Hark! Our Better Angels Sing: The Greatest Gift A Leader Can Give
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Hark! Our Better Angels Sing: The Greatest Gift A Leader Can Give

[Milky Way over Great Rift Valley. Credit Bob King]

Hark! Our Better Angels Sing: The Greatest Gift A Leader Can Give

by Ginny Whitelaw. Originally published on Forbes.com

In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he appealed to the nation’s “better angels,” meaning the better aspects of our character, such as good sense and virtue. Seven score and sixteen years later, in the thick of the Trump presidency, historian Jon Meacham spoke to the battle for our better angels in The Soul of America. He recounts the disparities and triumphs of a nation founded on the declaration that all people are created equal and its unequal efforts to live up to that mighty truth. He recognized the power of leadership and the Presidency specifically to pull people up to the best within them, or down to their most angry, fear-based selves. As Meacham writes, “We are more likely to choose the right path when we are encouraged to do so from the very top.”

Conversely, when rage is encouraged from the top, it becomes unstoppable, as we witnessed in the attack on the Capitol. But this cultivation of rage is not just a political matter or something that can be amped up or down by a President. Rage sells. It gets people writing checks to political parties. It gets people buying products that promise some security or relief. It is the fastest moving, most audience-aggregating emotion on social media. It’s good for ratings, as Fox News has shown, and we’re more easily fooled when logic can’t break through strong emotion.

While much is being written about rage in America, this is not just an American phenomenon, but indeed mirrors the rise of authoritarianism around the world. Rage is incompatible with democracy, for the latter requires the better angels of good sense and virtue. It is also incompatible with well-being, happiness, love and living at the full capacity of human consciousness. While it’s certainly part of the human experience, rage is the basement level of consciousness. And it is destroying us, as we continue to vent our destructive ways on one another and the planet. The call to leaders at all levels, meaning anyone committed to making a positive difference, is to turn this around. The greatest gift a leader can give is to take away fear, by which people move up out of rage and toward their better angels.

What might this look like? Whether we think of it as better and worse angels or higher and lower levels of consciousness, there are models that can guide us in what it means to pull people up to the best within them. Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory offers a useful synthesis of many of these models that track stages in human development from I-centered to ethno-centered (i.e., my group) to world-centered (i.e., inclusive of all groups) to universally-centered or unity consciousness. Since we all grow up through the earlier stages, we can certainly regress to them. But world-centered consciousness, which is rational and inclusive, is the first level at which democracies or global organizations hold together. The first two stages, while natural as children, are fraught with difficulty if we get stuck in them as adults. A model from Buddhism that informs our work in Zen Leadership captures this well in terms of 6 realms of being, ranging from the rage of hell to the bliss of heaven. We don’t think of these as places we go after we die, but rather states we live in and move between every day. Mapped to Wilber’s four major stages, they are:

  1. Hell, characterized by rage, fury and anger
  2. Hungry ghosts, characterized by greed or an unfillable hole

3. Animal nature, characterized by basic instincts for survival, “reptilian brain”

4. Conflict nature, characterized by fear triggers and conflict between groups

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

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