BY Nick Jankel

Author, Leadership Futurist, Philosopher, Transformation Catalyst

My desire to help mankind can be traced back to my formative years. When I was in elementary school, my father used to have us kids write letters on the (pine, naturally) kitchen table to dictators all over the world, asking them to free political prisoners. It was a program developed by Amnesty International. At the time, my father had left the marketing and advertising world to become a social worker, then probation officer, then academic. The apple does not, apparently, fall that far from the tree. He had been fired up by the writings of the great socialist thinkers like Marx, Proudhon and Engels, who had developed theories about how to free workers from the slavery of the Industrial Revolution (and peasant life in more feudal societies).

[blockquote kind=”right”] “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Jean-Jaques Rousseau, The Social Contract [/blockquote]

The revolutionary urge to free humankind is quintessentially human; a defining quality of our shared humanity. Compassion for others, and outrage at how so many people have so much suffering, drives us to make things better. This is a beautiful and precious motivation, driven by our hard-wired capacity for deep empathy. Contrary to the idea of being self-interested creatures at the heart of modern economic theory, we are actually compassionate by nature. Our desire to do something to change how much suffering there is in the world is perhaps our most noble aspiration.

Revolutions aim to be profoundly transformational. Whether Scientific or Cultural, Green or Red, revolutions bring with them a fundamental shift in the way people look at the world. Unlike the kind of incremental changes that happen as ideas evolve organically over a longer period of time, revolutions bring with them the wholesale disruption, and often dissolution, of one worldview – and the replacement of it with an imagined better version at enormous speed.

Rather than wait around for things to get worse, revolutionaries take bold steps to create change. Their aim: To disrupt the old order, and replace it with a new one. This means destroying the old assumptions, the old myths, with new ideas that promise a better life. Revolution, at whatever level, brings with it a discontinuous change – a breakthrough – in the paradigm that governs the system it explodes within. When successful, revolutions pierce the social, economic or political fabric, forever shifting things for good.

The mother of all political revolutions, the French Revolution of 1789, attempted to change the widespread belief that society should be run by those who had previously been assumed had some divine right to rule – the nobles and the bishops. This myth was replaced by a radical new idea: Each individual (well, individual man at any rate) has rights. Therefore the state must govern on his behalf, to further his wellbeing. It is unfortunate that the ‘enlightened’ worldview did not quite stretch to encompass women or the slaves in the French colonies of Haiti and Martinique – who clearly were not as worthy of human rights as the men who fought at the Bastille.

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The French Revolution – built on the right of every citizen to have equality, brotherhood and liberty – soon turned into a bloodbath. Within a few years, tens of thousand had been murdered in The Reign of Terror, twelve months of mayhem as different revolutionary factions all attempted to eradicate the others, branding them as ‘enemies of the revolution’. France’s royalist neighbors launched combined attacks on the revolutionary state in an attempt to prevent the winds of change from blowing them out of their thrones.

In the chaos that ensued, Napoleon, an army officer with a reputation for prowess against the enemy, rose to power. Bonaparte put most of Europe to the sword in his thirst for empire, military glory and social justice – one of his stated aims was to bring the idea of French political equality to the ancient royalist regimes of Old Europe. The balance of power left by the lengthy Napoleonic Wars was so fragile that the French and Prussians went to war again just over 60 years later. This, in turn, was a major factor behind the outbreak of World War I; which was a major factor in the start of World War II. The victory of the Allies can still be felt today in the make-up and policies of the IMF, The World Bank and the UN Security Council.

Oppression and misery usually act as the catalysts for revolution. However they seem to be the outcomes of it too. Political revolutions are usually driven by the valiant, but usually vain, attempt by a relatively small group to impose their ideas – their will – on the masses (and the planet). As with all acts of force, no matter how well-intentioned, there will inevitably be equal and opposite reactions to them. Like a pendulum as it swings backwards and forwards, each revolution inspires others to oppose it, to create new ideas and ideologies, counter-revolutions, to fight back. On and on the pendulums goes, with one thing remaining certain – many people, animals and environments suffer unnecessary suffering with each swing. This destruction is built into revolutionary theory. Marxism states that revolutionary change inevitably brings with it contradictions and tensions that are resolved through the ‘class struggle’. One side wins, one side loses. As Chairman Mao said: “The new culture and the reactionary culture are locked in a struggle in which one must die so that the other may live”.

