Bread and Circuses: Leading Beyond Distractions
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Bread and Circuses: Leading Beyond Distractions

Bread and Circuses: Leading Beyond Distractions

by Ginny Whitelaw. Originally published on

They shed their sense of responsibility

Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes;

The people who once granted power, high office, legions, everything

Curtail their scope and reveal their anxiety for two things only,

Bread and circuses. – from Satire X, Juvenal, 100 CE

This has been a week of human catastrophes, as the war in Gaza exploded and water and fuel ran out. Human tragedy continues to unfold in Ukraine where thousands of people have perished in a brutal war, and power grids are being targeted as winter approaches. We’ve just seen the hottest summer and warmest September on record and there is no evidence of that warming abating. Water cycles have been disrupted worldwide and a recent New York Times investigation found aquifers have been severely depleted due to overextraction. These stories are not wholly unrelated; the lack of water and ecological fragility of life in Gaza contributed to the despair that fueled the atrocious terrorist attack that launched the war. While human catastrophes and ecological catastrophes certainly make our 24-hour news cycle in the U.S, they are but intermittent topics, presented in ways that stir our reactions, fears, opinions and side-taking—but not our ability to respond or see the connections between them.

And then there’s the main attraction: the political circus featuring a dysfunctional Congress, a Republican Party that went weeks without leadership in the House, that prefers chaos to compromise, that is still beholden to former President Trump, on whom we’ve riveted our national attention through a multi-year stream of tweets, bullying, two impeachments, multiple hearings, conspiracy theories, indictments, and now four trials around 91 charges in state and federal courts. And to be fair and balanced, what about Hunter Biden or impeaching President Biden? Surely, we can make impeachment seem like a baseless political ploy. What great spectacle!

Alongside the circus, the second thing we’re continually riled up about is how this-or-that affects our bread: who or what might take our job, what the stock market is doing, what raises our taxes or lowers our benefits, who gets their loan forgiven and who pays for it. Angrily, fearfully, our money anxieties are stoked and we’re encouraged to blame immigrants, blame regulators, blame somebody. Meanwhile the wealthiest corporations and households fund the lawmakers that let them keep their wealth and put on the circus. When politics are dysfunctional, it doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Far from it; incumbent winners continue to win, prior injustices continue to be unjust, unregulated excesses continue to be unregulated and unfolding catastrophes continue to unfold. To be the leaders called for in these dicey times, we must do a better job of seeing beyond bread and circuses and reclaim our responsibility to add real value, addressing the catastrophes that face us and taking care of people and the planet.

To be fair, it’s natural for bread and circuses to consume our attention because we have real needs and not much attention to start with. Our conscious processing capability has been estimated at a meager 120 bits per second, about the amount needed to keep track of two conversations. Evolution has honed our attention toward movement more than stillness, negativity more than positivity and threats to getting our needs met more than gratitude for all we have. Give us a 3-ring circus of animated outrage that might threaten our bread and were absolutely glued.

It’s also fair that we do give national attention to a former President who attempted an insurrection and continues to threaten our democracy. Yes, we do want to see where the chaos sowed by extreme Republicans is itself a strategy leading to totalitarianism and oligarchies. Yes, we do want to know when our House of Representatives is unable to function. These cases and stories should be brought forward and of course they’re newsworthy. But incessant news, analyses, notifications and opinions about opinions can also become habit-forming until they consume too many of our thoughts, reinforce already-held beliefs and seal our ignore-ance of all that’s not mentioned—including emerging catastrophes where we could have a leadership response.

Dulling our capacity for a valuable leadership response is perhaps the most damaging effect of the endless feeding of our anxiety around bread and circuses. We readily become stuck in a reactive coping mode from which value-adding leadership is not possible. From this coping mode, it’s easy to drag people down into greater anger, grievance, victimhood and hopelessness, but it’s not possible to lift them up to their greatest potential or create value for the sake of others. Why? Because our energy is moving the wrong way: outside-in, as Kevin Cashman characterized it in his leadership classic, Leadership from the Inside Out. In this mode, we’re focused on ourselves, our own needs for “bread,” our outrage, opinions, and righteousness. Only when we flip the energy around and, from a place of centeredness, extend our energy from inside-out can our authentic self-expression add value in the world, which is Cashman’s very definition of leadership.

Zen Leadership takes this further to give us a wonderfully expansive sense of the authentic self, by which we direct our energetic nature in creative and respectful service of our interpenetrating relationships. We center ourselves where we can respond usefully to the world, that is, where we have response-ability. The first, vital reframe of Zen Leadership is to flip from (outside-in) coping to (inside-out) transforming. At the pivot point between the two states is the neutrality of acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that we like what is going on or that we’re not going to do something about it. It means simply that we face it as it is, even if it’s a catastrophe that feels a lot bigger than we are, we center ourselves, enter the situation and extend the best care and creativity we’ve got. We reclaim our responsibility.

As an example, imagine you’re a part of a community whose water supply is running out. The data has come in that the aquifer you draw from is heavily depleted and you and your neighbors can expect dry taps within two years. What do you do? Various coping reactions might include denying the facts, blaming the agriculture or industry in your area, expressing outrage at utility commissions and politicians for not having seen this coming, repeating your indignant analysis to anyone who will listen, distracting yourself with the bread and circuses of the news cycle (which make a two-year problem seem far away), and taking no real action or responsibility.

The transforming reaction would be quite different. It would start with centering yourself to see clearly and accept the facts about water in your area. You’d accept your responsibility to be among the leaders who can navigate a transition and help others understand the need for it. You may be no expert, but you might build alliances within the community and commission a study of the water cycle in your area to learn what usage rate is replenishable and how that translates into a regenerative scale for your community. You might develop various scenarios around likely futures and identify high-value actions that can be taken now. You might facilitate commitments and learning in your community around how to live with less water, control water runoff, or plant less thirsty vegetation. You might help remake your community into a skilled steward of water, rather than an unwitting extractor of it.

Beyond the specifics of this example, perhaps you can feel the expansiveness of transforming mode in contrast to the tightness of coping. You might also sense that transforming takes a good deal of energy, while coping is relatively easy, and you’d be right. But the more we extend energy in service of others and life itself, the more the energy of life flows through us and the more we become a connected force of creative leadership, rather than an isolated victim of circumstances. You might also sense that this expansiveness arises only as we exit the confines of coping mode and the endless distraction of bread and circuses. As we face the human and ecological catastrophes that are unfolding on our watch, we can stand among the leaders who can help transform them. To paraphrase Cicero, it’s not that bread and circuses are bad per se, but that they make us think too small and distract us from all that’s possible for a human being that will never be satisfied by bread or circuses.

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.

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