The Organizational Compass: Principles, Cooperation and Openess, Paradoxes and Polorization, Cost of Seeing Problems

The Forest and the Trees

Know thyself.
Inscribed on the lintel at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, this statement has been attributed to Socrates and other Greek sages.

How the past perishes is how the future becomes.
Alfred North Whitehead

Seeing the Big Picture and Thinking for Self

image002.jpgIn our physical nature we are simply flowing particles/star stuff, if you will. Pulled together for what seems a moment, we are soon to be scattered about the universe, star stuff again. Because we are carbon-based material matter, that may be the end of the story. Yet because we are conscious and enjoy learning and creating, many of us wonder what our legacy will be. Each of us, after all, leaves a mark, however slight, on the past and a footprint, however tentative, on the future. Is it possible that if we can be true to our deeper selves, we will leave this planet a bit better than it was before we arrived? If it is true we will have learned first to mange our somewhat glorified human nature. This is the self knowledge path. It can enable us to make better decisions once we understand our biased brain. Finding our way in the complex social systems that make up our world is made a bit easier of we can see well the world that surround us. 

Throughout this book, I have talked about the Mindful Compass as a method for discovering better ways to lead in the complex jungle of social systems. I have suggested that readers create their own personalized versions of a compass to facilitate more thoughtful, more aware actions. To complement this focus on you, the individual, I will ask you (later in this chapter) to take a look at an Organizational Compass, to give you some ideas about what happens in any of the organizational jungles you may enter.

To influence or to be influenced, to put a slightly different spin on a famous quote, one has to know where one is and where one is headed.

The four directions of the Organizational Compass will help you see both more clearly.

Those directions are

North: Principles, Laws, Rules, Regulations, Values and Beliefs

South: Problems – Cooperation and Openness

West: Paradoxes, Polarization, and Relationship Quagmires

* East: The Cost of Seeing and Solving problems 

Any social system is chock full of people. The proverbial relationship between the forest (the system) and the trees (the people) is a good way to help us understand how an organization influences its members. It’s also a helpful metaphor, a way to shift our thinking between the foreground and the background.

By looking at small parts of the picture (the trees) to learn about the big picture (the forest), we can more easily see the influences. In addition, shifting frames from thinking about one individual to thinking about the group, and then back again, gives us more insights into two different dynamics.   

We also want to think about the root systems of the trees. How is one tree connected to the earth and to other trees? How will these connections influence the growth and development of the tree?

This third “view” shift can take us, metaphorically, from one individual’s brain thinking on its own to how that brain is influenced by the surrounding social and multigenerational groups. Different metaphors and analogies can create more thinking spaces that are more open, if we allow it.   

Metaphorically, from knowing one tree we can know something about the nature of all the trees in the forest. Looking at one tree or one individual, we see the details but miss the pattern.

Looking at the forest, we see the big picture but miss the details. Looking at both can help us see different aspects of the brain, the family and the organizational systems. I was motivated to develop an Organizational Compass because I wanted to find a simple way to take a reading on an organization of any type.

As a family therapist, I was able to recognize the evidence of families reverting to automatic behavior patterns when under pressure. The family is a system, but not an organization. Even so, I reasoned, systems knowledge could help me understand how other complex systems, such as companies or even nations, function under pressure.  

In the forest, it is not too difficult to tell if the trees are suffering from blight. But among humans it is often hard to recognize that there are problems until it is too late. Humans are far better than trees at pretending. Question is, what signs do you look for to verify that your organization is running a 104 degree fever? Or, how can you verify evidence that your organization is healthy enough to sustain a major disruption, get the job done well, and survive into the future?  

Of course, part of the answer has to do with spotting people who are reverting to automatic, emotional behavior in the face of problems, stress or anxiety. If the trees are not doing well, then the forest is in for trouble. Therefore, a focus on people has to be a central part of any organization’s survival tactics. 

One never knows what will disrupt an organization or a forest. All events that give rise to problems are stressors. But stress is not a big hammer that comes around and knocks people on their heads. In fact, stress is hard to see. But some of the events that cause stress are well documented. Change, real or imagined, is the great stressor.

Change happens and people either adapt, or they react and get more uptight. They cannot see the forest (the long term overall gain) for the trees (the short term uncertainty and anxiety). But a reasonably aware leader can make a positive difference to a system under pressure if he or she can be open about changes, deal well with them, and help the individuals affected adjust.

Your ability to be a calm presence during stressful times is greatly enhanced by your being able to understand the big, complex picture.   My overall suggestion is that being able to observe the forest in a neutral way will enable you to relate well to the trees: You have no agenda; you are open; you just want to see and understand.

Then thoughtful action can follow.  Carl Sagan has a wonderful chart, which I’ve included at the end of this chapter, which helps us imagine the history of the universe as compressed into one year. Each month represents a little over a billion years, and the final evening of the last day of that year shows the emergence of human life.[1] (Now that is really backing up and getting objective about our place in time!).

In this chart, cellular life takes about nine months to appear. This is way before the first forest, but it is the beginning of interaction, when cells had to negotiate and get along with one another in order to survive. Once cells could alter information stored in the genome, things were off and running. Cells could adapt to changing conditions and so can people. Cells just have to be a bit concerned about what the other cells and the environment are doing and then alter their own functioning or genome to adapt.  

Yes, I have simplified the complex nature of leadership in this analogy. But leaders need the ability to get neutral about events around them in order to think clearly, no matter the problem. They also need to look at the big picture without flinching or compromising. And of course, any leader must be able to relate well to the other individuals in the neighborhood.   A Disclaimer of SortsNature is full of riddles and leading is a complex job, but there are road signs guiding motivated individuals in directions that offer reasonably predictable promises of positive long term results.  Looking for directions can be fun. The Organizational Compass, which you will find later in this chapter, is my best guess about the four most important dynamics/directions that leaders of organizations can use to make the decisions that will result in the best outcome for their organizations. It is based in part on my experiences as a trained family therapist. That is my area of expertise—not business per se. But once I saw how the family operated, seeing the concepts at work in organizations was natural. I hope that my viewpoint will enhance yours. It may not work for all of you. But again, if you can see the trees and the big picture, then seeing patterns at work on many different levels comes more easily.   As a further cautionary note, Eliot Aronson—my idea of a clever social scientist and one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th Century—suggested, “People are not rational beings so much as rationalizing beings. We want explanations.” If this book and the two Compasses it describes are to offer more than explanations for why we behave as we do in the various systems we inhabit, then we have to find ways to predict the results that will follow our actions. With that in mind, let’s see if history can give us any markers that show we are navigating our social systems in positive directions. .  History – What Really Counts?When we look at the forest through the lens of history, we can see that humans have been working for the last 20 centuries or longer to develop more civilized ways of relating. For example, it has taken hundreds of years for humans to see the usefulness of individual freedom as opposed to master/slave relationships.

We have gone further in this century than in any other in terms of granting individuals more independence. This has paid great dividends in terms of the development of intellectual capital. In the business world, leaders are realizing that granting people some type of independence and respect will lead to higher productivity.  

Some, like Francis Fukuama, believe that the master/slave relationship was the initial example of human “organizations,” but there is little historical evidence.  I am not sure that the studies of more primitive people today support this belief.[2]

It seems easy to say that if there were only two people around it was lose or win situation and the winner was the master.  But any band of hunters, for example, must have gained survival benefits from cooperating with one another and fostering more independent actions. Of course, something could go wrong during the hunt or back home resulting in someone winning and the other losing.  But tightly controlling others, as in master/slave relationships, would not have worked well to promote cooperation in the early tribal days of human development. That had to wait for the organization of large groups of humans where master/slave relationships could make mountains into blocks of stone, and large block of stones into grand structures of one sort or another.

The ebb and flow of human relationships has been investigated in Julian Jaynes’s book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind, 1976, He documented some indications of the cognitive and social dependency. His hypothesis is built on the study of language from early times.  His evidence suggests that when a citizen of these early societies was separated from an authority figure, he would hallucinate the voice of command and maintain a gaze related to those who are being socially controlled.  This was an adaptation to the loss of the family and eventually the tighter social hierarchy which required obedience to commands.  Some people were not able do tasks without commands at each step of the procedure.

Psychiatrist might say it was a failure to have ego differentiation. In this era hallucinations were not considered deviant as they would occur at any separation from the usual chain of command. 

