Organic Leadership: When the Seen Path Ends


     One of the truisms of our time is a propensity towards doubting the dependability of structures and people with authority, especially those structures that were originally designed to assure order and harmony in society. Government and politicians, legal systems and lawyers, Church and Church leaders - all are suspect to the degree that when something good is perceived in any of these realms, it is met with surprise. Something good - something that benefits people rather than the structures themselves - is seen as the exception rather than the rule. We hear laments about a dearth of leadership. But what kind of leadership are we looking for? And is it possible that when we extol leaders of the past we are looking for leaders that wouldn't have functioned in the same way if they lived in our time? Our time is one with a rate and depth of change unparalleled in history, affecting and influencing every sphere of life. Our world is so deeply in flux that what has been effective leadership in the past is no longer able to serve as a way into the future.

          In the early nineties when Margaret Wheatley published Leadership and the New Science in which she demonstrated the self-organizing structures of nature as significant for organizations, many applauded her work and spent days reflecting on her teaching. Wheatley pointedly proposed that today's organizations would benefit from seeing how creation unfolds, cyclic and organic, as an effective way for organizations to both honor life and draw out the unique gifts of all their members. She proposed that - as in this way nature thrives - so organizations would renew and revitalize were they able to respect cyclic and organic principles. Though Wheatley's ideas were met with great excitement at the time, few organizations have been able to incorporate or live by her teachings ten years later. Leaders have generally been unable to directly apply Wheatley's insights in practical change.

          If, however, such a leadership approach were to be engaged, if we were to experience a shift of consciousness from our Newtonian mechanical mindsets towards a quantum understanding of how the world works, could we not call such leadership "organic"? Organic denotes how life unfolds from within, without foreseeing what will happen next, but trusting the inner process. Organic is a word alien to ten-year plans and corporate structures. Organic follows a greater leader than humans can determine, much in the way that William Stafford describes in his poem "The Way It Is":


There's a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn't change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can't get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

Or die and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.

You don't ever let go of the thread.


           The "thread" of Stafford's poem is the same thread visible when we observe the earth moving through her seasons, every moment abundant with change. This is organic leadership: everything unfolding its nature without seeing the source of that unfolding.  Such is the role of leaders in the panoply of our present world: tending that unfolding so as to act with, not against; not controlling, but following the innate nature of living things, human beings included.

Organic Inquiry and Organic Leadership

           We live in a world in which questions are more life-giving than answers, for any answers given are found inadequate almost as soon as they are spoken. Such is the pace of information and access to knowledge daily available on an organic path. Even the nature of research has changed, and while there is still room for the positivist and quantitative, its hegemony has been soundly challenged by the flowering of many forms of qualitative or "soft" research, exploring human experience rather than categorizing it with firm labels. One such recent form or qualitative research is called "organic inquiry."

          Organic Inquiry emerged in 1999 and "acknowledges that every research study has an inherent and expanding nature which may be realized through subjective and intuitive methods." (Clements, Ettling, Jennet and Shields, 1999, 1). This research methodology includes personal and relational elements, as well as sacred and transformative applications. A unique feature of organic inquiry, especially for our purpose, is inclusion of "chthonic knowing," defined by the authors as "the underground life of whatever is happening: this fertile and non-rational aspect" manifested in dreams and synchronicities, meditation, intuition, body responses" and other creative expressions of the dark, primitive and mysterious "of the earth" realities that live us without our conscious knowing. W.H. Auden says it more succinctly: "We are lived by powers we pretend to understand."

          Although inquiry is not the purpose of this writing, I propose here that the elements of organic inquiry hold deep significance for an organic approach to leadership. An organic  leader tends life as it is, not as it should be, allowing an organization to unfold according to the creative gifts of members and not requiring members to fit themselves into unchangeable structures and corporate plans. A.R. Ammons (Wheatley, 2005, 23) offers this description of an organic organization:


Don't establish the
boundaries first
the squares, triangles,
of pre-conceived
and then
life into them, trimming
off left-over edges,
ending potential:
let centers
        self-justifying motions!


          Make no mistake: we have been formed from our earliest years in the way of "preconceived possibility."  We make schedules and deny our own needs to keep them; we articulate goals and objectives and name the steps we will take to get to them; we even create five and ten year plans, thinking they can include - or at least make allowances for - anything we can't see now. Such exercises understandably express a worldview that is attached to predictability and mechanistic perceptions of how the world works. But in our time, that predictability has broken down, enough times now that a quantum view - that we cannot predict intuitive leaps nor emergence of "wild card" influences -is rising as a more realistic way to live in our world.

