It’s not always easy to talk about spirituality in the realms of business and politics. At best it can be seen as a harmless tool to make a harsh life that little bit more comfortable, at worse, it’s associations with religion and radical politics casts a shadow with more sinister connotations.
But it is heartening to see a growing willingness to talk about the role that spirituality plays in leadership and social change, and it’s role in transformation.
I’ve written before about the leaders that have been role models for me. Leaders such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mandela were those whose leadership did not only bring change to their countries and the causes they cared about but also left a lasting legacy on the world. They demonstrated an understanding of the higher principles of equality, justice, compassion for all, universal principles for all time that went beyond the specifics of their individual work in establishing civil rights in America, freeing India of oppressive colonialism and ending apartheid in South Africa. As Martin Luther King himself wrote: "A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” (King, Martin Luther (16 April 1963) “Letter from Birmingham Jail”). For him, and other leaders like him, it was imperative to bring to our human experience God’s vision for humanity
I was inspired recently to come across the work of Dr Scilla Elworthy, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the founder of the Oxford Research Group that was dedicated to forging dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics. In a recent article in The Guardian she wrote about the need for leaders to recognize that their most important job was to work on their inner self. In her article, Scilla talks about the importance of creating space for reflection, mindfulness and inner work. She emphasizes the importance of being authentic and eliminating all fear to enable you to work with and for others. Beyond learning technical skills, these inner skills that a leader needs “are vital in really transforming the world: skills to build trust in their teams, resolve conflict quickly and effectively, and speak truth to power.”
She goes on to say: “Self-awareness at the individual level is what can enable each person to wake up and do what’s needed to ensure our future on this planet – to change the world from the bottom up. I’m certain a different future for all humanity is possible, if only leaders wake up.”
For her, meditation and other reflective practices are not sufficient. We need to honestly examine ourselves and have the courage to go beyond our individual needs and think less of the ‘I’ and more of the ‘we’.
Further research on this remarkable lady uncovered a philosophy of a need to bridge the inner and the outer world and the connection between deep spiritual inspiration and wise radical action. In a delightfully inspiring video interview with Andrew Harvey, she also talks about the need to work on your own emotions if you are going to work in the development sector. As she so eloquently says, you simply can’t lecture someone else on how to do things better if you haven’t worked through your own stuff! She remarks how important it is to train yourself to develop your own inner power and the need for honest self-questioning.
This reminds me of a time in my life when I felt I wasn’t really achieving very much. I’d had just come out of a period of my life, starting and leading an NGO in China, that had involved intense personal sacrifice for work that I was inspired to do but that was emotionally draining and I was exhausted. I needed to take time to recover, ‘restore my soul’ and reflect on all that I had been through and wanted to do next. The months turned into years and I went on a deep journey that required all my energy just to keep afloat. It was harrowing and painful, beautiful and inspiring, all at the same time. But, I have also come to see that it was completely necessary for the next stage in my journey.
The spiritual lessons I had to learn included serious work on eliminating self-doubt and, much more profoundly, understanding that love was all that really exists.
I learned that I needed to find a true sense of my own value to ensure that I looked after myself enough to continue to be able to give to others from a position of strength. This period of growth enabled me to meet my husband and begin a new chapter in my leadership journey.
I can see now that this process of inner reflection enabled me to touch the depths of my core purpose in life. That it was a process of self-examination that purified and freed me of pride, ego, self-justification and fear. It allowed me to restore and cultivate the pure inspiration and commitment to love that had first characterized my journey. It gave me the time to become more truly myself and to develop the reserves I needed for the next great adventure. More critically, it gave me the space and time to be a better person and, by extension, I hope, a better leader.
This, for me, is what it means to ‘do the work’.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.