Your Path of Transformation
The most important journey you will take in your life will usually be the one of self transformation. ~ Shannon Alder
Overview of the Inward Journey of Leadership
From both a practical and a romantic sense, we are here in this life to lead ourselves on a voyage of self-discovery. We call this venture the inward journey of leadership. It is inward because it requires that we go “inside ourselves” so we can dig, discover, and discern, somewhat like an archeologist. It is a journey in that it is a lifelong undertaking filled with unexpected turns and surprises. And, it is an exercise in leadership because it is about you leading yourself to uncover your innate self-expression, your deepest commitments, and your true greatness.
Our vision – the future we are committed to – is a world where all human beings choose to make the inward journey a priority. Our work focuses on helping people embark on the inward journey, discover its value, stick with it, and weave into the fabric of their everyday life. Why? Because, the inward journey of leadership, once undertaken, acts as a guide, a foundation that grants us serenity and steadfastness amidst the confusion. It also prepares each of us to lead more effectively, out in the world. Without the inner journey we cannot fully connect with others, and we lack the wisdom and will to tackle our most vexing global challenges. Yet, when our inner work is isolated from others, its full expression is suppressed, not fully shared. Sadly, the “commercialization” of our day to day existence has encouraged an almost exclusively external orientation – one that impedes the inward journey and contributes to the lack of meaning and purpose that permeate our lives today.
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Unleashing the authentic leader within is less about becoming a better strategic thinker and more about a process of personal transformation. The journey is for everyone – the only requirement is being human. But, sadly, many people say, “I don’t have time for reflection and self-discovery. I’m too busy. My life is more frenzied than ever.” We don’t set aside time to “go inside” ourselves to reflect, to make our personal growth a priority. But only by looking inside can we thoughtfully address the turmoil and injustice that has infiltrated our planet. It is during these turbulent times that we must turn to our fundamental values and ideals as the ultimate source of truth when making choices and setting priorities. It is on the inward journey that we discover the energy that is the source of our leadership. Our values, our dreams, and our ability to overcome adversity, ultimately come from this energy.
On this inward journey, our taken for granted understanding of leadership begins to change. We start to “see” leadership less as being about a person in charge and more as a property of a living system, a kind of energy that circulates in the bloodstream of a person, an organization, a country, and a world. We begin to comprehend leadership as less about power and more about compelling ideas and possibilities. This emerging view of leadership contends that language, as opposed to power, is the leader’s most valuable resource. What leaders say and how they say it can make all the difference in the world. Imagine the diminished impact of Martin Luther King’s words if he had said, “I have a business strategy” instead of “I have a dream.”
Our planet is losing direction and purpose and is in urgent need of renewal. An exclusive external focus on winning, looking good, standing out, and measuring up contributes to our inner restlessness, a growing sense that something is missing in our lives. The herculean task of creating a world where everybody counts begin on the inside. Before leaders can help their organizations and communities become more effective, before they can commit to a set of enduring core values, they must first know themselves. The sections that follow outline key practices for embarking on the invariably challenging, always humbling, sometimes disquieting but deeply rewarding inward journey of leadership. Join us on the most important journey of your life. [/show_more]
Start on the Inward Journey: Construct Your Life Story
While no two inward journeys are the same, there are a set of practices, routines, and habits that can help everyone get started. They are not cumbersome (they are, in fact, freeing) and their utility will become apparent in short order. In our experience, if you stick with these practices, they will, over time, become more second nature. This will allow you to create new “linguistic distinctions,” which, by virtue of enabling you to see things in new light, become contexts from and through which you live your life differently (to include being less judgmental and more grateful).
The first practice, Constructing Your Life Story, is a good place to start. We all have a life story. Our story is our life and our life is our story. In Professor David Carr’s words, our life narratives “are told in being lived and lived in being told.” Our life stories are somehow important for our identity – they tell us who we are by providing us with a self-concept (our concept of who we are and how we fit into the world) and an identity from which we lead ourselves and others. In Don Polkinghorne’s words, “we come to know ourselves by discerning a plot that unifies the actions and events of our past with future actions and the events we anticipate.” Our story forms the basis of our self-understanding and it helps answer questions such as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What do I care about deeply?”
