Leadership, light and darkness, and the inner journey

let-your-life-speakAmong the many books I read this summer, Let Your Life Speak by American writer and teacher Parker J. Palmer is the one that lingered in my mind perhaps for the longest time. Be it the author’s quiet and understated writing style (so far from so much of the self-help literature we usually find on bookstore shelves), his unusual sincerity about such facts of life as the debilitating depression he went through, or his life experience of over ten years in a tiny Quaker community, Palmer reminded me of other mystics, such as Alan Watts or Thomas Merton, but without a trace of their New Age glamour, even if thrust upon them rather than sought.

Chapter V, “Leading from Within”, is about how lights and shadows coexist in leadership, and why leaders need to have visited their inner shadows. Here goes his argument (emphasis mine):

A leader is someone with the power to project either shadows or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. […] A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good. […]

We have a long tradition of approaching leadership via “the power of positive thinking.” I want to counterbalance that approach by paying special attention to the tendency we have as leaders to project more shadow than light. Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded, so it is understandable that we need to bolster ourselves with positive thoughts. But by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!

Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we “compartmentalize” it, walling it off from our public work. […] Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world—they need the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light. […] The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking. […] If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy […].

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way. […] But why would anybody want to take a journey of that sort, with its multiple difficulties and dangers? Everything in us cries out against it—which is why we externalize everything. It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. […] If we, as leaders, are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride certain monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we “get into” our own spiritual lives.

Palmer goes on to illustrate the “bestiary” of the five monsters he claims we need to get acquainted with. “The five are not theoretical for me; I became personally acquainted with each of them during my descent into depression. They are also the monsters I work with when I lead retreats where leaders of many sorts—CEOs, clergy, parents, teachers, citizens, and seekers—take an inward journey toward common ground.” I’ll list them here without a lot of detail because you, readers, are probably familiar with them; but please do read what Palmer has to say about them if you recognize them from your own experience. They are:

  1. Insecurity about identity and worth;
  2. The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests;
  3. “Functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. (“This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”)
  4. Fear, especially the fear of the natural chaos of life;
  5. “The denial of death itself”.

And here are the corresponding gifts we receive on the inner journey:

  1. The knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others;
  2. The insight that the universe is working together for good. “The structure of reality is not the structure of a battle. Reality is not out to get anybody”;
  3. The knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. “Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally! We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able, and trust the rest to other hands.”
  4. The insight that chaos is the precondition to creativity. “As every creation myth has it, life itself emerged from the void. Even that which has been created needs to be returned to chaos from time to time so it can be regenerated in more vital form. When a leader fears chaos so deeply that he or she tries to eliminate it, the shadow of death will fall across everything that leader approaches—for the ultimate answer to all of life’s messiness is death.”
  5. The knowledge that death finally comes to everything “—and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

Can we help each other deal with the inner issues inherent in leadership? Palmer’s answer is not only that we can, but that we must. What might that help look like?

First, we could lift up the value of “inner work.” That phrase should become commonplace in families, schools, and religious institutions, at least, helping us to understand that inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer.

Second, we could spread the word that inner work, though it is a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along in community. Indeed, doing inner work together is a vital counterpoint to doing it alone. […] The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox—the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life in ways that honor its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.

Third, we can remind each other of the dominant role that fear plays in our lives […] “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thus engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.

We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust, and hope, and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.

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