In the late 60s, while much of the West was dancing to a groovy beat, Mao was turning up the volume on his communist aspirations in China, a project that eventually became known as The Cultural Revolution. During this period of extreme social and economic upheaval, thousands of students – inspired by Marx, Lenin and Mao – were urged to leave the cities and go up into the hills and mountains of rural China, spreading the Communist ideas that Mao espoused, named ever so humbly, Mao Zedong Thought. They wanted to ensure that the population were thinking and acting as socialists should. The main weapon in this struggle, aside from fear of arrest, shaming and being reduced in status and earnings, was ‘re-education’: Changing minds through hard labour and ideological indoctrination. But even after mothers had disowned their ‘reactionary’ children; and wive’s had denounced their husbands as ‘thought criminals’, the Cultural Revolution still failed to change hearts and minds (as did those in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere).

This is because of a simple physiological and psychological fact: Nobody can force someone else’s inner life to change. As Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl makes clear, even the Nazis had no power to change how people in the death camps prayed, hoped and cared for one another.

[blockquote kind=”right”] “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning [/blockquote]

People only change, for good, when both hearts and minds shift, causing behaviors to change permanently. The belief that most materialists have that society can be changed simply through either force and regulation; or financial incentives (like most emotion-free tax and welfare programs) reveals a startling lack of insights into how people’s hearts and minds are actually transformed. By skipping over our messy, complex and unpredictable human emotions and spiritual yearnings, rationalist revolutionaries and activists doom themselves to failure.

Rosa Luxemburg, one of the pioneers of socialism, explains where the whole socialist project went wrong:

Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual [my emphasis] transformation in the masses . . . Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror.

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The Communist dream was born to destroy an inherently selfish Capitalist system; but was in fact rooted in this same mistaken, mechanistic belief about human beings. Both, like the scientific project they arose from, removed the subjective, conscious, emotional self. The irrational faith in rationality – even though science itself has shown us to be eminently emotional creatures – holds back all those leaders who want to make the world a better place. Little wonder we seem to have more social and environmental problems – in the global North as much as the South – after decades of extremely high spending on programs designed to disappear them. How can a welfare program break through addiction if we don’t work at the level of pain and suffering that drives most serious addiction? How can we solve homelessness or long-term unemployment if we don’t engage with the emotional (as well as structural) root causes: A lack of self-esteem, confidence and life skills. How can we make a dent on poverty if we don’t work on the greed and graft that diverts so much money and so many resources away from those who are starving?

We are utterly emotional beings, who learn, communicate, and engage because of the stories and experiences that touch our hearts and give us meaning. To build on Einstein, we can only solve problems by having breakthroughs in consciousness in the domain in which the problem occurs. To try and solve an emotional problem with behavioral tools can never, ever work – no matter how much money we pour into the programs. It is a category error. All the rationalist and technocrats can offer us is a clinical Cartesianism that leads them to focus on (the means of) production, performance, efficiency and consumption rather than on healing the trauma that drives selfishness, avarice and violence. The materialists, from Marx to the non-profits leaders of today, have a theory of change driven by metaphors from the world of machines. Yet we are organisms; not algorithms. Little wonder depression, anxiety, anguish, fear-driven greed, and aggression is so rampant, and costing us the Earth. Quite literally.

Western reformers – rooted in the individualist, scientist, atheist paradigm – have been wedded to a promise of rational progress since the Enlightenment. Whilst we definitely live longer lives, the jury is out on whether we are any happier. Decade after decade sees new social welfare, criminal justice and international aid programs designed and implemented by such rationalists. They are clearly failing to deliver the impacts desired. The emotionally-traumatized still abuse, hurt and reoffend, despite billions spent on retributive punishment. The disempowered remain unemployed and underemployed, no matter how many initiatives are launched to get them back to work. The war on drugs keeps failing because it too has failed to treat the root cause of all these ills: emotional and spiritual despair.

The roots of this mis-step are back in the mechanistic, clinical episteme from which both the scientific revolution – and the political revolutions in France and elsewhere –  were born. Karl Marx, the great critic of capitalism and prominent voice of communism, believed he was developing what he called a ‘scientific socialism’ where history was seen through the lens of the struggle for how we produce and use material: Stuff, food, natural resources. He believed you could scientifically study the evolution of society through a lens of economic production and consumption, a program that came to be called ‘historical materialism’. He criticized the idea of the individual subject; and suggested that we are simply products of our social existence. What mattered to Marx was the relationships between social classes (that form around how people take and process raw materials to create the things needed to live). In the Communist Manifesto, Marx declares that the middle-class hold on wealth and property has to be radically changed if the workers are to become free. He believed that only the workers could do this for themselves, by rising up in revolution.

