There is no such thing as leadership. There is only following. And there is only one question: What are you following?
When we are in positions of so-called “leadership” we experience all kinds of inputs, intuitions, and impulses. Some come from outside of us, some arise from within us, and many are so subtle that we don’t even register where they come from at all. When we look inside ourselves, we feel a constant arising of ten-thousand rivers, each taking us in a different direction, our choice is just which river to ride.
You can notice it right now: Does part of you want to keep reading, does another part want to stop? Is part of you focused here, is another part coaxing you to turn to something it considers more important? What’s underneath those impulses? There is so much going on inside you right now, so many rivers, which one will you follow? Is there any path that you could take that isn’t following something that’s happening in or around you? Do you have any choice other than which of these impulses to follow? And if you are feeling determined to say that there is a way for you to self-generate a path, where did that feeling come from? Isn’t that just another impulse arising that you could choose to follow?
It’s just part of being human, and it’s an essential observation if we are going to find pathways through the challenges of our times.
Leaders are really following. It’s especially easy to see in those moments when the leader is not conscious of what they are following, but the other folks in the group are all too aware. Just imagine the last time you watched someone dominate a meeting just to hear themselves talk. In that moment they were following an impulse to take up space and be seen. We’ve all witnessed a manager that seems to be more concerned with their own promotion than the team’s success; or a teammate that is more concerned with being right or being superior than on actually arriving at the best plan. In these cases, the person is following something within them without being aware of what they are following.
Even when folks aren’t following the impulses that rise from shadows of their awareness, they are still following something. It could be a desire to serve, a vision they had, a need they sense in the world, an intuition they have about what the group they lead is longing to see. Even our most visionary leaders, no, especially our most visionary leaders, are really following things that arise within and around them.
In every moment, we are experiencing uncountable stimuli encouraging us to do everything from buy a new car, design a product, rejoice in prayer, take a nap, call our beloved, lead a protest, make art, or whatever else. Each of these impulses to behave in a certain way is connected to a deeper process occurring inside ourselves: a process of meeting our needs, navigating our fears, dancing with our traumas, actualizing ourselves, manifesting our values, and becoming who truly are. Our puzzle here on Earth is just to decide which ones we will follow. Some will lead us to suffering, others will lead us to freedom.
This decision isn’t easy, and we aren’t always clear on exactly what we are following. We may take a prestigious job thinking that we are following our calling, only to later realize that we were following our need to validate our sense of worth through the admiration of others; we may advocate for a policy thinking we are following the needs of the people, only to later realize we were following our desire to feel right and in control.
Discernment gets even harder when we notice the influences of the social and economic systems in which we are embedded. We may start a business in order to follow a vision of a product to make people more healthy, but quickly find ourselves actually following the will of investors, our ego’s need to feel successful, or the whims of the marketplace. We may start a non-profit in order to cultivate a more liberated world, but find ourselves actually following our fear of running out of money, the pressures of funders, or a belief that growing budgets means growing impacts. No matter what we create, we may start following one of the nearly infinite internal voices that is constantly trying to get us to act in order to serve the desires hidden in the more shadowy places of our consciousness.
And, odds are, we won’t be fully aware of what we are following. And the more we are convinced we are leading, the more likely we are following a pattern of our egos, and the less likely we actually clear on what we are creating.
People who are in positions of leadership aren’t self-authoring individuals. To view leaders as separate individuals is to deny the deep interconnectedness of inherent in being human. Even the people who seem like they are generating visions and paths aren’t really creating. They are following the impulses, intuitions, and energies that arrive in their personal consciousness via the ineffable interconnection of the world. If you have any doubt about that, just pause right now. Notice your thoughts. Where are they coming from? Are they coming from you? What is “you” any way? And if you think “you” is the sum total of your beliefs and the stories you tell about yourself, where did that you come from? Imagine you had a tremendous insight right now that changed the direction of your life? Would that be something you created? Or something you saw and followed?
We are all just these rivers, deciding which ones to follow. Deciding which ones will speak and live through us. This isn’t just some esoteric musing (though I do love those): it’s a call for us to get honest about what’s really happening, and what we really need to do if we are going to create the world that our hearts know is possible.
