A Fresh Perspective: Big Presence Excerpts from an Interview with Diane Hamilton

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann, Lead Coach

Q: Diane, you were described as a student of Genpo Roshi and an authorized Big Mind process facilitator. I had never heard of Diane Hamilton and all of a sudden she shows up at the Integral Organizational Leadership Workshop in Colorado and does this extraordinary job of leading 50 plus people through Big Mind. From what I got from doing interviews with participants and from the evaluations at the end of the workshop, it was hugely impactful on everyone in the room.  Rarely have I seen anything so powerful in terms of the responses people had to you and the process. Virtually everyone indicated that your presentation was the most powerful experience of the whole week. In that context that is very powerful and positive feedback.  Now I find out that you are also doing the Integral Practice Seminar in Europe and elsewhere.  Last spring I knew that the Integral Institute was recruiting trainers for some of the programs that they’ve been developing.  So, apparently, you ended up in that role, is that correct?

A: Yes, that’s right, for that particular seminar.

Q: Today I would like to talk a little bit about the Integral Practice Seminar.  I would like to talk also about some of the things that you had to say on Integral Naked about the importance of teachers having leadership training. Does that work for you?

A: Yes…

Q: In a very brief video on Integral Naked, the point I think you made is that people who are in teacher roles, albeit in spiritual traditions or other traditions, need to understand and be trained in leadership.  Is that correct?

A: Yes, I made that comment on a panel that we held at Ken’s.  We were questioning the whole influence of integral practice on the practice of Buddhism. The point that I was making is that Buddhist practice helps us let go of our conventional notions of how things should be, cut through our conceptual thoughts and relate to the world as a field of experience in an integral way. One of the things that I’ve observed is that within Buddhist organizations there is a tendency not to utilize conventional wisdom regarding leadership, organization, negotiation patterns and communication skills.

My view about that is just like within medicine: you can be a profound Buddhist practitioner and be a much stronger healer because of that, but you still are going to utilize conventional methods of healing.  You are still going to utilize emergency room techniques to heal a broken bone. The reliance on meditation and the realization of emptiness underlies our ability to work together in a more straightforward, conventional way.

I was speaking for the need to join meditation practice with organizational skills, including leadership and teamwork skills, and not throw those out just because there is a deeper realization that we’re also working from.  That was the perspective I was bringing.

Q: How would you see that working?

A: Let me see if I can explain how it comes up in my experience. Meditation practice frees us from our expectations of how things should be so that we don’t get stuck in petty little worldviews. At the same time, we can lose our ground as an organization.  What I mean by that is, for instance, we get thrown back on ourselves every time we set up an expectation that the organization is going to perform in a certain way, that certain deadlines are going to be met or we are attached to a whole range of conventional notions related to organizations and getting along with other people.

There’s a really powerful practice within Buddhist practice to look into your own mind at those moments and notice what sort of idea you’ve become attached to about how things should be and how things should run.  Very powerful! Very important! But organizations can start to be a little bit aimless in my view, if we don’t also include the relative form side of leadership, negotiation and good communication skills.  If every time I go to communicate with a colleague I’m told that I need to work with my own mind, there’s never that moment where as Ken would say, we now explore what happens in the “we” space.  In other words, we privilege the “I” awareness a lot without necessarily looking at problems within the “we” space.

Q: If we are going to talk about leadership from an integral point of view, then we have to include all four quadrants.

A: Absolutely.

Q: And you’re suggesting the lower quadrants are also part of leadership.

A: Absolutely.

Q: Tell me a bit about what you mean by “leadership.”

A: In the context that I was speaking in, what I was thinking mainly about was the skill set that allows an organization to function and allows people to coalesce. For instance, in a Zen center or in an organization whose function it is to provide spiritual practice to others there needs to be somebody in a leadership position who has vision, provides direction, helps decision-making processes and knows how to build teamwork among the people within the organization. To the extent that leader provides those, that organization is going to increase its capacity to provide the service to others. To the extent that those qualities are missing and we’re relying mainly on the teachings themselves, then I feel like we diminish the capacity of the organization to actually be of service.

