The role of spirituality in leadership


by John Renesch

"We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of consciousness with which we created them."

Global events of the past couple of years make it painfully evident that we are on the brink of a major choice-point: to continue trying to resolve our differences through force that further divides us or to work together toward a better world for all of us. Continuing to think and behave like we have been doing seems to be suicidal while working together appears to be impractical and unattainable. This apparent paradox makes for a resigned, powerless global population.

While the advocates of traditional approaches to resolving conflict turn their backs on a more collaborative form of reconciling differences and call their counterparts ‘idealists’ or accuse them of being unrealistic, the actions they promote have met with no real success. Continuing to do things that have never provided the desired result, while expecting they will somehow miraculously work “this time,” is one definition of insanity. So, while their strategies have proven to fail, time after time, they continue employing them because the alternative seems too foolhardy and they do not know what else to do. Even though this doesn’t work, society appears to accept this way of dealing with conflict—at least according to opinion polls. Even if this ineffective approach is merely tolerated by large numbers of our population, it means this approach is being condoned and given legitimacy.

But there is a way to transcend this apparent deadlock between these two options—the old but ineffective and the untested new way for resolving conflict. Einstein warned us decades ago that we cannot solve our problems with the same consciousness with which we created them. Yet, the status quo continues ignoring his advice.

Conscious Evolution

We humans have the opportunity to consciously participate in our evolution for the first time in history—to consciously evolve. Never before has a species possessed the ability to choose whether it continues to evolve toward a higher form or ‘devolves’ and becomes extinct. Those who take a stand for this new truth—before it becomes more commonly believed—will be the leaders who create the future we’d all prefer: what I call the ‘better future.’

These leaders of a more conscious evolution may not initially be popular. After all, they will be opposing many of the current trends and advocating new approaches. This may cause them to be branded ‘conservative’ by the liberals or ‘leftist’ by the Right Wing. These leaders transcend left and right, conservative and liberal. They stand for a new way for us all to exist in a sustainable world together, not exasperating our differences and warring with one another.

There are many of these leaders already speaking out and, as is often done when a paradigm change is in its beginning stage, most of them are being shouted down. It takes some sophistication to distinguish between the extremists who continue to drive a wedge of separation between the warring ideologies and the ‘radicals’ who are leading the way toward a future whereby all humans continue to evolve and grow in a climate of dignity, respect and security. The extreme left and the extreme right ideologists are hurling violence, disrespect and insults at each other like armies toss grenades and drop bombs on one another. It is still violence; it continues to divide people; and it is not sustainable.

Where will Leaders Come from?

When paradigms change, the agents or catalysts for change rarely come from within the core of the system. The established leaders are usually so embroiled in the traditions, beliefs and priorities of the system they rarely even see the need for change, much less initiate it. Only the newcomers dare to blow the whistle on the naked emperor. Similarly, this leadership for a new consciousness is coming from unexpected places: smaller countries, lesser-known personalities, individuals without rank or title. These people can see dysfunction and policies that border on the insane because they have some distance and objectivity, and are not mired down in the system.

These leaders for a better future possess a unique combination of strengths—a powerful vision for what is needed to become a sustainable species as well as the spiritual chutzpah to act on their vision. While traditional leaders spend years building resumes, acquiring wealth and power, and playing politics to get the titles and ranks they achieve, these new leaders know that the way to this better future is incredibly simple. No widespread trainings are needed; no large budgets are required; no expert consultants need to be hired; and it doesn’t require years to implement. All we have to do is change our thinking. It can happen in minutes! Changing our mindsets can be done simply by letting go of beliefs and attitudes that no longer serve us. It can happen by shifting our point of view. To these new leaders, it is simply a return to a sane and sensible way of living together.

My late friend and colleague Willis Harman wrote extensively about the craziness of acting as if we were not connected as human beings when all the evidence (from mystics and philosophers over the centuries and now even from the modern sciences) shows us that we are. Acting like we are not connected to one another is like treating your leg or arm like it belongs to someone else!

These leaders of conscious evolution already exist in government, business, education and most other segments of our society. But their numbers are still small, relatively low-profile, and widely dispersed. Some are independent and work as consultants, authors and speakers. These leaders are showing up in more and more situations, and in greater and greater numbers, around the world.

An Example of New Thinking

One of the most successful examples of this new leadership was demonstrated by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Desmund Tutu and F.W. de Klerk who were among the leaders who recognized the ‘old way’ was divisive and would ruin their country. As the BBC reported, “South Africa’s transformation into a multiracial democracy might have been more painful without FW de Klerk…He saw his country had to change and forced the pace.” The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid—the conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides.

Though the country had a long-standing tradition of violence and injustice, an attempt to do something different was made. People who had suffered under an oppressive regime needed to be heard. Reconciliation was more important to unity than the cravings for vengeance. A venue for people to tell their stories provided a non-violent conciliatory climate in which a country was able to come together and unite rather than fragment into racially divided factions where one dominated and the other lived a life of resistance. In 1995, they passed the National Unity and Reconciliation Act.

Why don’t more of our existing leaders emulate South Africa instead of Israel and Palestine? Why don’t more of our world’s leaders recognize that the latter model is an impractical and impotent means to making the world a better place? It is because they are too deeply embedded in a system that is outmoded.

As more and more people come to realize that the old ways don’t work and that new thinking is needed, as Einstein told us long ago, more and more leaders of this new kind will step forward. “Conscious leadership” is the term I’ve created to communicate this quality that is being called for in leading people, organizations and society. The Dalai Lama said: “As people see their predicament clearly—that our fates are inextricably tied together, that life is a mutually interdependent web of relations—then universal responsibility becomes the only sane choice for thinking people.”

Conscious leaders are coming from many unexpected sources. They include disillusioned corporate executives, students who don’t know they aren’t supposed to be able to do what hasn’t been done before, women who possess an innate perspective about sustainability and, on occasion, someone who is part of the existing system who nevertheless sees the wisdom in changing our worldview to one that offers greater hope, inspires a larger vision, honors the human spirit, and sets the stage for humanity to fulfill a higher destiny. 

John Renesch is a San Francisco business futurist and social commentator. He has over thirty years experience as a business owner, CEO and Managing Director. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. The Futurist magazine called him a “business visionary.” His website is: Email: John at © 2003 by John Renesch.


This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 2  Posted on the web on November 10, 2006