Leadership Development: Overcoming the Myth of Separateness – Stanford Social Innovation Review

Posted By on October 12, 2022

(Illustration by Luca Di Bartolomeo)

Love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.Reverend angel Kyodo williams

As a professor at Princeton in 1949, Albert Einstein reflected on the place of human beings in the universe. In correspondence with a rabbi, he wrote that due to our limitations in our ability to experience the universe, our species is prone to a fundamental misunderstanding about our place in it. He wrote that the human experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the resta kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Here, Einstein wrote of one of the most persistent and vexing problems of our species: the myth of separateness. Scholar and Director of the Center for Othering & Belonging john a. powell has taken this further, describing the four great separations of our time: separation of people from nature, separation of people from one another, separation of mind from body, and separation of people from institutions. We can track the expressions of these separations everywhere: authoritarianism, racial injustice, the climate crisis, disease, to name just a few. In the context of leadership, separation manifests as leadership by dominationthose with power and those without, and those trying to achieve power over others rather than finding power with others.

Overcoming this myth of separateness may be the test of our time for our species. We need leadership that is both bold and tender, leadership that radically welcomes the stranger while revolutionizing the systems that create the stranger in the first place. And we need our understanding of leadership to evolve, too. How might leadership be a practice that expands our moral imagination to include us all? And, lastly, how might we seed, protect and grow the spaces to practice this type of leadership?

Throughout this series, we have explored key inflection points in the lives of individuals doing the hard work of leading social change: from cultivating moral courage, to the sparks that ignite action, to transitioning in and out of roles in the service of a greater purpose. We see how individuals cultivate themselves and lead their organizations, and we see their impacts ripple into different domains.

Id like to close out the series calling on the idea of fractals in social change movements as a way to understand how massive societal transformations can occur through the idea of interconnection. I first encountered the concept in the book Emergent Strategy, by author and activist adrienne marie brown. They write, How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. So too will the leadership skills we practice within our hearts shape our impact on organizations and the world.

As we have seen, doing the inner work to find moral courage can set leaders down the path of sustained leadership. Many of them have taken the time to examine who they are, what they need to flourish, and what we need to collectively flourish. For me, as a white woman in the United States, this has meant reckoning with the ways in which I am complicit in producing and reproducing injustice, especially along lines of race. As someone from New Jersey who spent most of their adult life in Atlanta, I had to interrogate the othering I did to other white peopleothering into good ones and bad ones, asleep ones and awake ones, Northern ones and Southern ones. What did I get from the idea that the racist white people were out there, elsewhere, but definitely not here, in me? In fact, it has been a liberating process (a journey that begins and never ends, as the adage goes) to explore, understand and ultimately figure out how to undo the ways in which I am so desperate to create others. When we pull the other closer, when we consider ourselves to be the same as those we are othering, we are afforded more pathways to a more just world.

While the story of our separation is pervasive, it is something we have the power to design our way out of. There are many examples of leaders countering this myth, like the Fellows in the Civil Society Fellowship. A partnership between the Anti-Defamation League and the Aspen Institute, the program creates community among civic leaders of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who counter the narrative that Americas social fabric is irrevocably torn. They are working collaboratively in community and solidarity to confront injustice and to bring together the stakeholders within systems to co-create solutions for change. They are humble in their roles as members of larger movements, recognize their interdependence with others, and create the conditions needed to sustain both themselves and the change they seek to bring forth. These leaders are embodying a new story based on the idea of our interconnection.

This series started with an examination of how people often needed to explore their souls, strengthen their internal navigation systems and chooseday-in and day-outto treat leadership as a practice, not position. The Aspen Institute has found our particular approach to this work through creating environments that foster deep introspection of ones values and actions in the company and trust of others doing the same. While it might seem contradictory, the work of interconnection starts from within.

Where does one go to cultivate this? We must look beyond leadership development as an education in technical skills, and instead focus our attention on elevating the ideas of interconnectedness, humility, and collective liberation.

In order to see a world in which the actions of good leaders are the fractals that scale up into just systems, we need to learn from and amplify the wisdom of others. Below, Ive started to synthesize learnings from friends and colleagues who are co-conspirators in the world we want to see.

Transformation is an invitation, not a coercion. If we accept that large-scale change requires more people involved over time, then we must find ways for more people to receive and accept the invitation.

What were asking is for people and institutions to participate in their own transformation, says Deena Hayes-Greene the Managing Director of theRacial Equity Institute and a Partner at The Groundwater Institute, organizations dedicated to creating racially equitable organizations and systems.

One way they create the conditions for opting in is through a multi-phased approach that helps people create shared language and uncover internalized narratives about inequity and injustice in their lives and organizations. They start by moving clients away from thinking of racism as something associated with personal bigotry and bias toward an understanding that is historical, cultural, and structural. The process is a catalytic experience that creates the conditions for deeper introspection, which in turn leads to more authentic action. By helping people rethink their systems, the ways racism is rooted in their institutions, and how it affects them personally, she helps create the conditions for cultures where all people can flourish.

Creating these conditions takes long-term focus and care. As we saw with KC Hardin and his organization, Esperanza, in Panama City, their success at its peak was based on a process that convinced gang members themselves to leave their collective identity as a gang behind, forgive their rivals, and take part in the formal economy. It required care for the whole person that permeated deeply, and in turn, resulted in deeply rooted conviction. The care they were shown was an invitation to transformation. And while this work is hard to scale and needs continued maintenance, showing care to others is a practice we can all do to create our sense of belonging to a greater whole.

