Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Integral President

(from, go to 00:45)

Watch the announcement/press conference and you will see how an integral leader responds to a serious, possibly existential crisis. I have never witnessed anything like this in public political life. I've seen officials apologize publicly before; I have never seen a major leader enter what I'll call the "zone of apology" (that mental and conversational space where apology is present, looked at, reviewed, analyzed and engaged) and remain there so gracefully and with such powerful presence.

Before saying more, let me offer a David Whyte poem that, for me, wonderfully expresses the power an integral leader must have to hold difficult questions easily and to face directly into the "fierce heat of living":


It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with is harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

By David Whyte

From Fire in the Earth

David ( a friend of mine) wrote this poem after visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. He was struck by Van Gogh's self portraits; how the artist, even lacking an ear, looked out from the canvas fearlessly and without self-pity. He said he returned to his hotel; took out a clean sheet of white paper, determined to write a poem about self-portraiture; and was taken by surprise by the first line that came up. For me, this is not David's verbal portrait of himself; it is rather David speaking through the fierce and fearless Van Gogh he encountered in the museum, and writing down those qualities of person Van Gogh is declaring we must embody in order that "the gods" will recognize our divinity. And I agree with David (and Van Gogh) that someone exhibiting the poem's qualities of person is reaching toward the divine. He or she is an Integral Leader.

What qualities do I believe the President evidences in his presser that reminds me of the Self Portrait poem?
  • He doesn't flinch. This is not a short, scripted apology with a quick return to policy prescription or political attack. Obama enters an apology space, and makes no effort to get out quickly. When a questioner asked about Iran, he answered clearly and well, and with the next question moved right back into the apology/ "I screwed up" space.
  • He makes no effort to spread the blame. He's the Team Captain. He fumbled the ball. He knows the American people expect him to pick the ball up and run, as hard as he can, in continuing the game. And he does what he can to take on blame that he feels will be directed unfairly at Democratic legislators. "I'm at fault. Blame me. Not my teammates."
  • He does not attack his accusers or say the critiques are unfair. There are a few, a very few, criticisms of Republicans, but not as offset or compensation for his errors.
  • He is completely apologetic and completely unbowed, unbroken, undefeated. This will confound and anger critics. Some will say he hasn't really apologized. Others will claim he doesn't get the magnitude of the disaster. Others will say he is out of touch with reality. They cannot get that the integral leader suffers many defeats, but is never defeated. One measure of the integral leader is a lack of attachment to ego-based success measures. You know the world cannot define you; your value is given; and your deep commitment is to the game and its players, not to your personal success.
A remarkable moment. One we will remember and use it to judge future leaders, and their responses to difficult moments.

We are blessed, indeed!


  1. And I feel very blessed to read your brilliant insights on this blog. Thank you.

  2. He is a leader who is every bit as gifted, strong, and steadfast as Ernie Shackleton who is now my second favorite leader.

  3. I love how you captured that this went so far beyond a simple apology. Especially with this:

    "One measure of the integral leader is a lack of attachment to ego-based success measures. You know the world cannot define you; your value is given; and your deep commitment is to the game and its players, not to your personal success."

    There is an inner strength - not the kind of bowed defeat so many expect. This was really an amazing moment!

  4. I love your "clear and quiet" blog Jim, and am so glad I found my way here via a community of Pragmatic supporters of the President. This post is wonderfully written with deep insights that are antithesis to the soundbite media frenzy. I'm not much of a commenter, but have you in my Bookmarks and read / share often.