Integrity: The price of the power to change
Enabling and crafting change (in our own life and in the world) is so elemental to the art of leadership that it could stand as a decent enough definition in itself of the whole concept. In the past seven years I have had many soujourns through what we might call the ‘change space’ – through corridors of governments all over the world; in and out of major non-profits; up and down massive quangos and around and about myriad community and social enterprises (along with a fair few media companies, publishers and talent agencies). Time and time again I have been struck by what I can only describe as an unmistakable and profound lack of integrity; one that has surprised me having spent so long serving multi-nationals at the highest levels (before my shift towards a fully purpose-focused career) and rarely encountering such challenges when working with them. After struggling for a while with my own very personal and painful reactions to being treated with what I perceived for a while as blatant disrespect (a lack of integrity in one often shows up as lack of respect for others) I have finally freed myself enough from my own out-dated and utterly egoic patterns around this (believe me, it has taken years of intentional processing to do so – rejection has been a big hairy wound for me to heal) to reflect with some clarity on what change, leadership and particularly integrity might really be all about.
Perhaps synchronicity is in the air (isn’t it always?) for this month saw me riffing on this theme in interesting ways. I have been out teaching the irascible and irreverent Kaos Pilots how to lead themselves and their projects; joining a high-end leadership development company with a host of amazing new business partners where integrity is talked about at length; starting up a true passion and purpose project in the personal development space with a trusted partner and friend; dealing with a number of prospective employees and freelancers showing some pretty bemusing behaviours; and completing a comprehensive research project (for a multi-national) around how to influence people to change without resorting to force (whether of thought or deed). This last issue leads to one of the pre-eminent questions for any of us serious about leadership: How do we influence others enough to create change in the world without the old ‘command and control’ patterns that are so embedded in our collective behaviour popping up in a moment of stress and shutting down our capacity to do so powerfully with others (be they our kids or our clients)?
As the world becomes more and more networked, our external reality becomes a complex matrix of interconnected agents and ideas where nobody really has the power to do whatever they want. All power has to emerge from influence, from the crowd giving us the power to change things. There is no room for the Gestapo in most societies and organisations, even if we all may secretly harbour the desire for one from time to time. Even Obama reported recently that he has none of the kind of executive, ‘presidential’ power that we might think goes with the post. As the New Yorker puts it, “[h]e is not foolish enough to believe that one man, even one invested with the powers of the Presidency, can alter the fundamentals.” The article goes on to highlight recent in-depth research into political power from Roosevelt to Reagan that shows that “Presidents cannot reliably persuade the public to support their policies [and] are unlikely to change public opinion.”
So if being the most powerful man in the world does not provide us with the power to change people’s minds and behaviours, what can? It may seem too simple for some but the answer appears to be straightforward: to fulfill to the best our ability the agreements we have made. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Agreements – felt, intuited, created, discussed, agreed, nailed – are the most basic ingredients, the DNA if you like, of all transformative leadership from which the power to change things ethically, creatively and non-coercively arises. Honouring agreements is therefore the key to having integrity.
However an awful lot of leadership work today seems to miss out these kind of insights and ignores many of the most basic of questions, questions like: Do we co-create powerful agreements and then honour them to the letter… or do we let ourselves and others down? This is truly a toughie… one that many of our spouses, parents, kids and colleagues would be delighted to challenge us with as they witness the less-than-perfect reality of our everyday attempts at leadership.
In other words, do we live up to the incredibly simple but elusive task of being our word? Are we response-able for our errors and our foibles when they get in the way of co-creating powerfully? Do we own our ‘stuff’ before others are caught in the web of our hypocrisies? Do we strive to have some kind of authentic and sustained ‘integrity’ in a world that rarely rewards it?
Integrity is a much-flaunted word in leadership and transformational circles but I feel it is rarely understood and even more rarely embodied. I do not mean by it some kind of judgmental morality but rather a sense of inner coherence and experiential consistency where our most enlightened, heartfelt feelings align with our most empowering and inspiring thoughts which then align with our most impactful and generous actions. In other words we do what we say we will do; and we only say we will do things that our emotional intelligence, our healed sense of self (or no self), our deepest intuition intimates is the most integrated, healthy and creative way forward. There is really nothing more challenging in work, play or life in general than doing this consistently. It is an aspiration, though of course not always a reality, for me in every relationship I sustain.