Julian Jaynes pointed to the evidence in 1,000 BC when the ancient chieftains began to break up in parts of Eurasia. This political fragmentation was accompanied by a breakdown in the bicameral type of cognition and the emergence of a more modern form of western consciousness. A majority of people adapted and began to be able to sequence complex tasks without commands.

There were fewer problems for people adapting to social mobility when the government was relatively more democratic and dialogue replaced a control and commands.  Also writing and arithmetic calculations were discovered which enabled development of the more cognitive parts of the brain.  

During the middle ages this stage in cycle of revolution was in some ways repeated. Feudalism return to Europe and most citizens were reduced to serfs once again.  During the renaissance, there was a period of relative democracy and less authoritarian societies.[3]

   Compared to the middle ages there is greater freedom for the majority of the world’s population and slavery is less prevalent than it was even 200 years ago.

There are still wars, but there are also large organizations struggling across nations and cultures to try to resolve disputes. There are still disproportionate distributions of the goods of the world—food, shelter, medicines—but again, there are also large groups working to remedy this. Science has made fantastic advances, but has also unleashed dreadful weapons and great cruelty.

It appears there is little progress without a kickback. One step forward, a half of step back and sometimes two steps back before we can make solid gains Over time, step by step, we can see a developing emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility, and greater legal respect for individuals.

Those organizations and nations that have embraced a greater respect for individual freedom have also profited financially. Man’s morality and ethical thinking have led the way toward more civilized ways of managing our selves based on principles, and there has been a reward for going in this direction. 

Yet very few changes have developed in the structure of the human brain over the last few thousand years to account for this ethical change. So what’s going on? Clearly, both individuals and countries alter their behaviors and their organizing principles in attempts to adapt to changing environments.

Giving individuals more freedom to adapt to the environment rather than telling them what to do has made a major difference in how both families and organizations function. Yes function is the key.  None of this would be possible without the brain’s networking properties being able to adapt to external changes. 

Consider that humans have the ability to alter the network of neoronal connections within the brain. Some of this occurs automatically as humans have learned new skills. The reason mindfulness is so important is that it allows individuals to direct the flow of energy and information that surges through the brain. Self control is a skill that each generation can develop.   

Think of it this way, a primitive reactive brain can quickly decide and act. Not a problem, till circumstances get more complex.   Then there is a need to be able to stop and think. The old fast ways may not always function during times of increasing complexity.  The more primitive part of the brain can clings to past rituals. A more functional brain can become aware of differences and adapt. 

Slowly, the awareness of new circumstances allows individuals, and therefore groups, to develop different ways of coping with evolving circumstances.  Over time humans have had to adapt to the different demands from the changing environment.  When decisions have to be made the frontal lobes are primary in executive reasoning. 

Clearly individuals and groups are altered by a slow process of integrating primitive feelings with assessment and rational thinking.[4]   We can follow the changes in the minds of groups of humans by looking at history.  Any overview of history, especially one this brief, suffers from a lack of details. But looking for one or two constants in just how human’s functioning has shifted over time is worth some effort.   Openness and Stability

Consider that Ian Bremmer, in his book, The J Curve, isolated two interrelated dynamics, stability and openness. His analysis of twelve nations mostly takes place in this century. Explaining how nations rise and fall, even over a relatively short period, can be useful in considering the past and predicting the future. His evidence shows that, over time, nations with greater openness have more vitality and are expansive.

Initially, openness creates a decrease in stability because openness has a cost—including, less stability.  Authoritarian regimes tend be more stable than open ones. An event like oil shortages can paradoxically bring greater openness to nations that are not seeking openness.  Consider how necessary it is for goods and services to cross national boarders if oil is to be exported. 

Increasing intellectual energy and freedom to innovate produces increasing capital. Repression and authoritarian control oppose intellectual freedom but to achieve positive cash flow nations often allow for more openness. A classical example would be China. 

Those nations that shun openness move gradually toward rigidity becoming less able to adapt and adjust, and often end in a political or economic collapse. There are similar dynamics (stability and openness) operating in both families and organizations.

 Throughout history, groups have formed around principles, such as a belief in authority or a belief in democracy. As these groups encountered problems, the principles and the leaders were tested. Being transparent, or open, is one way for leaders to enable the group to play a larger role in problem-solving. Therefore we see more companies, nations and families embracing openness even at the risk of decreasing stability.  


Did We Choose or Were We Given Principles?

Organizations try to foster higher functioning in individuals in different ways than do families, but both are susceptible to the temptation to find short cuts to success. Both can form hierarchies and have unfair distributions of recourses. And in both, relationship problems will surface whenever challenges are encountered.  

Relationship problems are the first stop for stress, the first sign of trouble in the group. Knowing how easy it is to react and fall apart when hard times hit, both families and organizations create principles and values as a way to encourage behavior that is less primitive. These principles help people interact in a more a disciplined manner and thereby decrease relationship problems. In families, the principles are not posted on the wall. They are assimilated and passed on through the generations as moral and ethical imperatives and plain old-fashioned good manners. Those who are motivated can usually state the operating principles in their families, but it often takes some work to see the values that people orient to automatically. Many organizations do have their principles nailed to the wall, so to speak, because they are spelled out in their mission statements and in the employees’ job descriptions. This does not guarantee that the behavior in the group will match the principles, but it does clarify what is expected.  Both families and organizations share the problem of how to foster cooperation. Because we know that all cooperation requires sacrificing at least one or two personal desires, it is something of a mystery that cooperation works at all. But it has been demonstrated by game theory that cooperation is indeed a more potent force than selfish behavior.  Cooperating groups of unrelated individuals can do remarkable things despite the conflict within human nature. The conflict can be understood in the following question:

How much of my life energy is devoted to my personal interests, and how of my life energy will I give up to help you? 


Be Your Best Self and See How the Group Changes


Change creates anxiety, and we know individuals must be emotionally fit to uphold principles in anxious social groups, or during anxious times. It’s all about emotional backbone. How easy it is to be seduced or even blackmailed by those we care about or respect. When someone or some group really want us to do it their way, the pressure is on. Remember poor Adam, overly influenced by Eve.


Remember Solomon Ashe and the experiment with the lines that seemed to alter their length depending on how the social group claimed to see them. We are all vulnerable to having our perception of even simple facts changed by those around us. More important, under anxious conditions it’s all too easy for humans to let go of their careful, objective, cool-headed thinking processes and instead make decisions based on fear. The subcortical, emotionally reactive brain dominates.  


So what will enable humans to activate their frontal lobes to think more scientifically and less emotionally? One simple answer is – awareness, and one little word – “no.” Although the emotional brain runs most of the show, we can say NO to the automatic reactions. All we have to do is understand what those reactions are. But this is where it gets complex, because you have to know three generations of your history, the patterns of growth, and the generations of sensitivity and reactivity before you can understand the forest that holds the roots of your reactions.   


If we are mindful of the old habitual ways of responding, we are better able to abandon those habit-formed pathways and find strength in saying no to old ways of thinking and behaving. This will leave us more open to seeing, without blame or shame, what our somewhat reactive mindset is telling us (incorrectly) must be the truth.  


By saying no, we start to break up old patterns and set the stage for more thoughtful actions. And perhaps even the mysterious notion of free will can be activated. By saying no, we make it easier to consider orienting to principle and rational thinking as a way out of the quagmire of emotion-based responses.[5] 

Any of us can get stuck in the quagmire of “emotional truth,” and that is not a pleasant experience. When emotional truth clashes with fact, opting for emotional comfort will be dangerous to our long term survival. Those who are able to reorient behavior to principle and rational thinking will be better able to find a rational way out of any emotional jungle.

 Are you Thinking Scientifically or Emotionally?

I like to ask people, Are you thinking scientifically or emotionally? When any of us are under stress and seeking solutions, or when our organization is undergoing stress, ask that question. Questions slow things down. We become more mindful.  It’s the beginning of awareness of the possible damage that responding emotionally, rather than logically, can do.  Emotional thinking is driven by anxiety.

We like to be right and win, or to be safe and hide. Whatever it takes to justify our beliefs and behavior will do just fine—or so we think at that anxious, emotional moment.  Scientific thinking is often a complex answer. If your brain is flooded with emotion and anxiety, it may seem impossible to think scientifically much less evaluate a situation logically.

But this is the discipline for calming and strengthening your brain and your (emotional) backbone. Once any of us are mindful it’s far easier to read our compass.  

