“I must be a mermaid… I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
~ Anais Nin
I can still remember vividly a day when it all started to make sense for me—the disconnection I felt from my then place of work. I was sharing dinner with a senior colleague, having worked well beyond the normal end of the business day. ‘
You’re asking questions I’d be afraid to ask,’ was his laughing response to some subject I was busy getting my teeth int,o along with our Thai prawn dish. ‘I’m not sure I’d want to deal with the implications of the answers you’d find!’
His words rang in my head for days afterward, as I continued to deal with the daily frustrations of wanting to create meaningful change in an environment that had more respect for external appearances and maintaining status quo than for authentic inquiry and transformation. But I was finally beginning to see that our fascination with headlines and quick fixes is as prevalent in business circles as it is socially.
So long as everything looked okay, no one really cared too much whether it actually was okay.
Modern business is so heavily yang in its orientation that its leaders are constantly under pressure to be action-and goal-oriented—driven by financial deadlines and outputs, guided by structure and formal processes. There was a belief at one time among feminists that when women began to take up senior positions in the workplace, the masculine approach to business would change and there would be a more fluid, intuitive approach instead.
I’m not so sure that is happening in quite the way it was imagined, though, as I watch many women carefully cultivating their masculine aspects and sweeping the feminine under the carpet for the sake of their careers.
It seems women are as capable as men of playing the game whatever way it needs to be played in order to rise to the top. It looks as if masculinity is still the dominant energy in the world at large, regardless of whether it is men or women who are in leadership positions. And I mean masculine in the sense of our active, logical, focused aspects—with the feminine being our receptive, intuitive, yielding aspects.
And yet, in a world where fast living and a desire for profit has bankrupt many economies as well as the environment, we are crying out for leaders who can lead from an inner integrity and authenticity—those who are also in touch with their yin side.
We admire those who have managed to maintain a positive vision of what’s possible alongside a practical ability to get on with helping to build a pathway towards that vision.
Nelson Mandela, for example, or Mary Robinson to mention someone closer to my own home—as well as other leaders who are now offering their wisdom, time and energy as part of The Elders.
We respect them partly because we know they look deep within before offering their considered response to any issue. We admire them because they seem to carry a personal conviction which fuels their work rather than appearing to be motivated primarily by a desire to win votes, impress employees or hit the headlines. They give the impression of depth and sincerity, something which is unfortunately rare among political and business leaders.
All the same, don’t we all, at some level, want to be accepted and appreciated for who we are? Isn’t it a common human desire to be free to express ourselves in a way which shows our uniqueness while still finding solidarity and support among those who are like us?
I find it impossible to be overly critical of the common leadership model without wondering if it is simply a by-product of our flashy, fast-paced, soundbite era. If we measure what we value by media coverage, financial worth, external comparisons and popularity, why would the majority of CEOs, politicians and other figures with public responsibility be any different? And is this who they really are, or is it just who they feel they have to be in order to fit the dominant paradigm? Or maybe, just maybe, they’re missing some of the critical skills which might allow them to fully embrace a more fulfilling model of leadership?
Two characteristics of the respected leaders I referred to earlier are courage and the ability to reflect deeply.
They are people who aren’t afraid to peer into the depths to see what might be lurking there or to ask the awkward questions, of themselves as well as of others. They look to find their own truth about the world and their role within it, and then they act as closely as they can in accordance with that inner knowing. Perhaps they have been born with the gift of introspection and the desire to dive deeply into life, alongside their natural ability to lead. Or perhaps these gifts have been born out of periods of hardship. But, regardless, the skills which they demonstrate can be acquired by others who carry the responsibility of leadership, no matter how big or small.
One of the most practical things which those of us providing therapeutic and spiritual support to others have to offer—whether through yoga, meditation, counseling, writing, or whatever—is introspection.
Helping others develop the ability to observe their own mental and emotional processes is a prerequisite to understanding themselves better and therefore to becoming more aware of how they respond to external pressure and expectation.
Without this ability, no leader can act with integrity or authenticity as they are missing a direct connection with their own deep self. Without it, a leader is entirely dependent on external sources to guide them into deciding what is right or wrong for them in any given situation. And it takes courage, as well as self-discipline, to take the time to reflect inwardly.
On the other hand, a leader who has developed the ability to observe their own inner landscape, and has no fear of depths, has the potential to provide thought leadership as well as leadership through action.
They know when their buttons are being pressed but they don’t necessarily react. They take their time to find actions that are congruent with their own deepest truths, and they are also capable of guiding others on their own journeys of growth and self-empowerment. They are not only ethical leaders, they are also transformational leaders.
But once you are as aware of your inner world as you are of the world outside, it also becomes much harder to sell your soul for profit—one of the reasons, perhaps, that introspection gets so little attention in the wider world.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman