Before Covid19, and certainly even more now, the systems that were meant to take care of us, protect our most vulnerable, and be focused on the best interest of the people rather than for those in power have all failed and can no longer be trusted or relied upon. We are at the precipice of a great unknown, from our economy down to all the every day details that allow society to function, to the inner workings of our homes and personal lives. The result of this will be great and necessary transformation. May we not easily let go of our learnings from this time.
Following this, there are many who are now leading or will be thrust into leadership roles who are not prepared. Some are ready and willing, some will take this as their opportunity to help, and some will be out for themselves. We need people who are ready and willing to learn how to help build more justice structures, communities, policies.
Without clarity around our models of change and leadership it is easy to fall into processes that are chaotic, imposing, and lack the necessary kindness. To lead in chaos one need not to everything in advance, but should be able to approach it with humility and depth of skill uncommon today.
I want to make a simple recommendation:
Let us make Love the model of leadership we use. Love not for self, not for profits or self-interest (which is not love at all but greed), Love not even for an all out survival at all costs, but rather love for the community and the common good. Love for faithfulness to the task at hand. Love as a tool to see deeper into the beauty of the communities and people we lead.
I am reminded of a poem by Chuang Tzu called the Woodcarver. I learned about this poem from the book, “The Active Life,” by Parker Palmer. I want to share the whole thing with you here. When you have time, I invite you to read and meditate on it. What do you notice about the Woodcarver? What does it have to teach us about the role of leadership today? About how to approach change?
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”
Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
– Chuang Tzu
from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton
Once you’ve had a chance to reflect, go ahead and read on for a few thoughts that come to mind for me after reflecting on this.
First – Do not enact change (at least not at first). Instead, get yourself grounded in that place, that community.
A teacher once said to me that the first year of leading in an organization is a time to listen. Take the time to soak it all in. Get to know the people, the place, and the Spirit’s work in that place. The first year is for falling in love. This is something that you will need to rise and repeat overtime. But the first act is to do nothing. It is to do the internal work of learning how to not enact change.
For the Woodcarver, his first act is to do the internal work of letting go. Letting go of what he wants. Letting go of what others want of him. Letting go of the fear of criticism and the desire for praise. He fasts, a particularly difficult (at least for me) spiritual discipline to undergo. How many leaders do you know who reach for these kind of spiritual practices ever, let alone regularly?
Even though his work is a command from the Prince of Lu and his courts, the Woodcarver is able to differentiate himself from what is being asked of him by his superiors. While he accepts the work he is beholden to something larger than the Prince. He knows he is a woodcarver only. He must have integrity in that work, regardless of who has hired him. Otherwise, he is no longer an apprentice to his tradition. To me, this process of letting go, the process of leaving, “All that might distract me from the work,” is a practice of love. It loves and respects not only his tradition but those for whom he is in community with and working for.
Second – let the material of the place guide you
Author David James Duncan writes,
“One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials.”David James Duncan (River Teeth)
The woodcarver goes into the woods and lets the work of God speak to him through the trees. What looks like a tree on the outside, only he is able to see as a bell stand within. He allows for the material to guide him, rather than the condescending notion that he knows better or best of all. Rather than going into the forest to find the one he wanted, we could say that the tree finds him. Heart spoke to heart. A mysterious knowing that is both hard to understand and name takes place for anyone willing to patiently and deeply listen:
“I was collected in the single thought.”
This singularity of focus – purity of heart is to will one thing – means that he was willing to above all not do the job.
> “If I had not met this particular tree
> There would have been
> No bell stand at all.
Had there been no tree, he would have let the Prince know that he wouldn’t be completing the request, rather than to go against his own craft. I think in our time we are accustomed to the cheap yes far more than well-discerned no. The willingness to not act in the face of demands from the outside is a powerful testimony to the Woodcarver’s integrity.
The willingness to wait, to say, “not now, not yet, this isn’t the right time or the right path,” requires virtue and practice. There is a necessary humility if one is to hear the Eternal within others.
This kind of non-anxious presence and love for craft and community will always gain trust in a way that no other approaches fall short. Therefore, it is not surprising that the crowd wants to know the formula. They want to know what his secret is. How is it that he can summon the spirits in a way no one else can.
Why is there some secret when people do their work well?
He reveals to them that there is no secret. Instead, it is something far more simple, but not easy. It is a deep listening and encountering of the “hidden potential in the wood.” I would call this the “eternal within,” the living tradition, the thing easily discarded, seen as obsolete, un-nuanced, and completely missed by those who are not able to let go of their own desired outcomes. To let go, to do nothing, and to be willing to listen and wait to encounter the hidden potential. That is love. There is no shortcut for that kind of practice, nor is there a formula that you can follow to get there. That kind of love is what we need in this moment and in the coming days. May we draw from deeper wells.