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Why You Need to Cultivate Your Inner Life (as a Leader)

  • Woman reading by Linda Naiman © 2016

When it comes to leadership it’s not just about what we do in the world, it’s also about who we are 

In our quest to succeed, we tend to focus on doing, rather than on being. If you neglect your inner life, you put your emotional and physical well-being at risk, and this will have an adverse effect on your leadership abilities. Leadership is an emotional, intellectual, physical and even an aesthetic experience, centered on connecting with your true self developing your fullest human potential (in your self, and others.)

What is your true self?

Deepak Chopra offers a simple explanation: You are experiencing the true self  when you feel secure, accepted, peaceful and certain. When you experience the opposite you are in the grip of the everyday self, or the ego-self. “The trouble is that both sides are convincing,” he explains, “When you feel overwhelmed by stress, crisis, doubts and insecurity, the true self might as well not exist. You are experiencing a different reality colored by the state of your mind.”

Chopra says qualities of the everyday self and the true self are actually very different:

  1. The true self is certain and clear about things. The everyday self gets influenced by countless outside influences, leading to confusion.
  2. The true self is stable. The everyday self shifts constantly.
  3. The true self is driven by a deep sense of truth. The everyday self is driven by the ego, the unending demands of “I, me, mine.”
  4. The true self is at peace. The everyday self is easily agitated and disturbed.

The true self is love. The everyday self, lacking love, seeks it from outside sources.

Source: How to Tell the Difference Between Your True Self and Your Everyday Self

Having a rich inner life means being in touch with your true self and the vast terrain of your hopes and dreams, thoughts, emotions, instincts, and intuition. It is a private space for imagination and reflection which nourishes your creative spirit and a sense of well-being.

Angeles Arrien in her forward to Gabrielle Roth’s Maps to Ecstasy: The Healing Power of Movement, wrote,

In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? Where we have stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul. Dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence are the four universal healing salves.

This passage has great resonance for me, because, on reflection, many of the times I have felt the most happy, content and nourished, have been when I participated in community-based sacred or cultural events that contain these elements. I find it so interesting that dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence are the very components that make religious and spiritual ceremonies and festivals (including weddings) so meaningful and moving.

If Arrien’s words resonate with you, then the invitation is to enrich your inner life in communion with others by engaging in expressive artforms.

As British writer Jeanette Winterson notes,

Art is such a relief to us because, actually, it’s the real world; it’s the reality that we understand on a deeper level… Life has an inside as well as an outside, and at the present, the outside of life is very well catered for, and the inside of life not at all… We can go back to books or pictures or music, film, theater, and we can find there both some release and some relief for our inner life, the place where we actually live, the place where we spend so much time.

We do have an an inner life, and that inner life needs to have respect and needs to have some nourishment for itself. And that’s why art can never be a luxury — because, if it is, being human is a luxury; being who we actually are is a luxury. Life can’t be about utility — it has also to be about emotion, it has to be about imagination, it has to be about things for their own sake, so that this journey of ours makes sense to us and is not simply something that we’re rather fretfully trying to get through another day, another week, another month — that pressure that we so often feel… Reading books really does take your hand off the panic button, it allows your breathing to return to normal, it allows you to occupy the space isn’t entirely ruled by other people’s demands and by utility. (Source: Brainpickings)

Weaving your inner life with the outer world

Martha Craven Nussbaum, philosopher, and Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, has this advice for cultivating a rich inner life: celebrate emotional excess as a generative force, embrace vulnerability, overcome fear, and harness the empathic power of storytelling.

As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others, (Source: Brainpickings)

Robert and Janet Denhardt in their book on The Dance of Leadership, cite a passage from The Moment Of Movement: Dance Improvisation, noting that while the authors Blom and Chaplin are giving dance instructions, these principles apply to leadership — and I might add, to life in general:

We must be willing to take risks, committed to the experience, and ready to be vulnerable and open to the self-discovery that is a natural product of the process. We must be willing to listen to others and to be generous with them. An active balance of self-fulfillment and response to others’ needs has to be maintained. Basically, we need the courage of our own impulses and responses qualified only by a healthy concern for the people we are working with.

Ellen Dissanayake, an anthropologist who explores art and culture in her book Homo Aestheticus, advocates “artifying” life. “We invented dance, poetry, charms, masks, dress and a multitude of other artifacts to make day to day activities, whether hauling nets or pounding grain, more sensual and enjoyable, to promote cooperation, harmony and unity among group members, and to also enable us to cope with life’s less expected or explicable events.”

Dissanayake notes that singing and dancing have their roots in the turn-taking, imitation, and mutuality of mother-infant play. “The gestures and rhythmic movements of adult dances and other performances grow from childhood and create a sense of belonging for every individual, fostering social cohesion.” Ceremonial activity stretches from hunter-gatherer prehistory to the subcultures—families, clubs, teams, religions—in mass society today.

“Ceremony,” Dissanayake says, is “a one-word term for what is really a collection or assembly of elaborations”—patterning and accentuations—“ of words, voices, actions, movements, bodies, surroundings, and paraphernalia” that in the end constitute the arts: “chant or song, poetic language, ordered movement and gesture or dance, mime, and drama, along with considered and even spectacular visual display.” The art-saturated ceremonies may be designed to impress the gods and convey messages about order and meaning in the cosmos, but they also build stronger societies along the way.”

Oprah has built a media empire based in part on the empathic power of storytelling, and on being both vulnerable and open to self-discovery. She has been honored by The Kennedy Center (in 2010) for creating innovative projects that “enhance the world’s exposure to the arts and perception of humanity.” Oprah credits her success to her commitment to creating an indestructible inner life. During a conversation at Stanford Business School to discuss careers, business and leadership, she said,

I sit here profitable, successful, by all definitions of the word. But what really, really, resonates deeply with me is that I live a fantastic life; my inner life is really intact. I live from the inside out. Everything I have, I have because I let it be fuelled by who I am and what I realize my contributions to the planet could be.

If you seek a richer inner life, then the invitation is to bring more art into your world — not just as a passive consumer, but as a participator in the dance of life.

The Proto-Indo-European root of art is “ar” meaning “to fit together.” Aesthetic ability is innate in all of us, not just the stars in our midst, and as Dissanayake points out in her research, “art is central to the emergence, adaptation, and survival as human beings.” Art helps us transcend the cruelties of life; it restores hope, fosters community, and helps weave our social fabric back into wholeness.

Related:

The Value of Deep Play and its Impact on Learning and the Imagination

Why Art? It Can Have a Profound Impact on Your Leadership

How to Thrive in the Face of Turmoil and Adversity

7 Leadership Practices for Encouraging a Culture of Creativity & Innovation

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2020-01-24T14:44:28-08:00

About the Author:

As founder of Creativity Work, I help executives and their teams develop creativity, innovation, and leadership skills via arts-based learning and design thinking.(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases on blog posts)