A Sacred Responsibility

It was now mid-afternoon, the sun was relentless, and we had spent hours walking in the splendor of the temples of Luxor. We felt hot and tired so we decided to hire a horse-drawn buggy to return to our hotel. The two people I was traveling with were both Lebanese and we all taught together at the same school in Beirut. As we made our way south along the river, the driver and my friends carried on a conversation. Though I usually liked participating with my basic Arabic, on this occasion I spaced out. Later, with much delight, they reported what had transpired.

What they found especially amusing was that he wanted to know how wide the Nile was where I came from. They told him that the Nile didn’t flow there. He was amazed to hear that and had a hard time believing it. His question was, “But how can people live without the Nile?”

Later, as I thought about it, I realized that any direction he went from where he was led him either into lifeless desert or lush, green settlements like his own. His entire world either lived by the Nile or died without it.

Many people from all over the world excitedly visit Luxor. Most visitors encountered by our driver, especially those who looked different from him — as I did — would not speak Arabic and he spoke no other language. Thus, his exposure to the concept of a larger world could easily remain limited. In fact, with so many people visiting Luxor, he could assume that he lived at the very center of the universe. After all, everyone came to where he was. He isn’t alone in holding this view, which has little to do with education or income level. For myself, I notice that even though I have much more experience than he with such things as maps and time zones, distances, and cultures, I also operate as though anywhere I am at any given moment is the center of all that is unless and until I consciously shift my attention to considering a larger reality.

Enlarging the Context

Believing Luxor to be the center of the universe perhaps explains some of the driver’s mindset. But what about ours? If, instead, we had been able to consider the intention behind his question — if we had been able to enlarge the context — we might have heard him asking something like, “What is the source-of-water-that-maintains-life where she comes from?” For that is what he was truly asking. Enlarging the context means increasing the scale within which we live day to day by recognizing that the center of the universe is greater than our individual street addresses and the routes upon which we travel in our daily routines. In New World New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich write, “the human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world.” In other words, they are suggesting that the evolution of our minds has not kept pace with what we have created. The way the authors most vividly illustrate the current state of our minds is by saying that we have not evolved beyond seeing danger as a bear at the door of the cave. We still tend to respond or react only to what is most immediate. For example, public interest can easily be maintained for two whales drowning in the Arctic Ocean but we find it much more difficult to sustain our awareness and interest in the plight of life in general. Thus, enlarging our context means making a conscious decision to see more than individual events; to make a daily practice of focusing on the systemic nature of our world and the processes that are evolving within it.

Sifting for Essence

Enlarging the context also means sifting for essence and meaning beneath the veneer of our often hypnotic cultural trance. It means breaking out of a trance more than exchanging one trance for another.

In the last few years much has been expressed about the “new paradigm” in business. I respect the valiant attempts to articulate the emerging values, methods, and scenarios. I say valiant because, by definition, outcomes of transformative change are unknown during emergence. But one phenomenon bothers me. Several writers — including Michael Ray in New Traditions in Business, John Renesch in Creative Work, Philip Harris in High Performance Leadership, and Marilyn Ferguson in The New Paradigm in Business — have developed charts that have a left hand column which generally describes the dark, shadow aspects of the old and a right hand column that generally describes the light, visionary aspects of the new. These descriptions can be seductive and misleading. First, they are described in the “old paradigm” form. Secondly, whether consciously or unconsciously, any sensible person would want to identify with the right and not the left. As is common in our throwaway culture, there’s movement toward throwing away the “old paradigm” for the “new paradigm.” Separating the world so literally and linearly is also “old.”

Instead of trading “old” for “new,” we need to sift everywhere for essence — in the ancient and the emerging, facing into the dark and basking in the light, letting what’s outside in and what’s inside out, simultaneously living in this very moment while considering seven generations to come, knowing that what we do “here” has ripple effects everywhere, playing our individual parts while always being aware of the framework of a larger whole.