However, in his disdain for the consciousness of each individual, Marx stripped out the emotional and spiritual life of us all, just as the sciences had done before him to make a reliable, ‘objective’ scientific method. Yet the invention of the modern welfare state on both sides of the Atlantic was actually inspired by spiritual, not just materialist and techno-rational, aspirations. As the factories of the Industrial Age started to destroy the livelihoods of so many, John Ruskin published Unto This Last, a call to the public to reground politics in the values of the human spirit. Leo Tolstoy, lauded by the intelligentsia for his seminal works of fiction, such as War and Peace, ended his days in Russia far more famous for his role as spiritual activist than a writer. At the turn of the century, he wrote The Kingdom Of God is Within You. In it he asks his fellow citizens to refuse to fight in the wars of the governing classes; and instead find peace and political truth within.

It is no accident that these books went on to inspire both Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their remarkable efforts to bring about tangible yet peaceful social revolutions in two of the most populous nations in the world. What these pioneers share is how our realization of our essence as an intrinsic part of the one universe – that we are spiritual beings not just material and mechanical ones – can impact so dramatically on our society and on the planet. Yet although Ruskin was a very important figure influencing membership of the early Labour Party in the UK, the days of spiritual inspiration in the daily grind of most progressive politics and change-making seems to be over.

I have been advocating such an interconnected, but no less rigorous, model of social innovation an mass transformation for many years in the public arena. On the journey I have encountered many passionate people on my journey. However, left-wing intellectuals, dedicated activists, wary philanthropists, jaded journalists and committed politicians all seem to share one characteristic in common (other than their desire to make the world a better place) – a deep distrust of the psychological – which is seen as flaky and wishy-washy. Yet it is only the psychological, the philosophical and the emotional that can enlighten us as to the root causes of our problems. As a hundred years or more of Marxism can shows us admirably, our material world will only change profoundly when our inner world does too. And the inner world must change first.

As prescient ecologist Lynn White Jr. wrote back in 1967 in The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis (before we realized just how big a crisis it really is): ‘Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.’ We must attend to the emotional anguish and spiritual suffering of humanity if we want people to recycle, eat less sugar and ‘unhappy’ meat, exercise more, steal less, be more honest, have more integrity and do the right thing. An individual who is under-siege from their own inner pain is unlikely to forge a health, sustainable and thriving future. Only people with inner resource, with inner peace, can hope to deliver breakthrough change in the world without force, physical or emotional. This means we need an Inner Revolution before we start on an outer revolution. And it means our political leaders must understand how to lead, empower and create the conditions for this to occur.

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This does not stop thousands of politicos from continuing to try to force change on the us, rather than encourage, enable, and empower us to break through ourselves. Whether capitalist or neo-Maoist, republican/conservative or democrat/socialist, if our worldview emanates from a life philosophy of separation not connection, rationalism not wisdom, then we cannot hope to play our full role in social and ecological justice. History has shown time and time again that the tools of separation – divide, conquer, dominate, suppress, repress, attack, judge, criticize, force (even if with good intentions) – cannot ever transform our inner worlds; and so cannot tangibly change the greed, graft, addiction, and aggressions that permeate our outer world. So much effort is put into spreading revolutionary and activist aims and ideals, yet so little is spent on expanding people’s human capacities – social, spiritual and emotional wisdom – so that they can build with each other a brighter future from the ground up.

This is not the only massive blindspot in politics, non-profits and activism. Their is an almost complete blindness to the way our own psychospiritual states as leaders influence every aspect of our policies, theories of change, decisions and actions. If we are walking around ‘doing good’ without understanding the origins of our desire to make change – and ensuring we are not driven to our ambitions by inner wounding, addictions (whether benign or malignant) or a sense of lack or loss – we are almost always causing more strife in the very systems we want to change. For example, some of my own ambition for social justice was, I discovered a decade ago during inner work, because of my pain and anger around the Holocaust. This was a useful motivator but, left unchecked, could drive me into being right.

The thing is, being right and righteous about any position, no matter how worthy or sexy it looks, blocks connection, collaboration and co-creation. These are all essential if we want to drive systemic, and not just symptomatic, change that involves the whole system, not just the activists and ‘good’ guys. We need most agents in a system – even, and perhaps especially, those our egos are disgusted by or upset with – to shift if we want true systemic change; as opposed to resolving symptoms that keep the core drivers – like greed, anger, frustration etc – in place. In addition, being driven by our wounds also exhausts us. We are driven by anger and frustration which sap our energy and, eventually, lead us to some form of burnout. Being driven by pain, not purpose, tends to push us towards egoic behaviors which lessen our potential as leaders. Our ego is there to help us defend against more wounding. So being motivated by pain – rather than the limitless resources of purpose (AKA love-in-action) – by definition provokes our egos to take control.

