1/15 – Inching Towards Leaderless Leading

Edith Friesen

Edith Friesen and Edith Friesen

(EF) Edith Friesen

(EF) Edith Friesen

Edith Friesen

(IN) Edith Friesen

EF:  Before we start, there’s something you need to know.

IN:  Okay…

EF:  I’m not sure why they asked me to do this interview. Mostly, I just write and guide writers. And I do a little communications work. I don’t usually think of myself as a leader.

IN:  Am I hearing that storied Canadian modesty? Or a woman who hasn’t yet come into her own?

EF:  Can you drop the knife already?

IN:  Sorry. Let’s loosen all those assumptions and just flow with it.

EF:  Thing is, I have a quirky and somewhat edgy relationship with leadership. I’ve fallen into it and I’ve stepped into it (laughs). Mostly I’ve been humbled by it. My hard-wired qualities have dogged me. I’ve swum in divergent currents, sometimes at the same time. And I’ve been snagged by a tangle of debris. Whenever I think I’ve got it together, whenever I have a little ground to stand on, along comes an earthquake and shakes things up. Why just the other day, the who of leadership dropped away, and it struck me that leading happens.

IN:  What do you mean leading happens? Isn’t leadership about who we are, inside and out? About enabling others to take the next natural step?

EF:  In conventional terms, yes. However, such a definition is wed to nouns, whether to leaders, leadership qualities, leading edges, leadership strategies, or spheres of leadership. And it’s yoked to the efforts of individuals and groups. What if leading is deeper and more dynamic? What if it’s an active verb that happens through all of us, at any given moment, in any situation? What if leading is leaderless, more like the play of water or wind?

IN:  Hmmm. I’d like to know how you came to that perspective. But first, say more about those hard-wired qualities, divergent currents, and snags.

EF:  So, you can think of me as a spring that bubbles up—spontaneous, effervescent, playful—especially at my best, even half way through my sixties. Back in the day, I lamented those qualities because they ran counter to my cultural script. A leader needed to wear a mantle of authority. A leader needed to stay in front of the pack, whether through a powerful personality, exceptional expertise, or political savvy. A leader needed driving ambition. I didn’t have any of that, and I couldn’t be bothered developing it, still can’t. I’m wired to lead with enthusiasm, provocative ideas, and mutual delight. With some qualms, I took that style into senior management during the eighties, at a time when female executives were expected to lead with big balls and well-defended hearts—more like guys.

IN:  Did you meet resistance?

EF:  Surprisingly little resistance in the reporting chain, whether up or down, which was likely tied to excellent results and the obligatory power suit. Laterally, with my peers and other female managers (um), a lot of resistance. Perhaps I was too much of an anomaly, too blonde.

IN:  The Jungians might label your style as active feminine…

EF:  Well, before you typecast me, there’s something else that’s hard-wired, and it’s more of a masculine mind. I’ve always gravitated towards big pictures and deep patterns. Part of me loves those explosions in the mind. Loves watching scattered ideas organize themselves into solar systems and constellations. Is mesmerized by pulsing points of light that connect in novel and scintillating ways. This type of mind is probably why I fell for Ken Wilber’s integral theory back in 1996.[1] In one blinding flash, it became my new religion, my ideology, my ism of choice. I gave it my deepest yes.

IN:  In other words, you drank the Kool-Aid.

EF:  Yup, in one big gulp (laughs). And then it got tricky. A couple of old currents re-surfaced and joined the current du jour. Then all currents rushed into this great, new integrative current—debris and all.

IN:  That isn’t something we talk about much. Can you unpack that experience?

EF:  Sure. First to re-surface was the evangelical current of my childhood. And it made this new integrative current feel absolutely true, both intuitively and conceptually. Here was a comprehensive orthodoxy that offered salvation from the dark sides of post-modernism, modernism, and pre-modernism, yet honored their luminous sides. Soon I became an enthusiastic evangelist for Wilberian integralism. And I alienated some folks, even close friends, especially at first.

IN:  You probably weren’t the only zealous integralist (laughs). But, do tell.

EF:  A couple of times, I nearly incited a mutiny among graduate students. Ian Wight, an urban planning prof and department head at the University of Manitoba, had invited me to create a journaling process with integral underpinnings for his capstone course. The course was designed to help emerging planning professionals develop an integrally-informed praxis, beyond conventional practice. Well, the first few times I introduced the integral theory beneath the journaling process, I succeeded brilliantly at provoking open hostility, but little else (laughs). Ian was hugely gracious and framed it as an ever-evolving, ever-emerging experiment. That’s the kind of leadership he modeled for me.