Global Goes Beyond Geography

Looking at language can provide important clues to cultural changes because language not only expresses our reality but also forms it. We are currently using the word “global” to mean “worldwide” which I think is parallel to how the buggy driver was using “Nile.” And, I suspect, somewhere deep inside of ourselves we know that the concept of “global” goes far beyond geography.

Until recently, businesses referred to themselves almost exclusively as “international” or “multinational.” The shift to the use of “global,” while subtle, is significant because the words have very different meanings and implications. Both “international” and “multinational” are based on our current governmental structure of nation states and refer to relationships based on nations. They both imply that the relationships can be between some nations but not others. “Global”, on the other hand, has nothing in particular to do with nations. Other meanings for the word are “universal” and “relating to a whole.”

For companies that truly have a vision of being global, the expansion of human minds and hearts is more than geographic expansion. Just as underneath the driver’s use of “Nile” was the deeper, more essential notion of water for maintaining life, under our common use of “global” there is also a deeper, more essential notion of wholeness. Therefore, a global business is a business — whether worldwide or not — that has a vision of questing toward wholeness — for itself, for the people within it, for the world at large.

Leadership Goes Beyond Position Power

And what does this mean about leadership and, particularly, business leadership? First, in this context, the definition of leadership goes far beyond position power. In today’s world, anyone who has the time, money and energy to be reading this book, must acknowledge her or himself as a potential global leader. Going back to the buggy driver, he may comprehend our interconnected fate at a local or visceral level but he does not have the frame of reference to comprehend the totality of the changes that are occurring on earth. And he is one of the lucky ones. He lives well. The vast majority of our fellow humans can see out only a few miles and a few meals — and even that requires good fortune.

Secondly, at this time in human history, business is the most powerful institution on earth and it represents a mushrooming, interconnected infrastructure that blankets the earth and, for the most part, works. Those people with power, authority, and responsibility for making decisions within businesses, by virtue of the powerful position that business inhabits, participate in determining the course of our collective future on a grand scale — whether they acknowledge it or not. Therefore, the more consciously we make choices that serve the whole of our planetary system, the more likely we are to have the luxury of sifting for essence and meaning in any form — whether at an individual or collective level.

The Price of Awareness

Here in the U.S., we have a bittersweet price to pay for being among the wealthiest two percent of human beings on earth today and for participating in the powerful arena of business. It’s the price of awareness.

I remember a day in Kenya when we stopped our vehicle on the side of the road to take a break — total silence on the savannah except for a whistling wind. In the distance was a shepherd with his sheep. I remember experiencing a feeling of romance about his life — so idyllic, such peacefulness. And I realized that I could never get to where he was — because of my frame of reference, my experience. On the other hand, I also remember seeing Ethiopian women leaving the refugee camp in Sudan very early in the morning to spend the entire day walking miles in an attempt to scrounge enough wood to cook the evening meal — so frantic, such burden. And I realized I didn’t want to ever get to where they were — that I was, in this case, grateful for my frame of reference, my experience.

A Sacred Responsibility

The price of awareness is enormous but not necessarily a sacrifice. It is a sacred responsibility for all of life as we know it. This is not about ego. It’s just what’s so. For paying the price, I believe we receive an attending gift. It is the gift of our own individual spiritual healing and evolution; of increased awareness and greater consciousness.

Sacred responsibility goes beyond social responsibility. Individuals and businesses that pick up the mantel of sacred responsibility carry it to a new level of evolution and hold it in a new way. They recognize that the only reason for us to be together in any collective way at all is for the perpetuation of life and the evolution of consciousness. With such a belief, profit remains essential to business viability but its status and importance change. Profit shifts from being an end in and of itself to being a means to an end instead. Keeping a business profitable becomes the means through which a group of human beings may grow, contribute from their deepest sense of purpose in life, and express their creative, generative life force or vitality.

Three Questions

At this point, three questions come to mind. First, why even consider such a radical departure from current conventional wisdom? Secondly, how can one approach this concept of global leadership as a sacred responsibility? And, third, what can we expect as a result?

