Leadership: A Sacred Journey
All people, throughout human experience, have witnessed the cycle of birth, growth, and death, both of themselves and of life in the forest around them. But not all people have lived at a time when it appears that the entire forest may die and leave the ground barren. You and I live during such a time.
A forest is more than trees. It includes the falling rain, the chattering squirrels, the bird’s morning song, the sun shining on the leaves, the mushrooms popping out of a dead tree trunk, the fresh air, the waterfall. A forest is the setting, the context, through which we walk. Within it the entire cycle of birth, growth, death is happening all the time. So with our world. The world is our forest, our context.
Business has a critical role to play for the world that is our forest whether people in business are conscious of it or not. By virtue of its infrastructure, resources, and power in the world today, business directly determines what dies and what is being born, how much dies and how much is born, and the quality of life in between. It is a major force in determining the future of all life as we know it. And, in truth, like any other institution, business is merely a set of agreements people have made and maintain or change over time. In other words, business is you, me, and everyone else who takes part, however indirectly, in the arrangements that make our economy work. This means our leadership is critical and a big responsibility.
Leadership is a walk through the forest. When hiking, the whole forest and your walk within it are the destination. You may have the goal of reaching a waterfall, lake, or lighthouse, but the true final destination is usually to return to where you began. So with your leadership walk through life. Awareness of the walk itself, of being on a path, is its own destination. Walking day in and day out, you come to know more and more about your chosen path but you also come to know more about your own nature. Through the practice of walking, you find yourself developing strength, resilience, and peace. One day you notice that you are moving into greater harmony with the entire forest–just by walking the path.
Balance in the Forest
The Chinese Tai Ji symbol of yin and yang represents the ever-changing balance between complementarity and polarity. Each half of the symbol grows from a sliver to a bulb in relationship to the other; only together do they create a coherent whole. Each half helps the other maintain its shape and its integrity. Within each half lives a small dot of the opposite’s primary nature. These dots represent not only the idea that each half contains some of its opposite; but also, perhaps more significantly, they represent the dynamic nature between the two elements in that each half has potential for becoming its opposite.
This simple and elegant symbol portrays much about life. It shows both unity and polarity; static form and the inevitability of change; separate identity and interconnectedness; and the presence within everything of its opposite. It is a symbol that transcends the dichotomy between “both/and” and “either/or” in that it contains both “both/and” and “either/or.” Each half lives as itself yet neither can live without the other. Each half grows and changes in its own right yet neither evolves without the other.
Death and Birth
Two themes of today’s world are apparently opposite. Together they depict yin and yang. One theme names what is potentially dying and, because of this, our despair and loss. It portrays our global dilemmas, an urgency for changing our ways, and the possible demise of life on earth. The other theme names what is being born, and because of it, our hope and joy. This second theme is about changing our thinking, creating a more viable world, and our potential for evolution to an all-new way of being. Two vignettes exemplify the themes.
The Dream: One night in 1987 I had an unforgettable dream that offers a metaphor for a dying–or transforming–forest.
A handsome, intelligent, well-dressed corporate businessman is driving as we wend our way. He drives slowly to avoid the throngs of people moving in the opposite direction. They seem frightened as they coax children along and clutch meager belongings. “What’s going on?” I ask. “It’s because of the fire,” he explains. “Oh, I see,” I respond, although I have no idea what he is talking about. Not wanting to appear ignorant, I don’t ask, “What fire?”
A six-foot concrete wall topped with jagged glass from broken bottles surrounds the only tall building for miles around. Enveloping the outer perimeter of the wall, a mass of humanity lives in makeshift homes constructed of what others have discarded.
Passing through the gate, a sense of spaciousness, quiet, and ease embraces me. As we ascend to the seventh story, I say, “I’m struck by the urgent, frenetic mood outside the gate.” “Yes,” my colleague responds. “But, lucky for us, it’s not something we have to worry about.”