This last point is crucial, particularly for acolytes of the more American schools of hard-edged personal development. There really is no value (for ourselves, our loved ones or the world) doggedly doing something because we said we would if it comes from a place of deficit, defensiveness or deceit. This means we must be response-able in every conversation we have and with each agreement we make in order to ensure that they come from a place of open-hearted, open-minded and fully integrated power; not from ignorance and impotence.
At its most elemental, integrity means the honouring of our agreements each and every time we make them. It means doing what we say we are going to do and making it right when we don’t (because often we won’t!). It means sensing the impact upon others of any shift in our strategy or decision-making process and sharing this insight with them in intelligent ways that mop up any residual anger. It means repairing any lost connectedness between us and the team / family so we can together get back to creativity and co-operation as soon as possible. It means taking responsibility for the fact that we acquiesced in the first place otherwise they wouldn’t be agreements but dictations. So there is no legitimacy in blaming others for any agreement we might make. A smart, aware and ‘grown-up’ leader would never have signed up to them in the first place.
‘Why all this anal focus on agreements?’ people have often asked me. I agree. It can seem so trivial when thinking about the big things like poverty, war, murder, suicide, cancer, racism, unemployment, business failure and all the other ills that many of us strive to change. Clouding the issue is also a pernicious meme in popular culture that represents the people who manage their agreements with true integrity (like being on time and expecting others to be as well) as uptight ‘stress heads’. We have been inundated with a kind of surfer cool that makes it hip to flake out on our commitments. But being ‘chillaxed’ as a being does not preclude one from being a ninja with agreements.
Yet many I meet seem to think that being a cultural creative, artist or change-agent means they can forget about the ‘irrelevance’ of commitments, deadlines and promises because they somehow might get in the way of our genius. Yet ask anyone who has risen to the top of their industry – whether rock star, literary goddess or world-changer – and I am in no doubt that they will state how important it is to be your word and honour every single agreement – those you have made with the janitor that sweeps your floors as much as the philanthropist that pays for your cause. In my former home of L.A. everyone makes a great show of being crazy last minute, unencumbered by the monotony of commitments, just going with the flow. But those who make it in the entertainment industry are the ones who are on set on time, every time. The rest spend their time talking about making films, not actually making them.
Without this kind of work-a-day, almost innocuous, integrity, things fall apart. Quite literally. Honouring agreements to the letter, to the word, to the hour does not get in the way of making great impact. Quite the opposite is true. What gets in the way is not honouring them and the mess that it leaves – the wasted time and squandered energy of those around us. Positive intentionality is the most precious resource on the planet; and the only thing that can create the kind of social change most of us dream of. Every time we think we are being chilled out by missing a deadline, ignoring an email or breaking a commitment what we are actually doing is creating a little eddy of confusion and frustration which fritters away the positive intentions of others and ultimately corrodes the most important condition for all creativity and change to occur: Trust. When trust breaks down there is no space for the co-operation, collaboration and collective creativity that is needed to solve every family, community and global problem to emerge. Without trust the precious intentionality that we tap into for all our leadership power – energy by nature that is surplus to our own basic survival needs – is wasted away until often there is nothing left but cynicism and selfishness.
If we put on a pair of quantum glasses and looked at the great challenges we face – the corruption that causes poverty where none need exist; the poor parenting that leads to teenagers who attack and destroy; the wars which kill and maim the innocent – we would see at their heart a set of broken agreements. The broken promises of the junta’s leadership to manage the government for the good of the people. The broken promises of the parent to hold, nurture and protect their children and guide them into adulthood. The broken promises of one ethnic group to another, or one colonial power to its subjects, that causes repeated conflicts to arise over and over again in places like Sri Lanka, Israel / Palestine and the DRC.
