Organizations as Living Organisms by Magda Lissau

By Magda Lissau, from her book, OCTAVE: Essays on Waldorf Education
Published by AWSNA

Introduction: Developing a Seven-Fold View

In this essay I would like to develop a view of Waldorf schools and other organizations that honor the reality of human individuals as beings of body, soul, and spirit. I must make it clear that I am not a management or organizational expert. Rather, I have life-long experience working in the Camphill movement and in a number of Waldorf schools throughout the world. So my viewpoint is that of a person dealing with developing and adult human beings.
I am hoping that the picture I develop in this paper will, ideally, be taken up and worked with by all persons intimately involved in a school or other organization—the people in managerial and administrative positions, faculty, and recipients of services, such as parents in a school and clients or customers in a business organization. The picture of a healthy, and therefore living, organism needs to be seen in the context of a specific place, time, and structure. Several rounds of conversations may be needed before a specific picture emerges with respect to the matrix of the ideal I will describe. Consequently, it may take further rounds of conversation to outline an appropriate approach to reshape the organization so that it becomes healthy or can maintain its present good health.
It is habit among those involved with anthroposophical institutions to speak in human terms about organizations such as Waldorf schools and other institutions inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy. Comparisons are often made between human and organizational phases of growth and development. These are all well and good comparisons, but communities of men and women working together may develop over much longer periods of time than a human life span. Moreover, the interaction matrix of an organization is much more complex than a single human life. Think of a city, a nation!

Therefore, I would like to propose a different model for looking at the living time profile of an organism or organization. I do so not because I believe previous models are wrong or because I think that applying human phases of development to organizations is erroneous, but because I believe that an organization that is meant to be living must be measured against and spoken about in terms of the forces of life.
The forces of life are manifest in greatest purity in the world of plants. Each plant manifests in some form or other the following aspects: its rootedness in the ground; the intake and flow of liquid and subsequent transformation; an air exchange with its surroundings; a reaction to warmth; a reaction to light; a manifestation of geometrical, mathematical principles (also inherent in sound and music); and finally, the crowning profile of a living organism, life itself. Air, Water, Fire, and Earth are the traditionally acknowledged life-sustaining elements. Three others need to be added: Light, Form, and Life. These are the seven principles which I suggest may lead one to a clearer understanding of the health and well- being of a human organization. I shall describe these elements from the viewpoint of a tree and also from the viewpoint of a group of individuals working together. I shall conclude with some comments on gatherings, meetings, and organs of a living organism.

The Seven-Fold Picture in Its Living Manifestation

When looking at a tree, one can divide its form into roots, trunk, and crown and assign to each its function; that is one way of understanding. If, however, we follow the seven life principles in their activity in sustaining the tree in its totality, then we arrive at a different picture. If we track the activity of individuals in different areas of an organization by using the first picture and determine that one person works at the root of the organizational tree, another at the level of the trunk, and a third at the crown, then we fix each person’s level of involvement. This is done routinely in various organizational charts that separate out, prioritize and describe the functions of different people or groups involved in an enterprise. Organizational charts include various interconnections and overlaps of positions and departments. Applied to a Waldorf school these might include the faculty, administration, board, parents, committees, and so forth.

Problems in a school often arise, however, because people feel themselves chained to or restricted by others to a particular area by their job description. In reality human beings participate—consciously and unconsciously—in all areas of an enterprise and are likewise affected by all areas. The opportunity of freeing individuals from their narrow functional confines so that they may become more active participants in the growth and nurture of their organizational “tree” is my goal in presenting the following picture of sevenfold life activity.