The Mindful Compass allows you to examine your perceptual filters and get past emotional thinking to scientific thinking. Using an Organizational Compass will enable you to better understand how organizations operate, and thus make it easier for you to function in a more thoughtful, less emotionally reactive way inside an organizational system. 

If individual humans can be blind to the emotional processes at work or in a small system such as a family, think about how much greater the tendency for blindness is in the organizational structure of BIG systems.  If you want to see, to think more scientifically, then it pays to think ahead.

Having a compass to navigate the social/emotional jungle means you can do your homework and check out how your organization is functioning. What we learned growing up in a small family group can be thought of as the building blocks of social knowledge.

When we think about our own family and, say, our best friend’s family, we can start to see the connections between one family and another. We can start to see how human systems express similar dynamics: rivalry, scapegoating, preferential treatment and many other behaviors that come together on a social playing field that is never level.

These are the basic kinds of interactions that occur in any social system—family or business. Business systems, but not family systems, need long term objectives and must be transparent. Family and business systems do have behavior overlaps, but only an organization must have clearly stated principles.  


Milton Friedman applies this concept to the economic system by stating that he would like any economic system to contribute to greater political freedom, economic efficiencies and equality of economic power.[6]

Clearly, the system influences the individual, and the individual has the ability to enable any organization to have a voice. 

The Four Points on the Organizational Compass


So, you already have your Mindful Compass. Now it’s time to think about an Organizational Compass. It’s built on some basic facts about being in an organizational world: Overall, a leader needs to be sure his or her operating principles mesh with what he or she is doing. A leader needs ways to identify and solve problems. And finally, a leader needs methods for thinking through how to pay for the actions/goals he or she wants instituted, and how to measure the results. 

  • North: Principles, Laws, Rules, Regulations, Values and Beliefs 

Just as cells have DNA rules, most organizational systems have principles meant to guide their internal processes. The main question is, how effective are those principles or rules? Are they actually lived out in the daily comings and goings of the organization, or buried in a dusty manual somewhere?

How do you, a new person on the corporate ladder, know what the principles or guidelines are? Guiding principles can be basic truths, laws, rules, standards, beliefs or even fixed or predetermined policies or modes of action. But do they predict anything about how well the system functions? 

In mature families and nations, there are clear rules that often encourage cooperation and individual responsibility. In nations, the guiding principles are usually spelled out in historic documents. (In the United States, for example, individual freedoms are delineated in the Bill of Rights.)

In immature families and nations, there are few consistent principles. A parent or a leader might say, “I am not bound by any law. I am always right. If you do not do as I say, I will punish or even kill you.” Average families and organizations have some principles, but have difficulty being consistent.

Both immature and average social groups also face challenges adapting to new environments. In The Origin of Wealth, Eric D. Beinhocker offers us evidence that principles, made into laws, are the main factors determining a country’s wealth.


The rule of law, the existence of property rights, a well-organized banking system, economic transparency, a lack of corruption, and other social and institutional factors played a far greater role in determining national economic success than did any other category of factors.[7] 


[2] North-residing challenges, then, are (1) How to know and then maintain principles when either real or imagined problems trigger an increase in anxiety, and (2) How to alter the current principles if the system or its humans need change. 

  • South: Problems – Cooperation and Openness 

There is a reason that people organize themselves. They want to get things done. The earliest bands of human hunters might not have had clear principles or a mission statement, but they knew they had to depend on one another if they wanted some tasty meat for dinner. Informal rules to encourage cooperation are even seen in other species, such as ants and baboons.

Cooperation has deep roots in the evolution of life in the forest.  For those interested in complexity and evidence for the above, I recommend reading the works of Robert Axelrod and Robert Wright.[8][3] 


They have shown that cooperation genes have an advantage over cheating genes, and that much of human history demonstrates how groups have bootstrapped the urge to cooperate into larger and larger organizations. All groups must solve the problem between self-interest and group cooperation to be successful. 


The founders of game theory, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, made a basic distinction between “zero-sum” games and “non-zero-sum” games. In zero-sum games, the fortunes of the players are inversely related. In tennis, in chess, in boxing, one contestant’s gain is the other’s loss. In non-zero-sum games, one player’s gain needn’t be bad news for the other(s). Indeed, in highly non-zero-sum games the players’ interests overlap entirely. In 1970, when the three Apollo 13 astronauts were trying to figure out how to get their stranded spaceship back to earth, they were playing an utterly non-zero-sum game, because the outcome would be either equally good for all of them or equally bad. (It was equally good.) – Robert Wright 


Many of our conflicts are similar to those experienced by our earliest humanoid ancestors. It is usually sex, money, beliefs and status that create mild to moderate relationship problems. (Remember that Victorian adage never to discuss money, sex or politics at the dinner table?) Apparently people have been worried about how to mange differences for a long time.


Conflicts break loose at the dinner table or at the international table. Here we see families squabbling, and there we see war-torn countries squabbling. We see conflicts in the halls of Congress, and even in monasteries. 


Dissention occurs around mild differences and escalates all the way out to genocide. Eventually differences become extreme and the others are perceived as not human.[9]   In the Stanford prison experiments Philip Zimbardo points to the incredible power that the rules of the organization have in encouraging horrid behavior. This is done by organizing people’s behavior around the effort to dehumanize others.   


During times of conflict, it is anxiety that can rule. Openness and thoughtful cooperation are lost. Principles of fairness are trashed.  Domination overrides respect for individual difference.  Eventually, trust breaks down. Individuals, and therefore groups, are sensitive to being cheated, manipulated and with good reason have a hard time forgiving, since forgiving might encourage more cheating.[10][4]   


We can learn a great deal from looking at the nature (both the forest- the rules and the trees – the interactions) of the mild to moderate problems.  We can be content to let others judge if managing the way differences between people are handled, has anything to add to understanding the more extreme problems.    

Cooperation Possible or Not?


It doesn’t matter if we are marketing widgets or saving rain forests, the problem is the same: How can we get along with one another so that cooperation—and thus a better outcome—becomes possible?   In business the framework in which problems must be solved has different names, such as “Our Mission Statement,” or perhaps “Company Guidelines.” Whatever it’s called, this framework helps move everyone toward transparency and openness or towards reactivity and major problems.


It is the hoped for primary focus of any group or for that matter any family or organization to see, accept and deal with the always appearing problems.   One hallmark of a mature family is its ability to be more open about problems, which means less is hidden under the table or swept under the rug.


Hidden agendas create more anxiety and greater frustration. That being said, there is nothing more difficult than being open about sensitive problems, and hardly anything is more important to enable heart felt cooperation.  

  • West: Paradoxes, Polarization and Relationship Quagmires 

Once an organization has principles and has clearly identified problems that need solving, anxiety can begin to brew. The anxiety can start at the top or the bottom of the system. Any anxiety about how a job will get done can result in relationships problems.  One example, a major disagreement occurs between two partners or divisions.


Instead of the anxiety being managed by those top people, it can seep down to the employees in the middle of the organization. There, staff will sense upsets in the environment without actually knowing the facts. Like children, they feel the parents’ unease and begin absorbing the anxiety.


Next, they begin to exhibit symptoms, which can range from filing complaints, to not working well with the group, to not coming to work at all. And while the form of the symptoms may differ, the fact that symptoms will occur is predictable.


The bottom line: Problems can start anywhere. They are sensed and reacted to by the social group.    

ØEmotional issues/problems can create reactivity in those who sense them.

 ØSome individuals absorb more anxiety than others.

ØSymptoms in an interconnected, wired system appear to set some free while others have to deal with the symptoms.   


Although this seems unfair it seems to have been a good solution for Mother Nature.  I know that mindful leaders are focused on doing better than the automatic way Mother Nature has arranged for anxiety to be absorbed. 

The better way is to be aware of the big picture, receptive in interactions and clever in solving problems.  

Reason and Logic Run into the Paradoxical Wall


It is the nature of anxiety to make thinking more difficult. Stress and anxiety decrease thinking and reduces the ability to solve complex problems.  In addition complex problems are part and parcel of the way life has evolved. If only reason and logic could deal effectively with every problem!  But we know complex problems and language bring another challenge – paradoxical problems. Now we are looking for leaders who can think well enough to deal with paradox. 