When we break our agreements we directly cause disharmony in the world around us. Writ large, this is the ultimate act of destructive leadership; the kind that the leaders who (we think) cause all the world’s worst problems demonstrate so ably. Yet we are them every time we let our kids, parents, lovers, investors or team members down! Our shadow is their shadow although ours may look much less dark to the untrained eye. Suffice it to say, everyone’s shit stinks. The question is really whether we realise this… and are then prepared to clean it up when we leave it lying around amongst the litter of our broken promises.
It seems like leaders these days are taught well how to focus on doing stuff over there, in other people’s lives – intervening, occasionally by request and often by assumed right – rather than understanding their own world, their own motivations, their own issues. The focus in leadership development is on thinking and doing – conceiving, striving, hustling, pushing, innovating, cajoling – and very little on feeling, sensing, sharing, owning, giving, forgiving, empathising and being full of compassion. It does seem so much easier to solve somebody else’s problems than to solve our own, the one’s we generate so elementally in our life when we let down others by not being our creative, collaborative, transformative best.
My multiple experiences of (ongoing!) failure as a leader has taught me that unless I lead from my heart, I cannot (by the nature of things) achieve my heart’s deepest aspirations for a better world. This does not mean leading from a heart in pain, ripped apart by the promises I experienced my parents, society or spirit breaking. It means leading from a heart that has started to heal; a neurobiological and emotional centre that is on the path of integration after 25 years attempting to process my pain not just for my own benefit but so I can truly serve what is seeking to emerge for the benefit of us all. Self-development is only myopic when it stops at our own borders and fails to become world-development. The enlightened know that the mess ‘in here’ is the only start point for anyone who truly wants to see less suffering and more thriving ‘out there’.
I experience a lot of hubris, even arrogance, from many so-called leaders. It seems to be most intense, and most damaging, in the social space – amongst the leaders of charities, NGOs, impact investment firms, philanthropic organisations and other ‘do-good’ organisations. Perhaps all the focus on doing good with those in extreme need obscures the value of being good with those you live and collaborate with. There seems precious little vulnerability, openness, wisdom and focus on integrity. Few are able to embrace the highs and lows of the entire human condition. This is a tragic state of affairs not just for people who work in the social space – but most importantly for those whose lives we want to help.
When we operate from our heads alone – focused on thoughts, beliefs, opinions – without connection to the pain and passion of our all too human hearts, we (again, by nature) commit acts of violence as we strive to push our view of how the world should be onto others. This is the nature of ideology. It attempts to dominate all competing ideologies until it achieves victory. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Lenin, even Churchill and thousands of other ‘leaders’ thought they were acting in the best interest of their people and through their acts caused the suffering of thousands, often millions. If they had come from an open heart they could never have done this. When we act from our head, without taking the time to listen to and heal the pain and trauma in our own hearts, we are likely to bring about more pain in others. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people, even if they win a Knighthood or OBE for looking good whilst doing it. The thing is, we are all hurt in some way so we all hurt others. When we awaken to this fact, that is when we can start to lead ourselves and then others out of pain. Because when we tap into our hearts with the humility that comes from a pellucid awareness of each individual’s capacity to bring both harmony and disharmony into the world, the power to create lasting change without violence arises. We no longer see a them (who have the wrong ideas) and us (the right ones); instead we just sense our shared human frailties and together we can stumble, now falling now freeing, towards ever more peace and possibility.
What saddens me is that these most vital of conversations are rarely heard in the change-agent space. It truly breaks my heart asunder as I see and feel how much pain lies in the hearts of so many change-agents, pain that is driving them on to try to change the world. Yet without awareness they often are just perpetuating the cycles of shame and violence they want to alleviate. Unaware of how their heart, head and hand interact they unconsciously disrupt the lives of others with their interventions, even if they do so for the ‘right’ reasons. It is vital for us all to learn that noisy, angry or intense urges within us are likely to come from pain and not passion; as such they will distort our actions and tend to leave more shadows in the very places we want to bring in the light. As Tolstoy reminds us, “everyone thinks of changing the world, none think of changing themselves.”