As a social entrepreneur, and especially as a founder, it is all too easy to embrace the allure of the limelight. In many ways, our philanthropic and social sector ecosystems reward the man at the mic or sage on the stage type of charismatic individual. We know from novelist Chimamanda Adichie about the dangers of a single story, but what about the dangers of a single entrepreneur? Many philanthropists and investors deeply diligence a leader's ability to assure shareholders and persuade consumers; what if we put the same intention and attention to ensuring leaders build strong and inclusive leadership teams? What if we pressed for ego in the same way we press for sound financials?

As leaders practice self-awareness and moral courage, opportunities and incentives must be created to channel energy into empowering others to see change in the long run. Just as Rjane Woodroffe created systems at the Bulungula Incubator to shift power to the community and Jordan Kassalow shifted his focus to mobilizing groups of organizations towards a systemic approach, sustainability must come out of the we instead of the me.

What were trying to do is less an infiltration and more an invitation, says Dr. Katherine Wilkinson, leader of the All We Can Save Project, an organization that nurtures leaders in the climate community, like opening a door to something else and welcoming people in, which is something that the climate space has been woefully bad at. She suggests centeringthe whothe people, communities, and networks that make transformation possible in the climate movementrather than the whats (new renewable technologies, for example) and the hows (political advocacy campaigns, say). How do we create that sense of warmth? and nurture the relational web between us? I think thats how we stay in the work.

Here again, transformation is an invitation.

Organizations like the Rockwood Leadership Institute, the Schusterman Foundation, and the Aspen Global Leadership Network have found real value in cohort-based models of leadership development. At Aspen, we use text-based dialogues occuring around a seminar table of about 24 leaders as the unit of transformation. In small groups of leaders, people can be vulnerable, explore difficult topics away from public judgment, and create systems of nourishment over the long haul. As Brene Brown writes, People are hard to hate close up. Move in.

Each of these organizations prioritize the conditions for trust to flower and deep relationships to root. When we learn to love each other across lines of difference, working to create a more just society is just the rational next step.

In our fellowships at Aspen, we see that the sustained relationships developed by our fellows are a well of inspiration and counsel that they return to as they confront new and challenging situations. Because they are held in communityby peers that know their deepest heartsfellows have the strong lateral, cohort-based relationships outside of the organizations they're leading, to lead with more courage, clarity and conviction. In our most recent survey of the impact of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, 92 percent of our alumni reported that, because of their Fellowship experience, they lead their companies and organizations with values and greater clarity of purpose. Nearly 90 percent reported they took on risks or new challenges that they would not have pursued otherwise, including launching new social impact ventures, taking on leadership in the civic and public arenas, and using their platforms and voices for change. Through the years, we have seen fellows both support each other through personal and professional challenges as well as collaborate for greater impact.

These communities can look different depending on the context, but the lesson is that community is a key factor in the nourishment of leaders and the sustainability of their actions. Creating and connecting based on trust is how we scale the idea of our interconnectedness.

There was a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic began that many people thought it could be the great equalizersomething we could all share, that puts life-or-death stakes against realizing our interconnectedness. Imagine a world where we all acted out of our mutual care of one anothertaking steps to protect each other, while seeing the humanity in those that may have thoughtfully disagreed. Imagine the solidarity we could feel if we all stood with each other in lossthe loss of loved ones, loss of normalcy, and the loss of agency. Imagine the collective joy we might share if we also shared in one anothers grief and anguish. Imagine a world where leaders invigorated and restored our collective imagination of what binds us together rather than feeding the beasts that keep us apart.

Unfortunately, today, nothing could be further from those worlds. By any measure, we as a human species are more polarized, less free, and less equitable than when the pandemic began. Where justice could have emerged, injustice prevailed instead. Where a collective spirit might have emerged, the myth of the individualthe myth of our separatenessreigned. We have seen with startling clarity who is allowed to be alive in this world, for whose lives our systems are designed, and what needs to be transformedon the individual and systems levelfor us all to be able to live while we are alive.

How do we take these lessons and apply them to the urgency of our current context? From climate change to racial injustice, from polarization to the rise of authoritarianismthere is no shortage of crises that require immediate action. Crisis as a context, however, too often leads to rapid, short-term, inequitable decisions.

We must create the conditions for thoughtful, interdependent leaders to emerge and for their wisdom to be heard.

There is an unlimited need for containers and communities that bolster moral courage, worldwide. We are coming out of an era of the entrepreneura media, educational, and funding ecosystem that supported and strengthened the idea that a single entrepreneur can and should change the world. It is time to name this a relic of the past and instead adopt a more honest, humble perspective: social transformation takes all of us; transformation occurs in community; and saying yes to the challenge of leadership is significantly easier (and more fun) when we are held by a courageous community.

It is a tremendous task to swim against the tide, to lead in a way that defies an unjust system or goes against what is efficient in favor of what is life-giving. To lead from a wider frame or a deeper sense of heart, takes much more than skill. It takes a deep soul, a soft heart and a strong back. It takes a profound connection to one another. It takes us all.

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Leadership Development: Overcoming the Myth of Separateness - Stanford Social Innovation Review

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