Professional and Alumni

Leadership Academy

Leadership: 103
Core Principles of Reflective Human Action (RHA)

By Dorothy I. Mitstifer - © 2000 by Kappa Omicron Nu. All rights reserved. Permission granted to KON chapters and members to use with appropriate credit.


Message to the Facilitator

The Reflective Human Action Leadership theory presents nonpositional leadership as the responsibility of all individuals. That is, leadership is not limited to certain positions of leadership. This workshop uses an experiential approach to promote learning about leadership. The underlying assumption is that learning has to do with what happens in the unique world of the learner. Learning is defined as the "consequence of experience; active involvement and the opportunity to conceptualize immediately allows learning to emerge from experience" (Mitstifer, 1979, p. 224). Therefore, the workshop uses the strategies of experiencing, processing, and synergizing for discovering personal meaning. Selected theories and principles of leadership are incorporated either as an introduction to activities or as follow-up mini-lectures.

The learning activities are based on the following assumptions:

  1. All participants possess some knowledge about leadership.
  2. Each has some expertise, but none are experts including the facilitator. All have something to learn as well as something to offer.
  3. All contributions are important, and conflicting ideas are potentially rich resources.
  4. Participants are responsible for their own learning.
  5. Learnings differ from person to person.
  6. Interest engendered by applied leadership activities will promote concern for leadership as an area of study.

The instructional style, Experiential Learning Model (Mitstifer, 1979), has three developmental steps:

  1. Experiencing - participating in structured activities.
  2. Processing - sharing, reflecting, conceptualizing about meanings of the experience to clarify personal knowledge.
  3. Synergizing - creating new conceptual frameworks through interaction of personal knowledge and presentations of theory.

This instructional style requires the practice of dialogue and discussion. The process of dialogue includes sharing of views as a means toward discovering a new meaning or view, a richer grasp of ideas or issues. Discussion is the process of presenting different views and defending them for the purpose of analysis.

Equipment and Supplies

  • Flip charts or flip chart paper, markers, tape 
  • Index cards
  • Extra transparencies
  • Overhead projector and transparencies

RHA Definition





Introduction to the Workshop

The environment within which traditional leadership is practiced is far different from the world of science, as we know it today. The newer scientific discoveries loosen the bonds of our day-to-day paradigms, which are based upon the machine model of measurable, knowable, and controllable parts. This old view led one to expect objective solutions to problems, regularity, predictability, and cause-effect linear relationships. These principles are the basis of rigid chains of command, precise policies and procedures, detailed job descriptions, among others. The core organizing principles (of the new reality) provide a new set of lenses for viewing leadership. Wheatley (1994) describes this paradigm shift as a movement toward holism and the primacy of relationships. Even though these scientific principles are not so brand new, broad application has not been made to human spheres.

Leadership is practiced within the context of the environments in which we live and work. The issues that trouble organizations (whether they involve family, work, or play) are those that shape our ideas of science: order, control, structure, prediction, etc. Although new understandings have shaped our view of the natural world, the old theories continue to direct the man-made world of organizations. Activities 1-4 will examine new scientific principles that have implications for leadership. Perhaps you are acquainted with the concepts of the new science, but the physical and social sciences are not always integrated. Wheatley helps us do that in a comprehensive way.

Activity 1 will explore the meaning of chaos. Tom Peters, an internationally renowned speaker in the field of management and leadership wrote a book in 1987 entitled Thriving on Chaos. He intentionally chose this title rather than thriving amidst chaos to challenge his readers to go beyond coping with chaos. In other words, he wanted his readers to deal proactively with chaos and look at chaos as a source of advantage rather than as a problem.

Activity 1: Experiencing and Processing

  1. In dyads, write a definition for chaos. 
  2. Share definitions with the large group. Write several on transparencies. Note similarities and differences. Compare with Wheatley's definition of chaos: (Show transparency.) The final state in a system's move away from order.  
  3. Dialogue: How does this definition alter one's perspective in functioning under chaotic conditions?  
  4. In small groups of 4-8, recall a time in your personal or work life when you were in complete chaos. Discuss: How did you respond to the situation? 
  5. Share responses with the large group. Write several on transparencies. Point out that there are no right or wrong responses. Ask participants, with a show of hands, to recall whether the outcomes of working through chaos were positive or negative. 
  6. View video, Leadership and the New Science (or read Key Concepts from Leadership and the New Science or Chapter One in the module).

Introduction to video- Dr. Margaret Wheatley looks at reality revealed by the new sciences such as chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and field theory and applies this reality to humans and to our organizations. Further, she challenges each of us to understand change, to embrace the most difficult, to search for the common good among a diversity of perspectives, and to call forth new ways of thinking to release our human potential and creativity. The ultimate goal of accepting this challenge and shifting our paradigm toward holism and the primacy of relationships is to enhance the quality of our lives as leaders and that of the individuals with whom we live and work in the next century. While you are viewing the video, think about the following central points.

The role of chaos or order without predictability as an essential process by which natural systems, including organizations and ourselves, renew and revitalize themselves.

The position of information as the primary organizing force in any organization. 

