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What is Soulful Leadership & Why does it matter?

Soulful leadership is a response to a world in crisis. The interlinked crises at the level of mental health, social inequality, political polarisation and ecological collapse together create the polycrisis, which is so complex it cannot be effectively approached at the level of analysis/ strategy alone…

Unlike a problem which can be solved, the polycrisis is a predicament, and predicaments require a kind of thinking that is beyond strategy and analysis... As Gus Speth famously said:

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystems collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we, (Lawyers) and scientists, don't know how to do that.”

At it's core, the crisis we are facing is existential, calling us to reflect on what it means to be human. And such a vast question cannot be answered with the mind alone because meaning is also the terrain of the heart and soul… Indeed, the old wisdom says that we suffer into meaning; pointing towards the inconvenient truth that great challenges are often great catalysts of transformation, as they force us to connect with the as-yet-unseen and unknown resources within us.

'Usually, it takes the right kind of trouble to move the little self out of the way so that the deeper self can bring its resources forward.' - Michael Meade

And so when we look at life through the psycho-spiritual lens, we understand that there is a relationship between breakdown and breakthrough, emergency and emergence. We understand that the darkest times are also those that give rise to the dawn… And so, whether at the level of the individual or the collective, we ask, what is trying to emerge through this emergency? What is as-yet-unseen, unknown and unspoken that wants to be given life?

Troubled times call us to connect to what is most deep and abiding within us and around us. It is that which endures that gives us the strength to endure. When the world is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, strength and stability can only be found in the depths. The stormy seas of change are calling us to dive deep and connect to the stillness beneath the surface of things. But of course the depths frighten us because they contain the we-don’t-know-what… and of course that’s exactly why they must be ventured into… Because amidst the we-don’t-know-what will be the hidden resources we need.

The point is that when it comes to matters of the soul and ultimate meaning, we enter the territory of mystery and paradox in which things defy definition and containment. Like the meta-crisis, each one of us is complex and multidimensional. The question ‘who am I?’ is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived, and within that, the desire for purpose is perhaps less about finding something than it is about embodying a way of being - ie. living on purpose. Although it's common to think of identity and purpose as nouns/ fixed things, they are also relational, contextual and emergent. They are at some level responses to our environment, because we do not and cannot exist in isolation.

Psychological enquiry often focuses on identifying the beliefs and behaviour patterns we formed in childhood, because how we adapted to survive the conditions of our early life colours the way we see and interact with the world. The issue we all face is that the defence mechanisms and compensation strategies we developed then outlive the circumstances in which they arose, and therefore limit our capacity to relate freely to the new context we find ourselves in. In short, our survival personality inhibits our response-ability by projecting the past onto the present.

This is important, because as we noted earlier, great leadership is also a response to the need of the time, and if we are stuck in entrenched patterns of defence from the past, we won’t be available to relate to and co-create in the present. The path to soulful leadership then involves discovering and gradually dissolving our defence mechanisms in order to make ourselves available to respond appropriately to the needs of the time. And of course as we let go of our defences, we are confronted with our suffering, and the suffering of the world.

This is where Parker J Palmer’s notion of the ‘tragic gap’ is important and useful. He says that when faced with the suffering of the world, we are prone to collapse in cynicism or fly away in idealism, and that these reactions interrupt our capacity to act in right relations to what’s in front of us. Ultimatly, we cannot respond meaningfully to the pain of the world until we are willing to let it touch us. And this requires both great courage and great humility… For, as Michael Meade says,

‘Healing is not about heroics… To be on the healing path is to be in touch with your own wound… We are being called to respond to the wounding of the world, not as hero’s, but as potential healers who are working on our own wounds.’

This sentiment is at the heart of my course on Soulful Leadership, through which I help people to get in touch with their own wounds, and the medicine that they have for the world. If you are interested in exploring what this means for you, join my next course, or book a free discovery call.


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