Remembering peter vaill

written by Matt Minahan

Matt Minahan is the president of MM & Associates Consulting Firm and Co-Chair and Professor of Organizational Development at American University. He had known Peter for decades and was inspired by his work in the OD field. This essay was dedicated to paying respects towards Peter’s affect on Matt as well as the entire OD community.

Want to hear more of what Matt has to say? Go listen to Episode 23 of The Practice? Podcast, where he and Dave discuss all things pertaining to Organizational Development!

It was with deep sadness that I learned recently of the passing of another giant in our field, Dr. Peter Vaill.

Peter was a teacher, author, scholar, and wiseman leading the field with concepts, ideas, and metaphors that changed thousands of our lives in the field, and by extension through us and our work, those of millions of people.

Peter was best known as an author and for his metaphor of navigating organizational change as riding in white water, which he published as a recording called: Permanent White Water: The Realities, Myths, Paradoxes, and Dilemmas of Managing Organizations (1992). His books included Learning as a Way of Being (1996), Spirited Leading and Learning: Process Wisdom for a New Age (1998), and Managing as a Performing Art (1989) and were required reading in management classes around the world.

Peter was also one of the famous “Four Horsepeople” who resurrected NTL from near bankruptcy in 1975. The membership at the time was mostly scholars and professors, and overwhelmingly white men. Peter, along with Edie Seashore, Elsie Cross, and Barbara Bunker, disbanded the membership and invited back about 75 members in equal numbers of men and women, people of color and white , redirected NTL more squarely toward its social justice mission by creating an intentional laboratory of equality and power sharing across race and gender.

Peter was a strong and vital man. However, the last 19 years have been a challenge for his health. In August 2001, Peter contracted spinal meningitis in surgery to correct an unsuccessful laminectomy which was to repair a blown disk as a consequence of a too-early/too-long club training run for what would have been his 11th marathon. The result was a spinal cord injury, paraplegia, and wheelchair dependence. Since then, he has lived independently, and with wonderful help from the staff at Walker Place. Neuropathic pain, as a result of the damaged lumbar nerves, is a dominant aspect of his life now, and symptom control a major occupation. (From Peter’s CaringBridge site.)

Peter taught in the doctoral programs at UCLA, GW, St. Thomas, and Antioch University: http:/ 

My first personal encounter with Peter was while he was director of the PhD program here in DC at George Washington University. I had applied for the PhD program there but was rejected. Peter sat me down in his office, and in the most direct and gentle way told me that I was too much of a practitioner and not enough of a scholar for their program. Angry and thankful, both, in the moment, I realize now that Peter was exactly right. At GWU Peter worked closely with Jerry Harvey (The Abilene Paradox and Other Fables) and became a close collaborator with one of his doctoral students, Eric Dent. Eric went on to create an endowed chair to honor Peter’s work as a teacher and scholar:

Peter had a great gift of music, able to play almost any song ever recorded without music. He provided hours of sing along fun and entertainment at OD events during the 80s and 90s. We were both attendees at the OD Network’s Future Search in 1993. That conference brought together about 50 people to chart a new future for the Network, including its move from Portland where Sharon Thorne, one of the best OD consultants around, had been part time director, to New Jersey run by a full-time association professional. Peter played for hours on end each of the 3 nights. He wasn’t a big and boisterous personality like some there, just a quiet, steady, thoughtful participant. When Peter spoke, everyone listened.

Peter attended several OD Network conferences. Here is an excerpt from my Daily Report from the Montreal Conference in 2002:” Peter Vaill arrived this evening, rolling up in his wheelchair, and was greeted by Kathie Dannemiller, who rolled up in her wheelchair. It was a great sight to see these scions of our field, both looking well and fit, sitting knee to knee in their respective wheelchairs! This is Peter’s first conference since his serious viral illness last fall, and it was GREAT to see him. . . When Peter and I first embraced this evening, his first question to me was, “What time do the Men in OD meet tomorrow? Our Men session in New Orleans was the best session I’ve ever been to! We stayed for hours after it was finished; we just couldn’t leave!” 

