Quality growth and true progress

A little while ago, I was asked to define what was meant by ‘quality growth’.  Here are my thoughts:

In purely professional terms, in my view, ‘quality growth’ brings together a blended value proposition that

Photo by Sweet Dreamz Design

Photo by Sweet Dreamz Design

has at its heart not only the triple bottom line – economic, social, environmental – but achieves these goals within the context of democratic, values-based leadership.  And, by democratic, I do not mean simply political democracy, but a fair and balanced participatory approach to leadership and governance, in the personal and the professional sphere, in corporations, the arts, the non-profit sector and in civil society more generally.

Having lived in China through a period of extraordinary economic ‘growth’, I have been challenged to think through the complexity of this idea.  Starved for so long of the ability to make money through the capitalist system that the rest of the world enjoyed for so long, it is natural that the Chinese people should be striving forward in bettering their material standard of living.   Whilst we have concerns about the sustainability of China’s growth considering it’s environmental impact, it is understandable, surely, for a nation to want to build better homes for their families, educate their children and travel the world. Yet, in my view, China has an opportunity to also be a leader in finding ways to do this in a more sustainable fashion and there is evidence that the Chinese people are indeed seeking to find ways to do this.

To me, however, growth should fundamentally be synonymous with true progress.  Too often, growth is valued simply as a means in itself, the constant pursuit of more, greater, bigger, better.  And it is usually valued in solely material terms. It seems to me, though, that when we nurture the growth of a child, a company, a relationship or a garden, we are expectant, joyful of every evidence of the forward movement of this idea.  The first step taken, a contract won, the pink rose unfolding after a harsh winter.  These are the things through which we measure the true growth, or progress, of an idea.

My own work with bottom-of-the-pyramid populations in China has demonstrated how the desire for progress in life in a broader context is the true motivator that lies at the heart of ‘quality growth’.  When a migrant woman tells me that her job at Hua Dan has not only enabled her to buy a house for her family, lifting them out of poverty, but also created a context for her to make a contribution and lead a purposeful life, I see growth and progress in a larger light.

In my own life, it has often been hard to quieten the voices that clamour around me, dictating what ‘growth’ should be.  I have found, so often, that it is purely growth defined in numbers.  There is the amount of money you should be earning, the size of house you own, how big your company is, the right age to get married, when to retire, etc…..these are all indicators of ‘success’ as they are depicted in our world today.

It is easy to allow ourselves to be defined by these metrics.  However, I have found that when I focus more on the expression of love, authenticity, fearlessness, contribution, equality for all, in my life and in my professional journey, all unfolds to allow for a healthy, balanced sense of progress that meets all needs.  I am no longer prisoner to an artificial metric that states how much something is ‘worth’, including myself, reducing the conversation to a simple transaction.  I am transformed by the understanding of my own unique contribution to the conversation.  By thinking more in terms of what I have to GIVE, not what I have to GET, I am propelled forward – and receive in abundance resources to sustain that ‘quality growth’ and true progress.

This surely is a metric that we could all use, individuals, governments and corporations alike, to define true ‘progress’.

How do you define quality growth and true progress in YOUR life?

Progress Further by drinks machine

Progress Further by drinks machine

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Servant Leadership

Dear Tamara

I’ve been thinking about our conversation the other day and what leadership means to me.  A few days after we spoke, I took a little online quiz about leadership that had popped up in my inbox.  I was asked which ‘leadership role models’ I identified with and was given a list that included the likes of Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  I chose Gandhi and, following on from taking the leadership quiz myself was identified as a ‘servant leader’, the great man himself apparently being considered an example of such leadership.

Photo by AlbinoFlea

Photo by Steve Fernie

Whilst I cannot begin to compare myself to him and all that he achieved, I admire greatly his quiet and soft-spoken leadership, his commitment to a cause much bigger than himself, and the qualities of humility and integrity that defined his behavior and leadership style.  I know I have a long way to go in exhibiting all of those qualities myself but they are definitely ideals that I hold to!

It’s so easy to see leadership in the light of domineering, charismatic, personality-driven or ‘top-down’ leadership, and I know it’s hard to get the balance right, but I have seen that leadership works best when you stand behind people and allow them to flourish.  A leadership model that gets ‘self’ out of the way.