1. Why Consider Looking at Global Leadership as a Sacred Responsibility?

By virtue of living on earth in these times, we face problems of a nature and magnitude unknown until now. First, the local parts of our global village can no longer live independently of each other. We are inextricably linked together. Focusing on the various symptoms of our worldwide malaise, the veritable societal “squeaky wheels” such as terrorism, poverty, and ethnic or political conflict just seem to be increasing their strength.

Secondly, businesses cannot continue to grow quantitatively. The math of the consumer orientation and our planetary limitations just don’t compute except toward implosion or extinction.

Third, a most dangerous obstacle we face is our fear. For, since the fear is uncomfortable, it tends to lead us collectively into denial. The fear and denial seem to come from glimpsing our not knowing what to do or how to control what faces us. It is true that we do not know what to do — we are at our collective level of incompetence. And we do not control what faces us. But then, we never have. The only difference now is that the illusion of control is becoming more and more transparent. Rather than deluding ourselves by thinking that we initiate or control the forces of our world, we must learn to traverse, leverage, and creatively thrive in the context of change.

2. How Can One Approach Global Leadership as a Sacred Responsibiity?

The first step is to make the choice. It means answering affirmatively to the questions, “Do I want to commit to expanding the center of my universe, enlarging my context, stepping into my power?” “Am I willing to pay the attending price of awareness?” Once the choice is made to move forward, the possibilities are innumerable. I will suggest three:

*            Nurture a Systems Orientation

*            Challenge Our Current Assumption About Growth

*            Face Into Life-on-earth-at-the-end-of-the-20th Century

Nurture a Systems Orientation

I was recently interviewing people in a large corporation. An aspect of the vision for their division is to distribute power and to create a setting where people can develop more of their potential. To do this, they have chosen to restructure themselves as “self-directed” teams. But people in the organization confuse self-directed with autonomous or on their own when, in fact, interdependent goals mean that people are more interrelated and dependent upon each other than ever before. “So big deal!” one leader says. “Let’s change the name and get on with it!”

But it’s not the name. Even with a name change an underlying issue remains. The hierarchy remains more or less completely intact in this division. It merely has a veneer of “team” placed on top of it. Changing a structure that has predominated at least since the Roman army is no small, easy, or quickly achieved objective.

We cannot affect our human systems by treating the symptoms — in this case, by overlaying a new form upon an old one. Fundamental change requires that we first collectively change our minds. The change of structures will naturally follow. The altering of basic assumptions can come about through providing frameworks for what’s changing in the world, how what’s changing affects people and their potential for contribution, what alternative forms we currently know something about, what space there is to create alternatives we haven’t yet pioneered. In other words, people must engage in breakthrough experiences about how they work together as well as about the work they are doing.

Challenge Our Current Assumption About Growth

The traffic is beyond my imagining! My hosts, friends from my days in Africa, tell me stories of daily life in Bangkok. Char talks of taking a book along whenever she goes in a taxi because the traffic can turn a twenty-minute commute into a three-hour ordeal. Terry speaks of disaster waiting to happen what with burgeoning high rise development — fifteen floors and more — and fire equipment that can only reach the fifth floor. As we walk through the streets my complaint is that I can’t breathe after a couple of blocks. My lungs literally ache. Even though it’s the middle of the day, the sun is red. The air is the worst I’ve ever experienced — indoors or out. Bangkok is a harbinger of what will be the common urban experience of life on earth — unless some fundamental practices change. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

As I share a meal with a friend and his family in Indonesia, my friend tells me that, recently, the village council — the elders — had seriously considered buying a tractor. On one hand, they discussed, it would be much more efficient than water buffalo and they would then become a modern village. “But on the other hand,” it was argued, “we’d have to buy petroleum and some of our people would lose their sources of livelihood.” In the end, the elders’ decision was to not buy a tractor. Their reasoning was that everyone was currently working and eating, living and loving. They had no designs on conquering the next village. Their conclusion was that a tractor had more potential for damaging the fabric of their community than for developing it.

The concept of x% business growth per year, year after year, out into a never-ending future is actually quite bizarre — except we are so used to it that, generally, we don’t question it or rethink it. It’s fascinating as a collectively held belief because it does not mirror what we know as “health” for living organisms. It does mirror organisms that we cannot control and that have the potential to kill us — like cancer.

