Living Leadership: Integral Dimensions of a Complete Life

Walker Karraa

Walker Karraa

Walker Karraa

Walker Karraa

As integral leadership juxtaposes Western and Eastern leadership philosophies and epistemologies, the contrast can often feel murky, ambiguous to those of us striving to live a life of leadership grounded in appreciation of difference, dare I say diversity. At this cross roads, Eastern philosophies appear more palatable to the West, and theories of leadership born in penultimate diversity—America, are eschewed. As a result of our discomfort with mysticism in the West, and infatuation with that of the East, Western pedagogy often mimics Eastern philosophy, while simultaneously cutting ourselves off from the wealth of wholistic leadership living in our American history. The fullest spectrum of dimensions of knowing generates sustainable leadership.

Hillman (1996) noted that for the West, all elements of transcendence, or connection between the realm of the gods/goddesses, and that of human life have been destroyed, or pathologized as disease (p.108).   All explanations for, or connection with, the invisible, the mystical realm of the spiritual world we cannot see, describe, measure or dominate have been eliminated.  Hillman (1996) reflected:

In the kingdom (or is it a mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.  The gods have withdrawn, said the poets Hölin and Rilke; it takes a leap of faith, said Søren Kierkegaard.  Not even that will do, for God is dead, said Nietzche.  Any bridge must be of superhuman proportions.  Well that kind of bridge our culture has ready at hand; the greatest bridge, some say, ever constructed between the visible and invisible: the figure of Jesus Christ. (Hillman, 1996, p. 110)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified a rare ability to make this stretch across the cosmic void through bridging Christian mysticism with social action. Dr. King bridged the gap of consciousness, living leadership in full dimension—drawing people, systems, organizations and races together. He lived a complete life of leadership. Using King’s work provides a sturdy Western frame for describing the transcendental beauty, divine, and the existential questions necessary for self, collective and global growth.  Within his kingdom, the words are chosen with deliberate Christian reference, for he was a man of a Christian God.  From his study and faith, scripture served to illuminate ontology with a Jamesian radical empiricism suggestive of Plato’s cave, Buddha’s essence of wisdom, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  When Dr. King preached scripture, nothing was as it appeared.

On April 9, 1967, Dr. King delivered the sermon, The three dimensions of a complete life at the New Covenant Baptist Church, in Chicago, Illinois—one year, nearly to the day, of his assassination.   I have chosen to use the 1967 version, published in Carson & Holloran (1996), as it is a direct transcription of the audio archive available at the Stanford University’s King Institute/King Papers Project.  A complete audio recording of the sermon is available at: .

King’s (1967) Three dimensions of a complete life was set within the mystical vision of John, and King masterfully expands a Christian paradigm to physical proportions—spatial dimension. Spatially the model symbolizes a harmonious geometry and physical balance similar to Pythagorean theory.  Harmonious living requires balance of outer and inner aspects of the Self.   Philosophically the sermon resembles a cross-cultural dynamism of individual, familial, social self, and the Platonic search for ontological knowing and axiological maturity. What is valued by self is extended to demonstrate relationship with and necessity for, value and meaning in community, and humanity. Spiritually, the model reinforces Eastern philosophical premise to integrate all aspects of self in a mandala of interconnection yet does so not by borrowing from Eastern mysticism, but through authenticating the application of Western mysticism as described in biblical scripture.

The First Dimension of a Complete Life: It’s Length

For King (1967), the model of a complete life begins with an epistemological examination of its length—an “inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions” (King, 1967, p. 122).  This dimension offers the individual examination of Self, relative to longevity, the lifespan, and self-actualization.  The benefit of the length of life is the opportunity to challenge mundane appreciation of the Self, instead discerning and following it’s unique gifts and calling.

Hillman (1996) noted that loving oneself demands a similar overcoming of our belief in dominant psychological theories that diagnose our difficulties within a modern paradigm of victimhood.  For King, loving oneself involves deep acceptance of one’s inherent flaws and capacities.  “And you know what loving yourself also means? It means that you’ve got to accept yourself” (p.123). King’s (1967) love thyself message rooted the length of life dimension in promoting self-acceptance, despite “haunting emotional conflicts” (p. 123).  The first dimension of the complete life, and perhaps the life of leadership, is grounded in self-awareness—deep understanding and critical reflection.  Strengths are to be fostered, limitations are to be addressed, and calling is to be answered. The length of life becomes meaningful, equal in value to the other two dimensions, accepting the human Self, and then acknowledging the acorn—one’s higher calling:

After accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do.  And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems.  And after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better (p. 125).

