Re-Imagining Leadership for the 21st Century

Today’s complex, dynamic, and global world presents both challenges and opportunities. We are required to understand and practice leadership in new ways. We are called to expand the paradigm of leadership to encompass and integrate knowledge and experience from many fields and traditions. If leadership can be viewed as our individual and collective response to change the world for the better, then leadership for the 21st century must be re-imagined if it is to be of service to this world. More than the behaviors, traits and styles of individuals, leadership can also be seen as an intrinsic property of all social enterprises, arising through and among relationships, toward fulfilling a group’s, or organization’s, or community’s “reason to be.” Educating people in this expanded paradigm of leadership has been our passion at Saint Mary’s College since 2001. To date we have graduated over 300 people from public, private, and not for profit sectors committed to be of service of their particular team, organization, or community.

At Saint Mary’s College, we believe leadership is fundamentally about fostering deep and positive change in the world to which one belongs. We believe that learning leadership is fundamentally about fostering deep change in one self. In other words, a re-imagined leadership for the 21st century must have both an inner and outer orientation–the whole person engaged with the whole system, in a dance of mutual engagement and development.

In this picture, expanding the breadth and depth of human consciousness lives at the heart of a leadership practice in the 21st century. Our graduates, equipped with expanded capacities and skills in creative and critical thinking, constructive communication, and collaboration, among others, consistently demonstrate the added value this inner work does for fostering meaningful change in their work and life. At Saint Mary’s College, we believe engaging one self is the basis for engaging others in fostering meaningful change in the world. Thus, leadership development begins with self-development.

There are a lot of different approaches and practice to foster self-development. In the context of leadership education, this development is achieved by a number of approaches including career assessments, skill and interest analysis, mentor relationships, etc. From our work with hundreds of adults in a variety of fields, sectors, roles and areas of responsibility, we have found a focus and exploration on personal values to be a powerful self-development path. Furthermore, we are exploring more and more the use of the arts, storytelling, and other creative ways to explore and express a person’s unique landscape of values to access and develop the self. We believe that by rendering this landscape in a creative form this serves as a map to guide one’s personal development.

How Does This Work: Why Art? Why Values?

By rendering their life journey aesthetically and creatively, we believe our students are better able to recognize meaningful connections and patterns-important sources of knowing that often escape the conceptual grasp of the rational and reasoned mind. Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer in a recent presentation on his study of the brain, decision-making and creativity made three important connections about the brain and creativity.

Pure reason is not an ideal, it’s a disease. Emotions tell us what we value. Decisions can’t be made without a combination of reason and emotion. We bring emotions and rationality together through art.

Art and leisure are essential to human development. Art develops meta-cognition and our ability to think about thinking. Arts are not just about beauty. Beauty is important but art is also functional and both the beauty and the function are essential. Improvising, creating and innovating are reliant on making long distance connections in the brain. We learn to form these long distance connections and practice this capacity when daydreaming or playing in a relaxed state.

Art and leisure are essential to human success. Focus, attention, daydreaming and play are all essential for brain development, human potential and success. Some brain states we think are the least productive are actually the most productive.

The creative process involved in art making and storytelling allows us to access the sensorial and aesthetic facets of lived experience. Gregory Bateson (1987) argues that without engaging the aesthetic realms, knowing will always be fragmented and incomplete. And the actions that derive from such partial knowing will always be problematic. “Mere purpose rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life… This is the sort of world we live in…-and love can only survive if wisdom…has an effective voice” (p. 146). Thus, we encourage our students to incorporate the art process, not only as a means to renew and regenerate, but to deepen the quality and complexity of their knowing and being, to provide access to the unconscious and an integration point between the conscious and the unconscious.

According to Brian Hall (2006), values are “the ideals that give significance to our lives, that are reflected through the priorities we choose, and that we act on consistently and repeatedly” (p. 21). The Hall/Tonna Values System renders human experience into 125 values-29 goal or being values, and 96 means values-which encompass various dimensions of knowing, being and doing. The 125 values exist in relationship with one another across four world views or orders of consciousness each more progressively complex than the previous– from foundational ones of safety, security, and belonging to more complex and visionary ones of presence, human dignity, wisdom, global sustainability and justice.

Many of these values live beneath conscious awareness and are therefore more easily accessed through creativity. When we can see the self as a unique ecology of values we are better able to recognize and appreciate the deeply held assumptions and preferences, which shape our behaviors. By viewing the landscape of the self from the perspective of what is meaningful, rather than what is problematic we liberate developmental energy toward an envisioned future self that is more aligned with our deepest intentions and purposes. By rendering our unique landscape of values, aesthetically and creatively we become more self aware, and more discerning of what values to prioritize and to cultivate.

This activity is not only in service to our self-development, but integral to the practice of leadership. Just as each one of us has our own values portrait-a unique configuration or interacting network of value priorities, in play at each moment in our life, so do the groups, organizations and other social networks with which we work. With an awareness and facility with our own ecology of values, we can perceive, make sense of and interact with the world in new ways. In this way, students in the Leadership Studies Programs, learn to better recognize, affirm, and more skillfully navigate the network of values present in the various social enterprises to which they belong, which we believe is key to the practice of leadership in the 21st century

In summary, if the practice of leadership is to be of any help in addressing our complex, global challenges and fulfilling the opportunities present in today’s world, it must be revitalized and re-imagined. Revealing and engaging our ecologies of values in creative ways enhance our individual and collective capacity for development and leadership. In the Leadership Studies Programs at Saint Mary’s College, we believe nothing short of an ongoing and intentional path of self and leadership development will suffice if we are to skillfully engage and be of service to the transformation of the complex world to which we all belong. We hope you will join us.

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