          We are in that delicate time - some would say an "open moment" - when we see clearly the passing away of the old and yet the new has taken no form. Some of us sense the new as we sense the presence of furniture in a dark room, or the presence of an animal when we're out in the woods at night. Shapes of the new emerge as our eyes adjust to the dark, and it is that acceptance of darkness in the passing away of old forms that allows our inner eyes to open and adjust.

          The elements of Organic Inquiry offer lenses through which our eyes can adjust to the dark, so that new shapes of leadership may emerge. Using sacred, personal, chthonic, relational and transformative "lenses," we may see the beginnings of a new way to lead, one that would encourage a revitalization of organizations presently stuck in old structures and patterns to the point of dying.

The Sacred in Organic Leadership

          The Sacred dimension of life invites us into a larger view. What is before us is never the whole story; the Sacred takes us beyond whatever story we are telling ourselves. Honoring the Sacred requires us to relinquish whatever stories about our organization and its members to which we are attached and which have become unquestionable. It shakes up our fixed and static notions, loosening the soil of dry and hardened ground.

          Leading from dark, soft soil creates conditions for new seeds to grow. It keeps the soil neither too tight with dryness, nor too loose with no cohesion. It provides moisture and air, allows light and dark. But it forces nothing; the Sacred only invites. Members themselves are the seeds, and honoring them allows an organization to find its most vital form, not a pre-conceived shape into which all must fit.

          Honoring the Sacred means slowing down and entering silence, noticing and naming what is happening without blame or judgment, speaking truth in face of disapproval, ritualizing the presence of Mystery, and listening with compassion to self and others.

The Personal in Organic Leadership

           Unlike traditional leaders, an organic leader welcomes and engages the most personal and subjective contributions of members. It is the leader's role, in fact, to create conditions where valuing personal contributions is recognized as the "juice" of an organization. Personal qualities, talents and skills, as well as changing interests of members do, in fact, shape the focus and face of an organization within its large parameters, encouraging passionate involvement and action.

          Honoring the personal as an organic leader means adopting an approach of genuine interest in whatever is of interest to members. It means cultivating ways to listen, to interact and to allow the leader's own personal qualities to be seen and to be part of the whole organization: less role and more genuine personal interaction.

Chthonic Knowing in Organic Leadership

          Organic leaders listen to their own chthonic knowing. They realize the difference between "seeing is believing" and "believing is seeing," and they choose the latter. They trust their own intuitive knowing, becoming familiar with body responses and the periods of darkness which often precede creative insight. They trust and value the non-rational as well as rational approach and notice synchronicity and symbol. Organic leaders cultivate these attentions in their organizations and include them in decision-making.

          Honoring chthonic knowing as a leader means encouraging its value among members. It means taking into account creative expression as well as corporate planning; it weighs dreams, art and poetry as well as structured, conceptual decision-making processes. Organic leaders realize that "we never simply ‘know' the world; we create worlds based on the meaning we invest in the information we choose to notice."(Wheatley, 2005, 37) In the chthonic current of our daily lives, larger understandings are working their way towards light in every member of an organization, not just the leader.

The Relational in Organic Leadership

           When leaders are freed from the necessity of ensuring that the members of their organizations fit themselves into preconceived plans and unexamined structures which they had no part in designing, then those leaders are freed to become more relational. When the structure loosens its grip for whatever reason, then the stories of members become more significant to the unfolding of the organization; indeed, to its identity. Leaders become gardeners: by valuing the personal story of every member, including themselves, a new organism grows, one that lives vitally in the present, not the past; one which relates to the immediate unfolding of the organization in its larger context.

          Honoring the relational as a leader means allowing time for relationships - not water-cooler relationships, but the ones that develop when the deep life-questions carried by every person are invited into speaking and hearing, especially when those questions are heard without judgment. Relationships are built not only around a common task, but around the inner realities that every person lives through every day.

The Transformative in Organic Leadership

          When leaders live their presence to people in the previous four ways, transformation naturally comes about. Not only are leaders and members transformed, but so is the organization itself. In fact, no organization can be transformed only by revising plans or setting long-term goals or making other kinds of corporate decisions. If we believe organizations to be living systems in the same way that the earth is living, then they too will unfold organically, and members with them. That is transformation: not something we bring about, but something we allow and trust as true to the nature of the organization itself.


                                                                      (article in progress) 2006-2008