The Solid, Earth Element

The earth provides a firm basis for a tree’s roots, enabling the tree to grow at a particular place at a particular time. A tree’s roots, together with the firm ground, represent the physical plant
or the buildings and grounds of a school or other institution. An organization should have a deep taproot—a main building—and smaller service roots and rootlets, which help it to penetrate deeply into the community. In a school, an off-site kindergarten or a performing arts venue, for instance, can serve as such additional roots.
The earth element in an organization is the extent to which a school is literally grounded and has its own place in the physical world, a permanent location, in other words, whether an organization has really sunk its roots into the physical world. It also shows whether the tree—the mission or impulse of the organization—has rooted itself in suitable soil. The specific qualities of the ground may also significantly influence the way an “organizational tree” is able to connect with the physical world and itself in a particular location. Sand, clay, granite, limestone—all influence the roots of a tree quite differently.

The characteristic signature of the earth element is a square or crystalline form; its spatial dimensions tend to be compressed and concentrated, and its time signature is a slow and carefully stepped growth pattern. It is hardy, however, and once established, will likely last for years.

The Liquid, Water Element

The liquid element enables the life giving forces and substances to permeate a tree in order to sustain and foster growth. As it courses through all parts of a tree, the liquid element itself is changed, eventually transformed into vapor and released into the atmosphere. As it rises and falls in the sap and evaporates through the leaves to join the atmosphere, the water element is a symbol and picture of the flow of money and its transformation through the organization. The money stream that surges or trickles through the
organizational tree provides a picture of money circulation, its availability, its procurement and source, and finally, the areas it stimulates when rejoining the general atmosphere.
The different sources of water, such as groundwater or an aquifer, or its absence can be seen as a variety of money sources, as the general monetary constitution of the community at large. A water-rich, year-round river close to the school may be a reliable and continuous cash supply, while a seasonal stream may create a great struggle for survival.

The characteristic water signature is a half-moon shape, which indicates both a tendency to spread out and fill all available space and a strong cyclical quality in its time dimension of growth and development, thus uniting regular and seasonal activity. A school or other organization may be, for instance, like a tree that needs water but lives in a desert, or a tree that is established in a region with an ample aquifer but is prevented from reaching it by deep layers of rock. These are but two possibilities that need close scrutiny by those who are part of the organization. In the first instance there may be ample money in the community, but the mode of access has yet to be found.

The Gaseous, Airy Element

The air surrounding a tree is altered by the tree’s metabolism in hourly, daily, monthly, and yearly cycles. The air element represents the atmosphere of the community
surrounding the school tree. Both water and air elements are connected to the leaves of the tree. The quality of the air and subsequently the condition of the leaves show how positively or negatively the larger community acts towards the school. The airy element is intimately connected to the light. With the help of light, trees take in carbon dioxide during the day, and they give off oxygen at night. This life-giving element of oxygen enlivens the whole community.
The quality of air affects the growth of a tree. Smog-filled air, for example, may be poisonous to trees, while clean air fosters healthy growth and development. Ocean air is different from mountain air, desert air, or air rich with tropical forest humidity. Moreover, there are innumerable types of air currents, depending on the typical weather patterns of a region: regular refreshing breezes, tropical storms, polar winds, hurricanes or monsoons, and localized wind patterns in great variety. The characteristic signature of the air element is its tendency to form triangular, arrowhead shapes. In its great expansiveness, it fills all available space. It is also fickle and capriciously changeable, volatile and irregular in its tempo of development. One of the vital points for the health of the school tree is whether the surrounding atmosphere is filled with light and clean air or is continually murky and polluted.

The Warmth Element

Warmth works in diverse ways on different levels of life and organization. It fills the atmosphere with its expanding quality to bring flowers and seeds into existence so that the future of a tree may be ensured. A school tree needs the warmth of the good will of the whole school community as well as that of the greater community in which it exists. Likewise, it needs the internally active warmth element within so that children, teachers, and parents may bring their good will to bear to create seeds for the future. The warmth element is pervasive and needs to permeate all areas of the organism, for it carries the human element of will into all the other functions.
Questions regarding the working of the warmth element are crucial to the well-being of the organism: when and how it is created; who is able to create it; who benefits from it; and, most importantly, if it is possible to have too much warmth. The focus and direction of the warmth of the will is a vital consideration for the healthy functioning of an organism such as a Waldorf school. Are there frequent periods of intense warmth, when a great deal is accomplished, interspersed with benign rest periods? Or is there a continuous blast of a furnace, stoked by certain individuals, which threatens to burn up and destroy most individuals’ impulses and never allows for rest and recuperation? Is there perennial cold, which makes every smallest initiative a painful process of exertion?