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Our life stories have less to do with the “facts” of what took place in our past and more to do with the way in which those facts and events occur for us. In other words, our life stories are interpretations and explanations from which we draw meaning. Bestselling author John Green reminds us that, “you do not remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.” Here’s where we can get into trouble. Sometimes our identity gets constructed from life stories that we constructed (usually in our childhood) in response to something someone said or did that we interpreted as meaning we were not good enough. When this happens, the story (e.g., I’m not smart enough, I’m not attractive enough, I don’t get enough attention) can become a belief, which can linger on for a long time, creating an enormous burden in our lives, limiting relationships and sapping our energy. The brain’s account of an event (I flunked that exam so I’m a loser) is an inaccurate version of what really happened (I flunked), but the brain’s interpretation becomes our truth, our reality. When we are able to separate what really happened from our story about what happened, we discover that much of what we considered already given may not be the truth. Beliefs (about self, others, and relationships) that may have been perceived to be fixed in stone now become open to change.
So, start constructing your life story. Examine your past and organize your life experiences into a story that clarifies your self-concept. You are your own active autobiographer, who interprets, reinterprets, and integrates your experiences, attributing meaning to them to create a story in which you are the protagonist. Confront the stories that are holding you back, the ones that tell you you’re not good enough, and rewrite them.
You and I can intentionally shape our growth and evolution into more conscious beings. We don’t need to wait for Darwin. We have to start with developing an understanding of how we became who we are today. The good news is that you can rewrite your disempowering stories. You wrote them, you can rewrite them. You can’t change what happened to you but you can change the way in which what happened occurs for you. When you take this on, you will start to “see” differently, and that’s the first step to transformation.
Get to know (and accept) yourself again, for the first time
The Ancient Greek aphorism gnōthi seauton (know thyself) was inscribed above the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi when it was built some 2700 years ago. The maxim was later expounded upon by Socrates when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates claimed that, of all forms of understanding, understanding oneself is our most important pursuit.
It may seem rather obvious that you know who you are. But the process is not so straightforward. “Most people are other people,” points out Oscar Wilde. “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Wilde is pointing to the inexorableness with which we are all a product of our socialization and the extent to which most of us are crowd conformers. Martin Heidegger uses the term das Man (the “they”) to denote the mass of people in the world who just follow the herd. We listen to what “they” say, we buy what “they” buy, and we do what “they do.” We become prisoners of what “they” think. This domesticated taken for grantedness takes place at the expense of discovering who we really are.
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There are at least two consequences of following with the crowd and forgoing an inward journey of self-discovery. First, we defer to the crowd as the source of what it means to be successful, popular, and legit. In so doing, we absolve ourselves from any kind of inner work. Second, we start to “see” one another as objects with properties, i.e., physical traits (gender, skin tone), internal traits (thoughts, feelings, personalities) and possessions (titles, positions). These properties often determine our status in life.
The process of acquiring an identity begins in childhood as we adopt ways of being and acting to deal successfully with things that didn’t quite go the way we thought they should. Perhaps your grades didn’t live up to your parents’ expectations, perhaps you didn’t turn out to be the athlete your father wanted you to be. Because of those perceived shortcomings, maybe you learned to be industrious, domineering, or cautious. By the time we reach adulthood, we have assembled a set of behaviors and attributes and ways of doing things that seem to give us a certain measure of success. These contribute to and shape our personality, who we consider ourselves to be. This inauthentic way of being becomes automatic and non-reflective, except in terms of calculated designs, arbitrated by what society and the media tells us what success is. The measures of success – fitting in, looking good, belonging to the right country club, living in the right community – become our focus. The result of living such an inauthentic life may cause us to experience what Paul Tillich calls the “anxiety of meaninglessness – anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern.”
The inward journey of leadership is the venue for each of us to discover anew who we really are. But it is not about discovering an inner self that withdraws from others and retreats to a spa in the mountain. Rather, it is about our willingness to take on our entrenched beliefs, our fears, and our vulnerabilities so we can lead ourselves and others more effectively. Only then, we will be in a position to unleash the authentic self (see https://dihi.org/sites/default/files/science-of-leading-yourself.pdf).
