Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Integrating the Ego and Unconscious for Emotional Agility

Written by: on November 13, 2023

Ten years ago, in a Harvard Business Review article[1], Susan David and Christina Congleton covered the topic of Emotional Agility in leaders. In it, they observed that it was not the negative thoughts that trips up leaders, it’s the way they respond and process those thoughts. Dr Daniel Liberman helps us to unpack this concept in his book, Spellbound[2] where we are taken on a journey to uncover the mysteries of our unseen unconscious mind and its impact on our conscious mind (ego).  Dr Liberman helps us to understand both how that unconscious has been developed over time and its influence over us.

In a podcast interview with Dr Liberman,[3] he shared that he has been on a journey of understanding the interplay between our conscious and unconscious minds and the impact it has on our daily lives since he studied the Great Books at St John’s college as an undergrad.[4] In his work, we see him reference these ancient writings as examples of how we have created a link between seen and unseen worlds. There is a lot to unpack in this book; I will attempt to pull some themes that intrigued me, link them to our previous readings and hold them up against my Biblical worldview.

Could there be a connection between integrating ego and unconscious and being a well-differentiated leader?

One tale Liberman recounts is the story of The Little Prince which includes a fox asking the prince to tame it so that if can become unique. Liberman equates this unique nature to Jung’s concept of being differentiated.[5] Indeed, in a podcast, Liberman explains that differentiates humans from is that we can go against our instincts.[6] Of course, being differentiated brings Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve[7] to mind, but I am also reminded of the dissonance that we read about in Romans:

Romans 7:15-20 (NLT)

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

Truly, this passage illustrates the struggle between our rational and irrational minds that Liberman discusses in his work.

What are the barriers to integrating the ego and the unconscious?

Liberman spends substantial time discussing how we can be sabotaged by our unconscious; sometimes going so far as to give our subconscious its own personality. Early in the book, to provide more support for his claims, he references another familiar-to-us author, Daniel Kahneman[8] and his concepts of system 1 and 2 thinking[9] to help us understand what is going on when we move between the ego and the unconscious. In the last portion of his book, Liberman provides us with tips and tricks for increasing our mindfulness in an effort of achieving transcendence. He quotes Jung as saying: “a renewal of the personality, working in every direction and penetrating every sphere of life.”[10] This concept of a renewed mind takes me to another passage in Romans:

Romans 12:2:  Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Is the journey to transcendence just another hero’s journey?

Finally, Liberman also ties these discoveries of the interconnectedness of our ego and unconscious with themes that we see repeated in the stories we tell and the symbols we use to revisit these stories. Referencing the archetypes reflected in Fairy Tales and Tarot Cards, he also briefly references Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.[11] While Campbell does not get a lot of mention in Liberman’s work, almost from the beginning of my reading in Spellbound, I found myself mentally returning to the claims of a universal story told and retold by all mankind.

Tying it back to my project

Recently, as I facilitated a workshop for my project, the participants had a lively discussion around defining the word “ideology”. The working definition we developed in the room is as follows: “An ideology is a pervasive worldview, that can be tribally reinforced; a subconscious lens shaping how one perceives the world, encompassing non-essential beliefs around a perceived truth.”

As a reminder, my work is around equipping people to have conversations around their ideologies with people who do not share the same worldview. I found it fascinating that this group of stakeholders recognized the unconscious nature of our worldviews and how it is supported by those around us. The question I would like to learn a little more about is how Liberman’s work of how the archetypes from classical literature and ancient symbols may interact with these worldviews.


[1] Susan David and Christina Congleton, “Emotional Agility,” Harvard Business Review (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2013).

[2] Daniel Z. Lieberman MD, Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind (BenBella Books, 2022).

[3] 1911: Soul-Share with Spellbound Author, Daniel Lieberman, 2023, https://player.fm/episodes/356139809.

[4] St John’s college describes this program as: “focused on reading and discussing many of the greatest books and most important questions in history. This is perhaps the most distinctive undergraduate curriculum of any college in America. Our students read the original writings of great thinkers across 3,000 years of history engage in vigorous classroom discussion with fewer than 20 students around the seminar table, and study interdisciplinary ideas across the humanities and sciences without limiting students to the restrictions of siloed majors.” If only I had my undergrad years to live over again, this would be an intriguing option

[5] Liberman, Spellbound, 137

[6] 1911.

[7] Edwin H. Friedman and Peter Steinke, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (10th Anniversary, Revised Edition) (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2017).

[8] Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

[9]  Liberman, Spellbound, 65.

[10]  Liberman, Spellbound, 214.

[11] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2020).

[12] “Podcast (Thoughts On Record),” Ottawa Institute of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, accessed November 11, 2023, https://www.ottawacbt.ca/podcast-thoughts-on-record.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

6 responses to “Integrating the Ego and Unconscious for Emotional Agility”

  1. Cathy Glei says:

    Such beautifully crafted words and connections. Thank you for sharing. I would love to hear more about your project. You mentioned that your research work is focused on helping people have conversations around their ideologies with people who do not share the same worldview. What sources of classical literature and ancient symbols are you considering for your research?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Well, I hadn’t been thinking of any until you brought it up! Now I am intrigued. I wonder where I can find classic literary examples of how disagreements were handled well or poorly?

  2. Esther Edwards says:

    Hi, Jen,
    Your writing gives much to think about. The whole concept of ideology and how it can shape our worldview is a fascinating arena to process. So many times we believe what we believe without processing why we believe it. I am looking foward to hearing more about your workshop and what your stakeholders came up with.

  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    Jen, great post! Three things stood out.
    First, I like the way you “sign-posted” where you were going with your post, stating, “There is a lot to unpack in this book; I will attempt to pull some themes that intrigued me, link them to our previous readings and hold them up against my Biblical worldview.” This made it easy to follow!

    Second, I resonated with the biblical themes you connected to the writing. Specifically, Romans 7:15-20. I made a similar connection where Lieberman pointed out toward the end of the book that our conscious/ego doesn’t always do the thing it wants to do. Like you, Lieberman made me think of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

    Third, you mentioned your NPO (You wrote, “As a reminder, my work is around equipping people to have conversations around their ideologies with people who do not share the same worldview.) I’ve been thinking that the results of your research, and where you land with this project, will be helpful for the research I’m doing around the well-being of the leader, and the leader’s ability to connect with people who bring new information, new connections, and new perspectives, outside of the leader’s tribe(s).

  4. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Hi Travis-
    Thanks for all your kind feedback on my post. This one was hard for me to write. I am excited to hear that there may be an overlap of our research!
    Furthering your thought, I was reflecting on the facilitation I did that developed the working definition for “ideology.” In that event, it struck me that so many ministry leaders are struggling to get people to get in line with their vision; and I do not see much activity in co-creating that vision with the people on their team or in their pews. Do you agree, or am I just overly-cynical? It seemed in the room that day that there was a subconscious bias to jump into their own goals instead of having the team engaged in creating the goals.

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