The essential signature of the warmth element is its capacity to permeate everything and unite all objects formed by the other elements—even all humanity—in a great sphere of warmth. The form and spatial dimension of warmth is spherical. As regards temporal development patterns, warmth always thrusts forward in expansion unless stopped by cooler elements.
The capacity to lay the foundation for the future is bound up with the specific working of the warmth element around and within the organizational tree. Warmth works to manifest the fruits of the past and the seeds for the future. It is probably the most difficult element to control, focus, and harness, since it springs spontaneously from the hearts of human beings inspired by their mission and work, and thus has a far wider range into the surrounding community than the other elements.

The Element of Light

The light element permeates atmospheric warmth and air insofar as they are not suffused by water in the form of clouds, mist, or fog. The light element penetrates liquids depending on their nature; clear water allows light to permeate completely, although it bends the beams of light. Light bounces off the surfaces of opaque, solid matter. But if the material is transparent or translucent, it allows light to pass through, though usually with some refraction.
What does the light element of an organization represent, and what is the source of this light? Since ancient times light has been equated with wisdom and knowledge. The light element in an organization such as a Waldorf school has its source in the pedagogical knowledge and insights of the faculty. The pedagogical research of individual faculty members, over and above the work of the whole faculty, contributes to this source. The receptivity of the “solid substances” and “denser elements” in a community determines whether the light of wisdom and knowledge is able to shine out and become a beacon to its community or whether the light is kept under a bushel basket and hidden from public view.

Let us clarify the relationship of light to the physical elements. A source of light needs continuous renewal and regeneration. The striving for knowledge and insight, the search for deepening and ever-honing one’s thinking capacities—whether one’s immediate task is as an individual or as part of a group, as a parent, teacher, or board member—feeds the light. To keep the source pure and shining is no easy task, for light may be perverted to become splintered or dehumanized. If this happens, and insights are applied egotistically for personal advantage, then beams of light become thorns to pierce the hearts and souls of others. Intellectual arrogance has a most detrimental effect on one’s colleagues or coworkers. Then light may harden into wounding intellectualism, which is a consequence of the selfish use of wisdom and knowledge.
Communication is necessary so that light can literally enlighten interactions with others and not impose barriers. When light becomes too physical—too strong or too great a sensitivity—a plant will actually produce thorns. Those individuals in an organization who are quite sensitive to the quality of the light that streams out will know if management is impervious and closes itself off or if a school’s faculty insist that they “know better.”
Light should permeate the warmth of good will and direct its actions meaningfully. Light should also be able to shine out into the airy atmosphere of the greater community. There it may meet many obstacles and obstructions in the form of murky or polluted atmosphere. Water and liquid—representing the money stream of an organization—may be transparent and permeable by the light of insight and wisdom, but if it carries too much silt and other impurities, they may block out the light. Even in clear water the direction of light gets refracted.
Solid matter—unless translucent or transparent—does not allow light to enter, but reflects it on its surface. Human beings need to transform matter through the arts to make it light-permeable. One example is lazured wall surfaces, which allow the inhabitants of a room to feel able to penetrate the solidity of the walls. Likewise, architectural forms determine how the light of insight and wisdom may shine within a building and likewise ray out of the building into the community.

A non-material element such as light considerably modifies the effects of the denser elements. Through the element of light, the wisdom of Waldorf pedagogy is made visible. This source of wisdom is nurtured and strengthened by the working of the faculty to deepen their knowledge and continue their research into the essence of what is human.

The Element of Sound and Number Relationships

This element is even more elusive than light. It stands in polarity to the watery/fluid element, and some of its effects are quite mysterious. The inner music of an organization or school demonstrates the working together of colleagues, coworkers, and administration. The pattern of communal working for the greater good and the shared vision literally resound in the symphony of an organism’s inner music. Its harmony, or disharmony, is heard and perceived by the greater community and provides a potent tool for judging the organization’s health and well-being. Sound reverberates and echoes in the physical elements and sets them in motion. The internal working of the faculty of a school or of the management of a company is heard by all who are connected to the institution, not with physical ears, but with the ears of the soul and mind. Is there a rousing song or a repetitious, boring, tune? Is there a tune at all or only confusing noise? Is there complete silence or an enthralling harmony, an orchestra or a chorus? It is Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones, reggae or rap, Bach or Mozart?
The signature tune of a school or organization is one of its vital components, but one most often ignored. It can be transformed. An instrument may be tuned, an orchestra may learn to play together in the same key and measure, and individualistic loners or prima donnas may in time learn to make music in harmony with others.

The character of a school’s music will greatly determine its ability to attract money. A great and rousing symphony will be heard far and wide in the greater community and attract attention and approval. A pure but harmonious tune will be heard, like a songbird’s mellifluous tune transcending the roar of traffic, but it may only reach the immediate neighborhood. Disharmony will annoy those who hear it and will cause the flow of money to diminish to a trickle.
Just as the water element has a strongly periodic and seasonal flow and ebb, so does the inner music. Sound and liquids are inherently related. Different tunes are appropriate for different seasons. Different forms of income are also appropriate for different seasons, for different objectives.
Just as it is important to determine the character of an organization’s music, so it is also essential to determine the character of its audience. Playing Mozart at a rock concert may not bring about much listening or enthusiasm. The music of the environment, of the audience, is as important as that of the internal social relationship.
Who creates this internal music? Primarily the individuals involved and responsible for the organization’s mission, management, and operation. If these individuals recognize each other’s humanity, especially acknowledging each other as spiritual beings striving to manifest their best and most honest work and to overcome personal prejudices and difficulties for the benefit of the whole, then harmony and music will arise. Steiner has given many indications about how to develop one’s inner, spiritual capacities, not only for oneself, but also for the benefit of the social organism. If these indications are truly worked with on a regular basis, and—in the case of a school—if they live in the souls of the faculty, board, and parents, then a school’s inner music is enhanced, and members of the community will begin to be in tune with each other.

The Element of Life

A living organism is viable when all the essential elements of life are ordered and integrated to form a self-sustaining, healthy organism. The life of an organization such as a school depends on the spiritual striving of its members. If teachers take their commitment to anthroposophy and Waldorf education seriously enough and work on their inner development, or if they are members of a college of teachers, or of the School of Spiritual Science and its Pedagogical Section, then they infuse life and the potential of organic order into their respective schools. Correspondingly, the spiritual striving of the directors and managers of a company whose goals extend beyond economic success to serve social ideals will also act as a spiritual core of their organization.

In the larger community there are also those individuals who are striving spiritually, who support the impulse and initiative of an organization with spiritual goals much like a Waldorf school’s by recognizing that their service is to the true image of the human being. Then their contributions will strengthen the existence of their school, organization or business and help its impulse to be rooted in fertile ground.
We have come full circle. It is apparent that there is a reciprocal relationship between the ideal and spiritual initiatives and the practical rootedness in physical manifestation—namely in the physical plant, housing, building, or property which the organization owns or hopes to own. The stronger the spiritual impulse and commitment, the better the opportunities for physical expression.