Nobel Laureate Saul Bellows reminds us that, as human beings, we are confronted with “an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.” This pursuit begins by examining two related questions: What is really important to me? What do I care about deeply? In this sense, living the good life is about what life wants from you. In the words of Howard Thurman, former dean of the chapel at Boston University, “Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Consider that, most fundamentally, you are a unique manifestation of the Universe. In other words, you are on display along with all the other forms of life (and non-life) that comprise the universe. Humans being, however, can choose how they will be on display. We can choose how we “show up” each day. We can choose how we will spend our time and we can choose the commitments we will make in life. As Margaret Farley said, “The history of the human race, as well as the story of any one life, might be told in terms of commitments.” Rosa Parks, for example, was committed to racial equality. She took a stand, in December of 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. She was convicted of violating a local ordinance, but her commitment sparked a citywide boycott of the bus system that raised the visibility of an unknown clergyman named Martin Luther King, Jr.
For each of us, this new way of understanding who we are – a unique manifestation of the infiniteness of life opposed to an object with properties – can only come from the inward journey of leadership. When we make this shift, it will be like getting to know ourselves again for the first time.
Get in touch with your spirituality because you have one and it’s powerful
“Spirituality” is a polarizing word, which can make it a difficult concept to talk about right from the start. Because the word means different things to different people, it can trigger strong emotions and misunderstandings. In the extreme, these misconceptions have led to many of the atrocities that have become an almost permanent feature of contemporary life. This is, however, no need for “spirituality” to be so divisive.
I find Nelson Thayer’s take on spirituality to be impartial, informative, and useful. He writes, “In the most general sense, spirituality has to do with how we experience ourselves in relation to what we designate as the source of ultimate power and meaning in life and how we live out this relationship. Spirituality is not merely inner feelings; it has to do with the integration and coherence of ourselves as experiencing and acting persons.” Being spiritual, then, is a very natural way of being human. Research by Andrew Newberg indicates that the human impulse to transcend and to connect with something larger than ourselves is rooted in the biology of the brain.
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Since everyone has some view of how life and the Universe works, no matter how narrow or nonconforming, everyone has a spirituality. Our spiritual worldview is often reflected in the way in which we answer questions such as: Is the world a cruel place, one where you must look out for yourself, or as a compassionate place? Does the cosmos have a purpose, or do you see it as a vast stretch of impersonal empty space? Is the universe ruled by a stern taskmaster who keeps score or is it one big cause and effect?
Making time on your inward journey to probe these big questions is important. Try to notice the extent to which your answers have already been taken-for-granted, thrust upon you by your parents, your peers, and social media. Often, the biggest hurdle is overcoming your reluctance to challenge what you’ve been taught. You want to find answers to these questions for yourself. As the Buddha said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
Delving into these enigmas is important for two reasons. First, getting in touch with your spirituality becomes the foundation upon which you hammer out your values and ideals, which in turn shape your choices and your commitments – in short, how you “show up” in life. You may conclude that you don’t experience any ultimate reality or power in the Universe and that life is a kind of “one and done.” Fair enough, that’s your spirituality. It is as valid as any else’s spirituality in virtue of being yours. Notice how your spirituality shapes the way in which life occurs for you.
Second, an increasing number of people are experiencing spirituality as complementary to science as a method of discovering truth. Einstein told us nearly 50 years ago that “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Eckart Tolle says that the universe is awakening; it wants to become more conscious, and the main life purpose for all human beings, is to align with that universal purpose. The inward journey can provide access to higher levels of consciousness – deeper truths about what is real and what is important. It can support people in taking on their insecurities and fears, enabling them to become more centered, more grounded, more forgiving, and more human.
Day in, day out, whether we know it or not, we are on this inward journey of leadership, wrestling, sometimes with ourselves and always with those impenetrable questions that frame our quest: Who am I? What does it mean that I’m here? What is truth? In grappling with these brain-breaking inquiries, we sometimes lose our bearings or search for answers in the wrong places. But they won’t go away because they are questions of “meaning and purpose,” says Edward O. Wilson, and in searching we “attempt to formulate humankind’s noblest and most enduring goals.”
Access to the arena of the inward journey in which we wrestle these questions has become more difficult. The two big external constraints are time and bombardment. The amount stuff coming at us each day, both in terms of the demands at work and raw data inputs, is overwhelming. Much of our existence seems trivial and inexplicable, and yet we want it all to mean something. Wonder, it appears, is wired into the brain. “Even as empiricism is winning the mind,” writes EO Wilson, “transcendentalism continues to win the heart…. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.”