IN:  And how did your experiment evolve?

EF:  Over the next seven years, the course became a crucible for all of us. Ian and I gradually learned to offer more nuanced and subtle integral perspectives. We eventually took readings on Wilberian integralism off the list because they only created a backlash. I began leaving the integral lexicon at the door, as I am doing here. In lieu, I developed creative ways to embed integral theory and help students embody it. Mostly I used stories, experiential exercises, metaphors, and provocative questions. If students wanted to know where these perspectives came from, they were welcome to ask, and some who were ready did. About halfway through our experiment, we documented it in a journal article.[2] I must admit that I found working with jaded and theory-weary graduate students stressful, and I often came home with a migraine. I returned year-after-year only because their growth spurts and interior transformations were so luminous, so moving. Worth every snag and snarl.

IN:  How did you invite them to open up and share their interiors within that academically and professionally oriented context?

EF:  I modeled vulnerability. I knew I had to gain their trust in the first five minutes of the first class. For the next three months, I would be privy to their journals, to their innermost thoughts and vulnerabilities. Straight off, I shared shadow stories and low points from my professional life. Most students softened, opened, and surfaced their own vulnerabilities. Those who initially balked were deeply grateful by the end. So, modeling vulnerability, even playing the holy fool, became a conscious way of leading.

IN:  And the other currents you mentioned?

EF:  Oh yes, an instrumental current also re-surfaced. Here the Wilberian/AQAL view became a useful analytical tool, the means to an end. I could use it like a rear-view mirror to see the road behind. I could use it like x-ray glasses to see inside other humans. I could use it like a microscope to parse partial truths. I could use it like a kaleidoscope to show others how everything fit together. I could even use it like a surgical scope to write more strategically and elicit the reader-response I desired. This instrumental current came from a previous career in organizational communications and marketing, and it had a slightly (ahem) scheming bent. I’d always had a flair for branding, and I was artful with the written word. So when I synthesized all that with knowledge of the five key AQAL lenses, I became even craftier. Since I could shift perspectives nimbly, connect multiple ways of knowing, and talk the AQAL talk, others looked to me for leadership. But here’s the perverse part. I had implanted those five lenses into my eyeballs so that I could instantly interpret any reality through them. I was like a tourist who—click, click, click—photographs everything while experiencing nothing. I had no idea the harm I was doing to myself or others, but that’s another story.

IN:  Yikes!

EF:  No kidding, and I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, those re-surfaced currents then joined the current du jour. This current was more heart-based and focused on translation. Let me back up a bit. After developing an allergy to the corporate world, I’d sought respite in graduate school. There, I became sensitive to the injustice of exclusionary and privileged language. For two years, I ate, drank, and inhaled democratic communication. I lived for translating between expert and lay knowledge. For translating abstract theory into grounded practice. For translating between polarized isms and between divergent modes of inquiry. For translating through metaphor. I felt I had finally found a way of dovetailing my writing and leadership capacities with my highest purpose. So when the Wilberian integral map fell into my hands a few years later, I was primed to translate its complexity, its abstract concepts, its awkward language, and its insider vocabulary into more democratic, reader-friendly expressions. How cheeky was that? I especially wanted to translate this map to a wider audience, to give it a warmer and more inclusive tone. Too many of my sisters had been turned off or marginalized by heady, disembodied writing about integral theory and application.

IN:  Is that when you started writing about integral writing?

EF:  Yes, and it’s funny how it happened. Back in the early days of the Integral Institute, I looked for someone to advise me on how to apply integral theory to writing. There was no one, which is not surprising since attempts at application were just beginning. It was Sean Esbjörn-Hargens who invited me to try my hand at writing a piece that eventually morphed into a journal article.[3] Sean became an exquisite mentor, and modeled perfectly timed measures of support and challenge. I must admit that I felt way in over my head. I had embraced this integrative current intellectually, but I hadn’t fully embodied it yet, and I hoped no one would find out. I finished the article only by pretending to write for my eyes only. And by focusing on something I could manage—bringing the quadrants or studios of writing alive. I was genuinely surprised by the impact on readers. Even Ken Wilber liked it, which surprised everyone. I became the go-to-girl for integrally-informed writing, and I rode that dynamic wave for years. Then, something happened…

IN:  Why do I sense another yikes coming on?

EF:  Because it is. After more than a decade of surfing this integrative current. After consuming all the integrally-grounded courses, books, and videos I could lay my hands on. After sitting raptly at the feet of superstar integral teachers. After dining daily at the integral life practice table. After offering integrally-informed journaling to graduate students. After co-facilitating an integral discussion group with my daughter Carissa Kazyss, who, incidentally, modeled deep intuitive leadership for me. After publishing integrally-focused articles. After presenting at integral conferences and winning prizes. After smuggling the integral view into everything I wrote. It all came crashing down. And I entered what you might call a very dark night.