The seventh story is an elegant yet conservative reception space. Several other people have already arrived. Most are men between 35 and 55 who appear to be highly successful executives like my colleague. There are only a few other women and no children or old people. The mood is upbeat, jovial.
As I walk across the room I glance out the windows to the south and see fire across the entire horizon. I feel shock and horror. I run from the room and down the stairs two at a time. I want to help. But what can I do? I run haphazardly through the street and become just one more person among the teeming masses. I am dissipating my resources without having the slightest positive impact.
With a heavy heart, I retrace my steps. Passing through the gate, I re-enter the building. As I climb the stairs I encounter a young, dark-skinned woman descending. Her eyes downcast, she holds a newborn baby in her arms. Since she clearly doesn’t live here and since they are both soaked through, I imagine that someone gave her permission to use the shower. I think how this may be the last time they will be cool. For an instant I consider taking them upstairs with me. That, at least, would be something I could do.
As we meet, she looks directly and unabashedly into my eyes. I am stunned by the calm, the compassion, and the comprehension I see, that if I took her and her child upstairs, we would all be refused entrance. Tears fill my eyes as I receive her forgiveness and, at the same time, feel my despair and helplessness.
Entering the seventh story again I see beer and snacks being set out. People are conversing, laughing, and dancing. The fire is moving closer. The smoke finds its way to the windows. “Look!” I shout. “Please look! The fire is rapidly approaching. What are we going to do?” My colleague smiles consolingly and says, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. We’ll all be okay as long as we stay up here.” He pulls the curtains to block out the unpleasant sight. “It might get hot in here and become difficult to breathe. But we are survivors, after all. When the fire has passed we will go back downstairs and begin to rebuild.” I think to myself, “How can I ever leave this room again?”
At the same time that we witness and experience what is dying or transforming our world, we also witness and experience our new birth and evolution.
The Moon Landing: Do you remember where you were, and what you were doing, when the first astronauts landed on the moon? If you are too young to remember the landing, you have an even more direct relationship with the changes occurring than those of us who watched it live on television. It always has been and always will be your reality to “know” the whole earth. We have a poster of the earth hanging in our home. When my son Michael first began to talk and was asked where he was from, he said, “Earth”–and pointed to the poster. These days, at five years old, he still points to the poster and says, “I live on the brown area, right here.” Never mind that he’s pointing to Zimbabwe; he already has a mental construct of the whole earth. It’s natural to him.
In July 1995, as I watched, U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts linked up five hundred thousand pounds of machinery–the Mir Space Station and the Shuttle Atlantis–while traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, 215 miles above the earth. The artfully completed first docking was off by two seconds and seven-tenths of an inch. The accomplishment was truly a testament to human creativity and ingenuity.
Rusty Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9, speaks of seeing the earth from an orbit around the moon. In The Overview Effect by Frank White, Schweickart says the earth
…is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you–all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was. 
We experience this change in our relationship with the earth without physically going to the moon. Look at Michael; look at the poster. The photo of the earth from space has become a common part of our daily lives. It appears on postcards and T-shirts, in advertising and as business logos. Yet it still moves something very deep within us. As Peter Russell wrote in The Global Brain, “…in spite of all this exposure, the picture still strikes a very deep chord, and none of its magnificence has been lost.”
Life as Paradox
Global, organizational, and individual challenges are powerfully and richly mirrored within the seventh-story dream. The challenges we face are many and great. The most significant challenge of all, however, is identifying how we think or don’t think that is harming us. Being one who is on the seventh story, what do you believe about your ability to survive the effects of the fire by staying where you are and drawing the drapes? Your assumptions–about yourself, global change, and business being part of or exempt from the larger whole–are determining the future now.
What if challenging our cultural beliefs and assumptions built up over centuries means risk of being excluded from the seventh story? Yet, the dream suggests that leadership means attending to more than what is on the seventh story, that if you want a world in which to do business and thrive, you must lead in ways that address global challenges and audaciously exemplify human ingenuity and creativity. If conventional solutions had been the basis for creative inventions and innovations of the space program, no one would have circled weightlessly around the earth, let alone the moon!
Your first reaction to the dream may have been to judge those on the seventh story for not doing something to care for the masses outside the gate. It most certainly was mine. But there is a paradox here. As a fire may be both destructive and creative, paradox in the dream relates to letting go. It is difficult to allow ourselves to be in the natural order of life. Many of us on the seventh story want to control. We know how to control. We feel safer and more successful when we are in control.
Even the concept of “global sustainability” presumes that if we can get control of ourselves, our inventions, and our technology, we can create a better world. But attempting to prevent or control natural processes is out of harmony. It breaks the whole of life apart. It may work temporarily, even for decades or centuries, but it is not life-supporting. It eventually results in suffering and struggle.
In the realm of creativity, as human beings, we often are forced to notice our illusions of control. Every astronaut, especially in the early days of space flight, had to let go. Nothing was assured. He had to prepare for his death in order to be “reborn” in weightlessness and then had to let go again in order to be “reborn” on the return to earth’s gravity.
In July of 1995, the Mir and Atlantis crews, so recently enemies æ and competitors, were having their first party together in space. Their accomplishment illustrates how quickly whole systems can change, how beautifully we can create, how far we can reach when our attention is deliberate and conscious. The linking of the two space vehicles demonstrates both profound human ingenuity and talent along with forgiveness and collaboration.
But the dark dot on the light side of the yin/yang symbol signifies, for example, how the shuttle missions study the fragile state of life support systems on earth. They measure the ozone hole as it grows. They watch for fires and other signs of deforestation. They track changing weather patterns. The products of that awesome creativity are recording the dying process of life forms on our planet while avoiding a junkyard of space program debris. They are witnessing where our attention is accidental and unconscious.
Holding Up the Sun
Survival depends on our ability to gracefully transform our thinking in harmony with the world’s transformation. The fire in the dream can represent transformational change across the entire horizon.
Transformation is a specific and unique form of change. A lake freezes in winter. Water is changed to ice, yes; but the change can be temporary. Under the right conditions, the ice may be returned to virtually the same water. Fire is different. Wood becomes heat, ash, and smoke. The heat, ash, and smoke, however, will never again be the same trees. The transformed molecules of the wood contribute to the nourishment of new trees but they will never return to the wood they were.
Transformation is radical change. We move into totally new, undefined territory during times of transformation. The outcome is unknown and often unpredictable. This implies being “out of control” in conventional terms.
In a transforming world, a burning world, major challenges face businesses and those of you who lead them. You must guide your business through the transformation. You must lead your organization even when you and others feel afraid. And you must overcome your fear because fear causes you and your organization to become rigid and fragile. It diminishes your ability to be creative, generous, open, vital, resilient.
In his tale The Storyteller, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa write of an Amazonian tribe he calls the Machiguengas. Machiguengas are nomadic, walking through the deep rain forest of eastern Peru. Their walking is imbued with deep meaning. They must walk, because, in their belief system, their walking ensures that the sun will continue to rise in the sky; if they stop, the sun will fall, leaving all life in a world of darkness. 
Looking for and challenging assumptions and accessing more creativity and thinking anew are two motifs that parallel the Machiguengas walking. The sun we hold up is the establishment of a global context that respects and supports life. Consider your own walk through the forest. How is your walk imbued with deep meaning? What does your walking contribute to maintaining light in the world?
If you are a business leader at the end of the twentieth century, given the complex dilemmas, the pace of life, and the magnitude of change, you must be open to taking unprecedented risks by making decisions that serve not only your own business but also serve life–if we are to have a world in which to do business in the future.
Once you become aware of the times in which we live and the challenges facing us, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore your sacred responsibility. But you pay a bittersweet price for being among the wealthiest of human beings on earth and for participating in the powerful arena of business. It’s the price of awareness.