I have seen this work in practice many times in my leadership journey.  At times, too keen to push my own agenda whilst the calmer, quieter voice of my team members gently urges me to listen to what they have to say; the times when a project calls for a more collaborative leadership style, that beautifully also shifts the burden from my shoulders to a shared sense of purpose; and those moments in a theatre workshop when I am reminded that my only job is to allow that ‘life force’ that Martha Graham so eloquently quotes to flow through me and express itself in liberating the creativity of others.

Photo by gregory.ackland

Photo by gregory.ackland

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”

To me, great leadership is when we are following a cause much higher than ourselves.  When we are enlarging our sense of purpose with the certainty that we are merely instruments in the divine plan.  It is a combination of humility with a confident assertion of what you know to be right.  It is both a willingness to yield to the ideas and inputs of others as it is to sometimes stand up for what you know in your heart to be right, and true, and fair.  Critically, it is to know to do what is best for the vision, independent of the personalities involved.

I haven’t always found that easy.  I think I have sometimes allowed a false sense of humility to allow others to ride roughshod over something I believe in my heart at the expense of a productive, coherent vision, unsullied by the opinion of others.  Yet, I am learning that it is right, sometimes, to also call others to a higher standard of leadership themselves, in order that we attain a shared goal in service to humanity.  We must hold both ourselves and others accountable to that grander vision.

It is the quality of ‘surrender’ that I love the most and that has most defined my personal and professional leadership journey.  That giving over of self to the divine and all that requires.  That spiritual journey, to me, is what all leaders are required to do.  It is the quality of their spiritual journey alone, and their commitment to it, that enables the outwards expression of their leadership to flourish.

I think those leadership lessons can then have resonance with everyone’s journey, allowing us all to exhibit ‘leadership’ in our day-to-day lives.  To my mind, we are constantly ‘choosing’ leadership on a moment-by-moment basis.  In any conflict, for example, we are choosing to take the higher road in how we see the other person.  Do we choose to help a small child tie their shoelaces before rushing off to do our own thing?  Do we choose to be proactive, rather than reactive in our interactions with others?  Do we put down our smartphones to truly listen to what the other is saying?

Leadership to me, then, is a choice.  Not a role or title bestowed on us by a job description or someone else’s good estimation of us.  It is the choice to take the high road of a broader view of humanity, and cares little for whether we have followers or not.  It is the certain knowledge that we are ultimately always and only servant to Love’s vision alone.

Much love, Caroline

Surrender by arli design

Surrender by arli design

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The Legacy Project

At last year’s ‘Summer Davos’, the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China, I was fortunate to facilitate a workshop on the demographics of ageing populations for a discussion on the future of North East Asia.

Photo by Laurent Fintoni

Photo by Laurent Fintoni

This is not a topic with which I can claim any expertise and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to use my facilitation skills to learn and share with others.  The discussion we had focused on a range of themes.  There was the marked observation that changing values within Asian society was contributing to a lack of care for the very elderly, in a culture that has traditionally taken older people into the family home to look after them.  We also discussed the position of women and how increasing freedoms for them had meant that fewer women were marrying and producing children or, if they did, at later stages in their lives.  The one-child policy in China had also had an impact and the failure of the Japanese government to adequately prepare for changing demographics at the right time were all taking their toll.

Alongside the discussion on changing demographics, two parallel discussions occurred, one on the economic situation and the other on education.  Additionally, there was discussion on increasing youth unemployment, disengagement with political processes from the younger generation and a need for retirees to be actively engaged in continued learning beyond retirement.

In the plenary discussion that followed, several participants noted that there was an opportunity to see these challenges in a different light.  For example, the empowerment of women was obviously a good thing and, as such, we needed to reframe our way of looking at the problem by seeing new potential opportunities emerging.

I stepped out of my facilitator role to share a personal insight.  As a young entrepreneur, I had benefitted greatly from having a mentor who was coming up to retirement, a veteran of social enterprise, currently working on his 7th charitable initiative.  The wisdom, gravitas and experience that he offered complemented beautifully my youthful enthusiasm, creativity and boundless energy, creating a mutually-beneficial relationship

Wisdom by romec1

Wisdom by romec1

that added value to both of our lives.  It was especially interesting for me to observe his attitude to retirement.  He saw that these years were an opportunity to continue to contribute his skills and experience, a potential income source for him and a way that he could carry on his legacy for future generations, providing both economic AND social returns.

