The "Inner-Leader Journey": Key Shifts Needed to Thrive in a Turbulent Future

Posted May 5, 2022 | Leadership |
a khaki rucksack with hiking contents spread out around it, all on a black background

Change — real change — comes from the inside out.

Stephen Covey

When I left my corporate job in 2009 with the intention of discovering better ways of introducing change to improve organizations, I didn’t realize what it would set in motion. In hindsight, I realize I had started on a path many call an “inner-leader journey.”

Perhaps one of the most well-known and recognized authorities on that journey is Joseph Jaworski, author of Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership and two other books and chairman of Generon International. In Synchronicity, Jaworski shares the story of his escape from an inauthentic life and his journey to a deeper understanding of leadership. Leadership, he discov­ered, has more to do with our being — our total orientation of character and consciousness — than with what we do.

From Jaworski, we learn that people and organizations can pass through a journey of inner transformation that enables them to shape the future instead of simply responding to events and circumstances. In Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, Carl Jung defined synchronicity as a “meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” In effect, leaders can learn how to create the conditions for “predictable miracles,” or synchronicity.

One of the most intriguing things we learn from Jaworski is that anyone can choose to be a leader through new capacities that are brought forward when we begin the inner journey. This shifts the conversation on leadership beyond formal power hierarchies. And increasingly in today’s world, hierarchies are weakening throughout most businesses and organizations. Much of the work today now occurs through informal networks and self-managed teams that form, do the work remotely, then dissolve, making the need for leadership at every level and in every person even more critical.

We also learn that most of us aren’t very good at perceiving reality as it is. Rather, we relate to internal remembrances of our own history evoked by whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open ourselves up to begin an inner transformation, we begin to see things as they truly are. When we see what is true, we allow something new to show up. We begin to think and act in new ways and interact differently with others. Change happens naturally as a consequence and flows through us to our outer experience.

In 2014, when I read Jaworski’s Synchronicity, I recog­nized immediately that it was my journey as well. I sought him out and began to learn from him. Since then, I have met many others who are traveling this path, and I have helped others get on the same path.

The inner-leader journey begins within yourself and your state of being. One hundred percent of survey respondents strongly agree or agree with this statement: By enhancing our ability to look and listen within, we access greater awareness and creative power to shape our world and be a force for good (see Figure 1). Frankly, I was a bit surprised at the level of support for this statement, although my experience is that most people publicly support traditional business values (more growth, profits, and performance) but privately yearn for a softer, more humanistic, more sustainable approach to work and business. Figure 1 also reveals that 72% of respondents are in agreement with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, who said: “Synchronicity [the inner path of leadership] is the path we all must follow in the 21st century.”

Figure 3. Is the inner path the way forward in the 21st century?
Figure 1. Is the inner path the way forward in the 21st century?

Having traveled this path myself, I agree. Again, I found the level of support among respondents to be surprising, especially since these statements expand the scope to include everyone. While the inner path of leadership is not a mainstream business topic, it is a form of leadership that I have observed is gaining more awareness as people become disenchanted with existing forms of leadership and a younger generation moves into leadership positions.

Meeting the Future Requires Break from the Past

A lot changed in 2020, and much has changed since then. Marilyn Jacobson, author of Turning the Pyramid Upside Down, foresaw these times back in 2014, writing, “Meeting the future will soon make what was done yesterday seem like ancient history.”

At present, we find ourselves in a constant state of needing to get more done with fewer resources while taking on more challenging work, making everyone’s contribution more critical than ever. How do we get out of our comfort zone, step up to the challenges, and be more effective and innovative?

Rather than listening for the correct answers, we must enhance our ability to see what’s real and have the freedom to act on it. When we’re relying on past knowledge, best practices, and more activity in the face of relentless change and disruption, we’re living in the past. We need to design ourselves and our organizations to be more forward thinking.

For example, for much of my career in corporate America, I prided myself on being a person of action and getting things done. I updated my to-do list perpetually throughout the day. Countless meetings resulted in even more action items and lists. But what if I instead chose to jump off the hamster wheel for a few moments? What if, as Professor Patricia Shaw suggests, I paid a little less attention to generating yet another action plan and more attention to the ways forward that were opening up in front of me? I’d definitely see more new and better ways forward, as would anyone following this advice.

In early 2020, I began an exercise to identify what had changed as a result of my inside-out journey. How had I and my work changed? Figure 2 highlights the key areas of change over the past 10 years. The 11 shifts displayed on the right side of the figure is how I now live, work, and teach.

Figure 4. 11 key shifts that resulted from my inside-out journey
Figure 2. 11 key shifts that resulted from my inside-out journey

For example, when I started on this inner-leader journey, one of the first opportunities I had to show up as my “real self” versus “fitting in” was in 2012 when I wrote an article for Cutter IT Journal (renamed Amplify). In that article, I questioned why so many companies were continuing to focus on Agile, Lean, CMMI, and so on, with so few results to show for their efforts. It felt risky to speak out against what so many supported and advocated, and I didn’t believe the article would be published. To my surprise, not only was the article published, it resulted in many new opportu­nities to work on exciting engagements and speak at conferences. The inner-leader journey will help you see reality more as it truly is and give you the insight, wisdom, and courage to share it with others.

I believe it is critical for our teams and team members to make this shift in order to thrive and achieve success in a turbulent world. In The Medium Is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan wrote:

Our time is a time for crossing barriers. Emotionally, it is much more gratif­ying and secure to live in Bonanza-land. It is the old environment. Every time a new environment forms, people go back and live in the old one.

We need to recognize this perspective and become the type of leaders who can help the current changes become real to our teams and organizations.

How important is it for team members to make the shift from Industrial Age thinking and practices that keep us stuck living in the past? All survey respondents agree or strongly agree with this idea (see Table 1). They also agree (to one degree or another) with the need to make the 11 key shifts shown in Figure 2, described in more detail in Table 1.

Table 1. Making the shift away from Industrial Age thinking and practices that keep us stuck in the past
Table 1. Making the shift away from Industrial Age thinking and practices that keep us stuck in the past

Do these results suggest a mandate to adopt these changes? Quite frankly, I was surprised at the over­whelming support for the ideas presented here. Thus, I believe there is a deep sense among many people that we need to make major changes in the way we work and interact with each other.

[For more from the author on this topic, see “The 21st-Century Team Member Is a Leader of One: Themselves.”]

About The Author
Bill Fox
Bill Fox is cofounder of Forward-Thinking Workplaces and the author of The Future of the Workplace. He helps leaders and teams ask new questions and align on a strategic conversation that engages and leverages the collective voice, energy, and wisdom of global leaders and everyone on your team ⏤ to help them achieve their most important strategic objectives. He has more than three decades of experience in project management and leading… Read More