 “Paradox”[11] is generally understood to describe an apparently true statement that is nonetheless contradictory. In moral philosophy, paradox plays a central role in ethics debates. For instance, it may be considered that an ethical admonition to “love thy neighbor” is not just in contrast with, but in contradiction to an armed neighbor actively trying to kill you: if he or she succeeds, you will not be able to love him or her. But to preemptively attack them or restrain them is not usually understood as loving. This might be termed an ethical dilemma. Another example is the conflict between an injunction not to steal and one to care for a family that you cannot afford to feed without stolen money.  


How does one think scientifically about such emotional issues? Family therapy has had a few answers. Many methods have been developed to intervene when families are stuck in emotional quagmires.

Paradoxical interventions are often used by therapists to help families see their complex problems from another perspective and solve them.[12]  What percentages of leaders think about paradoxes or paradoxical interventions?  I have no evidence but I assume there are a few. For those it may happen at an intuitive and even humorous level.

Clearly the ability to think paradoxically is valuable simply because logic and rationality are weak weapons for dealing with emotional complexity.  If people are not operating on a rational, logical level, then the problems cannot be solved with logic.

Adding to the difficulty is that the nonrational aspect of emotional problems makes most peoples shy away from them; therefore, very few business books or courses take up such issues.  

Polarization – The Point Where Simple Thinking Increases Risk


Instead, it is easier for people trained in the world of organizational theory to see another problem, polarization, as related to a rise in anxiety. (There are, after all, many books about conflict resolution.) It is not that hard to see how during times of threat, polarization becomes intense.

The neighbor we did not like now becomes the neighbor we should jail, for example. Or, our competitors are out to kill us, not just win an order or two. Even these more logical problems may also be difficult to solve without addressing the emotional component. One interesting way of thinking about the challenges of dealing with polarization is to see it as a problem of cheap energy.  P

eople are not paying enough personally to solve the problems, instead they blame it on someone else and often pay nothing.  That is, as long as I continue my way of seeing me as good and them as evil, I can gain energy and never have to solve the problem.


The end result is that in organizations and families when anxiety rises there is an effort to extrude the problem on to others, and this is often to someone’s short term benefit.   The risk is that this blaming of others does solve the problem in the short term. Someone is fired, someone is disinherited and the rest of the group is calmer.  But the system is weaker.  T


he reasons for the anxiety and intensity increasing are out of sight. Often the reasons can be group under the heading that there is a loss of openness, and that loss is compensated for by acting out individuals.  


Problem Detection and Feedback

There is no doubt that any leader needs a problem-detecting mechanism.  If leaders become good at seeing the kind of problems that arise in the organization, they do so because of some kind of feedback.  In the old fashioned top down system the top people were often separated from the ideas and observations of the workers. 

Now openness and flat organizations are popular.  More information is available to the people who have the greatest responsibility to sense and understand problems.

 If the organization is more open that there are lots of ways that feedback will get filtered over to people in positions of responsibility. Feedback can tell you the hard facts about where your organization is going, and can also give you hints as to the nature of the soft or so called relationship problems.   

Soft problems are often first seen when individuals stop working well in groups, they can’t do their jobs or they do them incorrectly, they get sick, or they exhibit other kinds of symptoms such as tardiness, irritability or even paranoia.

Relationship symptoms are feedback indicating that there are problems somewhere in the system, not just in the mission statement or the assembly line; it’s the people absorbing anxiety.  

Yes, problems generate anxiety, which relationships absorb. You can imagine people as little sponges.  When tensions rise some will absorb more than their fair share of the anxiety, as we have said in many ways. 

We are all absorbing more information than we can be aware of about the state of our world.  The delayed development of a product, a lack of orders for products, or a lack of money for research, among other things, can jam up relationships and create anxiety in individuals. It is no ones fault. But if problems end up in people they have to be first addressed by understanding the relationship between “problems” and “reactions” to the problem.

If you, the leader, can see both how the individual trees are faring, as well as the forest itself, you will be better able to connect symptoms in one part of the forest (the individuals) with the problems and the overall direction of the forest itself (the organization).

 Feedback mechanisms let us know what is going on all over the forest. The leader’s job is to weigh the data and to take well-thought-out actions based on the kinds of problems that are encountered.  

Change in Leadership or the Death of an Important Family Member

Let me give you an example. The most common interpersonal problem organizations and families face is transformation around a change in leadership or in a family, the death or the loss of a leader.

 Everyone knows the boss is going to retire in a few years, and the rumors have already started. A company can often deal with the rumors and resultant stress and anxiety by being more open about how the process of finding a new boss will go. People are calmed by such statements as: The process will take six months. Or four people have been selected.  In families, talking about the pending death of a loved one, and or clarifying the reasoned plans for dealing with the coming changes is much more threatening.


If the family leaders cannot be open enough to resolve the feeling of fear and uncertainty, then predictably, the relationship feedback arrives. The children are getting anxious, their school performance is dropping, and accidents are happening more often. The parents aren’t doing that well either. Arguments may break out, affairs may start. Someone in the family may start thinking these people need to change.


This is the most important feedback—hoping and wishing others will change so you can relax. .  At home or at work, the job of the leader in these situations is to understand the role of anxiety in driving interpersonal relationships into quagmires.


When people come under pressure, they often take it out on one another. Conflicts increase, people make more negative comments to and about others, people get sick, they leave, or they stop talking to one another. This happens in families, in organizations, and on the world stage, as any newspaper will attest. Walk into the organizational headquarters of a company under stress and you will feel the tension.

If you have trouble feeling the tension, look around you. How at ease are the employees? Are they hanging out together or hiding out? Is it hard to get them to come to meetings and really pay attention? If you talk to them outside the meeting, do they claim that the real problem is the way the others see the problem?   


Often the first clues that the emotional temperature is high are polarizations, or individuals taking problems underground.  People are just not relating well.  I used to say problems between people were the reason that we were surviving so well, because one person did not have to bear it all. They could blame others. And it’s true that on the adaptive side, people can share problems and the associated anxiety. But there are limits.  The more intense the problem and fearful the people, the more likely it is that the people will become polarized and less open to others’ ideas. When systems start to close in this way, or when there are subjects that can’t be discussed openly, alarm bells should start ringing. The tension is rising. People are having problems, serious problems.

Now what do you, our dear leader do? You say you’ve tried openness and talking about the problems, and that hasn’t helped? When openness does not work, anxious relationships follow: triangles, pretending, rescuing, controlling, dominating, undermining, are a few examples. These behaviors are not always easy to see for what they are.

If you ask people in the organization what they think, they are likely to say these symptoms are just random, that people are getting sick, that people have cabin fever from a long winter, that Bill and Joe have never really liked each other anyway and there’s nothing new there. People are often blind to process.  People can pretend or they can just not see connections between events. This is denial, and when someone is in it—not seeing connections, not seeing their own stress—there is no use pointing that out.  Straight-talking feedback is relatively useless if people cannot see well.  ØPresence of mind is needed when the system in under high anxiety. ØOne calmer person can take anxiety down just by being a bit calmer, a bit more mindful. In a family, for example, a father can see that both his wife and child are sick following the death of the wife’s father. If the husband can connect that with the wife’s and child’s unspoken fears of the future, he can take steps to be more available and patient in dealing with them and their illnesses.

A husband who is unable to make that connection may become frustrated and angry and blame the wife and child for making his life more difficult. T

he CEO of a big company can do the same thing. Leading by relating well can solve a basketful of fear-based problems. But this is one of the hardest things to do.  

The heads of organizations or departments are smart, they see the problem, and they know the answer. They just want to explain it logically to the person or people involved, and have done with it. But that focus is a trap. It is so hard to see that we can be useful only by relating to, and not trying to change, others.  

In the old days the boss was the master and the employee the slave; now, however, the boss has to empower the employees to be mindful and independent thinkers and problem-solvers.  This is a big change in the way humans operate. This is not automatic behavior .This kind of a change requires mindfulness and courage.  

When People Fib

There’s another challenging problems leaders face: How does a leader relate well to people who cannot be honest about themselves or their feelings?  People in organizations often pretend in order to avoid confrontation.

They do not want to be known as they often feel they can not be who they really are. There are also those “evil” people who are consciously there to steal and lie. They can and do affect the organizational culture. 

Hard as it is to believe we are all are vulnerable to being overly influenced by the organizational culture and can lose the ability to navigate or lose our compass. Philip Zimbardo, as noted earlier, gives us all the evidence we need to see how the social situation can make “evil” people out of usually thoughtful men and women. 