This may be part of the reason that there seem to be few leaders in any domain of change that can lead without their own need for ego inflation and the satisfaction of egoic cravings for fame, fortune, reputation and aggrandizement. Even Podemos in Spain, that started as a massively open, inclusive and grassroots movement for change, has begun to disintegrate into petty in-fighting driven by the egoic desire for power, control and slots on TV news. As long as leaders have not found a way to transcend their egos – and fill up the lack within with self-love and universal connection – those egos will find ways to protect them that eventually derail their greatest ambitions. That is the design of the ego.

[blockquote kind=”right”] “[T]he point of love is that the ego has, in some sense, to be annihilated.” Karen Armstrong[/blockquote]

The ego wants to kills everything in its path to protect, push away and destroy threats. No matter how ethical and progressive leaders are at the start, if they don’t master how to transcend their ego’s demand for fame and fortune, adoration and acceptance, power and profit on a daily basis, it will distort their thinking and pervert their policies. And that is why an active, effective and reliable daily wisdom practice – it is practice for leading and living with purpose not an end in itself – is vital if we are to have a true Inner Revolution and the heart-led change that can come from it.

If we want a heart-led politics we must find ways to resist the institutional tendency to suppress our often messy and hard to understand human hearts. The acupuncture point (or ‘trimtab’) for this change is to give permission (and tools) for leaders to make decisions from the heart as much as the head (and reason, rationality and the “evidence-base”). This means allowing some form of intuition back into leadership which studies have shown to be as good, if not better, in our world that changes so fast there is never any perfect data. Yet we want intuition not dogma, ideology or blind faith. We want intuition that emanates from a healed heart, not a hurt, angry, enflamed one. That means we, as leaders, must constantly clarify and purify our intuition so that it is not distorted by need, greed, fear and lack.

We must give ourselves (and our leaders) the tools and techniques needed to work on our inner world so that we progressively and rigorously free ourselves from the shadow and wounding which distort our perceptions and twist our moods. Leaders with healed hearts (or rather healing hearts as the work is seldom done and dusted) are then able to optimize the ‘becoming’ that is always emerging in every live system. Such wise leaders can master their own egos and can get out of the way of themselves enough to truly serve what is seeking to emerge, resolving the creative tensions inherent in all change between: Compassion and critical thinking; divergence and convergence; purpose and progress; urgency and equanimity; disruption and evolution; humility and hubris; reason and intuition; hierarchy and anarchy; core and network; allowing people to contribute and ensuring stuff actually gets done.We can only move forward when we resolve such polar opposites in creative tension within ourselves as leaders. This means we must expand our hearts, heads and hands to hold space for it all; and to act in the moment in dynamic interplay depending on what that unique moment requires from us.

This takes discipline. We must find ways to embody compassion, love and purpose in our everyday moods and emotional states otherwise we are likely to return to lack, wound, pain and anger. We have to embed a connected, unitive, systemic perspective in our everyday belief systems with relentless diligence lest our egos return us to division, separation and righteousness. We are called to enact and encode an empathic, compassionate and collaborative way of relating to and leading people – and managing and delivering projects – in our everyday habits and behaviors or we revert to being unnecessarily hierarchical, linear and controlling. 

In summary, this means that the only way we are going to get real change on the big wicked problems we all face is, firstly, by our leaders becoming aware of the systemic nature of all social and environmental problems; and that the vast majority of those problems originate in people’s psycho-spiritual pain and sense of lack, need and greed. Then we require our leaders to deepen that awareness into the source of their own leadership ambitions; and develop their own way of clearing away their ego’s shouts, cravings and desires so that they can lead collaboratively, systemically and powerfully. The only way I know for that to occur, which forms the theory of change at the heart of the enterprise I lead, is to train, coach and support leaders at all levels of society, to grow, expand and master themselves at their leadership edge.

We want to avoid presenting a monolithic vision of the future rooted in our own assumptions of The Good. We know that brings with it some form of violence. In addition, nobody on this Earth has the systemic insight needed to design solutions to unique, local challenges. Instead, we can provide people with the practices, processes, principles and tools they need to envision their own systemic transformation; and deliver it through resilient, energized, wise and heart-led collaborative action. We shift responsibility for increased thrivability away from a few professional politicians – who cannot deliver it even if they wanted to (and most prefer to focus on their own re-election and pet peeves) – so we all become politicians.

