Enspirited Leadership: Landmarks for Uncertain Times

By Bob Stilger, 2005

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All around the world, people are stepping forward in new ways to provide leadership. In many cases, they are not the people in positions of power in organizations or communities; they are simply those who see what must be done and are willing to speak, and then to act. Often, as they begin to step forward, their hearts are pounding with fear, but they believe the time has come to offer a new possibility for the future.

Where do these leaders come from? What gives them the courage to speak up? What capacities and practices, if cultivated, support people in developing their own leadership?

Over the last four years at The Berkana Institute, I’ve worked with a number of younger leaders evolved in community initiatives in many parts of the world. They practice a kina of leadership that comes from mind, heart and spirit and provides a foundation for effective action in the world. They practice what I call “enspirited leadership.

The leaders I’ve worked with come from places like Santos, Brazil, where the Instituto Elos works in favelas, or slums, where people have few material goods but where the human spirit is still strong. They always begin their work by asking the elders to talk about their lives and by looking for patterns of possibility in their stories. These leaders come from Edcouch-Elsa High School in Texas in the United States, where a school serving migrant workers has gone from having one of the highest dropout rates in Texas to having the highest rate of placement in top U.S. colleges. They come from Johannesburg, South Africa, where the GreenHouse Project demonstrates how to buildgreen, grow food in urban areas and practice zero waste.

To support this enspirited work in the world, in 2004 Berkana launched the Berkana Exchange. We work primarily with learning centers around the world that are helping ordinary people step forward as leaders. Working with urban youth in Dakar, Senegal, with villagers in rural Zimbabwe, across the generations in Udaipur, India, and with indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico, these learning centers are helping people offer whatever leadership they can in these changing times.

I have identified six key landmarks for enspirited leaders:

1. They work from a sense of trae calling

2. They journey in the company of others

3. They live with a spiritual center

4. They demand diversity

5. Reflective learning guides their lives

6. Their work is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty

A Sense of True Calling

Each of these pioneering leaders has stepped into his or her work because of a strong sense of calling, rather than through a methodical, strategic decision-making process. In many ways, life leads them to their work. And, of course, their work then leads them to their life.

Marianne Knuth from Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe explained her commitment to her work in this way:

“I had this feeling that I had to do it. If I would have thought someone else was going to be able to do it, I would have let them. Maybe that’s being arrogant, but I just had to do it. There was a real fire that was burning—and it was really exciting.”

Tim Merry, who began a learning center in Holland and in 2004 started the Shire in Nova Scotia, Canada, said it this way:

“It has been a really personal journey. The reason I am doing this work is because it is making me stronger, and because it is making me happy in what I do. I am beginning to understand the greatest gift we can give to the world is our own happiness, and that’s all we really have to do. We don’t need to do anything more than be content with who we are. We don’t have to change the world.”

What stands out to me from many conversations is that these leaders follow deep gut instincts that tell them where to place their attention and where to create their intentions for action. Their actions are conceived in a place of spirit, not in a place of thought. What gives these young men and women the confidence and courage to respond to that which called them? How were they able to step forward while so many who hear such a calling choose to ignore it?

In the Company of Others

Part of the answer is that they don’t do their work alone. Close friends and family who share deep bonds of trust, love and respect are essential for finding the courage to follow the inner voice. Moving into new territory, doing work that seems unconventional and perhaps even foolish to some, requires companions.

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