10 Qualities of Visionary Leaders and Healers in Transitional Times
9th April 2015
Guest Writer for Wake Up World
Let’s push it, let’s birth it. Let’s create and heal and risk the pain. I love the way you lead the way, the way you risk that disapproving sneer, the distasteful glare. I love the way you dive right into the fear of isolation and rejection, just to become the truth. Sure, we want to be good and to be loved, but following the rules has never unveiled the joy we seek.
Now is not the time to follow the old rules!
The world is in a great initiation, a giant transition. It’s time to question the (de)construction of every wall. Those of us willing to identify as leaders and healers are uniquely poised to help this process. Surviving crisis is written in our DNA, but this time around, the scale is larger.
Many of us have had the luxury of time spent together in friendship, spiritual or professional community, celebrating the cycles of the planet and imagining the world that is to come. Our intention is sent out to create that world where natural resources are valued, everyone has what they need and our relationships with plants and animals are healthy. We want to recognize the interdependence of our lives with other humans. We are surrounded by people who may have a different view of what is coming or who may fear the events that are unfolding around our climate, racial justice and change in economy.
The Great Turning
In their book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone outline three paradigms about the way that the world is going right now.
The first is Business as Usual; this seems to be the way that most of Western urbanized culture is going. Governments still recommend economic progress based on overuse of resources; the media still gives the message to consume. No change is recommended anytime soon.
In The Great Unraveling story, it is the opposite. All the dire truths about this time weigh heavy and there is no other direction except for imminent destruction.
The third paradigm, The Great Turning, is about a major transition in lifestyle and actions to shift human culture towards a holistic healing relationship with our planet.
People who are practicing Business as Usual seem to be living in denial about climate changes, extinction of species and extreme economic disparity. When faced with this story, everything can feel hopeless and we find ourselves spending hours searching the internet or distracting ourselves. It is seductive to engage in The Great Unraveling as well. This one feels like we are really doing something by convincing people how bad it is out there. Our urgency feels like the opposite of apathy. Perhaps we grow more desperate, thinking that it is too late for significant change; that we are surely doomed.
In healing leadership, we continue to revisit The Great Turning as a possibility for the future. We share what is so painful and exciting about being alive right now. We remember what is worth fighting for and loving; and what qualities leaders need in the real world to bring The Great Turning to life.
Qualities of Visionary Leaders and Healers
Capacity For Holding Grief.
We are in a time where many things are changing and being lost. Sometimes, the growth on the other side of loss isn’t immediately obvious. Our opportunities to sit with people who are in distress may increase.
In many of the healing arts, there are techniques around energetic shielding to effectively help people process deep emotions without taking them on ourselves. Grief sometimes elicits anger, anxiety or fear which can be difficult to support. The tendency can be to try and ‘fix it’ so the person will stop expressing the emotion we perceive as negative. In Chinese medicine, all emotions move qi (life force) through us. Emotions are in service to our health and they will not be endless. When people feel things intensely, we can learn to give them space and empathy. We cannot fix it and sometimes what people want is to be physically or emotionally held so that they can keep going.
If you do not feel comfortable around heavy emotions, ask yourself what is hard for you about it. How can you grow your capacity to hold people in transformation? What are the resources in your community to help people process loss and anger?
Just as we expand our ability to hold suffering, it is also necessary to become excellent at rejuvenation. At a memorial service for my friend, Jim Brandau, we were told that one of Jim’s great mottos was a rule from the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. “All participants are required to lend to the joy of the fiesta.” Our joy matters now more than ever.
One of the first signs of trouble in an activist campaign is when we lose enthusiasm. As leaders, we are responsible for knowing what brings us pleasure, how we can find respite. Our self care becomes more vital than ever. Because passion and motivation are such wonderful qualities in leaders, we must be ever seeking inspiration.
What are ten practices that refill you? Who are the people or beings who help you relax, reconnect with resources and with yourself?
Ability to Listen and Synthesize.
We all love leaders who have brilliant ideas and communicate them in a succinct way. Even more coveted is the ability to synthesize what has been said. Leaders who release attachment to their own ideas and draw together the passionate opinions of others are needed. One of us is rarely as brilliant as all of us and the marriage of different ideas is a way to achieve innovative solutions. It is great to restate people’s words in a group, ensuring that everyone understands what is being said and allowing individuals to edit their own offering. Crafty leaders also begin to notice when folks are saying similar things and make proposals.
I am an unapologetic fan of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. His assertion that every human being has the same needs is revolutionary. I have seen his system bring more empathy and ability for people in serious conflict to reconnect than any other. We have conflict when an underlying need of ours is not being met. Leaders can use NVC (or another comparable system) to assess what unmet need is causing the upset in a group and help to meet the need if possible. When leaders seek conflict resolution training, we all have a better chance of moving forward.
