Some years ago, at the height of the dotcom boom, before the dotcom crash, when there were buckets of “on paper” money sloshing around, I was rather worried to read that Ken Wilber was being enticed by some of these new millionaires to become involved in the practical world, rather than to continue his highly successful career as a pandit. I worried that his insights were likely to be turned into another New Age religion. Twelve years later, I think my apprehensions were well founded.
Siddartha Gotema, aka the Buddha discovered, the hard way, a highly effective way of training the mind (vipassana meditation) and spent the rest of his life trying to teach as many people as possible how to benefit from his discovery. What happened after he died? His followers, no doubt well intentioned, turned his practical teaching into another religion. Never mind about learning how to train your mind, so that you too can experience reality more nearly as it is, rather than as others think we should experience it. Luckily, the practice did not quite die out, and we can still today learn how to do what the Buddha learnt the hard way. However, along the way, millions have come to see Buddhism, not as a practical way to enhance our mental capacities, but as a system of beliefs, an ideology, and a moral code, that will earn us the opportunity to go to some sort of heaven after we die.
Five hundred years later, a similar thing seems to have happened in relation to the insights gained by a young Jewish man in Galilee. This time, his followers, or those who claimed they were his followers, went even further in creating an incredibly powerful institutional structure aimed at controlling not just the behavior of billions, but their thoughts as well. The Enlightenment has been the struggle to break free from those shackles, and the struggle is clearly still going on.
And then along comes Ken Wilber. All goes well, his books are radical, they sell well, he becomes famous, and then comes the temptation to set up institutional structures to promote Ken’s teaching and to create the new “Integral” religion. He is still alive, so the “movement” is still kept under some control. What will happen when he goes? A “Church of Integralism”, along the lines of the Church of Scientology? That’s the danger. There is much money to be made from packaging Ken’s work, and clearly that process is already under way.
Now to Integral Leadership. I have been tracking the academic and commercial world of “leadership” studies, theories and ideas for well over thirty years now. I played a number of senior leadership roles in the business and academic worlds. I taught “leadership” subjects in the MBA and MEI programs that were aimed at introducing master’s students to the theory and practice of leadership. At one stage, I think I had a copy of just about every serious book on the subject written over the last hundred years or so. One clear thing emerged from all this. What effective leaders do is more art than science. There are and have been highly effective leaders who are/were so un-ethical as to be correctly
labelled “evil”. I’m sure you can think of a number of them. There have been leaders who have been in important positions, who were quite ethical, but quite in-effective. And there are those who are both ethical, and effective – the genuine “good leaders” of our time. Are these ethical and effective leaders “Integral”? I believe they have been so, and for a long time. They did not have the label, but they understood implicitly and in practice the relevance and importance of all four quadrants, and the reality that different people are at different stages of personal and social development. Elliot Jaques, a truly great writer on leadership, knew this well and at the time he died, in the mid nineties, he had never heard of Ken Wilber.
It seems that Brett Thomas’ article has stirred me up. I think when he writes about starting a “movement” the red lights start to flash for me. The Americans have been and continue to be very good at packaging and marketing ideas in the form of new courses, seminars, books, videos and so on, whether it’s in the field of management or psychology or whatever. The management field in particular has a voracious appetite for new ideas, and the average shelf life of the latest fad or idea seems to be about six months. The “Leadership Rosetta Stone” is a case in point. There is nothing new in the four styles or types of leadership summarized in that diagram. They have all been worked over in many previous books on leadership styles.
Let me try to be positive. I think Ken’s written contribution has been very valuable. He has provided a better map for conceptualizing and understanding the complex relations between individuals and collectives, and between the inner world of subjectivity and the outer world of objects and objectivity. He has provided a meaningful, contemporary interpretation of the wisdom of various mystical and philosophical traditions that go back thousands of years. He has given us a contemporary and accessible language for discussing matters that were kept “secret” and “hidden” for a very long time. And of course, he is not the only one to do so. But he has done all this very well. He has confronted many with the challenging idea of the personal and social evolution of consciousness, and with a framework for understanding the tensions and conflicts that exist between people who are at different stages of development. Let us honor and respect him for all of that. But let us also be very wary and skeptical of the inevitable attempts by well-meaning followers to turn him into a cult figure, and to create a new religion in his name.
Adolph Hanich has been a chemical engineer, a corporate executive, a top-level strategy consultant and a university professor and founding director of a graduate school of entrepreneurship. Now retired, he still works part time as a (registered) counselling psychologist, mentor and coach. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org