This idea of legacy has fascinated me.  Too often we are encouraged solely to shore up our financial future by investing in pensions, houses and the stock market.  Whilst it is wisdom to take precautions for this time, to me, it would be ideal if we could focus instead on the more intangible, but infinitely more rewarding question of what it is we truly wish to leave behind in this world.  To think less about leaving a will, and more about creating a legacy.  To me, this is necessary to think about at any age and stage of life.

I wonder if, therefore, as part of the practical solutions needed to deal with the changing demographics, we designed programmes and projects that linked the younger generation with the older one, creating mentoring programmes and corporate initiatives that seek to enable a partnering across generations for building a better world?

This year, I am launching my new initiative, Scheherazade, which aims to grow the Hua

Photo by Lumiere2005

Photo by Lumiere2005

Dan Model of theatre-based projects for social change into other emerging markets.  We are seeking to staff our organisation with members of the ‘silver generation’, providing them with an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful, creative project and enable us to benefit from the wisdom, skills and experience of someone who has already had a successful career.

If you know of interested individuals, or have experience or knowledge of similar projects, please do leave us your comments.  Not only are we interested in finding people to work with us but we’re also keen to spark a debate on how to rethink the challenges and opportunities of meeting changing demographics in our society.

Wishing you all the best in the ongoing success of your own ‘legacy creation’ in 2014!

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Spirituality and Transformative Leadership – a Call to action

In her seminal essay ‘Freedom from Fear’, the prominent pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a ‘revolution of the spirit’ if we are to bring about meaningful change in our world.

Aung San Suu Kyi at the YGL Forum, Myanmar June 2013

Aung San Suu Kyi at the YGL Forum, Myanmar June 2013

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a private session with The Lady, as she is known in Myanmar, as part of my involvement with the Forum for Young Global Leader’s at this year’s World Economic Forum for East Asia, held in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.  During the session, Daw Suu Kyi turned the tables on our own questions to her by asking us what we felt it would take to overcome the fear that pervades the world.  As she sees it, fear is at the root of the world’s most intractable problems and overcoming this fear lies at the heart of our future progress.

Her call struck a chord with me as this very question has been central to my own leadership journey.  As a young girl, it seemed to me that we are either living out from a place of fear, or, a place of love.  I saw that love was the only transformative force that could meet and master the suffering we see around us and I determined at this young age to make overcoming fear through the highest expression of love my reason for being and the purpose behind my professional life.  So far, that has manifested itself in a commitment to using the arts for personal and social transformation.

My interest in the power of spiritual thinking lead me to instigate a workshop on Spirituality and Mindful Leadership at this year’s Young Global Leaders Forum, during which we had the privilege of visiting several religious institutions that have been foundational in bringing progress to Myanmar society.  We received an introduction to Theravada Buddhism, the spiritual practice of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, and were also fortunate to spend some time with young students from the Myanmar Institute of Theology.  Here, we ran a theatre workshop where we encouraged the students to create images for Myanmar’s future, based on a brainstorm around the spiritual qualities that transcend any one particular religious tradition.  Words like ‘compassion’, ‘connection’, ‘humility’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘unity’ were further developed into a series of images that showcased how such principles could be applied to concrete situations in Myanmar’s future progress.

MIT Workshop

MIT Workshop

It was wonderful to see the sense of hope that defined the young people of Myanmar and to see the power of a collective vision to mobilise others.  Aung San Suu Kyi herself, when asked if she had ever considered giving up her cause, said that, so long as there was one other person who wanted democracy, she would continue in her mission for, to her, our work should always be about the other, the surrendering of self to a higher purpose.

Furthermore, during one of the panel discussions that Daw Suu Kyi was on at the Forum itself, she spoke of the importance of the youth voice and for education to be based on teamwork and the building of skills, not simply the acquisition of knowledge.  This is necessary for Myanmar to progress and elevate people to a higher view of their potential than has previously been possible.  In my own work, I can attest to the extraordinary power that is unleashed when, through the artistic process, we are able to break down the barriers in our thinking.

During the Forum, Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed that she intends to run for President at the next election and I was particularly struck by her ability to recognize that the current military government is also a part of the Myanmar people.  Her vision is no ‘them and us’ situation that rules so much of global politics these days but a more nuanced understanding of the unity that must be found over division if her country is going to progress.

