Annabel Beerel

The Being and Becoming of Transpersonal Leadership

by Annabel Beerel, Ph.D.

Abstract: This article traces the twentieth century theories of leadership supported by their psychological underpinnings to the latest theory of transpersonal leadership. Based on the important attribute of self-knowledge and self-awareness, transpersonal leaders are those who seek to know their deepest selves through a conscious effort of developing their consciousness and embracing their inner calling to greater self-transcendence. To nurture transpersonal leadership requires specific emphasis on the innate need to evolve to one’s full potential beyond that of just the intellect or the body. Full potential in this sense includes the deeper self that is animated by the spirit and calls for spiritual experience. To lead people well at this time, requires transpersonal leaders who can evoke the transpersonal capacities of others.


Although for decades now there has been a great dedication to educating and training people for the role of leadership, a paucity of good and effective leaders remains. By good leaders, I am referring to leaders who demonstrate ethical sensitivity and courage. By effective, I mean leaders who lead well. What it means to lead well, I explore later in this article.

Despite the plethora of books, texts, and videos that continue to be produced in an almost dizzying manifestation of leadership ideas and techniques, sometimes supported by fragmentary or selective data, a key question endures: what is leadership exactly? What does it mean to lead well? And what is the goal of the leadership endeavor? A review of the literature and available educational offerings reveals that, particularly the latter question, continues to receive minimal attention.

As with many of our modern endeavors, we seem to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We have come to focus on leaders’ emotional intelligence, styles of operation and methods of execution, and have set aside, or even forgotten what it is they are supposedly leading us toward. To lead, as we know, means to guide or direct a course of action. The critical question is: will any course of action do? Will guidance to the swamps be acceptable? Will self-serving, self-aggrandizing achievement of transient goals that satisfy short term hungers, fears, yearnings for safety and protection, or fulfilment of immediate desires be the determinant of leadership success?  What is the goal of leading, and can one name one that is not context specific?

If we review anthropological studies, religious history, and sociological theories, we find that the idea of a guide or a leader used to be someone who was concerned with the well-being of those being guided. The leader, took on the task, both internally and externally, of leading people through the challenging realities of the times, often across deserts to new pastures, new lands, new competencies and new mindsets. The implicit leadership responsibility was not only to face the presiding reality honestly and squarely, but to help people find a way through the trials to a new reality where existing challenges are outgrown and transcended. The leadership challenge was to call on people’s potential to rise above the old and embrace the new. The rallying cry was a call to transcending one’s fate to find a new freedom.

Although history is replete with many villainous leaders who have abused their offices or people’s trust in them, there was some understanding that a trust had been violated. That trust was that the leader would guide others to a place of safety, to greater wholeness, and a place of flourishing and growth. There was some understanding that the leader would help his or her people transcend their current circumstances and find life, meaning and purpose in the new reality. Our twenty-first century understanding of leadership is, I would argue, a far cry from this implicit expectation of leadership. Firstly, the role of leadership is most often confused with the role of authority. And secondly, leadership is most commonly touted as someone who has a vision that will lead the organization to success. Success is of course another nebulous concept; unclearly defined; highly dependent on the capriciousness of the times and subject to the whims of those in power. The implicit leadership responsibility, I argue, has almost been dissolved.


As my focus is on organizational leadership, here I briefly summarize the development of organizational theories of leadership commencing with the twentieth century to help us understand the threshold on which we now stand.

Of course an anachronistic view of leadership, that still persists in many quarters, is that leaders are born and not made. Jokes abound about what born leaders looks like (tall, handsome, strong, a good haircut, and so on) and in this paradigm, women are almost certainly excluded. Once we opened the door to other attributes than hereditary ties or genetics, the trait approach was embraced where leaders with certain profiles that include a high dose of charisma were now considered potential leadership prospects.

