously confirmed and revealed to us by science, is actually what makes us conscious. T.S. Eliot wrote, inThe Four Quartets, “we had the experience, but missed the meaning.” This paradox seems to me to define human experience—that we can experience (as I see the wave) but not know what it means. To see meaning is to understand the difference that exists between our experience in the world and our knowledge of it. We need distance to recognize meaning. The word “revelation” comes from the root Latin word “revelare,” meaning, “to lift, to raise.” The difference between experience and meaning is consciousness, what I have come to think W. B. Yeats meant when he wrote in “Among Schoolchildren,” “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
This is such an evocative line, surely, haunting us and meant to haunt us-—a great way to end a poem. However, it did seem to me, I confess, that this was a set up, a show-off posturing of unnecessary angst. Of course we always criticize what we don’t understand, but I thought that he was creating a problem that did not really exist (or for that matter, matter) and trying to bring us into it to share his pain. Clearly I was not on Yeats’ page. But in the ensuing forty or more years since I first encountered that line, I find myself increasingly believing in the importance of the question, and moved by its profundity (poets always have the last word, and the last laugh). You only can know the dancer FROM the dance if you first know the dance, the dance as some eternal kind of truth that does not change. Through the lens of quantum theory, I can see the dance as the way the universe happens, the choreography of what we know as laws of astronomy, geology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, and all the knowledge fields between. The dancer is our interpretation of reality, of what e.e. cummmings (trained as a physicist as well as a poet) calls “the happening illimitably earth.”
We, in our theories of the world, are the mental dancers. Our dance can invoke the beauty, and truth, and even mystery of the Dance. Yeats invites us to know what the dance is, and in this knowledge, to discern the difference between the fantastic reality Bradbury posits in his metaphoric discovered planet, and the limiting ways our mind constructs reality. Yeats’ question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” reveals itself to be an educational mandate. That was his argument, his premise, which I struggled at first to accept: we MUST know the difference. What is fact, what is theory; what is science, what is art? It is not either/or, because without the dancer, we could not know the dance at all, even that it exists. But how are we to know the dance as interpreted by the dancer, to see beyond and behind and through the practice of the dance? How are we to get this knowledge?
We are back to academics, and this is why is seems to me especially sad for our times that academics are officially regarded as having nothing to do with what is practical, useful, and of this world. For if we, in the field of leadership, for example, with worries and needs and our hopes and dreams, and reputations and legacies at stake, cannot learn this from the structures society has created to impart knowledge, where are we to get it? And what is the point of all that learning and study and earnest debate about Truth and Beauty that has been going on for so many years over the history of humanity? I say, let us return to the groves of academe, and find therein a wealth of knowledge about reality that will inform the theories that we choose to guide our decisions and judgments.
Knowing that theories exist and are being debated, and always have been, in poetry, scientific journals and congresses, Nobel-Prize speeches, and Internet listservs, is an agency of consciousness. The very multiplicity of ideas and possible models and theories available to us to make sense of and help negotiate our world makes us live in what Emily Dickinson calls “Possibility.” She considered Possibility “a fairer House than Prose,” but even as a reclusive poet speaking of language, she is expressing a quantum understanding of reality, which is not only “fairer” aesthetically but also more accurate. Dickinson was right: in ways our physicist colleagues can explain, the world itself is literally a state of Possibility.
The way we can access Possibility is to see the variety of dancers interpreting the dance. In the controversies and debates in academe dwell a range of possible sources of wisdom that can help us in the most practical of ways. We can consider any number of dancers and in the comparison of different dancers, we can discern a sense of the dance itself being expressed. The very variety enables us to make the comparisons that in turn reveal (“revelare”) patterns and deep structure for theory and knowledge relevant to our own and our community’s needs.
The seeming contradictions and competing theories and different ideas about how things are and how they work can be understood as dancers illuminating aspects of the dance which we then can integrate into a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of “the whole” Whitman describes when he says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes.” This was written by a coherent and hugely successful entity, Whitman.
Taking this tack, I believe we can extend the wealth of what the academy offers in terms of theories to assess and add up into integral patterns. We can find dancers interpreting the dance, in this case, knowledge and wisdom about leadership, in multiple formats, in waves and particles behaving as the equivalents of quarks. The list may be quirky as well as quarky, but a quantum approach looks at our whole world of human expressions and acts as possible places in which to find useful lessons about leadership.