To me, great leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, have demonstrated through their grace, dignity, integrity and poise what is possible in all of us, to lead in whatever sphere we find ourselves in to the full realization of who we are as expressions of Love.  That, for me, is the true purpose of leadership and I know that many around the world will join me in supporting Daw Suu Kyi in her bid to lead Myanmar to a fuller expression of her potential, shining her light to also inspire others on their journey towards freedom from fear.  And to put out a call to all leaders, big or small, to inspire their own ‘revolution of the spirit’ within themselves and those they lead.

YGLs with Aung San Suu Kyi courtesy of World Economic Forum

YGLs with Aung San Suu Kyi courtesy of World Economic Forum

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Hua Dan Goes to Edinburgh Festival – making our Dumpling Dreams come true!

hua Dan 1Throughout my time of working in China and setting up Hua Dan, I have been privileged to hear the stories of migrant, rural and urban women who have generously shared their experiences of what it means to be a woman in modern China today.

Furthermore, as theatre people, stories are our medium of communication, windows through which we can empathise and connect, build relationships and a deeper understanding and compassion for others.  I am a particular fan of the writer Ben Okri’s quote:

“Stories can conquer fear you know.
They can make the heart bigger.”

It was stories about China’s women that first lead me to Beijing in 2003, when I read Xinran’s book, ‘The Good Women of China’.  During the 1980s, Xinran hosted a late-night radio programme ‘Words on the Night Breeze’ that encouraged women to call in and relate their stories of living through the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.  The stories are powerful and provoking, at times shocking, but always authentic and profound in their insights to the reality of the lives of these women.  It was out of a willingness to encourage Chinese women to continue to share their stories that I went to Beijing to establish Hua Dan and create the space for them to do so in our workshops.

Chinese Story Book by xcode

Chinese Story Book by xcode

Having run workshops in the community in Beijing and Sichuan for nearly 10 years now,  Hua Dan’s Creative Director, Yang Yang Tao, and our Senior Associate, Jessica Naish, have a vision to create a performance – ‘Dumpling Dreams’ – that will bring to life the important and little heard stories of migrant women and families in China, stories such as the one of Zhong Na and her grandmother’s eggs

Yang Yang has been particularly encouraged by her recent experiences of interning at the National Theatre of Scotland as part of a British Council project and you can read more about her own story here.  Hua Dan sees a big part of it’s job as encouraging the growth of leaders in the arts and we are excited to help Yang Yang achieve her dream of taking a production to Edinburgh Festival.

We’d love you to join us on our journey to take the Dumpling Dreams production to Edinburgh Festival.  We need to raise £4000 to bring Yang Yang, Jin Lian and Liu Ran over to Edinburgh in August.  If you feel inspired to get involved or donate to the project, please do check out the page on our website here.  We look forward to making this dream come true!

Dumpling Dreams Storytelling Rickshaw from Hua Dan archive

Dumpling Dreams Storytelling Rickshaw from Hua Dan archive

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A story of eggs

Photo of Zhong Na from Hua Dan's archive

Photo of Zhong Na from Hua Dan’s archive

When she was a little girl, Zhong Na used to collect eggs from the family chicken to give to her grandmother to sell.  At the time, the family couldn’t afford to send her to school.  But Zhong Na was determined to get herself an education, so she devised a plan…..

Zhong Na figured her grandmother would hardly notice if she was to squirrel away a few eggs each time, before giving her the rest.  She decided that she would be able to sell these eggs herself, to help pay for herself to go to school.  I can just imagine this intrepid little girl, secreting these delicate treasures into a cotton sack, with dreams of a promising future ahead of her!

A little while later, her grandmother came across this little sack, to find not only the secret stash of eggs, but a few baby chicks to boot!  In her innocence, Zhong Na hadn’t reckoned on the hatching of these eggs, secure as they were in their nice warm sack.

Eggs by Jardek

Eggs by Jardek

I am touched by Zhong Na’s pure desire to educate herself, of her certainty in a better life for herself and a fearless belief that she could achieve what she needed with a bit of ingenuity and hard work.   And I marvel no less at her accidental discovery that the value of her investment in herself had potentially doubled or tripled!  Evidence of the entrepreneurial nature of a young girl with a big idea, it seems.

Those of you who follow Hua Dan’s work will know that Zhong Na did go on to get an education, before coming to Beijing and being trained by us to become our first Children’s project manager.  Zhong Na has now returned to her village in Shandong province to be with her family and, hopefully, to start up a little branch of Hua Dan with local school children.  You can read more about her here.