The rich diversity of human relationships as the energizing force for us as individuals and as leaders. 

The role of vision as an invisible field that can enable us to recreate our workplace and our world.

  1. In small groups following video or reading, share new views regarding chaos.
  2. Share responses with the large group. 
  3. Dialogue in dyads: Share the chaotic characteristics of the most creative person you know. What implications do these characteristics have for you and for organizations? 
  4. Share in the large group.


One core organizing principle of the new reality is accept chaos. New perspectives from the sciences deny the complex and rigid structure of the old models of leadership. Instead, order develops naturally from within instead of being imposed from without. What may appear to be chaotic is simply a natural transition to a new state. The ability to be confident when we don't know, when we are confused, or when we muddle through represents this principle of accepting chaos. Creative or breakthrough thinking often comes out of being overwhelmed, confused, and uncertain. New levels of order and new levels of understanding grow out of apparently chaotic situations. What some might call chaos may be a limiting tendency to look at "parts;" by standing back and looking at the whole, beautifully ordered forms may become apparent to us.

This activity was meant to help you recognize (a) that chaos plays a role in our lives as a creative and ordering force; (b) that we must be willing to go through chaos to get to a creative result; and (c) that our ability to change our perspective and to see things from a different vantage point may be the difference between perceiving chaos or order.

Key Concepts from Leadership and the New Science

  1. The role of chaos as an essential process by which natural systems, including individuals and organizations, renew, and revitalize themselves:  

  • The traditional definition of chaos is a system whose behavior is totally unpredictable.  

  • People tend to view and experience chaos as uncertainty, unpredictability, craziness, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Chaos is order without predictability; order is inherent in the system and observable when the system is viewed over time.
  • Order and change and autonomy as well as control cannot continue to be viewed as great opposites.
  • Organizations are process structure rather than permanent structures.
  • When a complex living system is subjected to high levels of change, it possesses an innate ability to self-organize or reorganize so that it functions better in its new environment.
  • Disorder can be the source of new order (or form) better suited to the demands of the environment.
  • It is hard for us to welcome disorder as a full partner in the search for order when we have expended so much of our lives trying to ward off disorder.
  • Self and organizational transformation requires a willingness to "let go" and pass through the "dark night" of chaos--use chaos as a part of our thinking to create innovative and successful teams.
  1. The position of information as the primary organizing force in any organization:
  • The more participants we engage in our universe the more we can access its potentials and the wiser we become.
  • It is impossible to expect any plan or idea to be real to people if they do not have an opportunity personally to interact with it, to create different possibilities through their personal processes of observation. 
  • It is the participation process that generates the reality to which individuals then make their commitment. 
  • Information is the source of order, the self-generating source of organizational vitality. 
  • Information is an organization's primary source of nourishment.
  • Organizations are discovering that their route to health and resiliency is to open their organizations to free-flowing information around which trustworthy employees are free to organize their work. 
  1. The rich diversity of human relationships as the energizing force for us as individuals and as leaders. 
  • Our attention must shift from the enticement of external rewards to the intrinsic motivators that spring from the work itself. 
  • 21st century leaders must focus on the deep longing for community, for meaning, for dignity, and for love in our organizational lives. 
  • We need to step back and see ourselves in new ways, appreciate our wholeness, and design organizations that honor and make sense of our totality. 
  • We need to recognize the unseen connections that influence our behavior in the work place or other setting. 
  • We do not exist independent of our relationships with others. 
  • Different settings and people evoke some qualities from us and leave others dormant; in each relationship we are different--we are new in some way. 
  • What is critical in organizations is the relationship created between the person and the setting--each relationship will be different and will always evoke different potentialities. 
  • Power in organizations is the capacity generated by relationships; look carefully at how the work place (or other setting) organizes its relationships--the patterns of relationships and the capacities available to form them.
  • What gives power its charge is the quality of relationships. 
  • Leadership is always dependent on the context, but the context is established by relationships.
  1. The role of vision as an invisible field that can enable us to recreate our work place and our world: 
  • Everyone in the organization has something to contribute to the vision.
  • Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990) states: " . . . an organization's vision grows as a by-product of individual visions, a by-product of ongoing conversations" (p. 212).  

Notes taken from: Wheatley, M. J. (1994). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

From the video, Leadership and the New Science, we learned that information is a key organizing principle in the universe. (Show transparency.) Information is the creative energy of the universe--the substance, the invisible workings of creation. Activity 2 will examine the application of this scientific principle to leadership.

Activity 2: Experiencing and Processing  

  1. Conduct a Gripe and Glee Discussion. In groups of four or eight, half of the group describes situations where information has been used negatively, the other half where it has been used positively. Choose one of each to share. 
  2. Share in the large group. 
  3. Discuss in small groups: From your memory, give examples of an organizational situation when someone had information that, if the group had had access to it, would have helped the work of the organization. Describe other situations where information was restricted. What part could you have played in enhancing information or its flow in the organization? 
  4. Dialogue in small groups: Develop some guidelines for using information in organizations. Summarize on newsprint. 
  5. In the large group, combine and reorganize ideas into a list of guidelines for using information. Record on transparencies.


