21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?

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There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

Justice is the Public Face of Love

“Justice is the public face of love.”

I read this on Facebook a few days ago and it’s been resonating with me ever since.

Yes, how true: collectively, as a society or a world, we show our love by granting justice. But what do we mean by justice? This is a question that always comes up quickly in the classes I teach on social and environmental justice. Justice for whom? By whom? Says who?

What may look like “justice” to an ISIS operative intent on burning “heretics” in cages may look like gruesome barbarity to me. What may look like justice to me—say, the imposition of a hefty fine on Chevron for polluting pristine rainforest in Ecuador—may play quite differently in a U.S. court of law.

Justice is slippery. It has more shades of gray than clear blacks and whites. But I think we can agree that when justice is invoked, it is called upon with passion, with love, with commitment.

I want to imagine a world in which it would be inconceivable that justice would not align with a powerful commitment to the flourishing life our planet has always provided. Think about it. Gaia, our planet, is totally invested in abundance. Using the incredible energy provided by our Sun, Gaia gaily makes life in a million billion different guises.

Photo c. Jennifer Browdy 2015

Photo c. Jennifer Browdy 2015

Even death is just fodder for more life, the death of one living component of the Earth providing a fecund ground for the production of a million more living beings.

In a court of Gaian justice, love and life would be synonymous. I know that on Valentine’s Day, most people just think about bringing roses to their sweetie. But how about thinking a little bigger this year? How about bringing some roses, symbolically speaking at least, to the sweet planet that gives us her all, year after year?

Justice for Gaia would mean love, commitment and care for all of the life on our incredible planet. Is that too much to ask? Planet_Earth_by_saker10

Pay Attention! Listening to Angels on Superbowl Sunday

On Superbowl weekend, I was visited by an Angel.

Or rather, an Angel appeared to me in a dream, a fragment of which I remembered upon awakening. In the dream, the Angel stood on a soapbox in a darkening, rush-hour city street, surrounded by hurrying streams of people moving with determined strides, heads bowed against the cold wind and shoulders hunched beneath heavy coats. The Angel was trying to say something important to the people, but nobody was listening, or even aware she was there. As I awoke, I felt the Angel’s sense of dejection, failure and sorrow. It was as if her wings were broken.

Later that day, in a writing workshop with playwright Winter Miller, the Angel surfaced again. I saw her standing on her box in the midst of the hurrying, unthinking masses, aware of the darkness engulfing them and trying to summon up enough strength and power to shine a bright light, a beacon that would make them pick up their heads and see.

But the Angel does not have enough force, enough spark to reach these people. Despairing at having failed in her mission, she steps down off the box, her wings dragging in the dirty water in the street gutter, and immediately begins to be buffeted by all the impatient passersby, who are focused on catching their trains or buses, not wanting to be bothered with a crippled Angel slinking off.

Then suddenly a piercing blue-green ray of light shines out, as a little girl turns around and sees the Angel. She tugs on her mother’s hand, shouting, “Mommy! Stop! Look! An Angel!”

“You’re the only one who has been able to see me,” the Angel says, looking at the girl’s bright blue eyes in wonder.

The girl succeeds in stopping her mother’s dash across the street, and while they wait for the light to change, she and the Angel have a wordless communion, souls mingling through the beams of their shared gaze, each taking courage from the other.

When the street light changes, the girl is jerked almost off her feet by her mother, who is intent on catching the express bus she can see waiting on the corner. She throws one last eye beam over her shoulder, a flash of blue as brilliant as the gleaming wing of a quetzal bird in flight.

The Angel drinks it in like nectar, feeling its pulse traveling through her like a tonic. She straightens up, pulling her wings up off the ground, and suddenly she has no need of a soapbox any longer. She towers above the crowd like an alabaster statue illuminated by clear white light.

Without having to say anything—no more pleading for attention—suddenly her intention and meaning permeate the entire scene with the resonance of a gong that the people can feel vibrating in their bodies, penetrating the thick layers of clothing, the dense wrappings of habit, the brittle armor of indifference.

“Did you hear something?” one man asks another.

“I felt something,” he replies. “It was like an earthquake, maybe, or a tremor. I felt something shake.”

“We need to slow down,” the first man says. “Everyone needs to slow down and pay attention.”

The Angel gives her wings a shake and then, tentatively at first, gives a few powerful thrusts. Whatever had been hampering them is gone now; they are miraculously whole and powerful enough to take her up into the sky. As she wheels up and away, she smiles to hear the little girl say to her mother, “Mommy, look! Up there! It’s the Angel! She can fly again now!”

This time, instead of tugging her daughter on, the mother pauses and follows the direction of her daughter’s pointing finger. “I see it! I see it!” she cries. “Bless us all, we have been visited by an Angel! Pay attention, everyone!”

As if on cue, the last rays of sunshine suddenly break through the thick dark clouds, down low by the horizon line over the river. The dirty gray water glitters with gold.

angelic sky

Photo J. Browdy

Pay Attention! It’s interesting that this message emerged for me on the very weekend when America’s attention was so powerfully focused on one thing, and one thing only: the Superbowl.

I have often thought, if only a fraction of the energy, creativity and money that we spend on our sports programs and events could be diverted to developing new ways of living sustainably, healthily and harmoniously on Earth, what a wonderful world it could be.

I imagine that the meaning of the Angel’s gong would be slightly different for each individual hearing it. What I heard was this: it is time to pay attention, and look to the youngest among us for direction.

Children are often far more open than adults to a broader range of perception and awareness. I worry, though, that even childhood is being polluted with mindless media, as I see little children with their eyes constantly glued to a screen, instead of looking up and about them at the big beautiful world.

The mother in me wants to slow down and drink in the gold glittering on the river, together with my children. The Angels may be among us more often than we can imagine. We just need to pay attention.

Photo J. Browdy

Photo J. Browdy

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