The price of awareness is enormous but it is not necessarily a sacrifice. Much is demanded of you because you have the capacity to contribute and because you are a leader in business. This is especially true in the next ten to twenty years. For paying the price, you will receive a priceless gift of your growth and evolution, and your greater consciousness and connectedness.
As a leader in the powerful arena of business, you are responsible for our larger community–beyond Wall Street and stockholders. As Leon Shenandoah of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy said in an interview for Wisdomkeepers, “These are our times and our responsibilities. Every human being has a sacred duty to protect the welfare of our Mother Earth, from whom all life comes. In order to do this we must recognize the enemy–the one within us. We must begin with ourselves…”
In “In the Absence of the Sacred”, Jerry Mander recounts the disaster at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. About 200,000 people were injured and 2,000 died. Immediately following the accident, the chairman of Union Carbide, deeply upset by what had happened, told the media that he would do whatever was necessary to make up for the losses people had experienced. But a year later the same person said he had overreacted and was going to lead the legal fight not to pay damages.
How did this executive come to terms with what appears to be a shift from being an authentically grief-stricken and compassionate human being to assuming the role of a “hard-nosed” business person? It appears he merely allowed himself to be the victim of our collectively held beliefs about what it takes to be a good business leader and about what is required to make a business successful. Collectively shared, unexplored, unchallenged assumptions of “business” determined the outcome of this incident.
While the magnitude or gravity of the decisions we face may seem far less for you and me, we all must make decisions that affect the lives of others every day. No matter what situation you find yourself in, there are only three choices. You can adapt, you can influence others, or you can leave. Therefore, you need to be well prepared to respond in ways that serve when you are cast into despairing and apparently no-win situations. You need a deep personal foundation that is highly integrated with whatever form is taken by your own spirituality, your connection to a higher power.
Your personal, sacred work as a leader is to come into greater harmony with the natural flow of life, to join the river and enjoy the ride, only damming or dredging when it is absolutely essential. But how to determine when to let go and when to take action? You must hold the tensions of paradox that are in all of life. The tensions, for example, of what is going-to-happen-in-any-case and what is choice, of what you perceive to be real and what is true. You must think anew, feel anew. You can accomplish this only by challenging and growing what is within you. If you cling too tightly to what is dying, if you miss opportunities to explore the emerging creative, you may hinder your own evolution. It is the very nature of the universe in general, and the human design in particular, to create and evolve.
When creativity is out of balance with natural law, the results can be disastrous. Nuclear waste is the result of creativity, yes, but without accordance for harmony with all of life. When creativity is in balance with natural law, the results can be evolutionary. Seeing the wholeness of earth without political boundaries, set alone in the blackness of space, is quite literally changing what it means to be a human being.
My hope is kindled daily as I notice more and more people in business acknowledging the dilemmas we face. My hope is also kindled as more and more people bring soul and spirit, personal wholeness, and deep purpose to work with them. We can support each other in grasping our sacred work as leaders, no matter what is going on outside of us. Adding to that, we can support each other in seizing our opportunities to lead well at this critical time in evolution on earth.
Our collective hope lies in our ongoing evolution. I am not worried about saving the earth. The earth can take care of herself. I am concerned about saving ourselves, about coming more fully into harmony with all of Life–our own, each other’s, the animals, the plants, the stars.
As you journey on your path of providing leadership in the world today you must face into the polarities and live with the open question about what of the forest is dying and what is being born. You must be willing to hold the tension of exploring how these apparent opposites together make a whole.
As a leader in business in the industrialized world, you hold much of the resource, power, and energy to resist or support what wants to die and what wants to be born. You have an important role to play. In order to choose well, you must come as fully as possible into the fullness and wholeness of our creative potential.
1. Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987, p. 38.
2. Peter Russell, The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1983.
3. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
4. Steve Wall and Harvey Arden, Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 1990.
5. Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.
This article was first published in the Fall 1996 World Business Academy journal “Perspectives on Business and Global Change” and is based on the book Leadership in a Challenging World: A Sacred Journey, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997.
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