The Urgent Need for the Inner Work of Leadership

June 22, 2015 By Katherine Tyler Scott


"The more we love, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we can love. If we exercise our bodies, we can lower our cholesterol. If we exercise loving-kindness, we can re-open the clogged arteries of the soul."

-Br. Mark Brown Society of Saint John the Evangelists

Above is the daily message I woke up to this morning. What a timely one it is for my soul feels a heaviness reminiscent of previous times, times when the Country’s shadow re-emerged, that part of the cultural psyche that is the repository of the least desirable attributes. My feeling was reminiscent of the times when the Tea Party protests portrayed President Obama as a primate or an alien; when for the first time in history a South Carolina legislator yelled out, “You lie!” during the President’s State of the Union Address; when there was silence in the face of blatantly bigoted and hate-filled speech and hostile printed signs justified by the “right-to-free speech” at Tea Party rallies; when white colleagues automatically dismiss the possibility that the never ending criticism and automatic resistance to whatever the President proposes is not the poisonous, persistent drip of racism; when unarmed black men were shot in the back by those sworn to protect life and ensure the public’s safety; when a slender, bikini clad African American young adolescent girl, crying out for her Mother, was thrown to the ground and straddled by a white police officer, his knee planted in her bare back; and just yesterday when nine people in an historic black Charleston, South Carolina, were gunned down by a young white man who had been welcomed into the midst of a people who exercised loving kindness while studying the Bible and saying prayers. I could cite many more examples, and that is the sad point. There are too many examples. One of the above is too many. 

The steady non-stop assault of bigotry, both verbally and physically, is a heavy burden to bear. When we bear the shadow of culture it is destructive of the soul, unless we do the work of becoming conscious - unless we do our inner work; the integrated work.  I am weary of the unconsciousness of those who remain silent in the face of injustice; of  the passionate outrage at other incidences of discrimination but the flat affect upon hearing about the daily violence done to African American people, sometimes right in their presence; of the total lack of understanding of what it is like to not have your voice heard; of the shallow apologies offered for the unacceptable and heinous behavior of others; i.e., it was an isolated event; the person was crazy; we need gun control; we need a conversation, etc. I am weary of such cryptic responses, the parroting of prayers asking for forgiveness of the evil we do and the evil done on our behalf; of the superficial words and facile diversions when the subject of race comes up; of the fear in the faces of those who think that they will lose their privileged status if they acknowledge the inequity and dehumanization of others simply because of skin color.

The weight of this cultural shadow has become too heavy a burden and if we don’t work with those who have the problem it will destroy all of us as a people, as a democracy, as a healthy society. Without a responsible exploration of racism all that we do is create fertile territory for the growth of negative shadow energy. These are times when leadership is imperative, but not the familiar perception of it as being the savior who has the answer. No, we need leadership with the courage to engage in their own work; leaders who will first raise their own consciousness of the shadow within, who will confront the deeply engrained beliefs values, attitudes we have learned that drive our assumptions and actions; and that keep perpetuating the same ugly outcomes.

If we can’t honestly ask and answer the question of how are we contributing to the present condition of the American psyche, we are building more shadow and ill equipping ourselves to deal with the shadow that exists in others. The expressed need for mental health services is always raised after another violent act, but fails to acknowledge racism as a virulent form of our cultural mental illness. Racism is the mental health issue in the Country. Predicating one’s worth on skin color is a form of ego inflation that feeds the need to deny whatever doesn’t support this identity and sense of superiority. Whatever aspect of ourselves is denied doesn’t disappear; it finds a temporary home in the shadow and becomes a projection onto others. Racism is the projection of those parts of the self that are deemed unacceptable. These parts are disowned and we work on them through projection. Projection in and of itself is not a bad thing; it is the way we work on integrating what we have not be able to claim. But when we don’t do the integrated work we stay fixated on the external projections. We place onto others what we cannot own. The labeling of an entire group, i.e., blacks are lazy, intellectually inferior, morally bankrupt, dishonest, etc. is an example of this type of fixated projection. When this projection remains constant because those engaged in it never question or reflect on themselves and their beliefs and attitudes it hardens and becomes fixed in the psyche where hatred can fester; where bigoted thoughts flourish, and the justification for discriminatory behavior is validated. If I never question or reflect on my projections or allow myself to hear about and see a different reality than the one I possess I can retain all of the negative perceptions I have of the other and justify why nothing can ever change. It is why we allow the public schools serving the neediest to implode, why we say nothing when realtors work to keep neighborhoods racially homogeneous; or why we often cannot see racism when it occurs in real time.

We need therapeutic interventions that begin with the work on the self, because it is this level of self-awareness that allows us to see every human being as just that. Debbie Dills is a great example. Her explanation for what she did and why she did it is an inspiring example of someone whose consciousness and acceptance of her own identity, an identity not based on ego possession but on a realization that at her core she is connected to others through something greater than herself. She acted on this connection to a greater Self. Her actions reflected a depth of empathy for what seemed to be total strangers that allowed her to see herself in them although she had never met them. She grieved for those who were murdered. She saw human beings doing something positive and constructive, human beings engaged in prayer as she herself had been doing that same evening in her own Church. In fact she was praying for them and their families when she first spotted the car of the shooter. Her ability to see human beings and not stereotypes or negative projections of a nation’s shadow or of her State’s shadow, enabled her to act out of a moral center and consciousness. 

It is the incredible example and testimony of relatives of those murdered in Emanuel AME. It was the loving courage of Nadine Collier who like the other family members and friends affected, through her tears and palpable grief said to the man who took nine lives, “I forgive you.” 

For those of us whose vocation is leadership development this tragic series of events should help us to commit to doing the deeper work necessary to reduce the culture’s shadow projections that contribute to racism and violence.  Our leadership education and development programs must include the inner work of leadership; this level of work must be foundational in our methodology. Technically focused, skill–based leadership programs that lack equal focus on adaptive skills training will not produce self-aware, conscious, ethical leadership. They will not change hearts and minds. They will not induce an examination of values or bring about sustainable behavioral change. 

As Ron Heifetz writes, “Leadership is not value neutral. And those of us in leadership education and development cannot afford to be value neutral either.” The virtues of moral character and such values as trust, relationship, and respect for the dignity and worth of every human being, are part of our core and form the ways we work with clients at Ki ThoughtBridge. We continually reflect on whether and how we live these out on a daily basis. None of us are perfect, but consciousness and the practice of integrated leadership will help to create accountability and authenticity and will help us to prepare to host the meaningful conversations about race that we need.  The integrated work is our work- the work of all of us-; and if we do this work the conversations will happen and the change we seek will happen. 

“The more we love, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we can love. If we exercise our bodies, we can lower our cholesterol. If we exercise loving-kindness, we can re-open the clogged arteries of the soul.”