Asking Appropriate Questions

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

“In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
– C. G. Jung

This much I know to be true, the easiest way to cripple a person for life is to make them blind to their greatest potentials. Without an eye held on the potentialities of those sitting before us educational pursuits will always fall short of satisfactory.  As Einstein states, “they will go to rack and ruin without fail”. One of the major premises of my philosophy for teaching and learning emerges from our essential need for one another. Every scholar I have studied concerning human growth and development or concerning the nature of human potential speaks to the need for relationship—a healthy interdependence. This integral ideal emerges as an almost perfect need when we begin to discover our greatest possibilities. That the growth towards full actualization of potential runs through a collective requirement for interdependence signals a strong need for building community within any learning organization. Beyond that we find ourselves, our potentials differing, merging within the integral space. As a result, I have come to know wisdom as a collective creation not an individualistic proclamation.

There are some inherent challenges presented by this philosophical approach to leading, teaching and working with others in community. First of all, it requires at its core the formation of interdependent relationships. It necessarily assumes that we are naturally “tuned for relationship” and that all wisdom flows from this source. I have found that any other approach to the full actualization human potential will only ramp up the proclivity for any learning organization to become an insensitive, impersonal, bureaucratic machine. The associate, learner and fellow citizens bring their life through the doorway of integral space. A life that is sensitive, approaches living in a personal way, and requires relationships in order to actualize their greatest potential. One of the primary purposes of my leading, teaching and learning philosophy is to create recognition and understanding, within all people, of the possibility for relationships to form a community of learning where the alchemy of individually held potentials becomes safely possible.

Like our children, we ourselves cannot expect to know that which we have not been taught. What I now hold up for my learners, adult and children alike, is true too for every teacher, parent, leader, … every person – all people; all people have value and this value must be shared, must be announced, else it fails to actualize or corrupts towards evil.

All of this relates to the Socratic belief that no man will willingly choose falsehood over truth or evil over good. The assumption here is that ignorance makes the bad choice possible. Not only this, but also the whole of Jeffersonian democratic theory is based on the conviction that full knowledge leads to right action, and the right action is impossible without full knowledge. (Maslow, 1971, p. 117)

In furthering this synopsis of my teaching and learning philosophy I would make it known that it is not possible to undertake a eudaimonistic journey without suffering a paradigmatic shift of consciousness. But deeply, this shift is about the uncovering of a beautiful personality, a deep goodness within, and an enduring truth of self. These are the good things that await us on this path.

I have been challenged by many given the simplistic nature of such a philosophy. Some have said it is quite naïve while others have declared it too “green”. Many of you may even now question the philosophical center of – “All people have value”. The horrific characters of human history plague your thoughts; “What about serial killers, perpetuators of genocide … what about Adolph Hitler?”

Victor Frankel, the creator of logotherapy, was once asked if Hitler could have been saved with his techniques. An interesting question to pose when you consider the fact that Victor Frankel was a concentration camp survivor. One could have forgiven Dr. Frankel an unkind word, but this is what he said, “Hitler should have been an artist. Would have been an artist, but for one kind word.” And now the whole of the philosophy becomes crystal – all people have value and this value must be shared, must be announced, else it fails to actualize or corrupts towards evil.

Societies where non-aggression is conspicuous have social orders in which the individual by and at the same time serves his own advantage and that of the group…. Non-aggression occurs in these societies not because people are unselfish and put social obligations above personal desires, but when social arrangements make these two identical. – Ruth Benedict (1934) Patterns and Culture

I believe that a statement like “All People have Value” can easily be seen as philosophical, however, to actualize a philosophy for leadership we must go beyond a convenient motto and drill deeply into the character and quality of any practical philosophy by asking three simple questions concerning the nature of its construction:

 What is beautiful?

What is good?

 What is true?

…and within the nature of leadership we might just discover that—

 What is beautiful? 

“…the bountiful diversity of human potential.”

 What is good?

“…cultural institutions that can effectively nurture the full variety and complementarity of individual human destinies.

What is true?

“…each person is obliged to know and live the truth of their life’s purpose – their daimon.”

Reflecting upon the central philosophical questions concerning the nature of leadership I consistently found myself returning to an emergent question of principle and practice. Only this particular question was not directed at another it was directly aimed at me – the potentiator:

“Are you ready to learn”?

This is a relevant question to the evolution of leadership studies. Much of the confusion that has been created concerning the nature of leadership is contained within our basic understanding of its meaning. We have allowed the term to take on many meanings and to be synonymous with too many others terms. When we say “leadership” do we really mean management or administration; or are we referring to an individual as a leader, manager, administrator, boss; or is our meaning more towards a mentor, guide, or counselor?  Perhaps the only way to avoid the terminology trap is to examine the purpose of leadership; a purpose that naturally flows from the philosophical center of – “All people have value”.