He also wrote several journal articles, many for the OD Practitioner. You can gather a lot from the titles of his works in the ODP, which can be searched and retrieved at

· The Games Innovators Play

· “Observing Events” Towards a Behavioral Description of High-Performing Systems

· An Allegory on the Relationship of H.R.P. to Systems Objectives

· Voices: Managerial Mayhem

· Closure and Disclosure: A Meditation

· The Inner Tailor

· A Personal Statement

· The Moratorium

· Essay: Reflections on Time and Leadership

· The Author Writes…

The testimonials to Peter Vaill and his impact on us continue to pour in:

Sharon Thorne said, “Peter was a giant among us. I loved him & hated knowing about his health struggles these last 19 years. So hard for me to come to ease with suffering. I hope he rests easily now and his family too.”

Frances Baldwin said: “Peter Vaill was a special kind of thinker, teacher and writer. I have missed his presence over those 19 years; he will be missed and remembered for his brilliance and that wide smile.”

John Adams writes: “Oh wow, how sad! Peter was a huge influence on my first 15 years in the DC area early in my career. He was an intellectual beacon for almost everything that happened in OD and OT up until the meningitis.”

“Upon receiving this news, my very first recollection had nothing to do with the field, however. When Peter came from UCLA to interview for the job at GW, 1972, I believe, he came and stayed with us in Fairfax, VA. Peter was an avid runner at that time — at least from my sedentary perspective, and so I pulled on some boating deck shoe (closest I had to anything resembling athletic sneakers), and tagged along as far as I could. That got me started, and within two years I had gotten fit enough to start playing rugby at AU, where we at NTL were just beginning to test the possibility of a degree partnership.”

“Then about 8 years later, Peter was right in the middle of something Harrison Owen created, called the TWG Partnership — out of which grew the Open space and transformation movements. Our regular TWG dialogues around DC always could count on breakthrough insights from Peter.

“In a TWG meeting in about 1982, Harrison suggested creating an annual conference on Organizational Transformation, which soon became the Open Space movement, which Peter was deeply involved in from the beginning! I suggested putting together a book written by all the people that were beginning to talk about transformational processes in organizations, and again Peter was just about first up, offering to do a chapter. That became Transforming Work. He also was a powerful supporter of, and contributor to, the second anthology, Transforming Leadership.

“We could all always count on Peter to grasp and contextualize new ideas and build on them for the good of the field and all of its practitioners. He was a giant in my eyes always!”

“God bless you Peter! We’ll have to check in again later and reminisce further.”

Kurt Motamedi writes: “Peter Vaill is remembered as an outstanding scholar, practitioner, teacher, insightful observer, kind soul and true intellect. I met Peter in my first year of doctoral program at UCLA. I was intrigued by his depth of knowledge and philosophical perspective. I missed the opportunity to learn from him – he was denied tenure at UCLA. And then, his tenure denial was reversed (an unusual event). He left UCLA regardless with positive determination. He said that it was meant for him to move on. I was puzzled by his decision to turn down the offer of tenure. A few years later, Craig Lundberg, another silent giant in our field, shared with me Peter’s six-page letter to him. A sentence in that letter startled me, “so much of the research in our field is about describing a car as a moving vehicle.” He could see through puffed up academic research empty of a meaningful sense of reality and real world.

“Yes, Peter shaped the organization development movement among many others to be mindful of everyday experiences, reflection, learning and being in the world. He was a quiet giant who traversed among us always with a warm reflective smile – caring that all this will pass. Blessings bestowed, Peter.”

Judith Katz writes: “It is indeed sad to hear about Peter’s passing. He was such a generous spirit. Fred and I worked with him several times (along with Edie) and each time was inspirational. He brought so much as a human being as well as an OD Practitioner. He will be missed… but his ideas about permanent white water are even more true today.”

Fred Miller writes: “I join Judith’s comments. Peter was a friend. As Judith indicated starting in the 90’s Judith and I did several workshops with Peter including an NTL Management Work Conference (using T-Group technology). As many times as I heard Peter present and share his thinking I could never get enough. I always wanted a front row seat (sometimes moving the participants out of the way). What a GIFT!! What a human being! What a thinker!!! So glad he shared his thinking and his being with so many people, and that his and my paths joined together so many times.”


Matt Minahan

American University

Edgewater, MD

[email protected] 

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