I would hazard a guess that in many large organizations, the degree of social pretending goes up as one ascends the corporate ladder. For a leader, trying to figure out who is authentic and who is not is one of the main keys to building a leadership team.

After all there is a great deal of incentive to fool the boss or to play to the boss.  Sometimes I think this dilemma is like trying to relate well to teenagers, who also have no real interest in parents getting to know who they are and what they are really thinking about. 

To some extent, pretending is natural. Both animals and people pretend. Animals act like they love you and then if hungry or frustrated enough they can bite. People act like they love you when they don’t just to get a pay raise or the car for the night. Pretending can also be a signal of a closed system and of increasing fear reactions.  

Unfortunately the urge to pretend is a reaction to feeling pressure and it can result in behavior that is not oriented towards being a responsible and mature person. It is a clear sign that principles are not strong enough to ground people in the face of pressure.  Another more complex twist on this is the people who say, “If you really loved me, you would disregard what I do and love me anyway.”

In organizations, this approach is, “Pay me the big money even though the company did not do well.”   All of these and many millions of other interpersonal problems have to be solved in relationships. They will not be solved by firing people or not speaking to them.

Openness is a potent antidote to fear. But openness has to be used with knowledge of the non-logical ways of emotional systems. Logic does not solve problems when anxiety is high and people have hidden behind irrational barriers. 

Relating well to people with various types of problems takes practice. Mindful practice takes courage as one has to risk being wrong.

If you want to be a leader in complex emotional situations, take good notes on your decision to interact with people in ways you believe will (1) lower the anxiety level, and (2) help individuals become responsible for their actions.  

There are many examples of leaders solving relationship problems, but one of my favorites (that we’ll look at later) concerns the experiences that Abraham Lincoln had with General McClellan during the Civil War. Their relationship was symbolic of a larger systems problem that could not be easily solved using logic.  

East: The Cost of Seeing and Solving Problems 

Every solution has a price tag, and neglecting to look at it is a mistake. So, let’s think about how mindful leaders and organizations try to calculate the cost of solving problems.   First, how does a leader gather the data that show problems are happening? Feedback is very useful, as we’ve learned. If you want to know if your company’s widgets are selling well in Idaho, you ask for the sales figures. If they are not selling well, you might ask, “Is it the widget itself that’s the problem, or how it’s being sold?” If you don’t get any traction there, you might think about the distribution system as the source of the problem. The point is, you can usually be successful looking at data to find the cause of the problem, unless the problem involves emotions 

Feedback can give us the information we need to understand developing problems and orient properly to the best solutions. It can also tell us what the cost of such problem solving might be. You, the leader, can float a trial balloon, whether it’s a product or a thought, and assess reactions in real time.

If the reactions seem to indicate that the product is worthwhile, you can raise the money to make or buy more. If the product idea is good but the market response is weak, you can spend time and energy improving the way you deliver the message, or retrain the salespeople.   

As I said, organizations seem to use feedback reasonably well with their more concrete operations. It’s in the area of long term problems and human behavior that feedback does not work as well for them, either because organizations don’t look for it or don’t recognize emotional problems for what they are.   

When there is no feedback about the long term cost of certain short term behaviors, people have a hard time figuring out what the real cost will be. It matters not if a company is saving money in the short term by dumping chemicals into the river, for example.

Eventually, that behavior will come to affect the company and its bottom line. And just as parents struggling to say “no” gradually let their children get away with behavior that is more and more unacceptable, so, too, corporations and nations can have a hard time seeing how incremental, gradual behavior changes will make a big difference over time.  

The more serious challenge occurs when a corporation or society or family perceives a problem, but fails to solve it because of clashes between short and long term interests.  Is there a way to make it clearer that problems often have short term, easy answers that pave the way for long term disasters? 

What is the Price and What is the Problem?

Blindness to long term consequences is more evident when a short term threat can be solved by ignoring the problem, and the current leader is oriented to short term results. In addition, groups experiencing stressful circumstances will more than likely over-use people-pleasing behavior. This behavior has been noted over and over again in the collapse of various companies and social groups.   

The need for mutual support and approval may lead to suppression of doubts and critical thinking, sharing of illusions, a premature consensus and ultimately a disastrous decision. Both crowd psychology and group think can operate over periods of years. Jared Diamond Collapse p 425  


As we’ve seen, an important part of problem-solving involves understanding how human relationships affect problems. And to do this, we sometimes have to think paradoxically (no easy task), to grasp that contradictory statements may nonetheless be true. 

Those who are able to see the problems are the ones with the responsibility of standing up and taking on the issues. It’s not easy. These far-sighted individuals put themselves at high risk; they face rejection and ridicule, and they must endure the very real possibility of being tossed outside the familiar bounds of the group. But if these far-sighted leaders can talk about the problems in both emotionally knowledgeable and common sense ways, the organization or nation will have a better chance of becoming more aware and more able to face and deal with the difficulties.


If these leaders are strong enough not to react to the waves of criticism, they will eventually create networks of cooperative relationships that have a minimum of backlash. I can not overstate how difficult this is to do and how worth while.  


Murray Bowen Seeks the Link


Analysis of the links between family dynamics and life in any group began 35 years ago for Murray Bowen. He began his observations of the similarities between how families and societies cope with problems with great caution, well aware of the pitfalls of making vast generalizations from too few facts.  


In 1972, he was invited to present a paper for the Environmental Protection Agency on human reactions to environmental problems. During the year-long process of thinking about this issue, he began to extend his basic theory about families to the emotional process in society as a whole. He could see that societies and families handle many emotional problems in very similar ways. 


Here’s an example: Parents tell their teenager, “If you get a DWI, we will not bail you out.” That seems clear. There is a rule and the child knows about it ahead of time. Should a DWI occur, the parents have a choice: They can either remain consistent, or they can cave in, rescue the child, and thereby send an inconsistent message.  