In the next few months, I’m embarking on a project to share with you the stories that have inspired me on my journey with Hua Dan.  I’m also excited to announce that Hua Dan has received a small grant from the Lenovo Foundation to develop a performance, Dumpling Dreams, sharing these stories in a piece that we hope to take to Edinburgh Festival in 2014.  I look forward to keeping you updated on the project!

Chicks by HA! Designs - Artbyheather

Chicks by HA! Designs – Artbyheather

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State of grace

I’ve been thinking a lot about grace recently.  Grace as a concept of forgiveness, redemption, of righting past wrongs and moving forward

I need the sea by jesuscm

I need the sea by jesuscm

At the same time, I have been working to better understand ideas about beauty in relation to this idea of grace.  As a creative person and spiritual thinker, I see beauty and grace as an expression of Soul, of qualities such as gentleness, purity, perfection and forgiveness.  I like how these qualities, when expressed, give us a higher vision of beauty of ourselves and, especially, help us to see each other in our true light.

I’ve thought often of this as I’ve wrestled with the challenges, failures and mistakes that I’ve made along my journey.

The Christian concept of grace is of ‘the free and unmerited favour of God…the bestowal of blessings; the condition or fact of being favoured by someone’.  I love that!  It seems to say that all goodness is ours to be had, that no matter what mistakes or errors of judgment we have made, the goodness continues to flow and is ours to receive.

I was particularly inspired by an excerpt from an oral history of Hua Dan that has been

Photo from Hua Dan archive

Photo from Hua Dan archive

put together this past year.  We’ve been fortunate to have the support of the amazing Linda Yi, a student from Duke University, who has interviewed many past and current beneficiaries, staff members and supporters.  Linda has compiled her findings into a beautiful oral history project which will shortly be available online, as a testament to the contribution we have tried to make to China’s growth and development – and lessons for improvement into the future!

“There’s something about that situation where people are coming together and admitting their flaws, admitting their weakness, admitting that they all, as a group, can’t handle this thing that they’re addicted to [Hua Dan and using art for social change]: there’s something about the spirit of that group that produces what he calls grace. A has told me (about a sermon that she heard when she was in Central America) that grace is always present, it’s always right here, but we don’t always pick up on it, we don’t always accept this gift that’s freely offered by the world. But if we gather together in a certain spirit, then it appears. It seems to me that’s what’s happening at these Hua Dan meetings. The ostensible purpose is to build certain soft skills, or to do something about art and theater, but that isn’t really what’s important, and that isn’t really what’s happening. The important part (the solid heart) is the relationship building. And if that happens (and it almost has to happen), then the thing is a success, whether there’s any art or theater, whether people build skills or not.” (Correspondence between Linda Yi and David Guy, Hua Dan Oral History 2013)

I am humbled and inspired that an outside observer to our little band of Hua Daners, who have experienced huge challenges in moving our work forward in China, has recognized that the experience of grace is, fundamentally, what our work is really about.

Fruit store by Jarod Carruthers

Fruit store by Jarod Carruthers

This focus on relationships as an expression of grace was also brought home to me with a small incident that occurred on Sunday afternoon.  On returning home on the metro, I stopped by the ATM to withdraw 20 euros before proceeding to the market to buy some cherries and bananas. Just as I was about to pay, I realised I had absent-mindedly just taken the ticket from the ATM and not the money. I dropped everything to run back to find that the money wasn’t there. On returning to the market stall to explain that I wouldn’t be buying the fruit after having lost the money, the market stall owner handed me my fruit. I was so overcome, I burst into tears – and couldn’t stop crying, so humbled I was at his expression of generosity. He then handed me a bottle of water and gently told me to keep my chin up, whereupon I said, I’ll just go and get more money out to pay you. He stopped me, told me not to worry about it – ‘another time, another time’. He handed me the fruit – with some apricots and peaches thrown in too.

I was blown away and in awe of this expression of grace, a reminder that whatever we think we’ve lost, the universe has it’s way of coming back to us with blessings in abundance – with extra thrown in for good measure too!

Photo from Hua Dan archive

Photo from Hua Dan archive

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Spirituality and Mindful Leadership in Myanmar

Schwedagon Pagoda by Ku5hi

Schwedagon Pagoda by Ku5hi

At the upcoming Young Global Leaders Annual Summit at the World Economic Forum for East Asia in Myanmar (Burma), I, along with two of my colleagues, Shoukei Matsumoto and Thura Ko, will be running an Impact Journey on Spirituality and Mindful Leadership for our fellow YGLs.