Concluding Remarks: the Element of Time

When dealing with a living organism such as a plant, we should also consider its life and organs in the context of its time signature. Growth occurs in spurts, not in constant graduated increases, and is characterized by expansive as well as contractive processes. Just as one may see in a plant nodes of contraction at crucial points, such as the location from which expansion into leaves and blossoms begins, one may also recognize such nodes in an organization. These organizational nodes represent a concentration of energies created through the work of individuals to serve the organism as a whole and to help it develop harmoniously and productively.

Before expansion is possible, a phase of contractive, concentrated, and focused deliberate planning and imagining activity has to occur. A seed is the ultimate contractive form: it contains the potential for the entire future plant or organism. As the proverb says, “Out of small acorns mighty oaks do grow.” It is important to be clear about what is needed for a precious seed of intention to grow into reality and what physical, soul, and spiritual conditions are fostered by the attention of the individuals involved in the process.
The organs in an organization such as a school are the groups that meet regularly, occasionally, sporadically, or just once for a specific purpose. If we honor the time signature of a living organism, we shall be careful not to endow groups with perpetuity, for then no development can take place. We shall also not fix individuals even semi-permanently as carriers of such group activity, for this would counteract development, which needs to be open-ended, and also deprive individuals of their own freedom to develop themselves.
Moreover, we should be wary of viewing the time signature of organizations in terms of human life phases because we could create a pattern that does not correspond to the life principle of organizations. For example, while Steiner pointed repeatedly to the law of seven-year cycles in human lives, he also pointed to a thirty-three-year cycle of social and historical life, and to a much larger three-hundred-fifty-year cycle of paradigm shifts in historical development. The thirty-three-year cycle, for instance, is repeated three times in a century, with a phase of impulse and intention which then becomes manifest in society if the impulse was forceful enough. I am inclined to regard the life cycles of organizations as much longer than those of individual men and women.
Let us consider an organization that wants to be alive by manifesting the seven elements described above and that has a healthy succession of expansion and contraction in the formation of its organs. Such an organization would not fix individuals into any set positions because individuals need to be free to be active in one of the organs of the organization for a time but not forever.

It is important for each organ of the organization to have a clear purpose and mandate. Further, the smallest possible number of persons is usually the most efficient group or committee. Rotation of duties, too, is a good idea, so that everyone is actively engaged and the load is evenly distributed. Time limits for meetings need to be kept. If the group is a special-purpose group, it should be dissolved after its purpose is achieved. If it is a permanent group with a clear purpose, the application of Waldorf classroom dynamics—such as changes of tempo and activity within the meeting time—will help ensure that members remain fresh and focused on the tasks.
Above all, it is important to consider the reciprocity of the seven life elements and how they can enhance each other. They can also interfere and hinder healthy development of an organization if no attention is paid to their inherent character and their relationship to time. In this essay I have attempted to describe a process involving the seven life-sustaining forces and how they pertain to the health of a school or other organization. Holding this living picture in mind can help us to visualize an organization’s particular challenges and strengths allowing it to become a more healthy

For a pdf of the full book, OCTAVE, visit the Online Waldorf Library.

“Organizations as Living Organisms: Developing a Seven-fold View” first appeared in the Research Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 2002.


1. Paraphrased from Rudolf Steiner, The First Scientific Course about
Light, GA 320, Lecture of January 3, 1920.

2. Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 1983, as cited by Robert J. Sternberg in his Metaphors of Mind, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

3. Steiner, Rudolf. Warmth Course, Lecture of March 5, 1920, Spring
Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1988.

4. Steiner describes the human being as having twelve senses. The
Riddle of Humanity, London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1990.

5. Steiner, Rudolf. Materialism and the Task of Anthroposophy, GA 204, Lecture of April 23, 1921, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1987.

6. Steiner, Rudolf. How to Know Higher Worlds, Anthroposophic Press,
1994, and An Outline of Esoteric Science, New York: Anthroposophic
Press, 1997.

7. Steiner, Rudolf. Anthroposophy and Science: Observation,
Experiment, and Mathematics, Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1991.

8. Ibid.


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