It’s tough, however, to keep rules and principles from eroding when emotional considerations make the parents unsure. Let’s say, for example, that the parents’ rule is, “You must go to school.” If the child refuses, strong feelings can arise. The child may threaten to hurt him/herself, which makes the parents afraid to force the issue. The school worries about the parents’ worry, and a special tutor is arranged for the child (which the local government must pay for).  This kind of uncertainty can arise whenever the parents have both a responsibility to listen to the child and a responsibility to develop rules or principles that must be followed. This family uncertainty is then passed on as a burden to be borne by the larger community.  Bowen called action based on fear an emotional problem.  Often, emotionally determined decisions will ease fear or uncertainty for the short term, but create long term problems and a continued erosion of sound principles. He observed that when anxiety increases over long periods of time, it’s almost impossible for people to remain oriented to long term thinking or basic principles. Responsibility and accountability begin to fade, emotional thinking increases, and scientific thinking all but disappears. For example, over time and in order to feel better, parents give in to various demands from their children. (Usually, it’s one parent who seems to give in more than the other.) Typically, at one time these parents had more awareness of and were guided by their own principles, but as their anxiety increased it became easier to say “Yes” than to struggle and say “NO, I will not do/allow that” or, “If you continue to do such and so, I will ground you for a week.” Bowen saw that in families with intense problems with their children, e.g., delinquency, the parents had been going through a “giving in” process for years. He also saw in these families that the ability to function according to basic rules or values eroded over time. In a mature society or family, individuals are accountable for their actions, but this accountability weakens in families and societies with problems. From these repeated observations, Bowen developed the eighth concept in his system theory of the family. He called it “Societal Regression”. The concept states that when a family is subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety, the family begins to lose contact with their intellectually determined principles, and to resort more and more to emotionally determined decisions to allay the anxiety of the moment. The results of the process are symptoms and eventually regression to a lower level of functioning.[13][7] Regression or Blindness: The Consequences of NamingI have wondered if just this name, “societal regression,” is enough to kill any curiosity people might have about the process. Bowen probably needed some marketing advice, but that’s the way his brain worked. He also thought of calling it “emotional process in society” to indicate that there are times when society moves in a more mature direction and times when it is less mature in terms of assuming responsibility for problems. (Regression is defined in psychology as a reversion to an earlier or less mature pattern of feeling or behavior.[14][8]) Bowen made the assumption that all emotional systems—family, organizational and national—deal with anxiety in similar ways. The one difference, he suggested, is that larger groups of humans are participating in a process not just with one another, but with nature itself.   Bowen considered chronic anxiety in large groups as “ . . .the product of the population explosion, decreasing supplies of food and raw materials necessary to maintain man’s way of life on earth, and the pollution of the environment which is slowly threatening the balance of life necessary for human’s survival.” [15][9]  He concluded that humans would have more problems in understanding and dealing with their relationship with nature than with their relationships to one another. He was on to something! We are beginning to see this today, for example, as society gradually comes to accept responsibility for global warming.  Bowen noticed that when problems arose in a family, demands to protect or help others would often result in weakness throughout the family system. He saw confusion and weakness in the parents’ relationships with each other and with their children as a signal that a regression had arrived at the family door. Society’s confusion about the balance between rights and responsibilities, he thought, reflected a similar process in the nuclear family.  The effort to look rationally at these sometimes subtle processes at work in society has caused many people to throw up their hands and say it’s a hopeless case. But others have tried to broaden older ways of thinking into process thinking. It’s not that difficult to see predictable processes in nature (seasonal cycles, growth cycles, for example), but tough to see them in our own lives. Still, by observing other forms of life we can often get a broader perspective on human life. It takes time for mankind to change its way of thinking. For humans to see emotional problems as “rescuing” them from other problems was a long, long way from seeing them as evidence that someone was evil or sick. But that’s just where Bowen was headed. He wanted to move toward a systems view to shift psychiatry away from its narrow focus on mental illness in an individual to a broader view of emotional problems in relationship systems. This made sense to him because emotional problems are as predictable for humans as they are for other forms of life. After all, cats and dogs get cranky too.[16] Bowen saw that man’s biggest problems come from how people deal with one another. “Emotional problems are the result of man’s relationships with man, and the kind of people we are is determined largely by the character of our experience with others.” [17]   If humans and other life forms are on a continuum of emotional growth, he reasoned, we are in the beginning of a psychological reformation. Eventually, psychiatry will make more viable contact with the other accepted sciences and human behavior will be better understood.   Challenging People to Think DifferentlyI am always curious about how leaders actually live out their ideas. In Dr. Bowen’s case, I was fortunate to be able to watch and learn from him, and eventually videotape his interactions with both students and faculty. I had been exposed to Bowen’s ways of challenging people to think during my five years of post-graduate training. After I was hired to work at the family center, I began videotaping most of Bowen’s lectures to a small post-graduate program. Bowen often made a big fuss about how people think. (Remember scientific thinking versus emotional thinking?) I would watch him looking out at the sea of hopeful young therapists as he figured out how to challenge them to think about the big picture rather than about fixing a particular tree (or spouse).  

Bowen was a master at using paradoxical questions to boot people off the straight and narrow path of linear thinking. Surprising, ambiguous ideas that followed off-the-wall questions would lead people to solve problems in new ways, or just to see things in a new light. For example, Bowen might say to someone who was complaining about his/her spouse or job, “Who knows anything about the forest by looking at one tree?” This was a hint that maybe the solution resided not in the person or job, but in the family or organization. Or “What kinds of people are interested only in the forest and not in a tree?” Another hint: Maybe thinking about the greater good is one way to keep valuable individuals from going down the tube. You can set people free to make their own more informed decisions if they know the consequences of being a tree in a BIG forest.  Perhaps, for example, a person might stay in a company not realizing that if a merger takes place they will lose their job. Only the boss can let him or her know of the two sides of this coin.  

  Taking People to a New LevelWhen students would try to finagle the subject back to how they could fix their spouse or their job, Bowen would take sip of coffee, light up a cigarette, and ask, “What is the difference between cause-and-effect thinking and inductive thinking? How is General Systems Theory the same as Family Systems Theory? Who among you have read and understood Gregory Bateson? What is cybernetics really telling you about the family? How can mathematics be important in developing a science of human behavior? How would Freud have thought differently about emotional illness if he had really read Darwin?” What do these types of questions do to your brain? For me, emotional thinking comes automatically and scientific thinking is a darn struggle. One thing I concluded from my association with Bowen is that the thinking part of the brain needs to be strengthened in order to keep the more emotional and automatic processes/reactions under better control. Therefore I set about learning as much as I could in all these different areas.   I met and deeply admired Heinz von Foerster, who was the originator of second order cybernetics.[18]   The point: each of us has to take personal responsibility for all we see and decide to do. There is no viable outside authority to declare what we think or see is correct.  This position is a down right insult to many followers of any theory or belief.

I was also deeply invested in population induced  problems, and had read that both he and Jack Calhoun had made predictions about the exponential increase in populations.[19] Their prediction for the time of Dooms day or Dawns day, were only a few years apart.[20] I teased Heinz about how he and Jack Calhoun fought.  He said “Any friend of Jack Calhoun, was a friend of his.”  Yes, he was a very magical and paradoxically wise man.

Being able to integrate different ways of thinking takes strength and years of practice. I call this discipline to understand (and thus control) my own thinking, watching my ego make movies about stuff.  The more I could step back and watch my feeling system argue with my logical brain, the funnier the whole thing got to be. My feelings had a few good points and so did the more intellectual centers. They just needed time to compare notes and settle a few differences. Learning how to put what I believed and where I stood into a more integrated framework (putting those feelings together with logic) allowed me to stand a bit calmer and stronger in the face of old habits and even authority figures.  This process applies to all of us. Once we learn something intellectually, we must still live it in our own emotional systems.  We can work like a dog getting our logical brain in top working order, but then we still have to deal with our emotional reactions to the social group, and their reactions to us. Only then does the ability to reign in our emotional responses long enough to think rationally about a problem become a part of us. I could tell you lots of stories about how easy it is to make decisions based more emotional thinking than on deep knowledge. But that is not the purpose of this book. I want you to understand the bigger picture. Just think about it this way. Your brain has a pathway to that emotional powerhouse, the amygdala, which automatically activates when you are under threat. To decrease the threat and calm the associated anxiety, you have to be able to activate other pathways, especially the one to the hippocampus, which involves memory. Memory can calm and guide emotional reactivity. It’s the high road. Part of your brain can notice the similarities to what is happening now and what has happened in the past and react emotionally, and another part of your brain can remember that this is not the past—which reduces the fear and allows you to see the big picture beyond the threat.    Taking a Paradoxical StandIt was 1978, and my grandfather Walter Maher was dying of cancer. He was 87 and had chosen to live in my home rather than a nursing home, and I had promised him that he could stay as long as he wanted. At that time, I was working at a psychiatric hospital and often had to work the night shift. Although I had hired people to help, one day my grandfather fell and hurt himself. After that fall, my two brothers became very upset and began saying my home was an unsafe environment for our grandfather. Perhaps they were right, and I could have argued the point, but I was able to see the bigger picture. I knew this was a case of who was responsible for what. They wanted him moved to a nursing home. My job was to make them feel the responsibility of their thinking rather than cave in and do what they wanted.  I needed a paradoxical answer to my problem of being the focus for others.  Understanding the importance of paradox, I just said, “Ask him if he wants to go with you, or tie him up and take him to a nursing home, if that is what you want to do.” In other words, I gave them permission to do what they wanted to do, but only under conditions that would be impossible (our grandfather would never agree to go) or unacceptable (who would tie up their own grandfather and haul him off somewhere?). They backed down. The paradox had made them see that they did not want the responsibility of “taking over.” They also saw that threatening me would do no good. But they continued to think I was wrong not to see that his falling could be fixed by putting him in a nursing home. Paradoxes do not solve all problems.  I, on the other hand, saw the coming loss and the resultant shift in relationships as being a driver of anxiety making my brothers more fearful. The problem was not personal. I saw the forest and the trees. I was relating to my brothers in a way that said, “You can take responsibility for your part of this forest if you have the courage to do it. But I will not allow you to force me to do what you want out of fear. I will keep my promise to my grandfather.”   Now in the old days, I might have been a bossy and non-paradoxical big sister and said, “I know what is best and you have no say in the matter.” From master and slave (big sister knows best) to paradoxical thinking and de-triangling is a big step forward.  All that I did in this situation might confuse others, but it came from years of thinking about responsibility for self and the effort to set others free. Science and Inductive ReasoningDoes this story have application for the organizational world? I think so, because relationships and emotional quagmires are all important in finding one’s way through the social forest. Inductive reasoning tells us that one story is a limited observation, but it may nonetheless be evidence of patterns that recur. For example, we can say that because we have seen that one ice cube is cold, we know all ice cubes are cold. Induction never guarantees that any particular observation will generalize, however. Although all the swans we’ve are white, for example we can’t say that there are no black swans.[21] We have to leave room for the exceptions.  Doctors, among others, use inductive reasoning to help them sort through data as they look for clues to making a correct diagnosis. Induction helps us to find patterns. On the negative side, it has been criticized as being too open-ended and not capable of providing answers that work in every case.  Other scientists have used induction plus mathematics to identify concepts and principles that function in one area, and apply them to other areas. For example, Norbert Wiener (1894 – 1964) and others found that feedback was a regulatory mechanism operating in many different areas.[22][10] This led to the development of the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics. [23][11] And in 1936, biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901 – 1972) used the term General Systems Theory to describe his goal of finding a common framework to identify laws and principles that apply to many systems. He believed that with a common framework, scientists could better communicate and share their findings. “It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general.”[24][12]  Pick and choose. We need diverse ideas to solve complex problems. But diversity is useful only under some circumstances and the ideas have to make sense.  Teachers, for example, will always have the job of provoking students to think for self. Thinking for self is hard to encourage because students are driven to get good grades by giving teachers what they want to hear. This has negative implications for the future of independent thinking and diverse ideas.   Now, Bowen had any number of ways of getting people to think for self. Once a client of mine told him in front of me that she really appreciated the work I had done with her. Bowen looked at her and said, “Why don’t you just believe everything she tells you?” Provoked to think of an answer to this surprising question, my client began to more fully understand what she believed and what she didn’t and the role of my influencing her for better or worse.  She was taking responsibility.  I was less of a long term problem.   Bowen was also relentless with therapists who did not really know where they stood in the world of psychiatry. Were they eclectic? Were they clear about what they believed about human behavior? Bowen would provoke emotions to challenge their thinking. One day, for example, he might get mad at you if you failed to know the basis for various psychiatric theories. Watching Bowen at work, I saw how emotions can also be used to motivate people to think scientifically.  

