Sense, Soul, and Society: Can we Make a Change for the Better?

“Leadership is about being better able to listen to the whole than anyone else can.”

~ C. Otto Scharmer 

We all know the impact of a baby’s cry. When the baby’s cry is sad, our heart quakes, and when the baby’s cry is angry, our heart rate quickens. These primordial responses serve to move us into action to keep the baby alive. How a caretaker responds shapes the baby’s personality formation path and future life vector. It lays the groundwork for the baby’s need fulfillment pattern.

When ‘good enough’ interaction happens, the baby slips into calm/quiet born of acceptance (not resignation or apathy), and maybe it even bursts into laughter born of joyfulness (not hysterical grasping for attention or appeasing the caregiver). When ‘good enough’ parenting happens, the baby’s mind and body relaxes knowing that life is workable in the moment, and stress is released. When ‘grossly inadequate’ or ‘non-existent’ interaction happens, the baby succumbs in short order.

To put it into very simplistic terms, how the need fulfillment path unfolds influences whether the baby is likely to become more of a conqueror or a consoler, more of a striver or a contenter, more of an entertainer or an appeaser, more of a hunter or a healer, all in its efforts to be OK.

The path of the ‘Hunter’…

By and large, leadership models tend to highlight the power that is cultivated in individuals who are on the hunter path. Outwardly forceful, impactful on the surrounding relational and material context, this path is perceived as effective for its agency on behalf of self to relieve its own suffering. It is at the core of the rugged individualism ideal, and the quest for positional power, be it in church, state, or business.

In its ideal form, this form of leadership drives production, protection, and predation in its pursuit of satisfaction of needs and wants. It idealizes success in terms of acquirable things, be they priorities, possessions, or people. Its action orientation makes it a force to be reckoned with, and its goal is mastery in the manifest realm.

As with all things, this path can become dysfunctional. It can inform the psyche to such an extent that its need fulfillment results in physical and socio-emotional destructiveness. When the anger’s insistence on satisfaction knows no limit, it runs uncontrollably to demonstrate its superiority. The hunter path prefers the ‘fight’ response, but will employ flight, freeze, or flock responses when its preferred strategy fails. Variations in the level of rigidity around its primary and secondary survival responses further shape the personality’s formation path.

The path of the Healer…

To a lesser but growing degree, leadership models are acknowledging the power that is cultivated in the individuals on the healer path. Inwardly withstanding, focused on minimizing harm and relieving suffering, this path is perceived as inscrutable for its agency on behalf of others to relieve its own suffering. It is at the core of the community ideal, and the quest for equality and inclusion, be it in families, organizations, or whole societies.

In its ideal form, this form of leadership cultivates forgiveness, compassion, and communion in its pursuit of solace in the face of life’s inevitable pain. It idealizes altruism in terms of generosity with time, attention, energy and forgiveness of trespasses. Its contemplation orientation makes it a calming influence, and its goal is mastery in the unmanifest realm.  

When the healer path goes awry, it informs the psyche to such an extent that its need fulfillment turns into self-mutilation and martyrdom. When the sadness’s insistence on solace knows no limit, it runs uncontrollably to demonstrate its humility. Less directly destructive to others in society, this path can create severe burdens as conscience in others tries to sustain the individual. This healer path will employ flight, freeze, or fight responses when its preferred ‘flock’ strategy fails. Variations in the level of rigidity around its primary and secondary responses also give nuances to the shape of this personality’s formation path.

Both survival paths have the power to sustain happiness - meaning living with a sense of purpose, resiliency and resourcefulness. Both paths add significant value to society, but in totally different ways and spheres. And both paths in their dysfunctional form fail to serve their end goal which is the sustainment of life. Ultimately, only development and integration of both paths, nurtured by encouragement and discipline from outside the individual, and self-discovery and mindfulness within the individual, will create a whole and healthy psyche.

Moving from the individual to the collective view…

Human systems consist of individuals who find themselves anywhere along the spectrum from other-destructive to self-destructive, with a wide range of constructive postures towards other and self in between. In the workplace, we speak of the unhealthy extremes in terms of ‘toxic people’ and ‘victims’, both of whom undermine the health of the human system and the efficacy of the organization. Depending on where these extremes show up, they can infect the entire purpose and functioning of the human system with their psychic dysfunction. Gangs and cults are examples. 

Writ large, these two survival paths and their permutations find expression in organizational systems of all kinds. For example, financial institutions are visible expressions of the hunter path focused on enabling the accumulation of wealth. In turn, international aide organizations are focused on enabling the healer path to visibly express its carer impulse across continents. The same is true for engineering and healthcare organizations, educational and cultural institutions, etc. These two paths also find expression in political ideologies, prevailing cultural memes, and national identifies.

The good and the bad of this situation is that the more pervasive and dominant survival strategy is likely to drive alignment at all levels: from personal, to organizational, economic, political, cultural and nationalistic expressions, creating a nearly intransigent situation and trajectory. To the extent that the dominant path is manifesting in its healthy form, things will go reasonably well. When the dominant path tips into its unhealthy manifestations, the whole will begin to tumble.

On a very large scale, the prevailing balance of the expression of these two survival paths has created substantial wealth in the world, often at the expense of the wellbeing of women, minority groups, peoples in developing countries, and the health of the environment. The prevailing balance also sustains nearly chronic levels of 'warfare' in our economic, geo-political, social, and religious spheres.

Why bother thinking about this…

The question of how to create greater health in human systems comes down to one thing: consciously striking a new balance. One that recognizes that the prevailing balance isn’t serving us as well as we need it to, and that greater wholeness is a possibility.

At the individual level, this translates into cultivation of deprivation acceptance for those on the hunter path (call it learning the art of healthy selflessness) and agency acceptance on behalf of those on the healer path (call it learning the art of healthy selfishness). This re-balancing within the individual is necessary to increase overall balance and health within human systems at every level of society.

The best way to illustrate the power of this logic may be to look at the instructions given to airline passengers in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. This instruction requires adults to put their own oxygen masks on first. This instruction exists because the healthy hunter and the healthy healer will instantly want to help the children first (to propagate life) but will in fact risk their lives more by not ensuring that their own capacity for greater knowledge and self-management remains available to the unfolding situation. The unhealthy hunter and unhealthy healer will destroy others and/or themselves to avoid the pain confronting them, accelerating the loss of life on all levels.

Only by mindfully re-balancing can the wisdom and compassion inherent in each path inform our collective unfolding reality. This requires an openness to learning, to leaning into wonder when things get tough, and to holding the discomfort of paradox.

The real value of mindfulness in the work-a-day world…

The true value of mindfulness is that it enables this standing-down and standing-up to happen so people can come into greater balance and wholeness. Mindlessness on the hunter path is allowing unhealthy manifestations to fuel our growing dystopia, while mindlessness on the healer path is enabling confusion around needs and wants satisfaction in its formulation of healthy agency. What is needed to survive and what is wanted to satisfy desires is not the same thing. What is needed to survive and what is needed to find solace is not the same thing. Studies suggest that the happiness achieved through finding meaning in acceptance of what is, is more profound, sustaining, and enduring than the happiness derived through needs and wants gratification which remains forever unfulfilled at its core. This bears deep consideration.

How we collectively manage and grow ourselves in terms of balancing and integrating these two complementary instinctual paths will shape our chances at survival and happiness both individually and collectively. Power-over and power-for can transform into power-with and power-through. The result will be less rejection of ones’ own or another’s vulnerabilities and strengths, and more focus on realization of a healthy and realizable collective common good.

The chicken-and-egg leadership challenge…

Building healthy human systems requires an expansion from ‘me’ centric logic, into ‘I’ centric logic, into a more encompassing and non-local ‘All’ centric logic for a larger comprehension of life to take hold. The expansion to include fist me-thinking, then I-thinking, and eventually All-thinking is a natural maturation that is accelerated or inhibited by prevailing cultural memes. The chicken-and-egg problem is that the relative stuckness of cultural memes at immature levels is a reflection of the relative immaturity of how leadership is understood and promoted in our societies.

Psychically immature leaders propagate dystopian conditions that in turn inhibit and distort the psychic maturation of less mature personalities. The underlying intent and essence of all wisdom traditions - which is to point to the vagaries of the psychic maturation process and how to transition along it more effectively - is overshadowed by endless fighting over forms and rituals. As this continues to happen, our societies find themselves in the grip of the ‘death instinct’ that the destructive extremes of both psychic paths represent.  

Understanding what it takes to grow healthy human systems needs to evolve from the pervasive hunter/healer polarity to an expression of an integrated psyche that has the capacity to hold the tensions inherent in aspiring for the good of the individual and the good of the whole based on forms of agency that strengthen both inner and outer resourcefulness. This starts with a shift in thinking at the individual level from the either/or - good/evil – self/other – mine/yours - polarities to a both-and understanding of our ultimate shared reality.

The difference between learning and development, and growth and unfoldment

Becoming balanced and whole is about more than the conventional learning and development processes that help individuals gain knowledge and demonstrate desired/required behaviours. It is about understanding the harmful impacts of our dominant need fulfillment pattern and elevating our functioning in a more wholesome direction.

The first step is allowing ourselves to acknowledge the strengths and the follies of our own hunter or healer predisposition. Stepping out of extrapolating past or future into working with the ‘isness’ of the present moment, is the second. 

Persistently reaching beyond our original/dominant reaction formation towards wholeness is the third. Rethinking our cultural consumption, the heroes we worship, to reflect a more balanced interplay of these two psychic formations, is the fourth.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, inviting and challenging our family members, our friends, our co-workers, our leaders, and our countrymen to see the wisdom in the paradox of these opposites so we can all broaden our collective horizons, is the fifth.


Germaine Watts is a thought leader, author, speaker and co-founder at Ensentious – a consultancy and workshop/retreat provider dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations thrive. As a mindfulness coach, SuccessFinder expert, and facilitator with the Centre for Courage and Renewal, she seeks to foster connection between soul and role in ways that support personal, organizational, and societal transformation.