IN:  Whoa! What happened?

EF:  A landslide of realizations hit me. It happened during an integral metatheory course taught by Mark Edwards. For the first time, I began looking at the Wilberian AQAL lenses, not merely through them. And what I saw shook me up. I had been treating those lenses as givens, not appreciating that they are constructs invented by a constructed and constructing mind. I had mistaken the quadrants for the structure of reality, not understanding that they are a pair of conceptual lenses that have been crossed to create a simple matrix. I had embraced AQAL orthodoxy as comprehensive, as the only integral game in town. I had not seen that it is partial, that it doesn’t include some key explanatory lenses, and that other integral approaches help balance it out. Worst of all, I had mediated nearly every experience through AQAL lenses, not realizing that I was inadvertently separating myself from direct experience. Putting it bluntly, I’d been living inside an AQAL condom. I had influenced others to do the same. And it broke my heart.

IN:  So you’re saying that you’d wrapped yourself in a plastic map and it prevented you from fully appreciating the territory?

EF:  Yup, and I felt devastated. Where was the integrity in my integral now? The depression, the self-judgment, the grief was excruciating—three never-ending months of it. For a while, I wanted nothing to do with anything integral. I felt betrayed by my deepest yes, blindsided by my own blindness.

IN:  How did you work your way through that drama?

EF:  I started speaking up. About living inside the AQAL condom, once- and twice-removed from life. About the implanted lenses and the forgotten lenses. Then together with Mark Edwards, who modeled an uncommon blend of brilliance and humility, I contributed to a conference paper along with a couple of other students.[4] We advocated taking a more critical, creative, and inclusive approach to integral metatheorizing. I also began asking questions like, what’s the ism after integralism? A few in the integral community could relate. Some joked that I’d regressed or gone over to the dark side. Many went silent, though, including some in leadership. I noticed subtle judgment in their eyes and consternation on their faces. Where was that hallmark integral curiosity now? I wondered. I felt distanced, as if I had a communicable disease.

IN:  Ouch.

EF:  Actually, those reactions were completely understandable. It’s very scary to contemplate that your tightly-held constructs, not to mention your constructed mind, could crumble and leave you without a toehold. In private life it is scary enough. In the context of leadership and the published word, you stand to lose face, trust, and power in unpredictable ways. The ego does everything it can to save you from such a nightmare. And it does its job beautifully (laughs). I say that sincerely.

IN:  So, what I’m hearing you say is that this dark night was less about the integral view itself and more about the blinkered and tight-fisted way you grasped it.

EF:  You got it! Since then, there have been other cataclysmic events on the outer and inner landscapes. A mudslide here, a forest fire there. Each time it happens, another major assumption or identification is swept away. The writing changes, the way I guide writers changes. And if these are considered forms of leadership, then leading changes, too.

IN:  Let’s follow that thread through your writing. And hopefully circle around to this idea that leading happens.

EF:  Sure. Before the crash, I’d been working on an integral writing book for many years. It was full-frontal AQAL, highly formulaic and orthodox. It was also infused with an evangelical undertone and a lively overtone. After my exposure to integral metatheory, after the dark night ended, after I got over myself and caught the joke, I started painting outside the lines. I integrated various integral lenses in a more conscious, curious, and creative way. I also stepped beyond the limitations of visual metaphors—whether the integral view, the integral map, integral perspectives, integral lenses, big pictures—and experimented with metaphors that invoke other ways of knowing. For example, I began feeling the integrative current inside my body as an array of movements and subtle energies. I even danced and acted them out for my daughter. The next version of the manuscript was more freewheeling and relaxed, but it was still burdened with integral framings. As one peer reviewer noted, the marriage between the practice of writing and integral concepts seemed forced and awkward. Deep down, I’d always known that most writers want fresh inspiration and juicy practice, not spelled-out concepts. Yet, I’d put those integral framings in the driver’s seat. There was something unnatural, even unethical, about that. So, after much soul-searching, I walked away from that manuscript and ultimately from my publishing contract.

IN:  You couldn’t salvage it?

EF:  Not in that form. My heart wasn’t in it, my soul wouldn’t let me, and my mind wanted a freer playground. As if on cue, along came another dark night, and the book totally morphed again. Now it became about writing from the deepest and lightest part of one’s self. To keep it elegant, I developed a series of generous and progressive metaphors. Each metaphor integrates a potent writing capacity with a deep-seated dimension of the self, a particular energy pattern, and integral lenses that are quietly embedded. The expression sounds more playful and soulful. I’m also providing oodles of experiential exercises to help writers integrate and embody all this. In other words, the practice of writing is back in the driver’s seat where it belongs.

