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In the age of bully leaders, where is our Mandela?

Andy Robins wonders about world leaders and ponders Nelson Mandela’s courage – September 2020

Bully and leader are not words that mix well, but looking back at my school days, and yes, the bully always had a following. But why is it, that decades of  supposed evolution later, we are witnessing a style of leadership that is a throwback to power gods of feudal empires.  In the terms that we use in Zen leadership, we’d call it driver energy on overdrive, trying to achieve security through fighting.

It is a concerning time as today’s leaders of the superpowers seem a far cry from anything that we teach in Zen Leadership programmes. In fact, looking at other world-class leadership schools and their programmes, I couldn’t find any that taught control over connection, division over integrity, mercilessness over empathy, contempt over respect. So why and how has this style re-emerged?

If we dig down to the root of the problem, the answer isn’t too hard to find. My English humour gets in the way a bit here, as I wonder if it is simple and these tyrants haven’t yet managed to read Flip 9 of The Zen Leader. Maybe they haven’t learnt to hone their leadership skills enough to take them from ‘Local Self to Whole Self’. As we are experiencing, there is a recklessness in this self-centered approach and, as the school bully is well aware, it is only maintained by imposing fear into the playground. This fear is currently being peddled by the three superpowers, not only on the streets within their own nations but at the same time by subversively using social media to create division globally.

It is a frightening time for many with not only a deadly virus spreading around the globe, but also, leaders who openly flaunt human rights and democracy, with nothing served but their own self-interests. So where is the hope and where are all the great leaders?

At times like this, I look for inspiration from those who have ‘lead the way’ under arduous circumstances. Those who stand tall and have stepped up to the mark when required. One of these leaders is, without a doubt, Nelson Mandela. He must have known fear so well: you can imagine it becoming his friend, looking it in the face on many occasions throughout his life. Initially living with apartheid as a child on the street, later in the dock awaiting a death sentence, and while incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 years of his 27-year sentence, these must-have seemed desperate times. So what separates this mountain of a man from our current crop of superpower leaders?  Mandela’s life was dedicated to something much bigger than self-gratification, a goal to unite a nation. That goal took him much of his life, but when the tables finally turned, he was able to bring his government and country together as one knowing the answer was not by using the power of fear to divide and conquer. As Mandela said

“Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.”

Mandela’s quote highlights how fear is only a minor setback, and anyone can stand against it to incite action against difficulties once they have conquered it. As leaders & Zen leaders living amidst these hateful and violent days, we need to take note and act on his words, and not only his words; it is no coincidence that he was described as a proud upright man during his 18 years captivity on Robben Island. As leaders, we must let go of our own self-indulgence and do all we can to inspire others to move beyond fear, by firstly becoming fearless in our actions to bring about a better world.  There is no better place to start than with our daily Zazen practice. Sit strong!


IZL Alumni Spotlight – James blachly

How do you make Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” spring to life? You put it in the hands of conductor James Blachly and his Experiential Orchestra. As premier music critic, Alex Ross put it, “Smyth’s ‘The Prison’ is sure to be one of the notable classical releases of the benighted year 2020: a transfixing piece, gorgeously recorded.” You can listen to excerpts and order your copy here.  


It was James who, several years ago at the Spring Green Dojo’s Feast of the Senses, guided us all through an experience of how powerfully listening can be an act of leadership, something he’s gone on to teach to Fortune 500 companies, schools, and other organizations. And when we lost our beloved Beth Potter in March, Gordon Greene Roshi, in breaking the news to James, asked him “please tell me if you hear anything.” What James heard and composed became this moving Meditation for Beth, transcendently performed by Andrew Yee. James has taught us all something about the power of listening and using whatever we’ve got to transform suffering into an act of love. 

are you looking for greater energy, less mind chatter, a more grounded presence?

If you answered yes to any of these, one of our Fall programs is for you and it’s time to register. Do yourself a favor and change up this time enough to join us.  

It might be just the charge you need.

Ginny Whitelaw Featured at 2020 McPhee Symposium

IZL Founder and President Ginny Whitelaw will headline the 19th Annual McPhee Symposium, presenting Resonate a Life of Purpose, Joy, and Resilience.” The McPhee Symposium, named in honor of the late Sister Rose McPhee, is sponsored by Seton Cove and will feature an evening lecture on Thursday, October 15 and an all-day workshop on Friday, October 16. Traditionally this has been an in-person event, Ginny will be the first virtual presenter. Learn more and register here.   

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