Should Bowen come back from the dead to question you, you will, of course, think for yourself.

 Even if Bowen does not return from the dead, your boss or spouse is presumably alive and well and expecting you to have specific knowledge and to behave in predictable ways. So now you should also be ready for your boss or spouse, ready to stand your ground and hold to your own ideas even if he or she gets emotional. And hopefully, you will have an emotional backbone strong enough to deal with anyone who wants to know where you stand. You should also be ready for the emotional flak flowing from your spouse, your children, your friends and, of course, your valued colleagues when you express your opinion or simply make an attempt to be more of a self.  Of course, no one can solve an emotional problem by reciting the facts of an intellectual argument. No, it is clear that facts alone fail to make a difference in the direction taken by an individual or a group in the throes of an emotional storm, even a little emotional storm or quandary. We know this all too well from the work of Solomon Ashe and others. Clearly, an emotional spell can be cast over so-called rational analysis, casting rational thinking and behavior into the void.    This is one reason The Mindful Compass was developed. If your skills with The Mindful Compass have made you ready to stand alone, then using an Organizational Compass will allow you to focus on a few variables within the larger systems you inhabit. This might help you to understand where your organization is going and how to better position yourself in the ongoing process. It is Your Turn – The Leader and the Emotional MessageWe’ve taken a good look at what is involved in preparing to be a leader, in learning to see the forest and relate to the trees. So now let’s consider some of the ways this work pays off. For example, when any leader has to make and then announce a decision, that announcement inevitably carries an emotional message. The leader may speak about the decision in a tone of voice that conveys certainty, which says, “Do not ask me any questions.” Or the message may be delivered a tone that says “I am afraid,” or that says, “You should be afraid.”  These kinds of emotional messages are dissected by the media after every Presidential address. And who of us has not laughed as a politician tried to explain what he or she really meant to say? The politician struggles to clarify, admitting that he or she was not totally conscious of the implications of what was said and done in the leadership moment. And these people have top consultants and speech writers working with them! So stop and think for a moment about how hard it is to be heard as “authentic” when you have an important message to convey.  This is a universal problem. No matter how well trained and educated we are, we are still wired as humans. And that means we are wired to react to one another as though we still lived in a very small tribe. As we the people look to our leaders for a signal, trying to see if they are going to implement changes or shift direction, we react to the way they communicate, whether it’s authentic or not.   Messages from and actions by leaders are not just sterile information. They can have system-wide effects and often alter key dynamics within a system. These tipping points may be small actions, but their signaling effects are huge.  I have no easy answers for this problem other than to know it’s a challenge to be authentic in front of an audience. It’s also a challenge for the audience to discern authenticity in the speaker. But whether you are the leader speaking to an audience, or an audience listening to a leader, these are the moments when the work of becoming a legitimate leader and an authentic self will pay off.  Examples of Leading and the CostWithout thoughtful consideration of the emotional cost of solving problems, leaders will find it challenging to have a realistic outlook and to develop an emotional backbone strong enough to deal with the complex issues involved in problem-solving. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed gives us a series of examples of leaders who could not see the long term impact of their decisions. One of my favorites comes from the history of Greenland. In the 10th century, Greenland was colonized by the Norse, who were determined to keep their Scandinavian culture alive rather than adjust to the new environmental realities they faced. And although they did manage to maintain their culture, they starved to death after about 450 years. The natives, the Inuit, had survived for many centuries, but the Norse refused to learn from them.   What went wrong? First, the Norse had a top-down society, which meant the leaders and church officials owned most of the land and controlled trade. Second, the group was unprepared for drastic climate changes in the form of the Little Ice Age. Choosing to spend resources on building elaborate churches might have seemed like a good idea in the warm weather. And perhaps it’s understandable that they had a disregard for the native people, whom they had dominated. After all, it’s hard to respect people you can beat up, even if they have managed to exist for 700 years on a very cold island. And it might have made sense to disregard the Inuit’s tools and inventions, mistaking them for simple “native” work. But it does seem silly that the Norse even refused to eat fish, preferring their traditional cows and sheep. When the cold came between 1400 and 1420, ship traffic to Greenland stopped. The last Bishop of Greenland, the legitimate leader appointed by the Norwegian Church, was sent in 1378, after which no replacements arrived. Without proper authority, social order could no longer be maintained and the poverty-riddled islanders eventually attacked the strongholds of the rich. In the end, no leader emerged to lead the crowd, and this led to mob rule and eventual extinction. [25][13] It was not until 1576 that Europeans finally returned to the island, to find no sign of the Norse. They had vanished. It was feared that they had been beaten by the Inuit, but in reality, the Norse had lost the ability to deal with themselves and the environment. In trying to keep to their old values, they slowly starved to dearth. The Importance of Beliefs to LeadersAll principles involve some level of belief, and like the Norse before us, we could all be blindly walking a happy, if booby-trapped, trail of emotion-based belief—unless we subject those beliefs to rational analysis. The question is, how do we examine our beliefs and their effect on the group’s ability to survive and adapt?  David Sloane Wilson, one of my favorite thinkers about how groups emerge and prosper, has looked at ways various religious systems appear to offer benefits to the group and, as a result, have survived for thousands of years. Author of Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson shows how a group’s beliefs can encourage adaptive behavior. Religion, he suggests, is a product of cultural evolution, developed through a process of group selection. Religion itself is understood as a group-level adaptation. His evidence shows that certain religious groups had systems of beliefs providing an evolutionary advantage. No matter where one sits on the religion spectrum, beliefs provide principles enabling people to understand the world and figure out how to behave to survive. Freud, for example, thought religions were illusions and something to be overcome. William James concluded that religious beliefs help our intellect in its perception of truth. Perhaps we can settle on the thesis that both belief and skepticism are needed for serious thinking [26][14]   President Lincoln and General McClellan: I was struck, in reading Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, by the way President Lincoln cooperated with others and lived out his beliefs in thoughtful ways. At that time, men rarely lived past 45, women often died in childbirth, and it was common for children to die. Perhaps the hardships people of that time endured and the emotional fortitude required to face them gave them a certain inner strength. Clearly, Lincoln, who lost his mother when he was six and his sister when she was 19, had more than his share of emotional challenges.  On the positive side, Lincoln learned story telling from his father and had the habit of thinking long and deep about the meaning of words. One of his childhood friends would later write, “He knew he was unusually gifted and had great potential. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read and thoroughly re-read his books whilst we played. Hence he was always above us and became our guide and our leader.”  [27]  Lincoln’s personal beliefs and his political position regarding the Civil War were well known at that time, but he had to be careful when he spoke about his hopes for the nation. Even though he believed that slavery was a horrid and immoral practice, slavery was allowed under the law in certain states. His effort to work out a compromise position in order to save the nation from a terrible war speaks to his ability to live by the laws on the books at the time. He could see what was possible and move in a reasoned way. His approach to leadership was based on principles. One might say that part of his greatness can be found in his taking a more skeptical, less idealistic and emotional view of a situation.  Although Lincoln abhorred slavery, he knew that to be an effective leader he had to find ways to enlist the cooperation of those who disagreed with him. Thus, his personal belief in the injustice of slavery was tempered by his skepticism about forcing that belief on the nation. The Union was to be preserved, but the slaves were not to be free men. Not yet.    In February 1861 the Confederate states were formed, in large part to protect slavery as a legal institution. On July 4th of that year, Lincoln delivered his famous speech to Congress stating that the war was“a People’s contest… a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men…” The Congress subsequently authorized a call for 500,000 men. By July 21st the Union Army under Gen. Irvin McDowell had suffered a disastrous defeat at Bull Run, 25 miles southwest of Washington. Lincoln knew he was in for a long war.  On July 27th Lincoln appointed Gen. McClellan to be the new head of the Union Army, but McClellan did not take his troops to war. He said he needed time. Lincoln understood that the ultimate goal of war is victory, and soon saw that McClellan was too indebted to Southerners to fight hard enough to win. This conflict resulted in flawed communication between the two men and confusion over who was responsible for what.[28][15]   On Febuary 20th, 1862, Lincoln’s beloved son Willie died in the White House. Could this death have made Lincoln more able to face the deaths of the men in the war effort? Did it prompt him to get the war effort moving? No one knows, but shortly after Willie’s death Lincoln arranged to have the telegraph office moved from McClellan’s area to his own. Thus, Lincoln acquired direct communication with the local troop commanders and signaled the troops that he, Lincoln, was now running the war effort as CommanderinChief. It’s very likely that Lincoln thought through both the costs and benefits of moving the telegraph office before he took action, and was prepared to pay a price for his decision. He had already paid a price for inaction, since some had been saying he had been too patient and had not taken his role as Commander-in-Chief to heart. As in many similar cases, these two men had a disagreement. It then went underground until the one willing to take action based on principle, the leader, finally emerged. The uncertainty in the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan and their struggle over the nation’s principled direction was mirrored by the country’s increasing anxiety about the war effort. The same kind of emotional process around conflicting beliefs can operate in a family, a company or, as in the case above, a nation.   The Emotional Nature of ProblemsIt takes reflecting on our observations to see the deep emotional nature of problems. Emotional process does not change as civilizations advance. Rising levels of anxiety in today’s world add to uncertainty, just as it has since time immemorial. There are many examples. Today, complex problems threatening our environment may be the biggest stress-makers we humans face. Scientists not only don’t agree about what is to be done, they don’t all agree that there is really a problem (although most are coming around). Further, there is no consensus about who must do what, and who will bear the costs of so doing. When there are no simple answers, the group gets anxious, and it becomes harder for us to think and take action for the long term.  There are many other examples from today’s world. There are rising levels of poverty in many Middle Eastern countries, for example, and we are at war in the Middle East. There’s also a huge demographic surge of young men under 30. And in primate groups, when there are no adult males, or an insufficient number of adult males, to regulate the young males, trouble brews. Add to this the growing shortage of women of marriageable age in many Asian countries and the long term view gets even scarier. The factors that promote the increase in anxiety are generations in the making. Here’s another example: Even if we have enough fossil fuel (and some say we may not), just the use of it creates complex issues. Scientists are suggesting that increases in childhood asthma and some heart and lung conditions in adults may be related to increasing air pollution and other environmental contaminants that come from burning fossil fuels.     All of us, leaders and followers, are faced with complex systems problems of long standing duration. There are no easy answers. Therefore, anxiety rises and conflicts ensue and relationships get messy. At such a time, we know that a real leader has to step up and take charge. Dr. Bowen had his way of bringing us back to basics, back to what it is that human nature is all about. He gave us a few facts and great descriptions of how constrained and or shaped we are by our history. He was able to show the linkage between how we are today with how we developed in small tribes over millions of years. Does this mean there are even more things we can learn about larger systems from the way relationships are managed in small family units today? The answer is definitely yes. We have just begun to scratch the surface of the human’s ability to see and understand our functioning in groups. This effort is less than 100 years old.  Four Summary Points(1) Even if principles are fundamentally reasonable, they must always be put into action by people (who are not always reasonable). Seeing how people pay attention to and use principles is a crucial part of looking at and understanding both individuals and organizations. (2) If the leader, as in Lincoln’s case, is able to see that some principles are in conflict with others, he or she must spend a lot of time creating networks of relationships to help him/her bring those conflicts into some kind of resolution so that the principles can be followed or changed if need be. (3) It is the leader’s ability to deeply understand the fundamental need for change that will eventually activate a better level of adjustment and functioning throughout the group.  (4) Leaders must be slightly apart from the group but always have the group’s best interests in mind. Profound leaders seem to be able to stand apart. They understand both emotional process and intellectual functioning as it occurs in a social group. I am hopeful that by considering both The Mindful Compass and The Organizational Compass, your future will become more yours. Being able to reflect on your story is the walk toward self knowledge, and self knowledge helps bring clarity. Clarity helps you better understand where you stand and what you will and will not do and of course a best guess at the cost.  I hope these tools will give you greater clarity. Each of our paths will twist and turn. We are shaped by the past and we slightly shape the future. Your choice is how you want your future to look, so have fun with problems! That is what I will be doing.


