In many ways, worthiness is the very first and the very last topic of leadership. From the start a leader is someone who is concerned with knowing and relying upon his or her self-value. Without it the person who wants to lead, to create change, to bring people together around a new idea or movement all too easily becomes immobilized by self-critique or blame of others. Why? Because leading means breaking through old structures, old personal and social patterns, which is difficult work requiring the energy of faith and trust — of worthiness — to express itself in action. And last, the leader is also concerned with the sense of worthiness that others possess because it is the fundamental nourishment that enables them to participate freely and to lead themselves. One could say, in fact, that what genuine leaders do is contagiously release big doses of worthiness within others so that together positive change can happen.
There can, however, be great confusion between self-esteem and self-worth. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion — see this Ted Talk — explains the difference between the two. Self-esteem is about being better than others in order to feel good about oneself. Self-compassion (which I would say reflects true worthiness) is about profound self-care in the face of adversity. Worthiness to me is what stands beyond comparison with others, moving us to more transpersonal ground and giving us a spiritual point of connection with stillness, peace, and the love that is our universal human root. Worthiness is discovered and received outside the smaller egoic self that must aggressively and creatively fake it while drowning in shame, anxiety and anger. “True self love is the love the ocean has for the wave,” is the way writer and thinker Umair Haque puts it. Though we use different terms for worthiness, they point in one direction — which is a total contrast to selfish, arrogant or narcissistic ways. Following Kristen Neff’s description of self-compassion, worthiness is the inner reassurance that helps us get past the very moments when egoic self-esteem fails.
The confusion between self-esteem and worthiness in leaders is particularly dangerous. The leader who relies on self-esteem, on being “better than” others (and helping others feel “better than,” too) may well attract followers, but the entire movement is premised on what it is against and in competition with, rather than reflecting the light of what it is for. The consequences are destructive because the only way to sustain the esteem is to lower the value of others, over and over, creating an inner circle, a dogma, a new enemy everyday. It is the path to rigidity, conflict, paranoia and, and ultimately, brutality called out as “winning.”
How then does one “come upon” this intrinsic worthiness? Is it so elusive? For surely if it already was the universal experience, we wouldn’t be where we are as a society. In my own experience, the process of uncovering this worthiness has been incremental, the result of making very difficult decisions, of coming to terms with emotional pain, of building and repairing relationships, surrendering to arduous circumstances, and also of finding clues, often in works of art — a novel, a spiritual tract, a piece of music, a painting or photograph, a poem (such as Mary Oliver’s The Journey). It would not be accurate to say the process has been challenging all the time. There have been plenty of moments of joy, transcendent engagement, collaboration, and connection, of holding a higher purpose, of loving and giving. And there was one very special meditative insight about the role of beauty, silence, timelessness and community in my life and work. But the truth for me is that the worthiness I feel has more often emerged out of darkness than light.
This has made me sensitive to how we leaders often want simple, external or analytical answers to our problems that do not require us to delve too much into the painfully emotional but potentially self-revelatory aspects of our circumstances:
• A young manager struggles with a decision to leave her job or stay. She may want to make a decision in a way that does not hurt her pride but that is a tall order given her circumstances, and whatever way she turns she may experience embarrassment, doubt, and guilt. Somehow she must find an angel within to guide her.
• A high-level administrator must make sure everything is done right, even if he has to do it himself. He has difficulty delegating, of course, but his boss is also worried about him physically — his hyper-attention to mistakes and possible mistakes stresses him. Somehow he must experience his value beyond mere performance and achievement.
• A consultant has received considerable feedback that his work plan will fail with his client. He goes ahead anyway, asserting the plan “should” work but privately worried that he absolutely must be right in the face of the feedback in order to prove his skills and knowledge. Predictably, the work fails and he is fired. Somehow he must find a way out of his humiliation.
• A small management team has difficulty discussing a company’s realities, the mistrust that exists, the problems with productivity and morale. Instead the team works on trivial issues, as guided by the team’s leader who fears opening up the real problems and who “takes everything personally.” Somehow she must find the courage to tackle those problems head on with her team’s help.
How can we find this place of worthiness in the face of our own denials, rationalizations, blaming of others and self-sabotaging behaviors? This million dollar question may seem almost unanswerable. Kristin Neff would say it is in being kind to ourselves instead of critical, accepting our flawed selves and our humanity, and learning to be truly mindful of the suffering we experience rather than stuffing it or denying it. These are beautiful answers. To them I would add the notion that we all have interior doors and windows that lead us out of our smaller selves, and when we learn to open them, it is what comes into us from “out there” that is the key. The point is that you cannot generate worthiness entirely on your own and out of nothing. But it comes, if invited — and especially in the tough moments when there is absolutely nothing else you can do. There is, I believe, beneath everything a kind of cosmic reassurance that we are good, that we are enough, that we are deserving, and that embedded in this experience is all of our true courage, our love, our trust in one another, and our ability to do the right thing. Our fundamental wholeness is given, not made. It is the experience of this birthright, belief, and (for me) fact that brings me happiness.
And how then do we open those doors and windows more frequently to what we are all part of?
Well, there I’m afraid you must find your own practice, but personally I like to take walks in the mountains, get my feet wet in the ocean and, every so often, go down to the river and just wait.
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