Let your authentic stand find you
“The history of the human race,” wrote Yale Professor Margaret Farley, “as well as the story of any one life, might be told in terms of commitments.” Our commitments in life define us – they reveal what we care about, what’s important to us. They are how others remember us after we are gone. Each of us is committed, often to several allegiances. We may be committed to our job, to our family, to distributive justice, and/or to work-life balance. Even those people who are committed to beating the system or just getting by in life can have strength of conviction. In that sense, we are all taking a “stand” for some future.
One’s stand reveals itself as the actions one takes to bring one’s commitment to life. There is nothing inherently wrong with committing to one’s own personal goals (e.g., getting a promotion or a raise) but what makes a stand truly authentic – and powerful – is when that stand goes beyond one’s personal agenda. An authentic stand is always about putting time and energy into creating a future that is bigger than ourselves. In Einstein’s words: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” In giving your word to these authentic commitments you bring them to life through your word in action. Living out your commitments gives your life purpose and joy.
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I make a distinction between inauthentic and authentic stands because, as Martin Heidegger pointed out a century ago, any stand that blindly “follows the crowd” rather than one’s own convictions is inauthentic. Conformity is the most common form of inauthenticity – when we conform because “everyone else does”, we become enslaved and we limit our possibilities. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Inauthentic stands are relatively common and are driven largely by the messages we get from our culture. When we become overly attached to our roles, our titles, our rank and our possessions – those indicators that our culture places a premium on – and use them to convince ourselves that we are valid, they can become obsessions. There is no room for our authentic stand. This need to keep up with the Joneses results in, as the actor Walter Slezak said in 1957, “spending money you don’t have for things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.” This focus on looking good and measuring up can make discovering our authentic stand tricky. Which commitments convey the real me? A good way to start is to ask yourself: What do I ache for in this world? The first step in the project of being authentic, writes Professor Charles Guignon “is the task of pulling yourself back from your entanglements in social game-playing and going with the flow so that you can get in touch with your real, innermost self. This task requires intensive inward-turning, whether such self-inspection is called ‘introspection,’ ‘self-reflection,’ or ‘meditation.’ The assumption underlying … is that there is a substantial self lying deep within each of us, a self with attributes that are both distinctively our own and profoundly important as guides for how we ought to live.”
As simple as finding and following one’s passions might seem, the feeling of not knowing “what to do with my life” is very familiar. Moreover, being constantly told that we must find our calling, our ultimate purpose, can be overwhelming and become a burden. Finding your stand often requires experimentation. Professor Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School advises throwing yourself into new territories and experimenting with new ways of working and interacting with people so that our habitual patterns of thought and action are challenged. In so doing, we often gain some clarity about what we inherently enjoy. While we may not have any particular calling, we do have preferences and inclinations. Some of us gravitate towards sports, others toward academics, and others towards music or art. These preferences are shaped by biology and by shaped by culture.
Taking your stand may come with risk or at a price. You might have to go out on a limb. You may be tempted to back down. That’s why leadership can be dangerous stuff. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. took a stand for justice and equality. It cost them both their lives. Nelson Mandela took a stand for the freedom of his people and ended up in prison for twenty-seven years. While such big stands can have a far-reaching positive impact, much more common are those stands that are less public, less visible, and often go unnoticed. The physician who commits to providing his patients with the best care possible, is taking a stand for the inviolability of the doctor-patient relationship. The teacher who promises to provide her class with the best education possible is taking a stand for her students. The single mom who makes a pledge to be the best mother she can be is taking a stand for her children. The scientist who makes a commitment to report the results of his experiments without massaging the data is taking a stand for scientific integrity. Stands are what make real leadership happen.
At the end of the day, our stands reflect our desire to know who we are and to become whole and complete. In taking a stand, we find our voice. But we must go within because within is where our stands can find us and redeem us. Discovering who you really are involves letting go of who you think you are. We may not find the answers, but we will find meaning and purpose. Freeing ourselves of the burden of finding our purpose – and letting it find us – grants us the space to simply live authentically.
If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.
~ Joseph Campbell