The trait approach was followed by the skills approach; plan, lead, organization and control, known as PLOC, was a popular acronym at one time. At this time, strategic planning also became in vogue along with a proficiency in a variety of problem-solving skills. This era was followed by the sudden realization that organizations depend on people; their motivations and dispositions. This led to focus on Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid, the Meyers Briggs type indicator, and the Enneagram. At this point the question was whether the erstwhile leader had the relationship skills so as to lead the organization to success.

The humanist movement came to full bloom with the revelation that being able to relate to oneself and others is a core skill needed as a leader and the Emotional Intelligence (EI) revolution was born. The Introduction of EI into leadership heralded a greater focus on the psychological capacity and strengths of the incumbent than previously. Here there was clearly a shift from hereditary ties to genetics to skills development to psychological capacity and competency. Good leaders now need to be good psychologists, they are self-aware, understand themselves, the situation, and others with a psychological lens. Embracing this notion of leadership does not jettison the other leadership lenses but enhances them.

The huge emphasis on EI remains to this day, although, in my experience, the actual existence of authentic emotional intelligence in the workplace remains hugely lacking. EI training, like ethics training, has, in my opinion, very poor results other than with those who are naturally relationally strong or ethically sensitive in the first place. Around the time of the EI emergence other leadership theories arose with respect to situational circumstances and contingencies. The emphasis here was that different leadership styles and responses was required in different circumstances. There is no one size fits all.

Simultaneous with the EI movement, was the introduction of Transformational as opposed to Transactional leadership theories where transpersonal leadership seeks to engage the full person and his or her potentialities, while transactional leadership is focused on transactions and consequences rather than the inherent growth of the individual in the change process. This approach is somewhat of a return to the more holistic responsibilities of leadership. Here the leader is not only providing direction with respect to external circumstances and events, but is also guiding others in personal growth and transformation. The leadership efforts are concerned with heightening others’ ethical sensitivities and personal potentials. The transformational leader encourages the self-actualization of others and role models and provides opportunities for this to occur. Personal growth of others is thus a leadership goal.

In between the developments discussed above, Servant Leadership surfaced as an approach to leadership where humility and service play a primary role.

The end of the twentieth century ushered in a new leadership theory known broadly as adaptive leadership. Here at last, some attention was given to the goal of leadership efforts which is defined as developing an adaptive organization with adaptive individuals who can readily adapt to changing realities (Beerel, 2009). The adaptive approach to leadership includes a strong psychological element focused on overcoming challenges to the ego, recalibrating oneself and the organization, building resilience and strengthening inner esteem. Adaptive leadership focuses on learning and transformation which is predicated by being open to new and different mindsets. Here we see the beginnings of the emphasis on a need for a changing consciousness in order to lead one’s personal life effectively or to lead others.

As we review the evolution of leadership theories, we notice a distinct shift from a capacity for doing to a state of being. There has also been a shift from the strictly behavioral learned skills approach to greater and greater emphasis on the psychological maturity and strength of the individual. To lead others is now considered a psychological skill. One needs to know one’s own and to be able to understand and work with the psyche of others both individually and in group situations. These are the theories at least.

The most recent theories of leadership now focus on shifts in consciousness. This requires an ability to open one’s mind to new forms of awareness. It also addresses the need to evolve one consciousness to embrace different states. This does not imply a requirement to smoke marijuana or take mescaline or LSD, but rather to add meditation and other spiritual practices to one’s own personal development. It also includes a respect for the spiritual dimension of life and the existence of a deeper self.

Since the evolution of leadership theories maps to some extent the evolution in psychological theories, a brief review of the impact of psychological theories on the understanding of leadership provides a foundation for understanding the latest insights.


Psyche Lost

Psychology is concerned with the human experience. Prior to the Enlightenment (circa 1685-1815), shamans, priests, rabbis and doctors, were guides and healers who tended to people’sphysical, psychological and spiritual welfare. The demarcations between these domains was blurred. An unhealthy body was the result of an unhappy spirit or a yearning soul. Sickness was the result of a disturbed mind or as a result of mental afflictions. Attention to maladies, whatever they were, was holistic and less compartmentalized. Rationality and logic played some part, but so did gods, spirits, souls, dead ancestors, dreams, incubation sessions, and a variety of other paranormal actions and events. The human experience was not confined to one consciousness, one material world, or one realm.

