The Best Leadership Strategy For Our Time—It’s Simpler Than You Think
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The Best Leadership Strategy For Our Time—It’s Simpler Than You Think

The Best Leadership Strategy For Our Time—
It’s Simpler Than You Think

by Ginny Whitelaw. Originally published on

Imagine you had a child who was entrusted with the family fortune—generations upon generations of good investments and stewardship amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars—and this child managed to blow through it in one year. Near the end of that year, they started borrowing from the future, going into debt to keep their lavish lifestyle going. A million here, ten million there, they furiously ramped up their borrowing to keep pace with their spending, but the complex life they constructed from past wealth was still far more than they could sustain in the present no matter how quickly they borrowed and how deeply into debt they fell. Sensing their predicament, the child became distressed and anxious, further eroding their judgment and wellbeing. What would you say to this child?

Perhaps something like: Stop. It’s time to simplify, time to heal.

That child is us, and that’s the message coming from the Institute for Energy and Our Future in their powerful documentary, The Great Simplification. The vast fortune we’ve been plundering is energy, that is, geologically stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. What has taken nature millions of years to produce, we’ve exhausted in less than two centuries. This energy-fueled bubble has supported enormous increases in human productivity, technologies, and consumption. A gallon of gasoline, for example, can do in a few minutes the work that would take a human laborer a month. Yet our economic models grossly miscalculate the value of this energy, considering only the cost of extraction and market factors, but ignoring the millions of years it took nature to create such condensed energy, the growth and complexity it enables, and the pollution it produces. As Nate Hagens puts it, we’re living in a “carbon pulse…drawing down the earth’s battery millions of times faster than the trickle charge of photosynthesis.”

But that’s still not enough to support our present lifestyle, so we also borrow from the future. According to the Institute of International Finance, US national debt is more than $23 trillion, and global world debt surpassed $300 trillion last year. People, not just governments, are also spending beyond their present means. US consumer debt in 2022 was $16.5 trillion. Our brains, with reward circuits honed over millions of years before there were credit cards or a carbon pulse, have habituated to consumption, where the wanting of things is greater than the reward we get from having them. As social beings attuned to signals of status, what we want is informed by having as much or more than those around us. Moreover, the wealth from all this energy and debt accumulates in the top few percent of the population, creating deep social divisions and political instability. Further fanning the flames of division and consumption are AI-driven social media algorithms—fear-driven click bait that we had the smarts to create but lack the smarts not to fooled by.

Likewise the businesses we create are habituated to more, more, more. Without growth, a business is considered in decline, which becomes the fate of its stock if it’s a public company. Countries are habituated to growth. Anything less than 3% growth is considered stagnation and borrowing or servicing debt becomes ever-harder in slow-growing economies. At every level, the massive concentration of past and future resources fuel levels of consumption and expectations of growth that are wildly disconnected from the cycles of nature and the laws of thermodynamics. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but when it’s spent at the enormous rates of our current standards of living, it does heat the place up.

Estimates vary on how long this bubble can continue and what will pop it. Some believe it will end because we’ll run out of fossil fuel to extract—the Peak Oil theory—and even before that point, the cost of extraction will become prohibitive. Others believe the effects of this energy, namely climate change, will pop our bubble first. It’s already resulted in widespread land degradation, species extinction, and increasingly severe weather events. While some people ardently distance themselves from the science and social effects of what is going on, more people, including leaders, are sensing our predicament. From pushback on unrealistic growth targets to quiet quitting, declining mental health, decreasing life expectancy, increasing food insecurity, climate anxiety, and a waft of dystopian movies, our collective unease is increasingly visible and painful. As Hagens observes, modern society is a brief blip in time where we have created a kind of superorganism “disconnected from the wellbeing of its parts. Us.” The bubble may pop because we pop and, in so many ways, destroy ourselves.

A much more promising scenario is also possible. We can face and embrace that this bubble cannot last, that a great simplification is inevitable, indeed already underway, to bring life on earth into harmony with the natural flows of energy. We can lead our children, communities, businesses and organizations to regenerative ways of living and working. For example, we might cut our consumption and debt, reimagine what “waste” can be turned into, or support local food production and adapt our diet to the seasons where we live. Rather than being addicted to growth, we might right-size our business or organization to thrive in the context of its ecosystem, optimizing how it functions with presently available energy sources and reciprocal relationships.

Hagen predicts that this simplification will be one of the greatest events experienced by our species. If it is to be great in the sense of being a wonderful evolutionary advance, and not a great disaster, it will need to be accompanied by great healing. Some want to believe technology will solve everything. But without great healing that attunes us with nature, even our best technologies will be out of tune and misapplied.

Healing reconnects what has been disconnected, anneals what has been severed. The gateway to this healing lies within each of us, in healing the false divide between mind and body. Our physical body is the piece of earth, the amalgamation of nature’s matter that conducts and creates—from all the energies we sense and act upon—a local, subjective experience of mind. But this thinking mind is capable of imagination, as well as delusion, distancing itself from the pain of the body (e.g., in trauma), making stuff up, doubting itself, winding itself into obsessive habits, and getting caught up in loops of greed and fear. In losing touch with our own physical nature, we lose touch with a natural antidote to all this confusion and we lose touch with nature writ large. The key to healing in our relationships with one another and with nature is to reconnect with who we are beyond the ego-mind that otherwise defines itself as separate.

In reconnecting with our whole and true nature, we recognize ourselves in others and them in us. We feel the pulses of nature in ourselves and ourselves as a part of nature. For Indigenous people, this unification with nature is deeply rooted in culture. But for Western leaders, growing up in cultures of individualism and domination—from “mind over matter” to colonization—reunification takes intentional work, physical practice, which is the taproot of Zen Leadership. The connectedness or samadhi available through physical Zen training brings leadership into accord with the ways of nature (or simply the Way). The mind of a reunified, connected leader can reimagine a healed relationship, a healthier system, or a healed community, which the body of that leader can enact the skills to manifest. No separation. No getting lost in greed and fear. Fueling this quality of leadership is not an app or a program, useful as those may be; it is not energy from the past or debt from the future, but rather a healing community of practice. Together, repeatedly, in cycles of deepening connectedness and expanding influence, we heal ourselves to a place of joy and simplify and heal the world around us to a place of thriving.

Simplify and heal are the twin guideposts of the best-fit leadership strategies of this time. Because we are not only the child who has gorged on wealth from the past and future and grown somewhat miserable in the process. We are also the adult who sees it, who can embody wisdom beyond what the child-ego can see and lead a way forward one-with nature and one-with our whole nature.

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

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