Leaning forward to the onward push of self-fulfillment, development of inner powers demonstrates mastery of the length of life:

They call it the law gravitation in the physical Universe, and it works, it’s final, it’s inexorable: Whatever goes up can come down.  You shall reap what you sow. God has structured the universe that way.  And he who gets through life not concerned about others will be a subject, a victim of this law. So I move on and say that it is necessary to add breadth to length. (King, 1967, p. 126)

The length of life, to be sustained, must be viewed and practiced as inherently dependent on the sustainability of the other dimensions.  King’s bridge to the second dimension of a complete life modeled trans disciplinary leadership. Integrative practice in leading oneself to a complete life involves engaging other disciplines, other strategies, other contexts of social change. We have to participate beyond our self-interests.

The Second Dimension: The Breadth of Life

King (1967), like Buddha, discerned that one of the quintessential requirements for a complete life is concern for others.  King (1967) described the dimension of the breadth of life, as expanding definition of Self to collective community of mankind—an  I/Thou paradigm of social responsibility (Buber, 1970). The radical nature of King’s (1967) message, like that of Buddhism, is its call to engage in the full range of compassionate action with the individual, neighbor, society, and systems surrounding them in order to benefit the Self.  Compassion, hand in hand with wisdom realizing emptiness, destroys ancient attachment to an illusory sense of self as inherently existing, that has been the cause of our “endless wandering in samsara” (Rinpoche, 2000, p. 193).  Stability and sustainability emerge from integral accountability. We must engage in compassionate action.

What is compassion?  It is not simply a sense of sympathy of caring for the person suffering, not simply a warmth of heart toward the person before you, or a sharp clarity of recognition of their needs and pain, it is also a sustained and practical determination to do whatever is possible and necessary to help alleviate their suffering. (Rinpoche 191)

For Eastern and Western theological philosophy, compassion must reach beyond charity and grasp the inherent interrelatedness of all phenomena.  For King (1967), the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan explained the fundamental message of the breadth of life—outward concern for the welfare of others, and modeled integral social processes.  And it begins with the story of a man wanting to engage Jesus in debate:

He had a man that came to him to talk with him about some very profound concerns.  And they finally got around to the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’  And this man wanted to debate with Jesus.  This question could have very easily ended up in thin air as a theological or philosophical debate.  But you remember, Jesus immediately pulled that question out of thin air and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. (King, 1967, p. 127)

The parable demonstrates the Christian belief in the virtue of compassionate action.  And yet King doesn’t stop at charity.  King’s (1967) analysis of the full range of behavior, and motive of the Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite, integrated profound existential questions posited for personal reflection on interpersonal ethical dilemmas:

The first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question.  Not ‘What will happen to me if I stop to help this man?’ but ‘What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?  That is why the man was good and great.  He was great because he was willing to take a risk for humanity; he was willing to ask ‘What will happen to this man?’ not ‘What will happen to me?’ (King, 1967, p. 127)

The reversal of the question is also found in Buddhist doctrine.  Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva (AD 637-736) stated:

The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself

Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.

Therefore, I should dispel others’ suffering
Simply because it is suffering, just like mine;
And I should bring happiness to others
Simply because they are living beings, just like me. (Gyatso, 2002, p. 128)

Western and Eastern paradigms of leadership include increased the understanding of the inter-related nature of self, collective and universal aspects. Furthermore, there is agreement on the deleterious effects of ignoring it, King (1967) proceeded:

This is what God needs today: men and women who will ask: ‘What will happen to humanity if I don’t help?  What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them?’ This is how God judges people in the final analysis. (King 130)

Self-sustaining systems, individuals, and organizations must critically reflect on the cost of not engaging in this dimension. A complete life must completely surrender to the instability of division, dualism, separation and objectivism. King (1967) then posited, in Christian terms, the law of cause and effect.  Disharmony in this dimension of life does not go unnoticed—ultimately, we are held accountable for our participation in compassion:

It seems as if I can hear the Lord of Life saying: ‘But I was hungry, and ye fed me not.  I was sick, and ye visited me not.  I was naked, and ye clothed me not.  I was in prison, and you weren’t concerned about me.  So get out of my face.  What did you do for others?  This is the breadth of life. (King, 1967 p. 131)