Enlightenment thinking changed all of this. It emphasized that all things could be, and should be, studied and understood by the rational mind. Just as it jettisoned the idea of mystery and sacrament, it also took the psyche (spirit or soul) out of psychology. Inquiry into the human experience was turned into a positivistic science where human actions were made the subject of empirical scrutiny wherein everything had a rational explanation that could be tested and justified.

All Things are Possible

While the spirit of the Enlightenment gets a negative rap for contributing to the desacralization of the world, it did inspire many people to a new freedom from religious dogma and superstition into a new possibility for the self. The idea of having personal beauty, potential, and opportunities to be all that one can be, had already begun with the 13th century Renaissance.

The Enlightenment fervor reinvigorated this attitude by stressing that all things can be rationally grasped my humankind and that all things are possible.

It was Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900), who acknowledged the Kantian inaccessibility of transcendentals, such as truth or god, to human reason. He held that establishing rational epistemologies was a surreptitious operation of the will to power, in its attempt to order the indefinable infinity of existence (Banerji, 2016). Rather than define humankind in terms of the cosmos and reason, Nietzche posited the Will to Power as the most fundamental principle of life, one which attempted to assert itself everywhere and in every way through political dominance, but whose highest potency was creative self-transcendence, the cosmic human or Ubermensch. Here we see the beginnings of a non-religious recognition of the self-transcendence capacity of human beings.

Nietzche’s ideas were followed by the twentieth century psychological philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism.  Phenomenology focuses on the analysis of experience, while existentialism focused on the conditions for authenticity of existence and self-transcendence. This evolution in psychological understanding of the inherent capacities of the human being paved the way for a reassertion of the importance of the individual and his or her innate need to express and live his or her potentials. It also provided this impetus in non-religious terms, which is the hall mark of modernity. Many people, especially in the western nations (so defined), eschew anything that has any ties or links to organized religion. Self-transcendence and self-actualization are thus acceptable, non-partisan terms.

The ideas of self-transcendence and self-actualization thus belong to our modern world as does respect for the spiritual aspect of human experience outside of the official Church. This (revived) respect for the possibilities and potential for each individual and their new found freedom from a preordained fate, has also shifted the understanding of leadership. Leaders are no longer born or inherited through some monarchial or noble line. Now, anyone can take on the mantel of leadership. Thanks in some respect to the capitalistic spirit that is pervading the world, the boundaries and limitations for human growth and development have been blurred and in some societies totally removed. In principle, everyone has the capacity to grow and develop, all they need is opportunity.

Psyche Regained

Spiritual psychology, or what is now termed transpersonal psychology, must surely first be credited to the work and ideas of Carl Jung (1875-1961). His theories of the unconscious, the presence of archetypes, the role of the numinous in personal experience, and his concept of individuation, I would argue set the stage for future ideas of self-growth, development and actualization. It was Jung who insisted that the psyche has a natural religious function. His ideas on spiritual growth, inner psychic development and integration were drawn from his studies of the Eastern traditions and helped him formulate the individuation process (Frager, 2006). Jung believed that the psyche (what we term mind), has an innate urge to wholeness. This wholeness refers to coming to one’s full self-hood or self-realization (Frager, 2006). It is attaining our unique potential; the fullness of who we are. It is a progression to ever new levels of consciousness and to ever greater (inner) freedom. While Jung’s theory of psyche is more complex than that of Abraham Maslow (one of the founders of humanistic psychology), he also focused on dealing with the obstacles to personal growth and the role of the unconscious.

Jung, was instrumental in putting the psyche back into psychology. His work on the transformative process of “individuation” also prepared and converged with that of humanistic and transpersonal psychology (see below). After his groundbreaking insights, the soul and spirit of a person could no longer be totally ignored. Psychologists who have followed in his wake, have more or less adopted his inquiry into the role of the unconscious, but looking at the potential of the human being (for example, self-esteem, ideal self, identity, development of consciousness, and the development of humanistic psychology) is now squarely center stage in the arena of psychological method.


Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), is credited with framing and naming a forth psychology after psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic psychology, termed transpersonal psychology. While he and Carl Rogers (1902-1995), were known for their humanistic approach to psychology, Maslow wanted a more explicit acknowledgement of the spiritual aspect of human experience (Frager, 2006). The basic tenet of transpersonal psychology is that in each individual there is a deeper self experienced in transcendent states of consciousness. This deeper self extends the normally experienced identity of the individual. Recognizing that this deeper self exists poses the question of the limits of human potential. Experiencing some of the range of human potential occurs during spiritual or transcendent experiences.

In this new psychological paradigm, there is recognition of a psychological reality as well as a physical reality. (Jung was very clear about this experience.) All forms of life share a psychological and spiritual connection and desire a feeling of that unity. Different levels of consciousness are possible (discussed eloquently by Ken Wilbur in The Spectrum of

Consciousness (1977)), and at these different levels, people experience further parts of their identities. The natural, healthy inclination of an adult is to desire and to seek out these alternative experiences of the self on the path to personal integration and growth.

While the transpersonal realm of human experience was once the exclusive domain of the priest or spiritual teacher, it is now the concern of psychology.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow

It is interesting to reflect on how Carl Rogers (1902-1995) and Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), helped pave the way for a humanistic and then a transpersonal psychology. Rogers was a Protestant clearly influenced by his theological training, and Maslow was a Russian Jewish immigrant, clearly influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit that many immigrants display. The Protestant ethic of working out your own situation, and the can-do entrepreneurial ethic both placed emphasis on the source of growth and strength lying within the individual.

Rogers saw the self as a process – a becoming.  Everyone not only has an innate capacity to develop, but values the ideal self to which he or she strives to self-actualize. (This is of course very Aristotelean where a person’s development is teleological – moving from actuality to potentiality.) The individual, like all living things, seeks to express and activate all its capacities and this is a healthy life-seeking inner drive. Psychological growth is based on learning and new experiences. According to Rogers, the individual has vast inner resources that can assist in the achieving personal growth. These resources are activated when the individual receives unconditional positive regard. The fully functioning person is open to new experience, lives in the present (is mindful), and is fully aware of what is going on within him or herself.

Rogers’ person centered therapy focused on giving the individual the relational support and empathic understanding to satisfy their drive toward growth, health and adjustment. All domains of human experience, intellectual and spiritual were considered valid and valuable.

While Rogers named the self-actualizing tendency of humans, Maslow developed this further. He agreed that this is not a static state and that it is an ongoing process toward continuous growth and progress. He also saw self-actualizing people as being less emotional,more objective, more optimistic and less caught up in their fears and defenses. He claimed that two requirements for growth are commitment to something greater than oneself and success in one’s chosen tasks. Major characteristics of self-actualizing people include courage, creativity, spontaneity, and hard work (Frager, 2006).

Maslow’s research showed that self-actualizing people tend to be intrinsically motivated. They believe in some kind of spirituality and they have some kind of meaning in life. He identified that many of them are creative and spontaneous and have mystic and peak experiences. Based on his research into personal growth he developed his well-known hierarchy of needs which culminates in the self-actualizing stage. In time Maslow found that there is a need to identify something beyond the self-actualizing stage, where there is an experience of transcendental and sacred things and where there is acknowledgement of the infinite possibilities of human nature. Maslow named this new psychology transpersonal psychology. As mentioned earlier, here there is recognition of the spiritual aspect of human experience. The significant role of values, meaning and a calling beyond oneself. Here is the recognition that in the deeper self that is experienced in transcendent states of consciousness lies a source of inner wisdom, health and harmony – a finding also of Rogers and Jung.

