For more context on this posting, please see:
The Practice of Leadership
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity
Although spirituality is less discussed as a quality of effective leadership — probably because our culture does not know how to talk about such things very well — it is perhaps the most vital domain of any leader. It has these two essential functions: to help us deal with adversity and to bring real hope to others through the work we do.
A long time ago, 2004, when I started this series of posts on eight practices, I consciously saved this post for last. Not because spirituality should be the last thing to be considered, but the best, the most open-hearted, the most vulnerable, and the most true. To say a leader must have a spiritual perspective is not to say that this person must believe in God or adhere to a particular religion. In fact, whenever such requirements are made, I would say the essence of spirituality itself is lost. This isn’t the spirituality of belonging to a particular group. It is the spirituality of what you discover on your own of wisdom and what you refer to when no one, and no art or philosophy, no other forms of intelligence at all are of further value. To find the inner center, a place founded on the greatest virtues of life on earth, in love and in peace and in divine freedom, is to know, in a sense, all there is to know about self and leadership. This is not to say there is no further learning because once touched that depth is constantly tested in a world such as ours, filled as it is with so many sorrows, violences, and fears. It is the first and last step beyond ego, beyond the small self in favor of a larger, more penetrating, more personal view.
Many years ago I listened to some lectures by John S. Dunne, a philosopher/seeker, who has written many books including his very beautiful, The Way of All the Earth. I recall him describing how often we look at our lives from a very short time span, maybe a few years, sometimes a lifetime if we are lucky. But there is another vantage point, which is our lives within the context of history as a whole, in effect within the frame of endless time. This is the temporal alternative to looking up at the stars at night and noticing our own smallness. There is nothing like these “demagnifications” of our little existences, existences that we make so much out of, as if, truly, we are not only the center of the universe, but its immortal center. The great teachers, John Dunne said, from Muhammad to Gautama to Jesus all were able to keep the greater view in what they did — and we can attempt that as well.
If you look, if you are really aware, then perhaps what you will see around you is a depressing view of humanity, a mad contest of egos and crushing events. Perhaps that makes you angry. Yet ego is, as D.T. Suzuki once said, also as natural to human beings as wings to a bird. And that depression or anger, if you let yourself feel it and follow it faithfully, may actually be something more like the beginning of a spiritual path than a psychological “problem.”
The concept of capital‑S Self, or True Self, is close, at least for me, to the study of leadership spirituality. But, of course, we all have to experience and define that on our own. Personally, I’ve always liked the words of Sekkai Harada, a Buddhist teacher, who said:
In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet. No matter through which grasslands we may walk or which mountains we may climb, we must meet this person. This person is in this world. Who is this person? It is the true self. You must meet the true self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are.
Certainly, without meeting this “true self,” our stamina is depleted. Life throws curve balls all the time, sometimes several at the same time. But more than having this inner strength of a true self available to us, this inner “radiance” to rely upon, it is also the key to offering hope to others in the deepest possible ways. As Karen Tse — the famous human rights leader and founder of International Bridges to Justice — noted about her own spiritual path, she learned in a moment of crisis to work with “the Budda” or “the Christ” in each person, but she also learned that “what you focus on will grow.” So even if we focus in a simple way on possibilities rather than limits, on the good that is available instead of the bad that must be defeated, something in us changes, and something in our world changes along with us. We see capability in ourselves and others as a fact, and they say it inspires them.
I have known people who gave up as leaders, sank into a kind of darkness, were angry with the world, with people, so that their bitterness became their cave. Yet we all know so many stories of others who brought light into darkness, not only for themselves but for others as well. Karen Tse, of course, is one such leader. But there are so many others. Who do you know who brings hope? And if you do not know anyone who does, what brings you your own hope?
For me, I can only say that from an early point in my life, when I could find hope nowhere else, only a few steps into the natural world were needed to restore it. The sound of a creek or the passing of clouds can bring that hope back to me, and is something I’ve always tried to share through my photographs. That’s why they are part of these pages. And maybe that is because nature is a window to all of what is beyond us. We only have five senses, so we only can be aware of so much of nature. Yet there is more, much more that is unseen, unheard, untouched, unsmelled, untasted — and perhaps outside of time itself. We are only conscious of so much. But if we have an intuition, a psychic second sense of what does lie beyond, if the walls of this world are indeed as thin as they sometimes appear to be, then of course there is hope, and that makes us crazy only if we do not acknowledge it.
Well, such is my faith, and I have no right to impose. But there may well be something, however irrational, that does draw all of us closer to faith itself, not necessarily a Christian or Buddhist or Islamic or any other religious faith, not faith in ourselves or our institutions, not cultural faith in our country, not faith in optimism or pessimism or cynicism, not faith in this leader or that one or any of these things at all, nor even faith in a God or gods, but faith in what the poet Wallace Stevens called in a simple way, “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.”
This faith, this psychic understanding of the world, this inner strength that passes through us, is a path of encouragement, a well-spring of dreams. I believe it is what connects us ultimately, freeing us from what is old, and what is known. It is solace as well as solitude, a source of connection and always, a feeling of home. It is always present in the face of beauty, in the way “light takes the tree,” waiting for us there and within ourselves. And there are no words.
How strange, that you simply have to ask about your own wings, and the air — the air — is there.