Torin M. Finser, PhDDepartment Chair and Core Faculty
Department of Education
Each writing project is a journey. The ending loop of one odyssey often serves as the beginning of the next. Themes that run through several projects begin to have a life of their own and the writer starts to ask–where do these questions come from? Am I writing these pages or is something simply working itself out through me? How do these ideas relate to my destiny, my life tasks? Or to what degree are my efforts a reflection of conversations with others, the bubbling forth of many small instances of synchronicity in the complex web we call life? All I know for sure is that the creative process is one of the world’s greatest mysteries.
School as a Journey began as the story of one group of children and ended by prompting me to look more carefully at the sources of joy and renewal in the lives of teachers and schools. This led to School Renewal with the story of Sarah and her search for personal and organizational renewal. It ended with a call for leadership and a new kind of community, which began the research process culminating in the book In Search of Ethical Leadership – If not now, When?
Along the way, I have continued my work as director of the Waldorf teacher education program at Antioch University, which continues to take me to schools around the world. For instance, in May of 2006 I visited South Korea for the first time. I had been invited to help them celebrate the Korean translation of School as a Journey. During book signings and workshops, I was asked many questions about leadership and governance in schools, how to adapt Waldorf education to their culture, and how to foster greater collaboration between parents and teachers. Not only in Korea, but in fact everywhere I go, people are asking for new, nonhierarchical forms of governance. Raised in traditional school structures, now working in businesses that squeeze as much out of employees as possible in the name of profit, many people are thirsting for a new paradigm for organizations. There is a vague unease about the status quo and at the same time a question. What are we looking for?
For many years I have worked with the inspirations of the Austrian philosopher, scientist and educator, Rudolf Steiner. He provided a methodology for working with questions, a path of inquiry that has helped with challenges in many professions, such a helping farmers adopt biodynamic farming, doctors working with cancer patients and artists looking for new inspiration in music, movement and drama. So when I heard increasing calls for a new paradigm in working with organizations, I began to reflect on the holistic approach used with children in Waldorf schools and how it could be applied to our work in organizations and groups. What constitutes a healthy organization? So much time and effort is spent sorting out the difficulties and challenges that arise when people come together. We have long meetings, people attend training workshops, we bring in outside consultants, and yet organizations often continue to be high maintenance endeavors. How can we achieve a higher level of performance, a greater condition of health in our organizations?
I remembered a scene from my childhood in New York City. Every few weeks our apartment on West 83rd street would be stuffed with cartons of fresh produce. Walking down the hallway I would pass bags of potatoes, boxes of organic apple juice, bunches of carrots, etc., all part of the latest shipment for the family owned health food store. Selling organic food was a radical notion in the 1950s, and the business did not last long. Now, 50 years later, almost every town has a health food store, and Whole Foods, Trader Joe and other enterprises have capitalized on our collective wish for healthy alternatives. Organic has now become mainstream, fully accepted and a part of what many consider healthy living. The paradigm shift around nutrition mirrors what I hope to promote with organizations. I would like to help move us from a mechanistic, performance driven model of organizations to one that works with living systems such as those found in the human body. Rather than having good people succeed despite their organization, I would like to change how we work together so that people succeed because of the support they receive from their organizations. Rather than see our structures as dead, two-dimensional diagrams, I want people to see the living, pulsating qualities in groups that reflect circulation, breathing, digestion and other life functions. In short, my research and professional practice has led me to call for organic organizations.
Rather than a focus on dysfunction, this new organizational paradigm asks for an orientation towards health. Can we learn from the human body, this miraculous, complex thing we carry around with us every day, and see what works in our bodies often without our even knowing why? Is there a language of health in human physiology that can be applied to organizations?
In my consultations with schools over the past few years, I have found that health is an elusive thing. People come and go, and as they do, the work needs to be done again, or at least renewed annually. Many school leaders ask me for a model or form that can be transplanted into their organization so that everything will magically work as we live happily ever after. Yet transplants have real problems, such as rejection, reoccurrence and identity change, as has been experienced with donor organs such as the heart. Organizations need to grow their way to health, and this too is a gradual, organic process. A facilitator can help, but in the end, as with personal health, one has to accept one’s own responsibility for real change to be effective.
This metaphor of growth and personal health has led me to increasing fascination with the notion that the fundamentals of human wellness can be used for achieving organizational health. The human being, when seen as a complete entity of body, soul and spirit, contains crucial secrets of whole systems health. Alternative medical practitioners have long used substances from nature, the source of life, to treat illness. Just as natural substances re-balance and reunite that which has become separated, so organic organizations can use living processes found in physiology to promote health in the work place. One might say that this book is the alternative medical approach to organizational dynamics. If the genius behind the creation of the human organism can be applied to organizations, then the very systems that sustain us as humans–circulation, respiration, etc. can be applied to our schools and businesses as long as their inherent wisdom is understood and practiced.
For example, I began to observe communication in organizations as essentially a breathing process, one that interacts with the outside world yet requires forms that support and renew, as in the lungs. Aberrations, such as asthma can be found in situations where there is a blockage, and what is held within cannot be released or vice versa. Asthmatic organizations have frequent crises since the natural flow of self-corrective information called communication is arrested until there is an outcry or protest from one constituent group or another. A crisis such as a deficit may have a root cause related to the arrested breathing function of the organism. People have tried all sorts of organizational fixes, but if the solution does not incorporate the fundamental wisdom of the human being, physiological as well as spiritual, it is unlikely to succeed or be sustainable in the long run. One example is the tendency to hire some one to perform the function that is deficient in the system, such as a communications director. Breathing is a fundamental human process that is needed in healthy organizations and cannot be out-sourced or delegated.
These observations led me to research human physiology as a template for organizational dynamics, and I was amazed at what I found. We have organizations that are all eyes and ears but lacking in heart and soul. There are liver or kidney organizations, and the secrets contained in these organs help us understand how to heal and move forward in a new way. As a consultant, I have sometimes been called in when there is a heart attack in progress, and have found that the causes go far back to the lifestyle of those now in crisis. Rebalancing and healing in these situations involves restoring good circulation and understanding the working of the human heart. In short, our body has the answers if we are but able to listen, observe and correctly apply our learning.
So it was that in one of those miraculous moments of synchronicity, my colleague Arthur Auer one day used the term Organ – izations. He gave word to the ideas that had been building inside me for many months!
What has evolved over two years is a book of exploration that is structured in a way that reinforces the organic theme. Imagine a New England apple tree, as a picture of the organizational structure:
- Preface: The seed, the idea of the book.
- Part I: The soil that nourishes the root system–Basic elements of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy as foundation for physiology and organizational development (chapters 1-4).
- Part II: The branches–examples of various human organs as related to the basic theme of organic organizations, which is the trunk (chapters 5-10).
- Part III: The leaves–the senses, patterns, and pigments (chapters 11-13).
- Part IV: The environment–planetary influences, whole-systems (chapter 14-15).
- Part V: The fruit–healthy organizations and more.
I am not a medical doctor, although I have consulted some, nor am I a therapist, although I married one–my wife Karine has on occasion called me an organizational therapist. My life experience has brought me to the place where I can fully appreciate the inexplicable, the mystery in the simple things in life, such as the old apple tree on our front lawn that continues to live despite many New Hampshire winters. Likewise, our human body contains ancient wisdom that is God given. In apprehending this wisdom, we have our best chance yet to help our organizations prosper. The work has just begun.