What is Contemplative Leadership?
"All leadership begins with self-leadership,
and self-leadership begins with knowing oneself."
~Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership
The Zen Buddhist master Nan Huai Chin says that at the core of the Confucian theory of leadership formation is idea that “if you want to be a leader, you have to be a real human being. You must recognize the true meaning of life before you can become a great leader. You must understand yourself first.” What is implied is that leadership formation takes time - and not simply the passing of time, but an on-going contemplative engagement with oneself in order to form, reform and transform the human heart.
One of the common dictionary definitions of leadership is "to point out a way, direction or goal and to influence others towards it." Given this definition, everyone is a leader, either knowingly or unknowingly. Therefore it is essential in any form of leadership that we know who we are, and what we stand for. According to St. Ignatius, it is when we learn to decode the language of our feelings and skillfully sort our thoughts that we are in a better position to make decisions in alignment with our core values and authentic self. This authenticity is the hallmark of wisdom, and the essence of contemplative leadership.
The various forms of contemplative practice are time-tested ways of cultivating a sustained connection with our center, seeing ourselves as a part of a larger whole, and discerning our place in it. In times of stress, a contemplative stance can contribute to a greater sense of resilience, hopefulness and agency. It is the contemplative who is able to listen to what Life may be asking of them at any given moment, and the leader who is able to harness the resources and courage to respond with integrity. Through sustained contemplative and reflective practice, the leader is able to upgrade their "inner operating system" from which all actions spring, and develop their capacity to access the intelligence of an open mind and open heart to meet the challenges of the day.
The Indo-European word leith, from which the word leadership is derived, means "to cross a threshold." Leaders are those who are capable of crossing various thresholds in order to answer the call to an emerging future possibility. Seeing leadership in this way, it is clear that the skills cultivated through contemplative practice are essential tools for leaders to navigate the subtleties of on-going personal transformation within an uncertain and complex world. It is through connecting to a deep sense of purpose that contemplatives are called to become leaders, and the act of leading that initiates authentic leaders into the contemplative path. Ultimately, it is the hidden thread of the soulˈs call, woven throughout a personˈs entire life, that gives vitality, perspective and meaning both to one's leadership and contemplative practice.
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