Transpersonal psychology seeks to bring traditional psychology and spirituality back together again. The spiritual dimension is of course infinite and the range of research and work done in these areas by Ken Wilbur, Stanislav Grof, and Michael Washburn, to name a few, provide a small example of this now rich and growing field. The yearning for transcendence, or the pull as Maslow calls it, is slowly getting the recognition it deserves if one wishes to have a psychology that honors the innate call to transformation toward the ever beckoning image of a god or divine impulse.


The Times

Few would challenge the notion that we live in highly uncertain times. Although each age is surely characterized by disconnection, disruptive technologies, and radically different paradigms, it seems reasonable to posit that this era is not only confronted with the uncertainties this brings, but this is now a constant state of affairs. Added to the seemingly chaotic twists and turns of reality, is the lightning speed with which these twists and turns manifest themselves. The adage “what got you here, won’t get you there,” applies in every domain. Extrapolating the past to try to anticipate the future is an exercise in futility. The new realities that are arriving have a different sense, vibration, and flavor. Everything is truly possible.

New Realities

At the beginning of this paper, I raised the question of what it means to lead well. I also suggested that many leadership theories emphasize the style of leadership adopted as being the measure of leading well. The trade literature also focuses on happy individuals at work and the coziness of the culture as the measure of effective leadership.

By contrast, I and others who lean more toward the adaptive and transpersonal approaches to leadership, place the measure of leadership efforts on the ability to identify, frame and adapt to new realities. Change arrives by way of new realities. These new realities usually emerge surreptitiously as psychic energies that can only be identified through exquisite attention to the present and deep attunement to the consciousness of the environment.

As these psychic energies evolve and suddenly manifest themselves in tangible realities, in some sense they are no longer new realities. They have already presented themselves as forces of change and require reaction. The earlier new realities can be identified, the less reactive one needs to be. A metaphor is the surfer catching the wave as it is cresting. If the wave has already begun to turn and become a wave as such, one’s options for riding it the way one wants to diminish. If one only sees the wave as it hits the shore, one has no chances of riding it at all. One has simply to react to the turmoil that has been caused.

Leading well is thus the ability to facilitate the change required by new realities. It is most importantly about identifying new realities in their earliest stage of emergence. This requires a sensitivity of consciousness; a being present and alert, and an openness to phenomena beyond one’s previous experiences or normal conditioning. It is about expanding the individual and the organization’s consciousness to an ever expanding and changing view or grasp of reality. It is a recognition that changing reality is a constant (an oxymoron if ever there was one), and therefore there is no one future arriving. The future to be found is in the present moment in a pulsating dance of continuous adjustment and change.

Transpersonal Psychology at Work

Whereas the transpersonal domain was once the domain of the shaman, priest or spiritual teacher, it is now very much the concern of psychology. While spiritual matters have been until fairly recently strictly verboten as part of organizational life, with the new emphasis on wellness and employee health, that too is changing. Yoga sessions and now mindfulness and meditation is creeping into the more enlightened cultures. Even though this is frequently done in efforts to supposedly boost that hallowed bottom line, good actions for the wrong reason should not always be condemned. The dirty hands approach, as Marcus Aurelius termed it, has its merits.

Carl Jung argued that only through the transformation of consciousness can we change and grow. A transformation of consciousness is where real learning occurs, and Charles Darwin taught us that real learning invariably results in transformation. Since growth is not only an inherent part of our inner nature and calling, but is also required to adapt to our ever changing world, developing our consciousness is needed. This is the domain of transpersonal psychology.


A Definition

Transpersonal psychology is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual and transcendent experiences (Lajoie & Shapiro, 1992).


Maslow Revisited

While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs remains a popular theory acknowledged in organizations there has not been much development of his ideas on self-actualization and his theories on transpersonal psychology. People pay great lip service towards the need to have self-actualizing employees but are not quite sure how to create a culture that makes that happen. Self-actualization means recognizing a person’s full humanness. It is an acknowledgement of a being and a continuous becoming, which if frustrated leads to neurosis, poor health and torpor.

Maslow wrote a great deal about peak experiences and about the true self that is experienced in transcendent states of consciousness. These states, he argued, is the source of inner wisdom, health and harmony.

