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It's Time for a New Definition of Leadership

It’s hard not to feel completely discouraged when you see the lack of leadership in the world today. The bar for dignity and common human decency has become so low in the arena of politics and world leadership that we’re starting to think of it as normal. History is repeating itself as we watch the same people in power make terrible choices (or fail to make choices) , which has dire consequences for our whole planet. In the States, no meaningful legislation or reform can even happen anymore due to the incessant bickering and name calling, it’s as if a bunch of kindergartners are running the show. We all listen and look on, shaking our heads and feeling somewhat powerless to change the situation.

And yet in our everyday lives we see, hear and read multiple examples of what it means to be a true leader. Our friends, teachers, colleagues, writers and thinkers inspire us to believe in a world full of compassion and love, to be curious and discerning- all examples of true leaders; people who show up authentically, with heart, and who listen for possibility. A physician leader I work with at a large and complex healthcare system shows up continually in a soft-hearted, curious way that helps to foster a culture of trust and belonging. How do we create and nourish more of these qualities in the world?

First we need to unpack the word leadership a bit. It’s one of those words that gets used but everyone using it has different connotations and frameworks for what it means. Many of us think of leaders as someone who has direct reports and gets paid to make decisions that have consequences for others. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we probably have outdated notions of the leaders as all-powerful, dominating, and in control. We believe leadership means control and power. Probably because there are so many bad examples of leadership, we feel a kind of queasiness around the word.

But what if we were to re-think leadership as something everyone is capable of and as something that the world desperately needs, in other words, the world needs you to be a leader. I found myself crawling into leadership by accident. I taught public and private school for many years and in many different contexts, including tough middle schools and kush private schools. In all contexts though one thing was constant, everyone was miserable. The kids were miserable, the teachers were embittered, the administrative staff was burnt out. Everyone could agree things weren't working but nothing seemed to change. This question began to bubble up for me: How do we change? How do human systems change?

At the same time, I was studying and practicing a powerful form of individual and collective leadership within my spiritual community. I was learning that when we sit with ourselves and learn to feel our hearts and be aware of our minds, we begin to trust our own inherent worthiness and capability. When we open our hearts and allow others in, we become stronger and more engaged and can influence change. I discovered that leadership comes from within when we decide to fully own and inhabit our experience and open our hearts to others.

I decided to go into leadership studies as a way to bridge these two worlds, the embodied knowing of human wisdom and compassion and the world and systems which continually seem to fail us. How can we fully own our leadership and inhabit the worlds we want to create, first in our bodies, then with each other, and finally in co-creating a world we all know is possible? Leadership is not about having the answers, but rather, living into the possibility. That's why the world needs more leaders, people who are willing to lean into the challenges with curiosity and kindness. You don't need to have the title of leader to be a leader. We need leaders who are cooks, moms, grandmas, massage therapists, gardeners, baristas, security guards, musicians, nurses, teachers, bank tellers... we need us all.

The poet David Whyte says it beautifully, we speak of genius when we speak of leadership, hoping for some of that elusive genius in ourselves, but the word genius in its Latin originality means simply, the spirit of a place. The genius of an individual lies in the inhabitation of their peculiar and particular spirit in conversation with the world. Genius is something that is itself and no other thing. (from Crossing the Unknown Sea).

In short, we need more leaders who are unutterably themselves. I'm still on the journey of discovering what that means and how I can show up in this way, but we don't need to arrive to fully inhabit the vessel of leadership. We only need to acknowledge the ground beneath our feet.

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