The majority of leaders seem to work so hard to change the world from their heads up and yet miss out on the awesome power of the heart. It is no wonder that people say that the longest journey a man will make is the 18 inches from his head to his heart (it’s perhaps less far for a woman). So much effort is expended on thinking, strategising, doing – yet the problems seem to remain as they were. If we are lucky they may perhaps be managed a little at the edges. The corruption, the greed, the anger which generates so many of our social problems continues. Yet this is only to be expected for how can we resolve the root causes of our local, community and global problems – the pain of loss, abandonment, abuse, persecution and the like – if we are unable to continuously confront and heal our own pain? Einstein told us this was inevitable when he stated that “problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them”.
From my brief lifetime of the study of transformative change – whether we look at Mother Theresa or a mother who heals the abuse she suffered and does not pass it on to her daughter – it appears the only thing that can every really change the world, by which I mean the deepest root causes that bring about the poverty, suffering and injustice we see all around us, is love. If we cannot love ourselves – seeing, forgiving and ultimately laughing about our own shadow – then it is highly unlikely that we can effect sustained change in the shadow of others (be they African political kleptomaniacs or local community child abusers). To love our shadow we have to acknowledge it and see it when it comes to the fore. This necessitates that the true leader reflects on their acts, thoughts and feelings many times a day, especially when they effect others in ways that were not intended.
Little true transformation occurs when we fight problems with anger, no matter how noble it appears. When we say, in whatever way, “You over there are wrong. You are bad. Stop now!” we enact violence and we betray our greatest potential to bring about transformation. From the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa to the gang healing work of my conflict resolution colleagues in Los Angeles, the ultimate insight is that it is only when work with so-called ‘perpetrators’ – whether they be scared climate deniers or traumatized genocidal maniacs – to heal our collective shadows together that we can really change the world.
We cannot truly know our own shadow unless we have fully owned our capacity to flake out and freak out on a daily basis. Every time we can’t be bothered to get back to a vendor who has sent us a proposal; rant at our boss behind her back; fail to be home on time to bathe the kids; send off a document that we know in our hearts was not our best work we dishonour ourselves and our community. We also fritter way the life energy of those around us; for every agreement has contained within it the life energy and intentionality of the agree-ers. So much precious energy is wasted by broken agreements and the breakdown of trust that is inevitable when the relevant parties have not come together to mutually clear things up and learn from the experience. This is as true of the ethnic warfare in Gaza or the Congo as it is when we turn up late to a workshop, forget to pay a supplier on time or pull out of a project because something better has come up.
When we truly see this fact – and own it at every level inside us – we can begin to take the constant action that is necessary to clear away the frustrations and upsets of those who have been effected by our broken agreements. It is in this moment that we start to truly be able to lead change. This form of integrity of deed and word is the foundational building block of all effective, and dare I say efficient, leadership and collaboration. It is also the keystone of a life and career of flow, grace and purpose.
Again to Rumi:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
A final insight. For years I have strenuously avoided issuing contracts to the freelancers, suppliers and partner companies that work with me on my projects at the vanguard of social innovation and leadership, seeing them as bureaucratic, controlling and unnecessary for those committed to the causes of goodness. I endeavour to do my best on every project and in every relationship so I have perceived contracts to be a mark of disrespect to others (as if a contract would rudely question their intention to do the same). I even brazenly suggested to my latest group of Kaos Pilots that contracts put distrust in the space and may best be avoided. But on deep reflection I have shifted my view and believe my Scandinavian friends have spoken much wisdom about the value of a contract.
The events of recent weeks has woken me up to my own lack of power and certitude when holding the space for a team to generate impact in a networked world. In a world where most have never been taught the power of honouring agreements and the joy of clearing up the broken ones, I have realised that part of my job as a leader is to create and honour agreements with diamond-like clarity. That also means holding people to their agreements not as a judge and jury but as an act of respect for their potential as leaders. So this week I designed a contract for all the people who work with me which makes clear that which so often lies tacit. I designed it to boost my own integrity and that of those who come into contact with me. The result is a contract not for legal dispute if things go wrong but to cultivate alignment between our hearts (feelings), heads (thoughts) and hands (actions) and by doing so enable things to go right from the start. When they don’t (because often they won’t) we can own our contribution to the fiasco and grow with the abundant wisdom that can only come from absolute, fierce and playful ownership.