A Fresh Perspective: A Conversation with Fred Kofman

Russ Volckmann

Originally from Argentina, Fred Kofman spent several years as a faculty member at MIT and worked closely with Peter Senge. Now in Colorado, his consulting and coaching practice has led to the creation of a new business and a close relationship with Ken Wilber. He is the author of Metamanagement, published in Spanish and soon to be available in English.

Q: There has been in recent years more and more literature about the importance of spirit in business, and one of the things about Conscious Business that really impressed me was your ability to take these elements of spirit, these elements of a more holistic perspective on work and on business and express them in terms that were really grounded in the experience of people in business. One of the most beautiful examples of that is when you talk about awareness and state that it is the single most important business skill. Please comment on that.

A: The first question when you are doing anything in life is, “What’s the point?” That is a very spiritual question. What are you doing with your one and precious life? You’ve been given a gift of consciousness and wisdom and now you have this resource for a fairly limited time. What are you going to do with it?

In business you start from the same place. We ask, “What are you doing? What is the point of what you are doing? What are you trying to accomplish? Why is that important to you?” At the same time, to accomplish something in business, unless you want to be a criminal, you have to also value what would further the purpose of other people’s lives. That’s how you are going to get them to buy your product or service: by giving them something that they find valuable. The source of value is that it is congruent with their life’s purpose.

Becoming aware of what is meaningful to you and what is meaningful to those around you is the beginning of every successful enterprise. The moment you lose touch with that you are going to go down in flames. Maybe the words are too spiritual, but this is like basic Business 101. What’s your value proposition? Why would anybody want to buy your product or service?

You have to think about that in a fairly specific way, because it is not that you think that your product is great. That’s not going to make your business successful. Your customers have to think it’s great. So you have to empathize with your customers; you have to become aware not only of what’s meaningful to you but what’s meaningful to them.

To experience them as conscious beings that have a purpose in life and define values that further that purpose in life is really a trans-personal exercise. It sounds mystical when I say it this way. I don’t use this language in companies. I just say, “Let’s look at your value proposition and what you think your customers would find valuable in it Do you know your customers? Why do you feel good about offering this to your customers? How does this align with your life and your concerns? How does it align with theirs?”

By engaging in that discussion people develop a passion for what they do. Once the passion is there then you have a question about skillful means. But the technical question, the question of skillful means, (how do you communicate, how do you resolve conflicts, how do you coordinate these actions, how do you do all these things?) becomes relevant only when it’s prompted by your passionate commitment to a larger purpose. You don’t start teaching people tools without the previous investigation that takes you out of yourself and recontextualizes yourself as serving something that is bigger than just yourself.

Without that recontextualization, technique is really boring. It’s like saying, buy a sex manual and sit down to study technique. If there’s no love, no technique in the world is going to create an intimate relationship. I think that business is really an act of love. It’s different than the intimacy of a couple, but it’s a kind of love that supports the opening of other people to find themselves as conscious beings in the world.

Q: Agape rather than Eros?

A: Well, it’s both. It’s Eros in the reaching for the ultimate purpose. And it is Agape, bringing down that consciousness, that fire that you have achieved by connecting with that ultimate purpose, and using it to embrace the world and to manifest that energy for freedom in the fullness of manifestation. Those are the two paths that Ken talks about: the ascending path, which tends to be the more masculine desire to be free, to exit the constraints of the world and the more feminine part, which is the descending path into fullness, into the radiance of being. I think the joining of those two parts and the stretching to reach for the fire and for the energy above and embodying that energy in the fullness of the world is really what every fully conscious human being is about

Everybody is “in business.” You cannot live without being in business. You may be an employee, a small business owner, a corporate executive, a massage therapist, a nurse, or you may be cleaning houses. Whatever you’re doing, part of your being in this world, is being in the domain of work. You have intimacy in the private sphere and work in the public one. Your intimate transactions are related to sex, and occur in a rather small community, well it depends on what kind of love life you have, but they are usually in a couple or with a small number of partners. But then you have these other transactions, the public ones. They involve the money aspect of your life, giving value to others and receiving value in exchange, as a way to sustain yourself materially, energetically and spiritually.

Sex and money, or intimacy and power, or union and creativity, or communion and agency, are essential aspects of life, as are yin and yang, masculine and feminine, love and freedom. Thanks to Ken, I’ve met David Deida this year. David is the wisest person I’ve met in the area of sexuality as a manifestation of spirituality. My conversations with him have made me aware of the beautiful symmetries that exist between sexual value, (sexual attraction, sexiness) and market value (market attractiveness, marketability).

Q: This has bearing on the notion of leadership in business. Do you have a definition of the role of leadership in business?

A: I’m sure I have many…

Q: Do you have a favorite definition?

A: Yes. It changes with the situation. I can tell you the one that may feel appealing to me right now, but I don’t have one that I would use all the time. Although there’s a core and it’s always there, the way the core is expressed depends on what I feel the situation is calling for in me. At this moment, I feel like saying that a leader is somebody that can help people align their transcendent individual purposes into a transcendent collective purpose.

Q: What is Integral Leadership?

A: Building on the previous definition, an integral leader is one that would do that in, as Ken would say, an AQAL form, meaning in all the quadrants, at all levels of development, engaging all the different lines of personal consciousness, and considering the two tendencies of holons–agency and communion or the masculine and the feminine, and also involving the multiple of the three states, the gross, the subtle and the causal. So an integral leader is a person that can resonate very powerfully with all the individuals around and has the skill to touch everybody wherever they are and then with that touch awaken in them the passion for creating something that transcends each one of them but involves the community.