It is critical to understand that if businesses wish to continue to have a viable world in which to operate, they must look for alternative ways of growing besides x% additional each year. There are useful clues to consider in the model of growth in natural, healthy life forms where, after a time, the growth this is valued and required is more qualitative than quantitative.

Face Into Life-on-earth-at-the-end-of-the-20th Century

Finally! I’m in India. This is my reward to myself for “hanging in there” through a difficult, and interminable, year in Somalia. On arriving, I checked into the most elegant and expensive hotel in Delhi — just long enough to have room service, browse in a gift shop, buy English books, watch videos, feel luxurious and leisurely. It was a relief, a way to relax. It felt the most like home of any place I’d been in over a year. I understood the rules and was able to get everything I wanted in addition to everything I needed. After two days I plunged deeper into India itself.

From the train, I was offered a living tableau of people, villages, and fields on the Indian plain on a hot day in June. Off in the distance I notice a large cooling tower of the kind that is often seen at nuclear power stations. On a road between the tower and the train, I see a man leading a cart pulled by oxen. At first, my thought is about how India is a country of such contrasts — ancient oxcart and high-tech cooling tower. Then, that juxtaposition served as the key to unlock a deeper thought.

What came to me was that, with the exception of places like the hotel in Delhi and with the exception the veneer of cultural specifics like language and customs, Somalia and India are remarkably alike. I began to imagine someone from another planet reporting back to “Mission Control,” offering generic and basic observations of human life on earth. Such a being would describe Somalia and India in very similar ways. For example, transportation is primarily self-propelled or by beasts of burden; food is simple, unadorned, routine — and many people do not have enough; most people are born, live, and die without ever having been very far from home.

The report would additionally describe an anomaly that represents a much smaller area of earth and many times fewer people, but which is enormous in power, if not in numbers. “I’ve heard this anomaly referred to as the ‘industrialized world,'” the report would say, “which includes a few isolated enclaves here and there where people also live in the style of the anomaly.” Like the hotel in Delhi.

Several years ago, I read an article by Robert W. Fox in National Geographic called “The World’s Urban Explosion.” The statistics of what we can expect in the next couple of decades left me reeling. When I mentioned it to a friend, her response was in the realm of, “Well, don’t worry. Someone will figure it out. They always do.” On a different occasion another person said, “I can barely handle my own life let alone take on the whole world! I just don’t want to hear about it.”

Two-thirds of the people in the world live in a village. I have a long-standing vision that I think would greatly assist anyone preparing for a leadership role in business. It would be to spend two weeks in a village somewhere where the two-thirds live, working with the village people and just hanging out with them on their terms. The underlying assumption is that tremendous benefit with lasting impact occurs through a very short immersion. I believe that such an experience would change individual “points of view” into much larger “fields of view.”

3. What Can One Expect as a Result?

At the individual level, those who embark on this journey will hone natural, intrinsic qualities like inquisitiveness, patience, the ability to observe what’s just out of range, cultivating a beginner’s mind, humor at oneself, the ability to deeply listen, openness to examining and changing long held beliefs, developing a field of view rather than a point of view, holding recovery as more important than perfection. These are the kinds of qualities that are enhanced by viewing global leadership as a sacred responsibility. They live within, but also transcend, all cultures.

At the collective level, the question of what can be expected is not so easy to answer. Transformative changes are already in process. Our current task is one of birthing. Who has known or seen natural birth without pain? Along with the mother, the midwife also expends significant energy in the process. No, it is not an easy task and it will not be completed soon. And yet, by merely viewing leadership globally or holistically and, thus, sacredly, the world is changed. Concrete results in the world at large remain to be seen. In the meantime, the gifts we receive give us opportunity to consciously and deeply engage in the global change process, break out of our cultural trance and limiting beliefs, and create a new level of hope for our common future.

First published in Leadership in a New Era: Visionary Approaches to the Biggest Crisis of Our Time, ed. by John Renesch, New Leaders Press, 1994.

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