[1] Carl Sagan PBS chart

[2] The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuama

[3] The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind,  Julian Jaynes

[4] The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind by Elkhonon Goldberg

[5] Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness by Benjamin Libet

[6] Milton Friedman by Lanny Ebenstein p. 70

[7][2] The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric D. Beinhocker, p 261

[8][3] The Evolution of Cooperation by R. Axelrod, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright

[9] The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

[10][4] Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.  E. Sober and D.S. Wilson

[11] Paradox – Wikipedia

[12] Levels of Schizophrenia by Al Scheflen

[13][7] FTin Clinical Practice pg 386.

[14][8] Webster’s Dictionary

[15][9] Ftin cp Pg 386

[16] The Current Status of Man in Relation to Mental Health, Murray Bowen, Bowen Archives, NLM

[17] Bowen Current Status p. 20

[18] Heinz von Foerster attributes the origin of second-order cybernetics to the attempts of classical cyberneticians to construct a model of the mind. Researchers realized that. . . a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself. Translated into the domain of cybernetics; the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity. Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics (von Foerster 2003:289). 

[19] Calhoun, John, B. (1962). “Population Density and Social Pathology.” Scientific American, Vol. 206 (Feb), pgs. 139-46.

[20] . A 1960 issue of Science magazine included an article by von Foerster stating that the human population would reach “infinity” on this date, and he proposed a formula for representing all the available historical data on world population and for predicting future population growth.[1] The formula gave 2.7 billion as the 1960 world population and predicted that population growth would become infinite by Friday, November 13, 2026 – a prediction that earned it the name “the Doomsday Equation.” The recent research has confirmed the basic soundness of von Foerster’s findings. The hyperbolic growth of the world population observed till the 1970s has recently been correlated to a non-linear second order positive feedback between the demographic growth and technological development that can be spelled out as follows: technological growth – increase in the carrying capacity of land for people – demographic growth – more people – more potential inventors – acceleration of technological growth – accelerating growth of the carrying capacity – the faster population growth – accelerating growth of the number of potential inventors – faster technological growth – hence, the faster growth of the Earth’s carrying capacity for people.  

[21] The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

[22][10] In the 1940s the study and mathematical modeling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943. These papers were “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow; and the paper “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity” by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts.

[23][11] Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948).

[24][12] Ludwig von Bertalanffy General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications New York: George Braziller p. 32

[25][13] Diamond 248- 276

[26][14] Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert pg 129, 132

[27] Team of Rivals p.49

[28][15] Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin page 427