The greatest leaders of our world, those that have left their mark on history in transformative ways, understood the deep link between their leadership calling and their humility in seeing themselves as servants to something much greater than themselves. Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela....these are the leaders we most admire and who have brought about true, lasting change in the world. But whilst we talk about the results of their work, rarely do we talk about the process of inner growth that they needed to achieve their vision.
In my own leadership journey, spirituality has been foundational. I was raised as a Christian Scientist and my upbringing in Asia and continuing travels around the world gave me a deep interest in, and appreciation for, the spiritual principles found in all religions.
When I arrived in China as a young woman, I had a vision to share my passion for theatre with migrant women. I spoke no Chinese, had few resources and absolutely no experience in running an enterprise. It was my spiritual beliefs alone that helped to shape and guide the setting up, and eventual success, of Hua Dan, a social enterprise that uses theatre to empower migrant women and children.
Love not fear
As a little girl, I had a powerful insight into the fact that we are all, essentially, either living from a place of love - or fear. It seemed to me that it was fear that lead to a contracted view of the world and to the challenges that we see all around us - war, poverty, starvation, terrorism, conflict, disease, totalitarianism and political oppression. I determined that love really was the only answer to this and that my own personal journey should be a commitment to turn my fear around into love.
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, has this to say about Love:
Just live love--be it--love, love, love. Do not know anything but Love. Be all love. There is nothing else. That will do the work. It will heal everything...
Love has been the great sustainer for me, especially running a non-profit in a country that is suspicious and controlling of civil society and it has taken all my reserves of spiritual strength to keep loving in the place of fear.
Choosing to see the perfect man
One of the things that I love most about my faith, is the belief that man is perfect. In Christian Science, we do not see man as a sinful mortal, capable of making mistakes. Rather, the spiritual viewpoint we are required to see is that man is morally upright, full of integrity, love, strength and dominion. It is our duty to see that, despite the image we are presented with. I have always loved this and such a belief inspires my vision of Hua Dan to be about seeing potential, rather than 'helping' people. I don't start with the premise that the constituencies I work with are somehow lacking in any way, whether that's financial, opportunity, or even, gender-related. Instead, I choose to see limitless potential in everyone I work with and allow that view to constantly transform my thinking of what is possible. This has lead to our very first beneficiary, a young migrant woman from Yunnan, now leading and managing all of our China operations.
It goes without saying that I strive to manage my business dealings with integrity, transparency and honesty. Even though I fail to live up to these standards at times, I feel this is fundamental to anyone who has made a commitment to live with spirituality at the centre. This means to me that I am open and honest about financial affairs and am committed to being a freedom-centered leader.
First, leadership of self. Then, leadership of others. Leadership that prioritises one's spiritual growth and the humility to realize that you are only ever the servant to something much greater than oneself. The great leaders of our world - Gandhi, King, Mandela, Suu Kyi - have succeeded building a legacy much bigger than their individual causes, because they were lead by divine principles that transcended specific issues.
In a world that defines everything by data and metrics, and where technological innovation is king, it can feel like an uphill battle to be working in the arts. Yet the world is crying out for more evidence of Soul. The arts express all that is unique about each one of us as individuals, they encompass the warmth of connection and the embrace of 'the other' and allow us to make giant leaps in our thinking of what is possible.
In the last few years, I have been involved with the World Economic Forum through my role as a Young Global Leader. I have had the privilege of attending Davos and other regional Forum's and have written before on some of the experiences I have had during my tenure on my personal blogs (www.carolinewatson.org and www.love-not-fear.org).
Two years ago, I was invited to a discussion on the role of religion and spirituality at Davos. The line up of speakers were prominent leaders drawn from religious institutions around the world. The conversation quickly descended into what can only be described as religious politics and there wasn't a single element of spiritual thinking on any level. I got up and asked the panellists what it would take for us as spiritual thinkers to take seriously our role as healers in the world and move past dogma and religious opinion to more transformational leadership.
The World Economic Forum does an excellent job in bringing together stakeholders from the public and the private sector and it is commendable to see that it has now been recognized as the International Institution for Public-Private Cooperation. But my experiences there have also highlighted for me how there is a more profound 'knowledge' gap among world leaders. There is a gaping need to lean on a power much bigger than ourselves in order to enable a higher and more transformative level of leadership.
This experience has encouraged me to start an initiative with my fellow YGLs on Spirituality and Transformative Leadership. Over the coming months, me and my YGL colleagues will be blogging on various themes that relate to this topic, as well as share our own personal stories about the impact of our spiritual practise.
We are interested to hear your stories, too. How has your spiritual understanding and growth impacted your leadership journey? Do you believe there is a connection between spirituality and leadership and, if so, what? How can we open up this conversation in a way that opens up higher views of humanity and the struggles we face, rather than polarised arguments about religion?
I believe that no issue is beyond being benefitted by a spiritual perspective. Whether it's war in Syria, terrorism, Ebola, poverty, child abuse, political instability or fear.....there's nothing grabbing our attention on the world stage which can't be viewed from a more spiritual perspective.
In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi:
The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation's development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success.
This revolution of the spirit is, to me, what this world most needs.
Caroline Watson is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and founder of Hua Dan, China's first social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for empowering migrant workers and their children. Caroline writes, speaks and consults on global leadership, China and the emerging world, women's issues, the arts, spirituality and entrepreneurship at www.carolinewatson.org.