Maslow coined the term eupsychia to refer to ideal, human oriented societies and communities where self-actualizing people would evolve and thrive. There would be enlightened management practices that would encourage people’s creativity and need for self-transcendence. Despite Maslow’s popularity with business organizations, he could never get any traction with these ideas.

This Thing Called Consciousness

I have no intention of delving into the enormous subject of consciousness in this brief article. I will stick my neck out and begin with a very basic definition of consciousness as awareness. There are all kinds of awarenesses from the subliminal to the attention-awareness of which we are most familiar.  There is also the existence of self-awareness, which is the awareness of being aware (Tart, 2000).

As we know from our own experiences, from time to time we experience non-ordinary awareness, moments when we are transported into another experiential realm. The impact of a beautiful sunset is a familiar example. Most of us have had all kind of experiences of a new or different awareness. The mystics describe the states in more or less detail. They are hard to understand in our ordinary states of consciousness. They have to be experienced to be understood. The important point that is to be made here, is that achieving altered states of consciousness or developing one’s consciousness to embrace other states can be cultivated. Another important point is that cultivating this capacity seems to be to our benefit. We grow, develop, mature, become more relational, more appreciative of the bigger picture and wiser as a result of an expanded consciousness (Jung, 1964).

Robert Kegan (1994), the well-known Harvard psychologist, describes the evolution of consciousness as evolving the transcending the self as subject. It is a continuous outgrowing of current understanding and growth into a new one. What at one stage is subject, at the next stage becomes object, as the self drops into ever deeper interiority or rises to ever higher and all embracing understandings. This is a movement from ongoing complexity to simplicity, which characterizes the mind of growing wisdom.


The transpersonal leader is one who places great emphasis on growth of his or her own potential. He or she really lives the motto “know thyself,” and realizes that the greatest wisdom lies in understanding that one does not know. Knowing is a searching; an ongoing process, a never ending quest of progress and evolution in humility. Each new stage of knowing reached, creates a new platform of unknowing.

The focus of transpersonal growth is to develop one’s consciousness in every dimension available. It is an explicit recognition that the call of self-transcendence, is innate and critical to the vitality of being human. This call of self-transcendence comes in a variety of ways, not least of which through soul-full or numinous experiences. Just as it is important to know some facts, hone certain technical skills, it is also important to take care of the soul. Allowing for the notion of spirit as the vital force that animates life, enables the transpersonal leader to be open to possibilities that otherwise he or she might not recognize.

An interesting observation is that, throughout history, leaders of note have all practiced some form of religion or engaged in some kind of spiritual practice. Besides the obvious names of Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, and Angela Merkel, in my experience, leaders that head the more enduring successful organizations have some religious affiliation or engage in some spiritual practice.

By adopting a transpersonal psychology, the transpersonal leader can become a potentiator, a term coined by Mark McCaslin (2008), to refer to leaders that bring out the highest potential in others. It is only through first developing one’s own consciousness and changing one’s own capacities for infinite awareness that one can evoke this evolution in others.

According to Karl Godzdz (1999), transpersonal leadership is grounded in a beingness beyond ego, personality and the mind. Executives who display this kind of leadership demonstrate the attributes of vulnerability, authenticity, humility and a posture of not knowingness. They bring to their attunement of reality cognitive, emotional and spiritual intelligence. They exhibit a refined intuition honed by the harnessing of multiple intelligences – that of the shaman, the philosopher, the scientist, and the mystic (de Quincey, 2005).

As the turmoil of our world continuous unabatedly, hopefully the notion of transpersonal leadership will awaken some self-actualizing individuals and leaders who are inspired by the huge possibilities of their own self-transcendence and that of others. If self-transcendence could become a new corporate (and societal) motto we may just return to the glorious ages of the past where virtue and humility where the starting points for a human centered teleology.

So, what does it mean to lead well? It means to dance in and with reality as it changes in an ever greater evolution of consciousness. Where should we be guided towards? Self-transcendence. What should be our theme? A Being and Becoming into our full humanness.


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