Q: Let me push back just a little bit because there’s a tendency when talking about leadership—despite the admonition to attend to the collective—to focus on what historically might be known as a heroic notion of leadership. There is one leader who does all those different functions that you named. Increasingly I’m finding both in the academic world and elsewhere more and more attention to the notion of collective leadership or to leadership as an emergent property within organizations that is manifested by multiple individuals throughout the organization. Given that different slant on it, does that alter at all the way you think about leadership in the kinds of institutions you’re interested in?

A:  Not terribly.  I mean I think that leadership as an emergent property. Leadership that is flexible and moves among members of the organization is a more powerful leadership ultimately because it’s contained by the whole. But even one good leader makes all the difference in my view.

Q: So you can never have enough, but…

A: I’ll take a General Patton if that’s…

Q: …so you can never have enough, but one is great.

A: Yes. When you’ve got a group of five or six, how wonderful. But just one is essential.

Q: And what meaning am I to make of the fact that you cited a military leader in your example?

A:  I used to watch Patton when I was a kid—the movie with George C. Scott. Actually he had some flaws as a leader. But he did have quite a remarkable ability to see the big picture and to strategize how to move successfully. It takes a lot to hold the big picture. to help coalesce people behind a vision to get an organization to move fluidly and to help people to move fluidly.  There’s nothing more frustrating than working within an organization where everybody has great intent, but there’s no galvanizing presence.  Leadership is either disbursed, confused or conflicted. I certainly see that as a mediator. I’ve seen a lot of organizations like that, a lot of them.

Q: So your mediation brings you into organizations, not just mediating between individuals.

A: Absolutely.  I’ve done a lot of mediating within organizations and these issues related to leadership emerge pretty much all the time.

Q: Could you give an example?

A: I helped to facilitate a meeting of cardiologists who ran a practice together. There were somewhere between 10 and 12 doctors who participated in this practice. There was one de facto leader who had a very bold presence and who had great skill as a doctor. People intuitively followed him. But the way that the organization was governed was actually by consensus. What they had done unknowingly is create a group norm that required a unanimous vote in order to implement any initiative. They weren’t necessarily aware that they had done that.

There were two levels of governance.  One was the intuitive level where people spontaneously followed this one person’s lead and then there was the next level, which was the more formalized level where they would take a vote. Without realizing it they had created a governance model that kept them from being able to make any decisions, because they could never reach a unanimous decision. But they didn’t understand why they couldn’t get anywhere. I think one person was able to block whatever decision they wanted to implement. Once I diagnosed that, we changed it and required a super-majority. They were able to move forward after that.

Q: In other words, they had a conflict between the lower left and lower right hand quadrants.

A: Perfect, yes.

Q:  Because the culture was saying one thing, but the formal system was saying something else.

A:  Precisely, and they just didn’t know.  They just didn’t quite understand what had happened…

Q: Have you given any thought to how these different streams of development are related to the practice of leadership in organizations and systems? Would it be helpful if we just took them one at a time and see what you have to say about it?

A: Sure.

Q: Okay.  How about the spiritual?  How is that related to the role of leadership in organizations?

A: The spiritual manifests in a number of different ways.  Let’s say from a Zen perspective, the mind is free. The mind is utterly free to relate to whatever conditions arise, because it’s not attached to conventional views about how things should be or how things should get done. It’s a field of creative opportunity. It also allows for outcomes or for direction that was sort of unprecedented.

There’s the possibility for new vision as well.  When somebody has cultivated a deep spiritual practice the values that emerge from that kind of practice are values that tend to create more of the same. Let’s say the value of compassion for instance. The organization starts to have a quality of caring for itself, the whole and whatever it’s organized towards. There is some sense that actually benefits others. Compassion would be another by-product of a spiritual leader and wisdom.