I was first inspired to propose a workshop on this after feeling disappointed that the majority of discussion on this topic at Davos tended to focus most on what I consider to be the politics of religion, rather than the power of spirituality.  After one particular panel discussion, I posed to the audience the question of what it would mean if global leaders with a commitment to spiritual thinking were to share their experiences of bringing healing to their communities.  After all, what else is the purpose of religion and spirituality if not to bring healing?

I was further encouraged after reading an article, Freedom from Fear, by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s celebrated pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate.

Aung San Suu Kyi by Prachatai

Aung San Suu Kyi by Prachatai

In the article, Aung San Suu Kyi articulates the need for there to be a ‘revolution of the spirit’ if we are to overcome the challenges of leading in today’s world.

In my own life, spiritual vision has been fundamental to my leadership journey.  Like many others, I take the approach of ‘servant leadership’, that I feel compelled to do what I do [in my case, using arts for social change] as part of a bigger vision of healing for the world.  I have come to learn, through the trials and tribulations of my own experiences and observing the experiences of others, that what defines a leader is not so much the particularities of what he or she does, and the successes and failures, achievements and mistakes they encounter along the way, so much as their individual commitment to continue to strive for this higher vision of humanity, irrespective of the material circumstances and ‘crucibles’ they face.  Aung San Suu Kyi, as we know, is an exemplary model for such leadership.

The schedule for our Impact Journey will take us to the Myanmar Institute of Theology, Schwedagon Pagoda and the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy and will encompass an opportunity for meditation and reflection on the following two key questions:

1)   How have you used spirituality in your leadership?  What universal ‘principles’, that transcend any one individual faith, have enabled you to bring healing to your communities?

2)   What ‘value’ do spiritual and religious institutions hold in society today?  And how can we ‘measure’ that value?

We are also aiming to weave in the concept of feminine leadership to the discussion, in light of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and the imperative that exists to bring gender issues into the discussion.

In anticipation of a fruitful and inspiring Impact Journey, and in a spirit of inquiry to prepare us for the experience, I invite you all – friends, family, fellow YGLs and colleagues – to leave your comments and thoughts on these two central questions.  We’d love to hear your stories of how you have used spirituality in your own leadership journey and to further the discussion of what value spiritual and religious institutions have in society today.  Please leave your comments below and we look forward to the continued sharing of these ideas.

 Myanmar by bsmethers

Myanmar by bsmethers
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The Charter for Compassion

I had the privilege of attending a talk by the religious historian Karen Armstrong on her Charter for Compassion the other day in Paris.

Photo of Karen Armstrong by Seamus Rainheart

Photo of Karen Armstrong by Seamus Rainheart

A former nun, Ms Armstrong is best known for her books on the major world religions.  In 2008, she received the TED prize and was asked to make one wish that TED would support her to achieve.  She chose to launch the Charter for Compassion, which was compiled by several academics and authorities in the field and has now grown into a global movement.

Within the context of the Charter, Ms Armstrong draws on the fact that all great religions have enshrined the importance of the Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.  And, by extension, ‘do not do to others what you would not wish them to do to you’.  Given my upbringing in China, I was also interested to learn that it was Confucius who first enunciated the Golden Rule, long before Western religions did so.

Photo by Deone Higgs

Photo by Deone Higgs

During her talk, Ms Armstrong mentioned the importance of going deep into the pain of one’s own suffering in order to understand the suffering of others.   We must look deep into our own hearts to see what causes us pain, and refuse to inflict it on others. She said that this empathy was critical to this process of exercising compassion.  I especially liked her call to ‘dethrone’ ourselves from the centre of our own world and put the other there.

I was also inspired by Ms Armstrong’s reminder that we always have a choice about another way of being in the world.  That we can frame our behaviour and daily actions by spending our time relieving the sufferings of others.

At the end of her talk, I asked her what she felt was the difference between compassion and love.  She commented that love had come to be an overused word in our society, and that it tended to symbolize emotions and feelings which, to her, didn’t accurately convey the active call to express compassion to our fellow man.

This seems like an accurate observation that made me wonder whether, in that process of connecting love to emotion, or even just solely to romantic love, we have lost that wider understanding of love as a state of being, love as our original, natural identity.  Love as an expression of all that is pure, perfect and complete in who we really are.  Love as our reflection of the Divine. Surely, if we were able to truly see both ourselves and others in this way, would this enable us to more easily transcend the images of suffering we see around us and thus naturally express compassion in everything we think, say and do?