Once our politicians step up to achieve mastery of their own self, the next step is to develop policies and party political systems that fit the world that we are hurtling into. This means moving beyond left and right wing ideology (that developed in the early Modern period and no longer fits the reality we find ourselves within); and moving beyond the current model of political organization which evolved in a world without mass empowerment and with zero internet. We must move beyond hierarchical party systems; and representation in Congress or Westminster by a few of the great and good; and / or rich and ambitious.

The egos of left wing and right wing spend much of their time arguing over a pinhead for year after year while our Earth burns, kids scream in poverty, and species die out. Although they drink from the same metaphysical well, the divide between left and right is one of the key issues that is preventing our combined creativity from generating a switched on world. The lack of vision in Washington, London, Beijing, and Delhi (not to mention Tel-Aviv and Ramallah) has created a vacuum of enlightened leadership. The space is filled by yet more argument and corruption, whether spectacular or subtle (the latter is also known as lobbying). Each party is ruled by dogma – assumptions based on the past – which prevents them from sensing fresh ideas from the future that are relevant to right now. The result is that we are stuck: Economically, politically, and socially. Our political systems are becoming increasingly polarized, stifled, and stale. Not one of our politicians seems to have much of an idea how to solve the economic crises we face; let alone the social and environmental ones too.

Influenced by the materialism of Marx, the left wing wants to resolve the suffering of the masses through a central state that runs welfare programs and plans the economy. It wants to make things more equal by taxing the rich and creating regulations that stops us from doing selfish things. It has little time for empowering people to love more, contribute more, and share more; and is almost invariably driven by voracious atheism. Meanwhile, the right wing, influenced by the hierarchical ideals of aristocracy and the free-market ideas of economists like Friedrich Hayek – whose work helped form the Reagan and Thatcher economic consensus – wants us all to be individuals, responsible for ourselves. It thinks the best way to create a better society is to reward self-reliance and resourcefulness by motivating those who show it with the promise of fortune and fame.

Whilst the left wing wants to destroy (or severely limit) capitalism and conservatives what to spread it to every corner of the world… neither creates the world we want. We don’t have to assail, crush or subvert the global system to drive freedom for all. Instead, we can infect it from the inside with love. We can subvert it through purpose. We can recalibrate it with collective compassion and conscious creativity. 

Of course we must be responsible for ourselves and not expect handouts from anyone as the right-wingers propose. It is our duty to engage with our own problems and solve them ourselves through ingenuity and effort, the core of all self-reliance. Yet, at the same time (as we all know from often bitter experience), overcoming our patterns of self-sabotage, addiction and disempowerment does not happen overnight. We need love, care, compassion (and often coaching) to do it.

Bring these two polar opposites together, as I do in my work developing a new school of personal and social change – Breakthrough Biodynamics – and we have the seeds of the switched on world we all yearn for. John Stuart Mill said that “a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” I belief we need to integrate them within us so that we are empowered, enlightened, conscious and compassionate leaders of change. We need both chaos and order, disintegration and integration, hierarchy and anarchy to enjoy and sustain the breakthroughs we need in a political system that is well past its sell-by date. 

We need an authentic, passionate, and above all heart-led middle-way between left and right wing politics that helps the public as a whole dance at the edge of chaos, metabolizing the constant changes in the world into projects of value that help us all thrive. This heart-led middle way (as opposed to the dry Blairite Third Way) is premised on harnessing our individual, creative, entrepreneurial talents to build great works. But we do not do this for our own fame and fortune, as is in ego-driven capitalism and materialistic politics, but because an over-flowing, out-pouring of compassion and brotha / sista love compels us to create social ventures, B corps, ethical businesses, co-operatives, sustainable innovations, non-profits and cultural organizations designed from the outset to cultivate peace, cohesion, justice and, above all, collective thriving.

Then, and only then, will we have a politics that is responsive to the actual emotional, spiritual and physical needs of the people it deigns to serve; creative enough to engage fruitfully in the fast-paced modern world that demands constant innovation and collaborative ingenuity; and grounded enough in something bigger than egos to avoid the interminable, internecine and insanely dull conflicts that ham-string the progressive movements on both sides of the Atlantic. As it says in the Tao Te Ching: “Mastering others requires force; Mastering the self requires strength.”

It is time for our leaders to engage in the life-changing – and ultimately world-changing – journey of authentic self-discovery where we get to heal our inner wounds, wrestle with our shadows and purify ourselves of the distortions and deflections that otherwise come out in the policies, projects and proposals we support. When we switch on like this and transform our pain into possibility within the cauldron of our interconnected hearts, we can then lead compassion-led, psycho-spiritually smart projects with the integrity, honor and clarity of heart and mind that our friends, community colleagues and fellow global-villagers all deserve.