Q: Do you have a specific model of leadership that you work from?

A: I use Ken’s model, I use the four quadrants and the idea of the exterior and interior dimensions. The exterior of leadership is behaviors. Also, a leader is like the builder or the architect of the ship in developing the social and business systems of the company. In the interior dimension the leader works in a transformational way, touching people’s personality and their interiority. As a cultural icon the leader influences the stories and the shared values and the community.

That is the basic model of leadership that I operate with. However I don’t really talk about it too much because I consider that the words are like a hiding place. When people talk a lot about leadership it becomes a subject out there. It becomes a theoretical subject to be discussed as opposed to an experience to be lived. So I focus my work much more in the nitty gritty practices of leadership, for example, how to be a manifestation of unconditional responsibility, an exemplar of authenticity and integrity.

If you are in the masculine, more agentic mode of Eros, leadership represents the search for freedom or the desire to manifest freedom and power in the world. In this case, being unconditionally responsible is not something you talk about or you give lectures on. It is something you do in your life moment by moment. You are expressing moment by moment that ultimate freedom regardless of the constraints that the circumstances might impose. Freedom doesn’t mean lack of constraint. Freedom means that you are so committed to your purpose that you are free even if you die. That nothing is going to make you diverge from your purpose.

That’s the ultimate freedom. That is the ultimate love. You are leading your life and nobody else has the power to stop you from living your life as it is to be lived. That’s an example. That’s something that you as a leader do and then other people around just get influenced by it. Your presence is like a strong gravitational field that organizes the Kosmos with “K,” as Ken uses it to describe the universe of meanings around you.

If you are in the feminine, more communion mode of Agape, leadership represents the loving blessing of radiance and connection. If you’re in the feminine fullness, your unconditional responsibility is that you’re going to hold the consciousness of the unity. You will maintain an openhearted relationship regardless of what the other person does. You are going to be fully in that awareness of connection even when someone is killing you. You are unconditionally present. Nobody can stop you. So that’s again a more feminine unconditional response of a leader who can stand there and feel the connection to the other people and to the world and to what’s occurring in the situation and she or he would not be swayed. Love does not mean lack of blocks to relationship. Love means that you are one with your beloved; you ARE the Beloved, always and forever.

When you can embody these two notions of unconditional responsibility as unconditional freedom and unconditional love, and make them manifest through your being, that’s much more leadership than talking about what does it mean to be a leader. And this is not something you only do in business. You must do it in your whole life.

I don’t make such a big deal about leadership because people who don’t have formal authority feel excluded: “This isn’t about me,” they think, “I am not a leader”. I think there’s a role for the distinction of leadership as the exercise of formal authority though. It involves leadership consultants, helping executives, people who have authority, to use that authority wisely. I respect and value that. I read their books and learn from them. But for me, leadership is a personal commitment to life. People with formal authority need to do that, but so does anybody who wants to be fully human.

Q: As I listened to you talk about leadership I was equating leadership with formal position authority. For me, in increasingly complex systems the notion of leadership can’t be tied to a single role anymore. Leadership is a phenomenon that is shared more widely in the system, so when we’re talking about leadership we’re talking about both individuals and a system.

A: I agree with your that thinking of leaders as only people with authority is dangerous, shortsighted and disempowering. That’s why I don’t like to talk too much about leadership. That word has been hijacked so to speak by the traditional notion that has appropriated the meaning of the word, and I don’t share it.

Q: Like heroic leadership?

A: Yes, exactly–heroic leadership, functional power or position power, things like that. Now when you start thinking about leadership with other connotations or with other meanings, you have to tell people I am talking about a different kind of leadership, a distinction between heroic leadership and more Integral Leadership. There is an attraction in that. Now talking about a system, I’m not sure what that means because for me leadership is inherently a human or an attribute of consciousness, a conscious empathy. And I don’t see a system as the subject with localized consciousness.

Q: Let me see if I can offer a way of looking at that and get your response. What I was trying to suggest earlier is that with increasingly complex organizational systems, business systems, whether we’re talking just in terms of size or geography or other measures of complexity, that it’s increasingly difficult for one person to exercise leadership, that it is something that is shared, that there are leaders throughout the system.

A: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Q: If that’s the case and we think about the phenomenon of leadership within a business system, within a business organization, then there is some kind of system of leadership, that there’s some kind of relationship among those that are performing leadership roles that could be characterized as having a culture and a system.

A: Okay, I understand now. That makes a lot more sense. It’s not that the system is leader, but this sense of interrelationships amongst the leaders that you call a system of leadership. That makes a lot more sense. In fact, I will agree with you 100% that as the level of complexity grows, it’s impossible for any one person to hold that complexity and to manage it. In fact, that’s why Leading Learning Communities, my old company, where I was a single leader, lost its appeal to me, and Axialent, where I share the leadership with Andy and all our general managers and principal consultants, became my new enterprise.

I do think that there’s a role for a person to be a leader of a system. He or she won’t be able to micro-lead everything. He or she will have to take a much broader approach, and say, “Okay, on these large strategic lines we’re going to have an alignment and we’re going to have a common vision, a purpose and a way of operating together.” But then there will be a hierarchical system or a holarchical system to use more of Ken’s lexicon. In this system there would be a higher level of perspective of the whole.

The different parts of the subsystem will also have lower levels of leadership that are managing their own sub-system at the same time coordinating the functioning of that subsystem with the other subsystems that compose the system. So I think the areas of communication, conflict resolution and coordination of functions that I focus on, are very, very important because that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where people are able to come together and create something that’s bigger than any one of them.

To read the complete interview click here.