Ego Inflation: The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership

crowned personAmericans tend to have a fascination with charismatic leaders. They can awe and wow us with their apparent confidence and boldness. We may equate such boldness and swagger with some type of super- human power that we lack. Consequently, our inner child may experience a tug or pull to give our power to the charismatic leader. We may reason that with such confidence surely he or she knows more than I do.  Furthermore, we may reason, that if they know more than I do, perhaps they can protect me from the evils of the world.

Unfortunately, some charismatic leaders may welcome our immature fantasies. Such charismatic leaders believe that they are special, more capable, and more intelligent than others are. They may also believe that this specialness entitles them to say and do whatever they want to say and do, and others will fall in step regardless of the unlawfulness, immorality and insanity of their propositions. Minimally, this type of distortion represents ego inflation (narcissism, a clinical personality disorder, is a more severe expression of this phenomenon), the dark side of charismatic leadership.

Charismatic leaders under the spell of ego inflation have a highly distorted sense of self. They cannot see any of their flaws or shortcomings.  Furthermore, fear fuels the inflated ego as everyone and everything is a potential threat to its grandiosity. The inflated ego cares only about protecting itself and getting what it wants at all costs. It is blind to the carnage in leaves behind in its wake.

We might expect an inner warning signal to go off when we encounter the dark side of the charismatic leader. However, if we are not healthy, mature, and confident in our being, our inner child is vulnerable to the seduction of the charismatic leader. In his seminal book, Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) proposed that the thought of real freedom, freedom to choose, create, and live one’s life, frightened people more than inspired them.  It appears some of us may long for a perpetual childhood where others tell us what to do and when.  When we do, we refuse to accept responsibility for our lives or the state of our world.  Instead, we would much rather blame some “evil” other for our misery. Unfortunately, there are people who will gladly take our power and claim that he or she alone can save us or fix it all.

Confidence and self-esteem are essential elements of leadership. They allow us to embrace our strengths and take stands for what we care most about in our lives.  This confidence and self-esteem are necessary for effective leaders as well as healthy adult maturation. However, BEWARE of the charismatic leader with a highly inflated ego, who has lost touch with reality and is willing to do everything and anything to protect its fragile identity.  We know from our life experiences and history that this type of leader is dangerously destructive to his or herself, the people with who they live and work, and potentially to America and our world.

Leadership, Gun Violence in America, and the Necessity of a Global Mindshift

Illustration of world map in human head, vectorThese last few weeks have me dazed and confused. No doubt, we live in uncertain and complex times. It seems that life, as we know it is in a major state of flux and flurry. We face unprecedented challenges to our quality of life and the lives of future generations such as global climate change, gun violence, growing inequality, global terrorism, and mass extinction of species, just to name a few.

Given the scale of our collective challenges, leaders are called to “show up” with their gifts, talents, and resources and ask, “How can I contribute to real solutions that address the global challenges most concerning and meaningful to me?  Real leadership and real solutions call us into our higher natures. It does not separate, rouse hate against some “evil other,” nor play to our animalistic fears. Consequently, real leadership and real solutions necessitate a global mindshift, because underlying all our mayhem is a separation consciousness that operates from an either/or mindset.

As Einstein and many others have stated, we cannot and will not solve our most pressing challenges with the same thinking that created them. Consequently, solving our most urgent global challenges requires a global mindshift to more holistic thinking and acting. However, holistic or integral thinking does not mean that everything is equal. It requires movement from either/or thinking to both/and thinking as well as discernment of breadth and depth.

Ideally, as highlighted by American philosopher Ken Wilber and numerous other thought leaders (e.g., Warren Bennis) a holistic or integral mindset needs to include the individual “I” or subjective, the collective “we” or cultural, and the collective “it” or systems (social and natural) dimensions. Leaders have a unique opportunity and responsibility to help midwife this essential global mindshift at every level of society. While there are numerous areas demanding more holistic thinking, for this essay, I would like to focus on one critical issue on many hearts and minds, gun violence.

Gun violence tragedies are ravaging our lives in increasing numbers. Approximately 30,000 Americans die from gun violence annually (www.americansforresponsiblesolutions.org).  In 2016, according to the American Medical Association, Americans have seen over 6,000 deaths from gun violence. A holistic or integral mindset would require questions and solutions from the four basic areas highlighted above. For example, possible questions include:

  •  The individual “I”: How do individuals cultivate ethical sensibilities? What role do identity and human consciousness play in gun violence? What role might contemplative practices play in helping people thrive in a changing and uncertain world? How can individuals increase capacity for peaceful conflict resolution? What type of capacities do people need to live peacefully in uncertain times? What is true security? What role does fear play in gun ownership? How does a person decide if he/she needs a gun? If one decides that he/she needs a gun, how does one decide what type of gun?
  • The collective “we” or cultural space: What role does the prevalence of violence in our movies, music, video games, television shows, books, etc. have on our gun violence crisis? How do we continue to heal our cultural wounds of racism?
  • The collective “it” or systems space: What would responsible gun reform public policy look like? How do we hold our elective officials responsible for upholding all of the Constitution—protecting our right to bear arms, providing for the common defense and promoting our general welfare? How do we continue to right the systemic wrongs of racial discrimination, inequality, and poverty? How do we ensure that our elected officials put our (the public) interest over corporate interests? How do we address growing inequality in America?

Gun violence in America is a complex and difficult issue, and I do not claim any expertise here. However, like many Americans, I am deeply troubled by our current gun violence crisis, and I offer these questions as a starting point. Furthermore, I yearn for real leadership and real solutions on this issue, which I propose will only come about through a global mindshift to more holistic thinking and acting.

Consequently, 21st century leadership requires a global mindshift from either/or thinking to BOTH/AND thinking. Sounds good, but how do leaders go about making this type of perspectival shift?  This is THE question of personal transformation for which there are no easy and definitive answers. However, we start where we are and begin the transformative journey toward psychological maturation or self-actualization and awakening (please see the essay, Waking, Up, Growing, Up, and Showing Up). There are numerous transformative practices, East and West, to help facilitate this global mindshift. However, presently meditation is the most evidence-based transformative practice available. Furthermore, the power of meditation is enhanced with a wellness lifestyle that honors body, mind, spirit in self, society, and nature. Yes, this is a tenuous and lifelong journey, but it promises to be the greatest adventure one will ever take!

The Leadership Imperative: Waking Up, Growing Up, and Showing Up

Conceptual keyboard - Wake up (green key with smiley symbol)The prolific American philosopher and Integral theorist, Ken Wilber, is fond of stating that Integral Theory (his noteworthy contribution toward a “theory of everything” ) is ultimately about waking up, growing up, and showing up. The direct, simple, and profound truth of his statement deeply resonates with me in my personal journey and as a leadership scholar and consultant who views this (i.e., waking up, growing up, and showing up) as the leadership imperative of the 21st century.

Waking up speaks to the urgent need for leaders to reconnect with their spiritual nature or essence. As spiritual teachers gently remind us, we are spiritual beings having a human experience not human beings with an occasional spiritual experience.  However, for a variety of reasons including our fast-paced and highly stimulated lives, many of us have lost connection with this deeper dimension of our being.  The spiritual realm of human experience concerns our ultimate nature and relationship to self, all sentient beings (people and creatures), our planet, and all that is—seen and unseen for which there are many names (e.g., Spirit, God, Jehovah, Allah, Goddess, Universe, Source, etc.). Consequently, the leadership imperative to wake-up involves slowing down and quieting the mind to befriend one’s innate wisdom, the still small voice that knows who you really are. This reunion requires ongoing cultivation and nurturing. Thankfully, there are many spiritual practices such as meditation and prayer to support our continued awakening.  Spirituality and Practice (www.spiritualityandpractice.com ) is an excellent resource containing practices from many different traditions.