If we imagine ourselves to be leading, then we will never be able to get clear about what we are following; which will be a bummer, because what we follow determines the world that is created through us. If we follow our need to feel better than each other, the pressures of capitalism, our fear of scarcity, or any of multitude of impulses running through ourselves, then we will continuously recreate the systems that we long to transcend. And we need to be cautious, because a lot of what passes for “leadership” nowadays is really just skillful following of things that should not be followed.
Someone might create a business, generate profits and innovations, and be praised as a leader, while really just following the dictates of an extractive economy that creates ecological devastation and human suffering in its wake. Another person might create an influential charity that feeds many hungry people, while really following their own need to feel important and special resulting in a structure that actually recreates the disempowerment and exclusion that caused the hunger to begin with.
We can also see that organizations themselves are set up to follow certain things. One organization maybe set up to follow the impulse of a single leader, another may be set up to follow the needs of particular consumers, another may be responsive to a defined group of stakeholders. The values of the organization and the way its structure allocates decision making power will influence what that organization responds to; what it follows.
There are so many streams we could follow. Even as we unconsciously follow some of these shadowy forces, we often create things that appear (or are) beneficial or beautiful. But even though we do good, we get caught in the loop of following the river that was created by the very systems and wounds we long to transcend. Our ability to be agents of transformation is limited by the extent to which we follow the very things we seek to transform.
So I want to invite you deeper into the question: What are we following?
Right now, as I write this, am I following an impulse to appear smart in order to get validation and escape a lingering sense of worthlessness that has been with me since childhood? Am I following a desire to offer value because I have learned that I am only worthy of love and belonging if I provide value to others? Am I following a desire to appear as “thought leader” in order to attract more clients to my coaching and consulting practice? Am I following a whisper that arose from the holy silence of my heart to teach me that this is how I can love you? Am I following the life-force brewing my belly that longs for nothing but the creation of more freedom and life? Am I following a small still voice, echoing from the unknown in a language unknown to ears, that let’s my soul know that this is the way?
Honestly, it’s some combination of all that and more.
But the point is that the still small voice exists. The knowledge of the heart exists. The wisdom of the body exists. There is an impulse, a force, a river that is leading us to love, liberation, and wholeness. It’s the force that teaches the flower to grow toward the sun, the force that impels the salmon to swim upstream, the force that gives the caterpillar the courage to go into the cocoon. It’s the force that cracks our hearts open, the force that enables forgiveness, the force that lets us grow out of old patterns, the force that heals our bodies and our psyches.
It’s not something we can understand with our minds. The attempt to put it into words just reduces the power of the mystery to the size of our intellects. But despite the shortcomings of every way I’m trying to point to it right now, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You have felt it inside of you. You know what it’s like to follow it, and you know what it’s like to ignore it. And if you are anything like me, you are often scared to follow it because it is leading us to somewhere completely and utterly unknown.
That nameless something is the source of the leadership that we need. It is what tunes us in to what is needed to support the blossoming of more life, love, and justice. Call it “emergence,” “evolutionary impulse,” “spirit,” or “God;” it doesn’t matter. The point is that we can choose to follow it, or we can choose to follow something else. And when we reside in the presence of it, it is painfully clear that when fetishize our own leadership we are most definitely following the something else.
From where I’m sitting, all of this seems to suggest that there is something we really need to support each other with: discernment.
We all want to follow the thing that can’t be named, and we are all apt to miss the mark, to follow our own shadow and not even realize that we have fallen off the path. We are all subject to so many forces within and around us that at times it feels nearly impossible to even hear the evolutionary call, not to even mention actually follow it. We need to be able to get honest with ourselves and each other, to reflect to each other when we are on it, and when we aren’t (because all of us know). We need to build practices and systems inside our organizations that help individuals and groups reflect deeply on exactly what they are following. And we all need to deepen our own personal practices of listening, so that we can get quiet enough to hear that still small voice echoing through time, calling us forward, igniting our hearts with a flame that lights the path as we walk it.
Either that, or we can keep following our learned behaviors, the needs of our egos, the patterns of our traumas, and the pressures of colonial capitalism. The choice is ours.
What are you following?