In identifying possible sources of wisdom for leaders, I am speaking from my own experiences in official leadership roles as well as from the perspectives of a humanities professor and poet, and as a scholar concerned with human creativity expressed across disciplines, cultures, time, and space—all one, if we believe Einstein. If!
My grand theory is that whether aware of it or not, we each hold theories about everything, including leadership, and that leaders put theories into practice even if unaware they are guided by a theory. Thus Thurber asked, “is sex necessary?” (Do we see a pattern here in being asked sly and subversive rhetorical questions, whether Thurber or Whitman or Yeats, designed to shake us up?). Is Theory Necessary? For myself, I cannot leave home without theory; it is indispensable to me to get through the days and hours and years. Who knew? And conscious theory came to me only out of the traumatic if also liberating experiences of finding myself in different cultures, exposed to ideas and beliefs about things I had utterly taken for granted as The Way Things Are. Exposure to difference generated a consciousness that opened me to theory as something profoundly real world and practical.
From experience in many countries, working on curriculum across the disciplines, I developed cross-cultural, transdisciplinary perspectives. For leaders, I called this “round-world thinking.” Leaders inhabit a world characterized by diversity, and by necessity, have to see the links between the various entities, how everything is connected. But I think I thought they were academic insights, that is, for the lecture halls, the journals. Then one day, in our home in Bethesda, Maryland, our teenage son was on the stairs, and I was yelling at him. I don’t remember why exactly. I was looking up at him, and telling him how frustrated I was with him. But he said to me, “Mom [mooooooommmmm], you’re not thinking globally.” This stopped me—as much for the fact that he was quoting me, from my lectures, which meant he was listening. All of a sudden I saw it—the connection between how I was seeing the world from the lessons of the Sphinx up through the equations of physics, as one continuous flow of interdependent units taking on different guises and stages, consisting of opposite states of time and weather and vegetation, and him, the trajectory of his life. As I stood there, my mind instantly created a set of images. I saw side by side my frustration with the red-haired (a dye, which he had told me would rinse out in two washings, NOT) teenager, my wonder and rapture gazing at my newborn lying peacefully beside me, my complacency with my helpful (curly blond-haired) lad making me tea when he was seven, my delight over a paper he (now shaved-head) writes in college, my rejoicing at his wedding, my worry about him at 30 losing his job and health plan in a recession or his child being sick, my gratitude for his making me a cake for my 60th birthday (he was a marvelous chef even then), my happiness when he comes to visit me as a frail old lady…In a Dickensian vision like The Christmas Carol’s ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, shown to the suffering Ebenezer Scrooge, I could see past and future selves, multiple states and conditions, and my own responses of worry and love and delight in equal measures, in the person standing before me on the stairs right now, in a ridiculously over-sized T-shirt with a face on it blowing smoke-rings and illegible writing. I realized in this moment that it was a moment in a long and lively continuum, and I calmed down. Invoking in me my adoration of my infant, my happy comradeship of my pre-adolescent pal, my pride and poignant love for his adult and aging and vulnerable self, my son enabled me to see his present form and stage not only in a continuum, but in a global perspective which infinitely cheered me. A theory that sees our relationships in cycles, with seasons and weather and contradictory states that will change, and change, and change, with a constant of your relationship and what bonds you, the inner essence of a being you love, is a gift and a blessing for a parent, a CEO, a college president, a band leader, a community organizer, a committee head of the fundraising drive, a daughter, a lover, a wife.
My point is that we each have a theory about the world that governs what we see and how we experience it, and as the story of Donny Solomon shows, we can get into a great deal of trouble (in his case it was life or death) if our models do not match the realities. Becoming more conscious of these theories, we can open ourselves to a whole range of possible sources of wisdom about leadership that can help us in the most practical of ways. We can find theories and knowledge that are relevant to our own and our community’s needs.