IN:  So you’re on a new track and everything has stabilized?

EF:  As if (laughs). This writing project, along with the crazy little me-myself-and-I circus, continues to evolve. Just recently, another shake-up. Fortunately it didn’t affect the content. I just had to put my hands away and stop directing the show.

IN:  Huh?

EF:  It’s like the writing gets done through deep being or Being as my mentors, Colin Muir and Deanna Silvester, would say. They embody this terrain, they know how to articulate it, and they are familiar with every inch of the integral map. In Canada, you won’t find leadership with more depth and integrity, and that’s what they model for me.

IN:  What’s different about writing that comes from deep being?

EF:  The writing that pours through is more beautiful and powerful, more poetic. Who wrote that? I wonder. Nobody, it seems. It gets even more mysterious. Not long ago, I started experiencing myself as an open window. Little by little, that’s where the writing happens, the guiding of writers happens, the leading happens—through that window in service to whatever wants to be born in the moment.

IN:  So, you’ve disappeared from the scene?

EF:  Not at all (laughs). Around that open window, there’s a shape-shifting window-dressing. And it has my face and name on it, along with funky patterns, decorative elements, and wrinkles. If you soften your gaze, you will see an exquisite fabric that is woven of those hard-wired qualities and divergent currents, even bits of debris. This window-dressing lends a unique texture to whatever goes on inside the open widow. So, even when writing pours through the open window, I am present. But I’m not the main event, and I’m not making things happen.

IN:  Okay, so let me get this straight. You’ve got this shape-shifting window-dressing, this open window, and they both contribute to leaderless leadership. But there must be more to it, right?

EF:  Of course. Just the other day, I discussed this with my friend and former writing client, Sarah Marshank. She is a memoirist and an emerging integral feminine leader from the US, and she models great courage for me. Anyway, we agreed that both an open window and a well-maintained window-dressing are essential to this leaderless way of leading. However, things get stymied when we overly identify with the window-dressing or when we board up the open window. Do you remember the rocky start of this interview, when we were relating through our wrinkled window dressings? That’s so common, and it’s not ideal. Isn’t it time we dropped our assumptions, our defenses, our knives, and stopped damaging each other’s window dressings, especially our own? Isn’t it time we unboarded the window?

IN:  I do remember that little drama, especially the discomfort of it.

EF:  How different from those fleeting occasions when our windows are left open. When we help others to gently care for their window-dressings and unboard their windows.

IN:  Sounds almost too simple, yet almost too difficult. Are you up for this?

EF:  A better question might be: are we up for this? This is still unfolding, so evanescent, not widely embodied. The conventional paradigm of leadership as sewn into the window-dressing—as stitched to something we do, to qualities we have, and to how we relate—will hold sway for some time, likely always. But why not allow the window to open alongside? Why not let the inspired winds of leading flow through that open window at any given moment, in any situation—unhindered?

IN:  Hmmm, I can almost feel it…the breeze of leaderless leading by whatever name…that inspired energy moving through me…through us.

EF:  Look Ma, no hands!

IN:  Indeed (laughs). Let’s call it a wrap and play with this.


[1] Wilber, K. (1996). A brief history of everything. Boston: Shambhala.

[2] Friesen, E., & Wight, I. (2009). Integrally informed journaling for professional self-design: Emerging experience in a graduate program context. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4(3), 59-86.

[3] Friesen, E. (2006). An integral writing tour: Through the four studios of your own awareness. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 1(4), 1-49.

[4] Friesen, E., Tenney, L., Waters, L. J., & Edwards, M. (2010, July) Integral metatheory: Practicing the science of inclusion. Paper presented at the Integral Theory Conference: Enacting an Integral Future, Pleasant Hill, CA.

About the Author

Edith Friesen is an author, communications consultant, and writing guide who thrives in the creative wilds. During the past four decades, she has written in multiple fields such as journalism, corporate communications, and marketing, and also in several creative genres including creative non-fiction. She is served by a deep-rooted instinct for playing inside the written word, an MA in communications studies, a proclivity for metatheoretical musings, and more than a decade of practicing the integral dance. She has mentored university students and memoirists, and loves to inspire embodied writing that comes from the deepest and lightest part of one’s self. Edith lives with her husband on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, at the edge of the boreal forest in Manitoba, Canada. She welcomes congenial dancing partners in the realms of leaderless leading.


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