“Leadership”, a word so prominent in the modern world, everyone seems to be talking about it. There are a proliferation of courses, books and unending conversations about the failings of our leaders. So when we gathered for On Leadership at Concord Institute, it felt like a profoundly relevant conversation to be having. “The age of great leaders is over” suggests David Norris, facilitator of the program. Gone or going are the days of the Kennedy, Churchill, or Martin Luther Kings who astounded the world with their rhetoric and inspired a generation to listen and to move life on. He suggests we are ushering ourselves into an age where each of us is invited to become leaders in our own lives. To take responsibility for our self-expression, and the fulfilment of our own dreams. In an internet fueled modern world with exponential connectivity this feels like an exciting self-evident truth. The kickback of course is that we don’t want to be responsible. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction said Newton. And so for me, that there is such anger, suffering and rage in the world is a welcome sign if it means that it is emerging because of the corresponding and balancing energy of the invitation to individual leadership, and personal responsibility. “Leadership” we start to see on this weekend course is more a state of being rather than something to strive to achieve or demonstrate, and so is available for each and every one of us in the room.

David Norris says, “Vision without action is just hot air and action without vision is merely busywork.” So in July, 20 or so folks gathered to consider what indeed their vision was, and what was in the way of expressing it, bringing it into reality and taking responsibility for maintaining it in existence.  

David is a gentle yet incisive facilitator and he navigated the conversation elegantly. The reason Concord runs so many cooking and bodywork workshops is that transformation occurs at the level of the body, rather than it being purely a function of mind, or understanding. The little voice, or character, that identity formed in response to events and circumstance, very young in life, is not merely a psychological phenomenon, but something that lives in our very bodies. For me, being invited to write this piece for the newsletter brought up feelings of “I’m not good enough-people will see my flaws”. This occurred as a churning stomach and a gentle dizzying heady sensation. A physical cloak of identity that is at once familiar, uncomfortable yet ultimately safe and known. The cooking and bodywork practiced elsewhere at Concord open the doorway of sensitivity to what is actually occurring rather than a mind driven story trying to make sense of it all. David takes this approach to the level of the brain, the bodily partner to the mind and explores what exactly happens in the brain in moments of reactivity. We saw that neural pathways are formed in beautiful and rich complexity as events and decisions that inform our identity are created, and re-fired each time that story is triggered. The invitation of transformation is to witness these firing neural circuits in their physical manifestation and form new neural responses to those triggers. To witness the pattern in action is to experience a new state of being, to establish new neural pathways, to literally rewire the brain, to exercise a new muscle and have impossible realities present themselves.

“Your ability to translate vision into reality depends on your ability to free yourself from whatever prevents you from being in the energetic presence of your vision and sharing that presence with others.” We create nothing on our own. There is little joy in a purely individual victory. Leadership is an invitation to others to participate in the translation of a vision into reality, and then to be responsible for maintaining it in existence. Over the course of 3 days the participants in the course, aided by the sharings of their colleagues, witnessed what was in the way of them being available to their vision. We saw that a vision is not a simple wish or hope for the future, an image to be cherished as a means to ultimate disappointment through providing further evidence for our stories of suffering. Rather, a vision emerged like a seedling of possibility from vulnerability. Once all the self-concern experienced in this moment is expressed, there is nothing more than to witness it and be in the presence of such fragile vulnerability. From such a space of vulnerability, after having fought through the reams of understanding and mental yearnings that I put at my disposal, a simple vision occurred to me. ‘The West Wing’ is TV show I could watch for hours upon hours. A secret hiding out in a fictional world, an indulgence of idealism, fantasy and escapism. I love that the characters are eloquent, passionate, and stumble as they strive to make a difference in the world. It brings a tear to my eye, an excitement in my stomach and a welling in my heart. For me it is an invitation to be the change I want to see, to perform civic acts, and to have the courage to touch people’s hearts.

But watching these characters at work also serves to fuel a story I have about not being good enough. How can I watch such characters twirl in a dance of words and passion so elegantly and possibly do anything that matches them? And so, The West Wing becomes an indulgence of that fantasy that I can make a difference and take a leadership role in my own life.

I quake at what it means to really be responsible for maintaining my vision in existence. Responsibility bridges the world of vision and action. Yet much of the time I want nothing more than to retreat to an episode of The West Wing and indulge the fantasy of making a difference in the world rather than the reality of it. The fantasy is more comfortable, has no risk, and in it, I get to be the one I know myself to be. The one who stands in fear of being seen, stepping forward to make a difference, the one who knows himself to stand in the shadow of greater beings, small and cowed.

So as we stumble on this road, creating new neural pathways as we go, I invite you to participate in my vision of making a difference in the world, and I will hear you share your vision and participate with you in its fruition.

Paul Byers