In suggesting we may not be aware of the theories we already have, and the benefits of recognizing them and assessing their utility, I am mindful of the expression, “if you want to know about water don’t ask a fish.” We take our own assumptions for granted. But when we find ourselves suffering or questioning or discouraged or not getting things done in the timeframes we expect, or as consistently as we would like, we might question our own abilities and the capacities of our communities and organizations. We might give up on ourselves or our institutions or organizations or communities, or we might close our eyes and keep going hoping that tomorrow will be better, or that retirement or a buy-out will come soon. Or that no one will notice, or that we are doing our best, and this is how it is, another beer, please!
Leaders experience leadership from the lens of their expectations of what it means to be a leader, and assess and make decisions according to this theory. But if we became aware of the theory itself, and the possibility that other theories exist, we might be open to ideas that would in fact encourage and even sustain us, strengthen us, and promote our resilience, creativity, and a sense of accomplishment that we are using our time and energies on this earth in a productive way.
Where and how is leadership to be found? Where can we learn it, where can we study it, what is there to be learned?
We are free to consider as valid wisdom about leadership in any field. I have taken a lot of our time together in this essay to build up to the logic of an inclusive list, bringing in the big guns of science, and spicing it with a little poetry and literature, not only because I enjoy writing about science and literature but because the list may not look like a seriously useful set of resources for thinking about leadership and leadership thinking. In offering a few examples of wisdom we can learn from, I am drawing from my own experience of what has actually helped me. My criteria for leadership wisdom would include whatever can encourage us and build morale, enlarge our understanding and respect for our work and that of others, and increase a sense of enjoyment and opportunity (as well as challenge) in leadership roles.
In the optimistic spirit of this essay for leaders and your entire academic support system, it is my hope that discussion of our resources (the lobsters and mangos and coconuts) will open up a way to value the range of possibilities from each of our experiences that may seed the field of leadership with enduring wisdom and insights. It is not this OR that, here OR there: ideas we can use today and tomorrow and that make sense of the past are in every sector of human thought and imagination. What I have learned most in my immersion in history, children’s literature, drama, poetry, science, and philosophy, is that for over the whole course of human history, ideas about leadership are never far from the human mind. As this mind has irresistibly considered the most important issues that concern us and take our energies, leadership is the topic in tragedy, comedy, satire, song, art, philosophy, discourse, poetry–what we sing in the nursery, what we discuss at the latte bar, what we think to ourselves in our daily moments of work and love and play. If we are truly global thinkers and the world is really a matter of “and, and, and and,” then our great opportunity is to proceed from what we can make when we put these various ideas from the many disciplines and our own experiences together. This exploration may lead us to the emergent field of Integral Leadership theory in which we each can contribute essential knowledge of what we know and why we think it matters.
The book I would write on leadership wisdom, therefore, would include so-called nonsense, fairy tales, and other children’s literature, ancient myth and legend from multiple cultures 5000 BC-500 BC, tragedy and comedy, chaos theory, the back row of the theater,the front row of the theater, the stage, relationships with children, poetry, history, the mirror. It is not a complete list, but it represents my own particular individual whole. Each of us has such a list, of ideas and experiences that inform our sense of what is important to know and to do—and thus, to teach, and to share, and to support. On the personal level, taking permission from quantum theory and its heir, integral theory, each of these kinds of sources gives me invaluable and relevant lessons in understanding leadership. In traditional academics, these items individually and in combination would not belong in a leadership studies and development journal. The poet and the mother and actress and chaos theory cheerleader would not belong at the table. But leadership, which requires understanding “the whole,” cannot be separated from the whole self doing the leading and thinking about the leading. We may not be leaders “24/7” as my wise colleague and editor Russ Volckmann says; but when we are playing this role, the entirely of our human dimension is in play. We are free to consider that the kinds of knowledge we do not think belongs in academic exploration may well be the lobsters and coconuts we need to know are “food” to realize the paradise in the island on which we find ourselves.