Growing up refers to the leadership imperative for psychological and emotional maturity. While I certainly do not make any claims here (or in any realm of this imperative), over the last six years, I have wholeheartedly contemplated what it means to be a healthy and mature human being. In so doing, I have engaged in deep personal work (e.g., meditation, self-observation, coaching, counseling, etc.), and read numerous related books (e.g., The Places that Scare You by Pema Chödrön, Guide to Rational Living by Ellis & Harper, and  I’m Okay, You’re Okay by T. Harris). Consequently, I have come to see that one key element of being and becoming a healthier and mature adult and leader is accepting full and complete responsibility for one’s life. It also includes the difficult work of facing one’s shadow (see essay, Leader Self-Development and The Necessity of Shadow Work). While personal responsibility and shadow work take courage, patience, and compassion, it is at the heart of growing up.

Lastly, but certainly not least, showing up. Showing up (what leaders tend to do best!) refers to the imperative to be and become part of the solution to the numerous unprecedented global challenges that threaten the quality of our lives and the lives of future generations. These challenges (e.g., terrorism, climate change, economic uncertainty, gun violence, etc.) call leaders to access more of their potential (through ongoing inner work) then to show up as their unique authentic selves to contribute real solutions to humanity’s global challenges.

The leadership imperative of the 21st century—waking up, growing up, and showing up. What do you think? I think it sounds a little scary. However, American Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödrön, encourages folks to start the inner journey where they are. This is good advice, advice, which I will heed as I clumsily walk this path called my life and accept this invitation, however imperfectly. Will you join me?

(Revised and reposted 6/17/2016. Previous version posted on former blog, Paradigms4Progress).

Leader Self-Development and the Necessity of Shadow Work

iStock shadow imageLeaders across the sectors are experiencing growing pressures to handle complexity, collaborate with diverse populations, and accept more responsibility for the impacts their organizations have on people and our planet. These increasing demands necessitate transformation of consciousness (i.e., perceptual shifts toward greater complexity and inclusivity) as well as deep inner work associated with surfacing and healing old wounds repressed in the basement of the unconscious (i.e., shadow work).

In his book, “Soul of Leadership,” Deepak Chopra highlighted the necessity for today’s leaders to include shadow work in their developmental plans for success.  Chopra’s book is one of the few leadership books that I have read thus far that specifically addressed the critical issue of shadow work in leader self-development and transformation.  For example, he cautioned, “Whatever you haven’t faced has power over you. You may set out to do nothing but good, but unless you become conscious of your shadow, the result will be denial. In a state of denial, you will face all kinds of negative effects from the external world, but you will be ill equipped to defeat them. Negativity is defeated only when you can integrate it into the whole fabric of life” (p. 120).

Psychosynthesis, developed by Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974), offers a promising holistic framework to illuminate and instruct a more integrative approach to leader self-development that includes shadow work.  Unlike psychoanalysis, the framework acknowledges and integrates a higher unconscious as well as a lower unconscious, middle unconscious, field of awareness, personal self or I, Transpersonal Self, the collective unconscious, and sub-personalities into its model of the human psyche.

In addition to these core elements of psychosynthesis depicted in the model’s “egg diagram” and several other important concepts (e.g., consciousness and will), psychosynthesis includes a dynamic five-stage healing process. Stage zero highlights the predominate stage of humanity characterized by what Assagioli called, the “fundamental infirmity of man.” In their book, Primal Wounding, John Firman and Ann Gila refer to this human condition as “primal wounding,” wounding resulting from not being seen and heard for who we truly are by significant others in our lives. Stage 1 relates to the tuning in of one’s inner experience and the cultivation of greater self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the foundation of all healing and development. Without self-awareness, we tend to react out of habitual responses, or what Firman and Gil refer to as, the survival personality. As self-awareness expands, we start to see all the ways we cause pain and suffering for ourselves and others through our habitual patterns, tendencies, and character flaws.  Initially, such self-revelations are painful. However, with ongoing compassionate effort, eventually, the fruits of liberation begin to ripen and provide a sweet taste of what is possible—freedom from the chains that bind us from happiness and fulfillment as well as role efficacy.

