Remembering Roger Harrison
By Bill Koenig
Roger Harrison, whom I came to know only in the last 10 years, holds a special place in my life. He modeled character traits that I can only aspire to emulate: fierceness and vulnerability. This is an odd pairing which I had the chance to observe first-hand in Roger on a couple of occasions. I suspect he lived into them all of his life.
I saw the fierceness when Roger believed in something. He was uncompromising in his resolution to see that something through because it was consistent with his values. His vulnerability was publicly showcased in his book, “Consultant’s Journey: A Dance of Work and Spirit,” published when he was 65. He had a clear mandate in writing this “coming to wisdom” book: “I believe most of us tend to learn more from our difficulties than we do from our successes, but we report our successes in public and ruminate about our failures and disappointments in private. If anything, I have reversed those priorities here, in a determination to let it all hang out!” The book, which I found frequently painful to read, is a testament to Roger’s signature vulnerability. I also suspect that this vulnerability led him in recent years to a deep yearning to write and discuss love in the workplace.
Peter Block, a seminal contributor along with Roger to the field of organization development (OD), shares an early cameo of Roger as he began his career: “My first contact with Roger was as a member of one of the graduate sensitivity groups at Yale . . . He ran a class with no structure, no leadership, and for which everyone got the same grade—a B. We all went crazy, and Roger was right there with us. He was committed to his own learning, open about his mistakes, and willing to be vulnerable. These were, and remain, radical acts for a Yale University professor.”
In 2009, I had the privilege of gathering Roger Harrison and four other seminal OD theorists and practitioners (Geoff Bellman, Edgar Schein, Marv Weisbord, and Don Swartz), “the Old White Guys of OD,” to reminisce for over an hour about their own experiences as pioneers of the organization development field; they all identified their early involvement with training groups as their initiation rite into OD.
Roger, with his wife Margaret Harris, provided me with a model of partnership. In brief encounters with them separately and together, I observed and learned how their love for each other was grounded in fierceness and vulnerability.
I will miss Roger. His fierceness lives on in me, goading me to be more vulnerable.