We each would define leadership in a variety of ways. Someone who influences and motivates others; who has a vision of how things should and could be; who is willing to take efforts to help accomplish this goal: from my point of view, a leader can be a writer, a military commander, a tour guide, a teacher, a parent, an iconoclast, a friend. A leader could be recognized in retrospect, from the result of something happening that would not happen without her or his interventions in our human systems. Someone could be a leader but be recognized as such only after their service, even after his or her death. What if the way a person lives his or her own life, a way that has integrity, goodness, strength, loyalty, devotion, honesty, fairness, or other attributes, influences a community or another person to take action, or think, or value in different ways? There are so many ways to understand leadership, short term, long term, individual, plural. We may be part of a process, of stages of development (a core idea in integral theory), of which we may not even be aware. If the system, as quantum theory tell us, is comprised of interdependent parts, and we all do belong, then by definition, whatever we do and whatever we think is influential to the whole, over time, over space. This vision of our own belonging gives us each a sense of responsibility to the whole, and in this light, we can see in what ways we are capable of and called upon for leadership, visible, invisible, celebrated, criticized, conscious, unaware.
The field of leadership studies may take the implications of quantum and integral theories for leadership development and ask how best to support and guide the leadership capacity that each person has, when we exercise a conscious decision to play a leadership role. It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of integral theory is that essential leadership wisdom would be defined by the combination of moral, spiritual, ethical, intellectual, analytical, social, and physical ways of knowing—that we do not leave out any of these essential elements of the whole that would define a leader with integrity, one who is essential to the whole society’s well-being
Such a leadership model would draw from revelation, a respect for the value of one’s whole being (the complicated self formed of seeming irrelevant experience and knowledge) as well as for the various sectors of the academic sphere. It would see as relevant a multitude of ideas and experiences and forms of knowledge. The term “relevance” itself comes from the root word of revelare, to lift, to raise. Without a perspective of being lifted up by time and distance in order to see the patterns that make up a larger whole, relevance is not revealed. Ancient wisdom tells us that leaders are necessary and called upon to serve, but are not always valued and not always what is really (in hindsight) needed. Leaders do not always survive the leadership role (and this is has been cause for celebration). George Washington went into the American presidency convinced it would be a miracle if he emerged with his reputation intact.
Why would we want to play such a role if we have a choice? Yet perhaps an answer is in how we do play such roles every day. To act with courage, self-sacrifice, kindness, strength, hope, or creativity, are facets of leadership, and yet we can hardly begin to discern how infinitely we each express these states of being. I walk across a hospital parking lot, either to have a medical procedure (terrified and praying) or to visit someone (terrified and praying), and I think of every person getting out of their cars, and what it must take to simply be dressed, be walking, be holding one’s expression tight, and not falling to the ground in a helpless despair and fright. How can we begin to gauge the infinite ways humanity shows courage or kindness? We can look around and realize that leadership is inextricable from our own humanity and that we are often playing this role before we are consciously aware that we have chosen to do so. We can be humbled but also heartened by the knowledge that in exercising leadership we join human history, and find ourselves in good company across arts, sciences, culture, time, and relationships—even in our own reflections and reflection in the mirror.
So, on our islands, there is much to eat. With an inclusive theory, we expand our definition of what is relevant as we go. We accumulate wisdom that becomes a more complex and inclusive theory that enables us to continue in our roles, to do as much as we can for others as effectively as possible. We seek to extract meaning from experience to enhance the experience. It requires only revelation, the ability to recognize the learning resources in our world. It requires only theory. Such integral theory makes us more aware and conscious, open to Truth and Beauty. Everywhere we look there are lessons we can learn and apply, relevant to us in a world of change and complexity and quantum marvelous truths. In this way a theory that opens us to see and value matters vitally to our survival and resilience. We can discover ourselves part of a larger community and human tradition, and in this context of the historical, geophysical, and ideological whole whether defined by Einstein or Shakespeare, humbly acknowledge the noble possibilities in leadership. Academe is a place we can find our whole selves after all, surely practical and worldly work.
Barbara Mossberg, PhD, is writing a book on this topic. She came to academe through the lens of teaching tragedy, comedy, and satire, then American literature, also children’s literature; she is a poet and actress, and works on John Muir and environmental education and public policy issues as well as a confirmed interdisciplinarianist and globalist thinker with a passion for chaos theory, leadership writing and teaching integrated studies. She is President Emerita of Goddard College, Director on the Integrative Studies Program at California State University, Monterey Bay, and Senior Scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership. In addition, she is a member of the Integral Leadership Council, Integral Leadership Review.
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (Barnes and Noble, 1992), based on The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, the Unabridged Edition, 1983). All dictionary citations are from this edition.