Intimate Relationship With Our Challenges.
Thank goodness we are imperfect. It is a lifelong struggle to accept this about ourselves and in leadership, it is amplified. Our ability to be aware of our own challenges and to be kind to ourselves around the ways that we make mistakes is imperative. I recommend making a list of tendencies that sometimes feel like barriers to success. Along with a commitment to work on them, give yourself permission to be an imperfect leader. Ask a trusted mentor to be ‘on call’ to give a reality check if they see your challenges becoming a problem. It can be freeing to give your challenges names, faces and personalities. Now, when I hear my Rigid Controller (RC for short) start to speak inside my head, I have much more empathy for myself and ability to edit what that part of me has to say.
Ability To Laugh At Ourselves.
We are funny monkeys! We do strange and outrageous things. The more we relax and give a good guffaw when we can’t control things, the easier it is to lead others in doing the same. I love it when anyone in leadership asks for a “do over” when they do something that they didn’t intend. The more sense of humor that is displayed, the more my respect grows. Taking ourselves too seriously has got to go.
Ability to Apologize When Our Impact Does Not Meet Intention.
Cedar Barstow emphasizes that even with the purest intention, what we say or do may still feel offensive. We hate that. We want to explain and excuse ourselves. We want people to think well of us. Often, the best thing to do is just apologize. It can be the most disarming thing. More information from you may be welcome after that or not. I will sometimes even get advice about another way that it could have been said or done to achieve the impact that I want. Leading with an authentic apology when something has gone awry, rather than a defense, is one of the best moves a leader can make.
Showing the Vulnerability That Builds Trust.
We want to see ourselves in our leaders. It is difficult to see ourselves in people who appear to be perfect. I consistently get feedback that writing or telling stories about overcoming obstacles in my life or the places where I still struggle are helpful to others. We feel hopeful when we see people we admire be vulnerable. We trust them more. It awakens the mammal in us. People want to know how you arrived where you are. There is an art to sharing your personal stories. Oversharing from the center of your unprocessed painful experience might cause mistrust. However, giving some personal details about what you are experiencing now or what you have been through to get where you are today will help us connect to you.
Truth is not simple these days. Leaders who can do the mental gymnastics of holding two opposing truths simultaneously are in demand. The ocean levels are rising and there are millions of organizations creating healing and justice in the world. How can we hold disparate realities as being relevant and accurate? There is a way to shift our perception of the world to support our actions and resolve and it will require a strong relationship to holding paradox.
Stress Relief Techniques.
The Dalai Lama recently said that humans are in a pandemic of anxiety and depression. While this may be appropriate given what is happening to our planet, it can keep us helpless. Our ability to feel deeply and move our emotions through us is paramount. What are the ways we can support ourselves and each other in doing this? This is connected to our capacity for rejuvenation but also necessary just to keep moving, to get out of bed in the morning. Our media and our circumstances keep our nervous system in constant sympathetic arousal. We must find breathing techniques, movement, exercise, and relaxation, anything to get us back to our creative brain and out of reaction. What does this for you?
Contributing to the Transition
One of our challenges is to take our wisdom into a world that may not understand what we do. People may be repulsed or frightened by our beliefs or the words we use to self identify. We must not be deterred. The skills we have are desperately needed. People will sense who you are and ask you to assist in their crisis, facilitate their meetings, interpret their dreams, perform their memorial service, create art or ritual for them, settle their arguments, or answer their questions about spirituality or medicine for these times. How will you respond?
Carolyn Raffensperger asks a provocative question in an interview with Derek Jensen. “What is the biggest and most important problem in the world that you can [help to] solve with your unique skills and abilities?” I pose this question to all current and potential leaders and healers. It helps us face the size of the transition with which we are dealing but also to see our distinctive contribution to it.
Sometimes, our protest results in a policy change, our patient recovers, our kids learn something, our client feels better, our students understand; we make a visible difference that we can acknowledge. Those are great moments, but our attachment to having them happen frequently is problematic. Sometimes we have to do the work that is directly in front of us and not see the results of our actions. Instead, we may have to trust that our children, students, or some descendent in the future may be touched by what we do. We can continue to support each other and hold the vision. There is no certainty about where we are going. All we can do is exactly what is in front of us and contribute as much as possible to the joy of the ongoing fiesta unfolding around us.
I suspect we have enough of everything we need to make this transition. Let’s keep going. Squeeze out that last drop of wonder in the tube. Stop clenching and clawing and clamping down. Open your chest, your heart, your lower back, your whole life. Live audaciously all the way to the edge and I will too.