The sacrifice of self to service transcends personal dimensions of extending one’s personal happiness. Failure to do so creates the causes for systemic collapse, and potential is transformed into potential for loss of integrity. To remain generative, we must remain in service to others. Sogyal Rinpoche (2000) echoed: “So the teachings tell us, if we do not assume the fullest responsibility for ourselves now in this life, our suffering will go on not only for a few lives but for thousands of lives” (p. 102).  Transgressions of actions in body, speech and mind directly affect transition to the next realm.  The transition, the intermediate state either between lives, or delegation to Heaven or Hell, is a time tremendous uncertainty involving moral inventory.

The Third Dimension of a Complete Life: It’s Height

And so with the length and breadth of life addressed, what more is necessary for a complete, meaningful life of living leadership?  It’s height—reaching up for the hand of God:

You know, a lot of people master the length of life, and they master the breadth of life, but they stop right there.  Now if life is to be complete, we must move beyond our self-interest.  We must move beyond humanity and reach up, way up for the God of the universe, whose purpose changeth not. (King, 1967, p. 133)

Engaging the height of life requires leaning forward into the heart of uncertainties regarding the existence of God in the cosmological realm—and pushing through a priori epistemological thinking perpetuated by Western ideals of knowledge, progress, and science: “Modern man may know a great deal, but his knowledge does not eliminate God” (King 135).  King (1967) determined:

A few theologians are trying to say God is dead.  And I’ve been asking them about it because it disturbs me to know that God died and I didn’t have a chance to attend the unreal.  They haven’t been able to tell me yet the date of his death.  They haven’t been able to tell me yet who the coroner was that pronounced him dead.  They haven’t been able to tell me yet where he’s buried. (p. 134)

The height of life involves ontological consideration:

God is the only being in the Universe who can say ‘I am’ and put a period behind it.  Each of us sitting here has to say ‘I am because of my parents; I am because of certain environmental conditions; I am because of certain hereditary circumstances’.  But God is the only being that can just say ‘I Am’ and stop right there.  ‘I Am that I Am’. (King, 1967, p. 135)

Philosophically, King (1967) argued:

You may not be able to define god in philosophical terms.  Plato said that he was the Architectonic Good.  Aristotle called him the Unmoved Mover.  Hegel called him the Absolute Whole.  Then there was a man named Paul Tillich, who called him Being-Itself. (p.138)

In a final and ultimately transpersonal reflection:

Maybe we have to know him and discover him another way… He’s a bright and morning star.  He’s a rose of Sharon.  ‘He’s my everything.’  ‘He’s my mother and my father.’ ‘He’s my sister and my brother.’  ‘He’s a friend to the friendless.’ This is the God of the universe.  (King, 1967, p. 139)


Who is my neighbor? Self, other, we and ours— one and the same and inextricably connected, diversity across dimensions bring leadership its life. Through this sermon, we have seen that the length of life, self-acceptance and pursuit of the acorn?, and the breadth of life, concern for others are dimensions that must be actively addressed, and supported equally by the height—an upward reach of the Self to the ultimate, universal, absolute truth—a2 + b2 = c2.   For a complete life, the Good Samaritan must not figure out how to love himself enough to put him on the road to Jericho where his true calling may be.  For a complete life, the Good Samaritan must observe the humanity on the road, and setting his own interests aside, reach down to participate in the tending to the suffering of others.  Then, the Good Samaritan must reach up, beyond reality as it is perceived, to the Dharmakaya—and recognize his place in the cosmos.  The web of interrelated dependence of the Samaritan, the compassionate act, and the relationship to the cosmos are inextricably interrelated, interdependent.


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About the Author

Walker Karraa, MFA, MA, is a doctoral student at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology/Sofia University where she is researching transformational dimensions of postpartum depression. She is the social media intern for Integral Leadership Review, 2012-2013. Walker holds an MA degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University/Seattle, and both an MFA and BA degree in dance from UCLA. Walker is currently the President of PATTCh, an organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of traumatic childbirth, and is co-authoring a book on PTSD following childbirth with Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC, FAPA set for publication in Fall, 2013. A perinatal mental health advocate and writer, Walker is a contributor for Lamaze International’s Science and Sensibility, and the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) Midwives Connection.