Thankfully, numerous modern and ancient practices (e.g., meditation, self-observation, journaling, etc.) offer leaders tools to cultivate greater self-awareness and expand consciousness. Over time, such practices help leaders recognize the physiological, emotional, and mental patterns associated with defensive and unproductive behavior, which allows them to begin disrupting old patterns and creating new, more constructive patterns of being and relating (additional stages include disidentification, contact with the Transpersonal/Highest Self, and listening & responding to the Transpersonal Self).

As highlighted by Chopra and other writers on shadow work (e.g., Shadow Dancing by David Richo), becoming aware of shadow elements with acceptance, nonjudgment, forgiveness and responsibility are essential dimensions of this challenging inner work which may require the support of a therapist, support group, or other reputable process or program. Consequently, a key opportunity (and necessity) for today’s leaders is to employ transformative practices (e.g., meditation–see my essay on mindfulness meditation) to both  surface  and address shadow issues as well as to expand awareness to more include expansive, inclusive, and complex realities as key dimensions of leader self-development.

Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to More Conscious Living and Leading

Mindfulness-Meditation-Toronto-Bay-Street-chinese-young-manager-meditatingAs mindfulness meditation grows in popularity, more people are beginning to realize that meditation is not what they thought.  Actually, I was one of those people. In April-June 2010, I completed introductory meditation courses with the Boston Shambhala Center and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, with The Center of Mindfulness affiliated with UMass Medical School in Worcester, MA. Since that time I have had a regular sitting practice.  While I still see myself as a beginner, I have noticed significant changes in how I see and relate to my own thoughts, feelings, and life experiences as well as other people and  the world. Thus, I see tremendous value in starting and maintaining mindfulness meditation as a path to more conscious living and leading.

The primary difference I have noticed since starting the practice is the mental space it has given me, which has allowed me to start (notice, I stated, start—smile) responding to situations in a more constructive manner. I readily admit to being a self-help book connoisseur. I am also a lay student of psychology. Prior to starting my sitting practice, intellectually, I was able talk about “moments of awareness” and the “gap” or space between stimulus and response where one has the freedom to choose. However, the gap eluded me, and I frequently (particularly in difficult situations) reacted out of habitual patterns such as defensiveness even though I deeply desired to respond in a more constructive way.

As evidence by a plethora of magazine articles, news stories, blog essays, and books on the topic, there is a growing interest in the West in mindfulness meditation practices frequently associated with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Vipassana (or Insight) meditation, and Zen Buddhist meditation. This growing interest is not surprising given the mounting research findings indicating extensive beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation on mental health and well-being, physical health, self-regulation and interpersonal behavior.

As highlighted in the expanding body of mindfulness literature (including my doctorate research),  through the process of intentionally focusing nonjudgmental awareness on the contents of mind, the mindfulness (meditation) practitioner begins to strengthen ‘the observing self’. By cultivating the capacity to witness emotional states, practitioners begin freeing themselves from habitual patterns in a way that enhances self-regulation and fosters conscious living. My life experience and research affirms this conclusion which is what the Eastern traditions (and some Western contemplative traditions) have been teaching for over 2,000 years.

Meditation…. it is not what you think! If you are tired of living out the same old tired scripts, then I invite you to choose to live more consciously by starting a mindfulness meditation practice. Before you start, I highly encourage you to get instruction from a trained and seasoned mindfulness meditation instructor. The technique is simple; however, if not executed properly you might as well be surfing the Internet.

(Revised and reposted from former Paradigms 4 Progress blog May 2016)