I’m inspired by the work of Karen Armstrong and what she is doing with the Charter for Compassion project and hope, too, that whilst we go through our daily lives expressing compassion, we continue to remind ourselves that the source of these actions have their origins in Love.  Love that is not something outside of ourselves or that has to be summoned up with effort, but a quality of being that is naturally, abundantly and beautifully expressed by us all.

Photo by AV Dezign

Photo by AV Dezign

Copyright Caroline Watson

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The call for feminine leadership

A friend recently related to me a story of how a female colleague of hers, a brilliant and articulate public figure, had been completely overshadowed by the forceful persuasion techniques and aggressive stance of her male interlocuters on a televised debate.  She expressed disappointment in this as the seeming evidence of men’s greater power over women and how far we had yet to go in the equality of men and women.

Photo by cheesy42

Photo by cheesy42

I suggested to my friend that perhaps what we most needed was a redefinition of what ‘women’s leadership’ meant.  And, perhaps, to also understand the difference between ‘power’ and ‘influence’ – the authority, perhaps commanded by something akin to the ‘still, small voice’, to be a force for change in the face of violence and aggression.

In the light of the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, much has been made of the debate as to whether Baroness Thatcher was a shining example of the barriers that women could break to achieve political success, or if she was a traitor to her sex in espousing values that traditionally go against the grain of what women most value.  The jury is still out for me on that one.  But I do believe that what we most need is a better understanding of what it means to bring the feminine into leadership and to elevate the conversation to one that is not simply about the promotion of more women in the political and economic sphere, as important as that is.  Whilst it is important and necessary work to focus on the material aspects of gender equality, I feel somehow that the conversation needs to go further on a more nuanced understanding of what it means to truly empower both women – and men.

To me, this is as much a call for liberation of the feminine qualities of compassion, collaboration, creativity, nurturing, beauty and empowerment, as it is also about the expression of masculine qualities of justice, order, discipline, integrity and trustworthiness.  We know that none of these qualities are the exclusive preserve of men or women and, thus, it is important to focus on how we might find their expression in the highest vision possible of what men and women, expressing BOTH, are able to bring to the world.

Nebsen and Nebet-ta by Wallyg

Nebsen and Nebet-ta by Wallyg

Pioneering spiritual thinker of the 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy, herself a woman who broke many boundaries in her professional achievements, had this to say:

‘Union of the masculine and feminine qualities constitutes completeness’

To me, she was getting away from the specifics of male and female and moving towards a higher vision that underlined the imperative of both feminine and masculine qualities to be expressed to bring our world to its complete state of perfection.

In my own experiences as a modern women, I have often experienced a struggle in understanding the practical implications of what this means.  We are all familiar with the debates that rage around us: as career women are we neglecting our wifely and maternal instincts?  Have those of us who have chosen to be full-time mothers let the side down for our feminist sisters?  Should a man hold a door open for a woman to pass through?  Is this a sign of politeness and respect for a woman?  Or an insinuation that she is somehow ‘the weaker sex?’  Are our corporations, social structures and working lives at odds with the way we – as men and women – with relationships, families and personal goals, wish to live our lives?  And what kind of leadership is necessary to solve the huge problems our world faces?  As with most debates, real life continues on in the midst, often leaving us confused as to how to be a meaningful, practical, force for change in the everyday.

So, I would invite women to consider themselves as custodians – not owners – of that idea of ‘feminine leadership’ and that, whilst continuing to work on the practical implications of women’s role in society, we must first and foremost lead by taking THOUGHT in new directions about the qualities that make up a truly harmonious model of feminine and masculine leadership.  We must ask ourselves if, in all this, we are truly finding the feminine in leadership, irrespective of whether we are a man or woman. And, by extension, by modeling that higher model of feminine leadership we are thus calling into being a higher model of masculine leadership too.  What we should be aiming for is the opportunity for each individual, irrespective of gender, to be able to bring forth in themselves the full expression of masculine and feminine qualities in both the professional and personal spheres, enabling everyone to live up to their highest potential.

It is my deep belief that when we change our thought of what it is we are really trying to achieve, the necessary changes that hinder the advancement of both women and men to truly progress in society, will naturally and inevitably come into being.

Photo by World Bank Photo Collection

Photo by World Bank Photo Collection

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