I think it’s really great to think about certain leaders traditionally who’ve had highly developed spiritual roles. If you are in a leadership role, these spiritual qualities necessarily emerge or you just can’t handle it.  If you take somebody like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, they penetrate to that ground of being and that heart of compassion in order to lead.  It’s not even possible to lead in those kinds of situations without spiritual integrity.  I always think about when someone commented to Nelson Mandela that 30 years is a terribly long time to spend in prison. His response was, “It’s just the right amount of time to teach the guards to read.” That comes from somebody who has deep spiritual awareness…

Q: Okay, the physical side, the physical stream and leadership—the obvious is that by keeping oneself fit and in good health one’s mind is fit and in good health as well, since there is no mind/body dichotomy.

A: In a way, it’s the most obvious.  In fact, they’re all important, but the physical seems to be the most obvious. A healthy, relaxed, open body is just going to perform better.  People are going to be more attracted to it. People are going to listen better. It seems the most straight-forward of the four, but for some of us, the hardest to implement.

Q: And perhaps equally obvious, the whole psycho-dynamic piece in relation to leadership.

A: The psycho-dynamic aspect tends to be underplayed a little bit because my guess is that for most of us, unless we have done a lot of psycho-dynamic work, there’s still a tendency to see those disturbances that occur, not as emanations of our own mind or at least in part a relationship of our mind to the world, but as the world itself. It’s a really strong developmental shift when a person starts to take responsibility for those disturbances and work on them from an upper-left perspective, as well as say a lower right perspective or a lower left.  Does that make sense?

Q: I’m trying to make that connection to the lower right.  Are you referring to something you said earlier?

A: Well, just that we often relate to the world as an “it.” There may be a person or a set of people in the field that are causing this trouble, let’s say Republicans for instance. Then we may get organized around just trying to overcome the Republican agenda, as opposed to picking up the part of us that’s also Republican—that cares about certain kinds of values, security, predictability, those kinds of things—really seeing those aspects in ourselves. Our next step would be to address what is in the field, because it changes our relationship to it, if we see it as part of us.  We can’t be as cavalier. We can’t be as one-sided. We ultimately can’t be as violent.

Q: Also, it frees us to focus on what we may have control over, which is ourselves.

A: Yes. We don’t have to go around in a big fight with the world all the time.

Q: Or under the illusion that we can change others.

A:  Yes, that one.

Q: What about the cognitive integral theory part?  Why would leaders in organizations want or need to understand integral theory?

A: Well, for a lot of different reasons.  Integral theory can help us understand individuals.  It can help us see an organization as a whole and understand it’s methodology. If we were to include all four quadrants in our thinking that would expand the functioning of the organization and the orientation of the organization.

I do a lot of work for the Nature Conservancy and there are two people who  are there studying integral theory. Let’s take something specific like ecology. If we take a four quadrant view and are really working all four of those quadrants, as well as looking at levels of development, we can have a much more nuanced approach to how it is we do our business: how we work with government officials, how we work with land owners, how we create policy, how we build strength in our own organization. It’s just a more expanded and whole approach to doing what it is we do, doing what it is we care about and what we value.  That’s my view.  It’s been really helpful to me.  It’s explained a lot of things that I just couldn’t make sense of before I encountered Ken Wilber’s work.

Q: Ethics seems fairly straight forward. What about art?  Why would you include the aesthetic stream in understanding or developing leadership?

A: Well, people are impacted by their aesthetic environments a lot. It’s not coincidental that successful organizations generally have beautiful surroundings…

My husband works in a law firm downtown. They remodeled recently. They did just a beautiful and very tasteful job on the remodel. Every time a client comes in they remark on how beautiful the environment is. Not only does the beauty get communicated, but there is a sense of relaxation and comfort that sets in. The clients feel like they will be taken care of, like they’re going to be okay.

Q: Wonderful.  Well, is there anything I haven’t asked you about you think I should have?

A: I think the important thing for me—and this comes from the Zen side—is the realization that we practice even though there’s nothing to attain. We already are fully who we need to be. To hold that particular paradox is really important when it comes to integral practice. Otherwise, we get too much oriented towards some project that we can really never fulfill.

Q: Thank you very much, Diane.

To read the complete interview click here.