Leading as Sacred Practice – How leading can be a blessing (5 practices)
by Holger Scholz
Summary: In these times it is good to have the opportunity to offer people a space that is not only safe but also sacred in the way that the space can become a runway for something wanting to emerge through us as a carefully constructed collective.
We operate in a field which finds itself somewhere between aesthetics and ceremonial art. Often we work with forces which are greater than ourselves. When we connect with these greater forces, a depth and significance can be felt directly by all parties and experienced by the participants as nourishing and healing. Leading, hosting and mentoring can be seen as a ceremonial, sometimes sacred, practice. There is a quality beyond content, tools and goals. There are five key practices that guide my way into this ceremonial space: Make things nice; Choose higher ground; Invite Circle; Go slow to go fast; Practice humble inquiry. Leading as Sacred Practice is concrete action and, as my colleague Alan Briskin has said, “in the end, it’s collective sensemaking and moral decision making”.
“You don’t just do facilitation!“ said my colleague at the International Conference of Facilitators in Edinburgh (IAF, International Association of Facilitators). We started talking and I began reflecting on the deeper sources of guidance and direction. It is about presence and the ability to connect fully with the moment. This was in 2003.
Ten years later, there was a similar situation at the EuViz conference in Berlin, which we at Kommunikationslotsen hosted with Neuland. We diligently created a circle, with a center point, and four exit points, oriented to the cardinal directions. The kick-off was a special moment for the entire organizational team as well for us as initiators and hosts, one towards which we had been working on for a year. In the room, there were about 240 people from 22 nations. My colleague Gisela said in retrospect:
”I saw you stepping into that setting … and I noticed the way you stepped into that and the energy that I felt. There was presence. And I knew you knew about ritual and about sacred space. I sensed your humility and openness to the present.“
It’s always good to have the opportunity to offer people a space which is not only safe, but also sacred, regardless of whether this is on a temporary basis or over the long term. For managers, the concept of “sacred practice“ is perhaps unfamiliar and yet apt. I think it fits with Ann Dosher’s definition of sacred as “everything which has a value in and of itself and importance in terms of the bigger picture“.
Behind many management tasks there are basic practices which serve life and people, such as the guidance and support of individuals and groups in difficult phases. It is less about method-based management and meeting techniques than about subtle support to connect to something that is wanting to emerge through us as a collective. This is achieved through the conscious use and facilitation of stages of transition that have ritual aspects. In essence, we find ancient, sacred ordinances which enable real, profound change.
Going Deeper – interventions as an invitation to inner conversion
Does it make sense to open oneself as a leader to the ceremonial aspects of leadership? I think it does; it makes extremely good sense.
I believe it is less about technology and personal performance and more about an internal conversion that begins from within. It is an active, sometimes long-term and sustained exercise of reflection. It’s about Development of the self from self-optimization towards the development of the self in connection with nobler, not ego-centered goals. One big lever to this work is dealing with basic assumptions and worldviews. Once the individual basis is laid, these processes can be extended to the collective. This is also necessary for the larger questions of our future.
Such processes run for example over questions like:
- Where do we come from?
- Where do we want to go?
- Who are we and who might we be?
- What do we think about our role in the canon of all life?
People who continually explore questions like these, and answer them from the widest possible perspective, may succeed in rising above everyday initiatives for improvement and economic survival. Not that return on investment is a bad thing per se. It’s just not the best basis for how one truly makes a difference or how one uses persuasion and influence in the most constructive ways.
With a little practice, gradually a development begins. This applies to individuals as well as to groups and organizations. One of many implications of this process is a change to our inner constitution. Dr. C. Otto Scharmer, quoting the entrepreneur Bill O’Brian, writes:
“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”
This statement was based on the observation that successful outcomes were more often associated with the inner, less visible, condition of the intervenor than the external use of any particular approach or tool.
The effect of this internal constitution or source refers not only to individuals. Even an entire group can be in contact with deeper levels and sources. What emerges can be called collective wisdom. When this happens, a depth and significance is perceived. This may be invisible to the eye but it is felt directly by the participants as nourishing and healing.
Through processes of this type, there occurs from time to time something which Kathleen Dannemiller, passionate advocate of whole systems change, described as “little moments of truth.” These moments cannot be deliberately planned or targeted. But you can open yourself to them and refrain from things that prevent them.
If we succeed in making our thinking less organization-centric and instead look beyond illusory organizational boundaries, we will be able to recognize the bigger picture and focus our actions on that.
If we are able to see our daily agenda as part of a broader perspective, then we are in a position to look with gentle eyes and to ask ourselves new questions.
Leading, hosting and mentoring can be seen as ceremonial, sometimes even a sacred practice. There is a quality beyond content, tools and goals. This quality can clearly be felt by people; they can identify the differences, especially if they have previously experienced it for themselves.
These are big issues and major themes. The following five practices can help us prepare a runway (term coined by Joseph Beuys) for these questions and issues. A runway for the meaningful and momentous.
A Runway for the Meaningful and Momentous
Make things nice – Choose places and create settings wisely. Create a center and think of how the center holds everything together and how it brings change into motion. Beauty and aesthetics, not just as part of a space, but also as a practice of thinking, are an expression of love, peace and perfection.
Choose higher Ground – From where you can figuratively take another perspective. Ask yourself the bigger questions, do not let yourself become entangled in the banalities of organizational issues. When it comes to performance improvement, ask what is the higher purpose? Overcome the organization-centric view. Follow noble objectives with meaning and far-reaching significance for the greater whole.
Invite Circle – Call people into the circle. Practise the practices and inspire the leader in every chair. We all have to take responsibility for the world in which we live, not just leave it to a few. Give the collective wisdom a chance. The circle reminds us not to be „audience“ but to be an authentic participant in life. Circle is an intervention.
Go slow to go fast – Slow down communication, avoid bickering backwards and forwards. Words which fall into silence, have more weight. Do not be hasty, if you are in a hurry. Question, listen, weigh up. If a project or initiative is being progressed on the basis of little more than time pressure, choose time as a subject. Inquire basic beliefs around time and timing.
Practice humble inquiry – Trying to use humble exploration in the face of complex relationships as a way to see the whole picture is an independent and valuable process. A process which needs attention. Use the wisdom of others and divergent viewpoints before you decide on a a direction. This leads to wiser decisions.
„Any problem, big or small, requires a tremendous humility, the humility of allowing it to tell us what it expects of us, not telling it how to solve it. It develops from its own inner concept that we must listen to and understand.“ (Friedrich Kiesler, 1960)
I found companions for these ideas in the shape of my American colleagues Gisela Wendling and David Sibbet of The Grove and Alan Briskin (Author of „The Power of Collective Wisdom & the Trap of Collective Folly“). Together, we want to find people with spirit, who want to understand leadership and guidance as a sacred practice, and who are willing to develop these ideas with us.
Under the motto „Leading as Sacred Practice“ we are offering a study corridor. „Leading as Sacred Practice“ will be held next year in the form of an international summit and in the setting of a retreat from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, 2021. We will meet with people who want to gain a deeper understand of leading and mentoring as „Sacred Practice“, to explore it more deeply and to perpetuate it.
I would be happy to see you there.
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1 Gisela Wendling, The Grove Consultants International
2 „Guardian of the Soul of the World Café”, http://www.theworldcafe.com/tag/anne-dosher/
3 Scharmer, Otto, “Theory U – Leading from the Future as it emerges”, SoL, ISBN 978-3-9811859-0-4/