The renowned German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once said, “There is only one journey. Going inside yourself.” For Rilke, inquiries such as: Who am I?, Why am I here?, What’s real?, What matters?, Do I matter?, were questions were worth probing, even though final answers invariably escape us.  Rilke was not alone – since the beginning of recorded history, mystics, thought leaders, and sages have been very clear about the importance of living a life that seeks to find meaning and truth by turning inward. Why is it, then, that, for most of us, the Inward Journey of Leadership is not more of a priority?

First, there’s a prevailing, taken for granted, view today that turning inward to reflect and wonder is something we do on the side, like a hobby or diversion, rather than a vital, central pursuit. The predominant social narratives that shape our thinking emphasize an external orientation. From birth, we are thrown into a culture that tells us what is required to be successful. Our everyday self becomes what Martin Heidegger called the “they-self,” the self that follows the crowd and does what “they” do. The “they-self” calls the shots, telling us what we need to do and acquire to look good and measure up. “One of the clearest dangers in modern society,” observed John Gardner, “is that men and women will lose the experience of participating in meaningful decisions concerning their own life and work, that they will become like cogs in the machine because they feel like cogs in the machine…. They tend to accept the spectator role and to sink into passivity.”

Second, our business and busyness carry the day. In preoccupying ourselves with maintaining our pace and position on the hamster wheel, almost blindly following the herd, we lose the awe and mystery of existence in a tranquilized and habitual world.  In those moments when we sense that the world needs a radically different course, we say to ourselves and to others, “I’m too busy. I’m swamped. That’s not my problem. I can’t do anything about that anyway. That’s just the way the world is.” Endlessly distracted by this fire or that burning issue, the only good day is the one where we get through our checklist. 

Third, we tend to live our lives as if we are derivatives of the Big Bang, rather than an on-going part of. When we live as if we are random by-products of an impersonal universe, we occur for ourselves (and other occur for us) as something like separate objects with properties – physical properties, psychological properties, and personal property (possessions, titles, positions). Driven by the need to be valid and validated, we stoke any fire that will feed those emotions that tell us we’re worthy, legitimate, and important. We buy fancy cars, pay for face lifts, and brag about how busy we are. We don’t consider that maybe each of us is part of the process in and through which the universe is unfolding, evolving, and revealing itself. To make all of this less theoretical and more practical, let’s assume for a moment that who you are most fundamentally is not an object with properties but rather a unique manifestation (disclosure) of the universe. In the elegant words of Lewis Mumford, “The physical universe is unable to behold itself, except through the eyes of man, unable to speak for itself, except through the human voice….” Thus, if you take Mumford’s words at face value, the unfolding of the universe, and in particular the future of our planet, is very much up to each of us.  It is by means of the inward journey that we begin to discover who we really are.

Finally, many people don’t know what the Inward Journey of Leadership entails. We often think of it as something mysterious or otherworldly, too elusive to get our hands on. But there are easily accessible practices to get you started (see How Do I Get Started on the Inward Journey?). Your path is your own; only you can blaze that path. If your path is all laid out in front of you, then it’s not yours. You create your journey with each step you take. Unless and until we embark on the inward journey of leadership, which is where the source of our wisdom resides and where transformation begins, we will fail to adequately address our biggest and ugliest problems. We must make this journey because as Huston Smith said, “As human beings we are made to surpass ourselves and are truly ourselves only when we are transcending ourselves.”