If we were to ask “What is Leadership?” we would be asking a perfectly logical and yet nonsensical question. Logical because when we are asked to describe what leadership is and what it isn’t, when we immediately look to find individuals of our past who we thought of as a leader. From there we begin classify leadership as a set of behaviors, traits, and actions. Leadership, leader, and leading become inseparable – leadership becomes personified. This precisely how we defeat the nature of leadership – we demote it from its metamotivational and integral value. Since higher order values like integral leadership are in reality unchanging, incorruptible, and unyielding in principle we are no longer considering leadership when we are addressing the aspects of individuals in leader roles. With this perception logically anchored we begin to value the position more than the relationships surrounding the actions of our leaders. In reality we have effectively resigned the real purpose of leadership.

This reveals the nonsensical nature of the question “What is Leadership?” Leadership is not a person or a thing to be described. Leadership is contained within a purpose and in the final analysis the purpose of leadership is to actualize the full range of human potentials in any given eco.

The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. – Henry David Thoreau

 The Problem with Big Problems[1]

Perhaps a more appropriate question becomes; what is the purpose of leadership? Such a question immediately presents problems—big problems.

  • It  is now quite clear that the actualization of the highest human potentials is possible – on a mass basis – only under “good conditions”.[2]  Therefore, the good person can only be actualized within a good ecology or a good society.
  • It is equally clear that the good society is completely dependent upon the good person. Therefore, the good society can only be created by good people.

The illusionary paradox is quite clear, taking an ecological stance of actualizing human potential becomes a “which came first; the chicken or the egg” conversation. However, the illusion is dependent upon a fragmentary view of leadership. Such views keep us away from the big problems and force us to squabble and squander our valuable resources on meaningless tasks that enslave us within the domains of heavier propositions. We step away from the big problems not to get a better view but to hide from their constant beaming into our consciousness. If we were to take a step back to gain a broader horizon we would then discover the stabilizing factors that would deem the heavy propositions ineffective and pathetic. We might find ourselves capable of answering some very appropriate questions:

  •  How is it possible to develop and elevate my qualities without arresting my quantities?
  • How do I fulfill my subject well-being while achieving my objective well-being?
  • Why is it that my ecologies are at war with my economies?

Two important concepts will help us move towards stabilization – not in a defined sense but in a dynamic sense. First we need to realize that we hold the possibility as human beings to be self-evolving, and second, we hold a great capacity for adaptability. The first holds within its purpose the true essence of potentiation, we are always growing and we are always learning. To become wise isn’t a state of all knowing it is a state of knowing the value of learning. The wise have always been dedicated life-long learners. The second is really about trust – we have to trust enough in our own ability to adapt and in the ability of others to do so as well.

So perhaps it is within our relationships where the big problems can be addressed. If we assume that the good society is contained within the good relationship then a whole chain of questions becomes immediately relevant in terms of addressing the big problem of how to make a good person.

  •  How do we go about potentiating the good person?

This is for the most part an action question so perhaps our first action should be to ask others:

  •  Of what are good human beings (students, children, associates) capable?

This is a question of quality so perhaps we need to ask ourselves:

  •  What qualities, actions, and values produce happy, creative, fulfilled human beings?

Since this is a question of contemplation (a reflexive question) perhaps we ought to contemplate:

  •  How can we know that a student, child, or associate has or is the process of fully actualizing his or her potentialities unless we know what those potentialities are?

This is obviously a question of wonder so perhaps first we must consider:

  •  How can we, as teachers, parents, and leaders, create an approach that welcomes the extraordinary range of human potentials we find before us?

This would lead us to a question of compassion – to know, understand, and appreciate; from the deep recesses of our own humanness:

  •  What motivates healthy and whole individuals?

And, finally, we come full circle, we come back to our own responsibilities in all matters of potential; are we willing to go the distance? What are we willing to do; how are we willing to grow; and how are we willing to change?[3]

  •  Are we ready and willing to learn?

I have known true alchemist,” the alchemist continued. “They locked themselves in their laboratories, and they tried to evolve, as gold had. And they found the Philosopher’s Stone, because they understood that when something evolves, everything around that thing evolves as well.”  – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist




[1] Abraham Maslow p. 18

[2] Abraham Maslow p. 7

[3] I am indebted to A. H.  Maslow for the foundation driving this chain of questions. He was a master of posing the good question.

1 Comment

  1. Walker Karraa on June 30, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    I have been reading this off and on for the entire day. Someone had to just say, this is so damned good!

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