A second core organizing principle is share information. A new insight is that information is one of the primary organizational forces in the universe. Instead of creating information, information is creating life. Information is a resource that moves through the system, disturbs the peace, nourishes new life, engenders creativity, and encourages innovation. Closely guarded information, as the source of power of the old leadership model, is counterproductive to this new understanding. In other words, information is not an entity to condense, package, and pass along in memos. Rather it must be treated as a dynamic quality that nourishes change and creative ideas. Information, freely generated and exchanged, becomes the basic ingredient of the universe.

This activity was meant to help you (a) recognize that information isn't simply something we organize but that it has the power to organize people and tasks and (b) understand the importance of constantly receiving, interpreting, and using information to adapt to the ever-evolving environment.

From the video, Leadership and the New Sciences (Wheatley, 1993, CRM Films), we learned that relationships are the basic building mechanism of the universe and the very fabric of groups. Nothing is known except in relation to persons, ideas, and events. (Show transparency.) Reality is created as people and ideas meet and change in relationship to each other. The African proverb (Louw, 1995, p. 159) explores this notion in human terms: "A person is a person through other people." In other words, we owe our selfhood to other people and to interaction with ideas. Activity 3 will examine the application of this scientific principle to leadership.

Activity 3: Experiencing and Processing 

  1. Wheatley suggests that organizations, like nature, must understand that they are networks of relationships: bundles of potential ideas and energy sources awaiting an interaction with an idea, person, or event. How does this explanation alter one's perspective in functioning in organizations? Dialogue in a group of four or eight to explore this question.
  2. Using the concept of brain writing, write (each person) a guideline for developing relationships (in one complete sentence on an index card). Share a few in the small group. 
  3. In the large group, combine and reorganize ideas into a list of guidelines for developing relationships. Record on transparencies. 
  4. In small groups, share peak performances--those times when an individual or group performed at abnormally high levels of effectiveness. Dialogue: What role did information and relationships play in these peak experiences? What is required to increase the number and duration of peak performances?
  5. Share responses in the large group.


A third core organizing principle is develop relationships. Out of quantum mechanics we learn that the forces within the universe are best described as both particles and waves (or energy fields). That means that, when applied to the organization, participants are both workers and relationships. Reality is created as people and ideas meet and change in relationship to each other. Thus, an organization is best described as a web of relationships. Organizations, to capitalize on this principle, must open up and encourage people to move about, making contact with others, not because of role or status but because of work needs.

This activity was meant to help you (a) broaden your understanding of relationships and (b) appreciate the significance of relationships in achieving personal and organizational goals.  

From the video, Leadership and the New Science, we learned that vision is a key organizing principle in the universe. (Show transparency.) Activity 4 will examine the application of this scientific principle to leadership.

Activity 4: Experiencing and Processing 

  1. In dyads, write a definition for vision. 
  2. Share definitions with the large group. Write several on newsprint. Compare with Wheatley's definition of vision: (Show transparency.) An energy field expressive of purpose and direction. Dialogue: How can this kind of field be created? In other words, what types of activities and focus are required to fill the field? 
  3. In dyads, read two Scenarios (choose the most appropriate ones) and identify the vision expressed in each. 
  4. Share responses with the large group.


A fourth core organizing principle is embrace vision. Field theory teaches us that space is occupied by unseen structures that have a broad and significant impact. Vision as a field could have a wondrous capacity to bring energy to an organization and link with other fields to effect movement, flow, and change. The concept of vision as an energy field having an impact on purpose and direction suggests that organizations need to create consistent messages of vision. Indeed, field theory implies that there are potentials and influences everywhere. Kotter (1995) concludes that in addition to the need for a consistent vision to guide persons and organizations through change, a shared vision of the change process will increase the success of transformation efforts.


Wheatley gives perspective to life in the 21st century with these thoughts:

New science requires us to question many of our most deeply held assumptions about how things work in life and in our organizations. None of these shifts is insignificant. All of them are worthy of further thought and conversation, as we try to invent and discover the organizations of the next century. Hopefully, these newer sciences point the way to a simpler way to lead organizations. But to arrive at that simplicity, we will have to change our behaviors and beliefs about information, relationships, control, and chaos. We will need to recognize that we live in a universe that is ordered in ways we never suspected, and by processes that are invisible except for their effect. (Wheatley, 1993, p. 16)

From experience in Activities 1-4, we have learned that four principles

  • Accept chaos
  • Share information
  • Develop relationships
  • Embrace vision

describe an environment that questions many of the traditional assumptions about how things work in organizations, whether they be families, institutions, or businesses. Our universe is ordered by processes that are invisible except for their effects. A critical question for organizations is "How do we change our behaviors to reflect these new insights?"


Kotter, J. P. (1995, March-April). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 59-67.

Leadership and the new science (video). (1993). Carlsbad, CA: CRM Films.

Mitstifer, D. I. (1979). Facilitating creativity: Part II. In Addictions Prevention Laboratory. Instructor's manual: Modules in prevention. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.

Wheatley, M. J. (1994). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

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