“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Leonardo Da Vinci


“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple…that’s creativity.”

Charles Mingus

I’m often asked how I can teach a system as “complex” as the Enneagram in organizations, given the time constraints, discomfort with esoteric language, and need for direct applicability often found in that environment. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption in the question is that if we make the Enneagram “simple” we strip it of its depth, power, or spiritual value. I’m always surprised by this assumption, wondering if the person ever heard of, say, Zen Buddhism or Quakerism, deep and profound approaches to spirituality with simplicity at the heart of their practice.

We all know that, for better or worse, there is no “official” Enneagram. Sure, there are things that most people agree on—the vices and virtues that correlate to the points of the diagram, for example. But, since there is no single, central dogma, people can and do put their own twist on the system. Sometimes these adaptations arise from new insights, sometimes they arise from the combination of the Enneagram with another system, sometimes they arise as a response to the needs of a particular audience or environment.

While the lack of an official dogma has drawbacks, I think it is generally a good thing that the Enneagram has enough plasticity to allow for these adaptations, as long as they are rigorously developed. Primarily, they have to be internally consistent (that is, they have to be coherent and non-contradictory) and they have to be externally consistent (that is, they have to match the facts in the real world). As an example of one approach that violated this last expectation, I was once told by an Enneagram teacher that all Eights, Nines and Ones have large bellies; all Twos, Threes and Fours have large chests; and all Fives, Sixes and Sevens all have big heads. A single lean One disconfirms that theory, so such a model is not externally consistent.

For me, such twists are better when they are useful—that is, they are something that we can work with rather than being merely interesting theoretical observations—but that is a personal bias. What is interesting and useful to one may be dull and useless to another.

When I began studying the Enneagram 20 years ago, I wanted to know all I could about it. I read everything I could find on the system from Gurdjieff through Ichazo and Naranjo and on to the next generation of authors; I listened to all the audio-cassettes (remember those?) I could get my hands on; I talked to whoever would listen and listened to whoever would talk about the Enneagram. When I started teaching the Enneagram to my corporate clients five years later, however, I soon realized that preparing a curriculum is much like packing for a lengthy international trip—you have to make sure you include the essentials, but you pay a price for carrying unnecessary items. I decided I had to figure out how to teach this robust, complex model in a way that captured its full power while emphasizing fundamental concepts that could be applied by my clients long after my work with them was done.

The zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once wrote, “If you want to be enlightened, sit straight and breathe.” In a way, the zen approach to enlightenment is that simple—sit up straight and breathe, and after 20 years or so of hard work you will become instantly enlightened. In other ways, of course, the zen approach is not so simple—Suzuki gave countless dharma talks going deeper and deeper into how to attain simple beginner’s mind.

For me, at the heart of working with the Enneagram is understanding that each of us has a non-conscious preference for one of nine problem-solving “strategies,” a theme that gives sense or context to our behaviors. Understanding these strategies, how we maladaptively apply them to life’s circumstances, and how we can apply the Awareness to Action process to overcome these maladaptive patterns is the equivalent of Suzuki’s “sit up straight and breathe;” when in doubt, it is the thing we should come back to first.

Of course, working with our preferred strategy doesn’t solve every problem, and we often need to go deeper. Thus, I have two other Enneagrams that I use in addition to the Enneagram of the nine strategies—the nine accelerators and the nine core qualities. The accelerators are specific practices that aid in the growth for each type; the core qualities are deeper existential issues that correlate to the nine Enneagram points. (These are similar to, but not quite the same as, the “Essential aspects” that some other Enneagram teachers talk about; for a discussion of why I don’t embrace the philosophical Essentialism that other Enneagram teachers teach, see my article in the upcoming 2014 Enneagram Journal.)

Finally, I teach my clients the three instinctual biases and the subtypes of the Enneagram. Actually, I typically teach the instincts before I teach the Enneagram. For me, the instincts point to what arenas we tend to focus on and what needs we seek to satisfy; the strategies are how we go about solving those needs. I find it almost impossible to teach the Enneagram without the background of the instincts.

I’ll be presenting this model in my session at the 2013 IEA conference in Denver and the description of this program appears at the end of this article. The model is also the topic of my five-day certification program, the length of which shows that even though it is “simple,” you can do a lot with a handful of simple ideas taken together. Mingus, after all, did a lot with four simple strings. Even though I only teach a handful of components, we have to remember that each of the points of the Enneagram applies to each of us and paying attention to the issues of our Ennea-type is only the beginning of the work. Three Enneagrams gives us 27 things to work on (in addition to the three instincts), enough to keep us busy for a long, long time.

What this approach to the Enneagram provides is something akin to a problem-resolution protocol. When you call the cable company because there is a problem with your cable, the technician will usually tell you to unplug the modem and plug it back in because they know that this will solve a high percentage of problems people have. When “turn it off and turn it back on” doesn’t work, they go to the next step; but it makes sense to start with the high-probability solutions first. In the Denver session, I will discuss how I apply this idea to the components of my model.

Suzuki also used to say that zen is like soap; that we should use it when we are dirty, but then rinse it off rather than walking through life caked in soap. The IT person on the other end of the phone is not there to impress callers with the depth of their knowledge and sophistication of their tools; he is there to help you solve your problems and go on with life. He offers simple solutions first, and he gets more sophisticated when he needs to. Likewise, Enneagram teachers, especially those who work in organizations, would benefit from simplifying their models as much as possible rather than trying to dazzle with complexity.

Keep it Simple: Bringing Clarity and Precision to the Enneagram to Get Results

Saturday, August 3, 9 am to 11:30 am, at the Denver IEA Conference

Personal and professional growth and development need not be complicated. While the Enneagram is a map of the psyche with many facets, it is possible to present the Enneagram in a way that is easy to learn, memorable, and simple without losing its power and efficacy. Based on over 15 years of work with corporate executives and other leaders in organizations across the globe, this approach to the Enneagram starts with five simple concepts—the three instincts; the nine strategies, core qualities, and accelerators; and the Awareness to Action Process—that can be taught and applied in a short time but can also be used to weave a tapestry of lifelong learning. During the session, Mario will present this model to participants and show them how to create a robust developmental plan for themselves or for their clients. While the model was originally developed for work with clients in organizations, the system applies to spiritual and psychological work as well.

Mario Sikora is an executive coach and consultant who advises leaders in large multinational organizations and conducts Enneagram-based certification programs and workshops across the globe. He is the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change and past president of the Board of Directors of the IEA. He continues to serve on the board of directors and overseas international affairs for the IEA. He can be reached via his website: