The Leader’s Mantle: Creating Connection in Chaotic Times

Donna J. Markham OP, PhD/ABPP
Kelly Lecture
University of St. Michael ’s College
Toronto , Ontario
November 18, 2004

An incredible synchronicity seems to be emerging in the face of these quite challenging and dangerous times. As we enter more fully into the study of some of the themes central to the new cosmology, neurosciences, spirituality, physics and the behavioural sciences, we are confronted repeatedly with the intricate relatedness of creation—not simply among us as human beings, but the interconnectedness of all creation, the interdependence of all that is, and the profound beauty inherent in its self-organization and self-replication. Science is revealing a cosmos comprised of a vast, interlinked chain of dynamic organization and structure, replete with emergent properties yet shrouded in wonder and mystery. “Perhaps no scientific discovery is more revealing of a vast interplay between large scale cosmological processes and smaller scale biological processes than the discovery that the complex compounds necessary for life are produced in the interiors of stars…We are literally made from the products of stellar furnaces that exploded billions of year ago and seeded our section of space with the building blocks of life.” [D. Watt]. We are truly interlinked, connected and interdependent as parts of creation. It is in the face of this overwhelming and ever unfolding mystery that we look humbly at our own way of participating in life on Earth these days and echo the words of the psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! You are clothed with honour and wrapped in light as with a garment.” (Ps. 104)

Disturbingly, it is precisely in the midst of this deepening awareness of our connections that we are being brought face to face with our sin—the reality of the extravagant ruptures in which we collude. We shatter connection and do violence to wonder when we ravage the earth, when we d eva lue or dismiss or, worse yet, destroy another human being. We thumb our noses at the Creator when we withhold respect from the less powerful—from poor people, or gay persons, or women, or refugees. We shatter the connectedness of creation when we stand in silence in the face of injustice in our governments, or in our church. It is precisely in these places of rupture that the responsible leader stands.

I believe this emerging, if not humbled, consciousness of our intrinsic relatedness, and our honest assessment of the ways in which we are complicit in destroying relationships, directs the work of leadership—whether that leadership finds its locus in business, politics, society, church, or family. None of us is exonerated from the process of serious self-examination of our manner of exercising both formal and informal leadership. So, what is this all about for us? This is what I would like to explore with you tonight from the perspective of my own discipline of psychodynamic psychology and its more recent emphasis on Attachment Theory.

Healthy leadership is central to global healing and survival. It is central to the process of restoring ruptured connections. Such leadership, of necessity, must be grounded in the capacity to stand in relationship, to foster connections across differences, to engage in dialogue in service of building global communion. Leaders who squander resources, use bully tactics, refuse dialogue, devalue the vulnerable, and bask in narcissistic self-aggrandizement are not only dangerous; they are acting in reckless violation of an emergent global ethic that reflects the simple mandate of the Golden Rule—to relate with others as you would wish them to relate to you. Simply put, in the best of all worlds, people who cannot relate should not be in leadership today. It is too dangerous to our survival. (Unfortunately, we continue to elect them, promote them, or name them.)

Our existential awareness of our interdependence and inter-connection has been heightened, and classical constructs challenged, through discoveries in astronomy, molecular biology, and dialogues among the great religions. Concurrently, psychodynamic psychology has given birth to attachment theory, through the work of persons such as Bowlby, Smith-Benjamin, Bartholomew and Hazan. Adult attachment theory is concerned with connections, with relatedness. In a curious and perhaps not accidental way, I believe it mirrors the yearning throughout various disciplines to discover the connective edges of our reality. Attachment theory examines the manner in which we humans form healthy relationships, thereby addressing our need for deep comfort and joy. Adult attachment refers to the tendency to sustain contact with and closeness to others from whom we derive a sense of mutual security and stability, protection and comfort. Likewise, it alerts us to the personal and social consequences of the absence of such ability to form connections with others. In the loss of healthy attachments, we experience an intrapsychic world punctured by profound pain, sorrow and rage and an interpersonal world characterized by anguish, despair, terror and depression. In other words, lack of connection is the breeding ground for violence. Alienation increases the paranoid proclivity to treat the other with dispassionate disdain. Framed more positively, then, our ability to engage and connect with others; our capacity to exhibit and solicit compassion and reverence; and our commitment to promote an awareness of interdependence is at the core of healthy adult attachment behaviour that de-escalates violence and diminishes fear. With this in mind, I would further venture to suggest that this is at the heart of what effective leadership behaviour must entail if we are to surface from our current, frightening geopolitical momentum toward disaster.

Ewert Cousins, speaking at the Gethsemane Encounter Monastic Interreligious Dialogues, identifies this brilliantly as he expresses the urgency inherent in such a relational imperative:

 Although we are moving toward the global community, we face what seem to be insurmountable obstacles: ecological disaster, economic injustice on a worldwide scale, widespread warfare. Against these forces we must individually and globally devote ourselves to “building the earth.”…the consciousness of the 21 st century will be global from two perspectives. First, from horizontal perspective, cultures and religions must meet each other on the surface of the globe, entering into creative encounters that will produce complexified collective consciousness. Second, from a vertical perspective, they must plunge their roots deep into the earth to provide a secure base for future development. They must develop a new spirituality of the earth and of the material aspects of human existence. This new spirituality must be organically ecological, supported by structures of justice and peace. The voices of the oppressed must be heard and heeded; the poor, women, racial groups and all other minorities….This emerging global consciousness is not only a creative possibility, it is an absolute necessity if we are to survive.

 Many of us who have committed our lives to the service of God find ourselves balanced on an emotional and spiritual tightrope between profound worry about what is happening around us and incredible hope that we can, given sufficient faith along with the courage to enter into a process of profound personal and communal conversion, stave off disaster and break through to a new commitment to global unity and peace. Obviously, the looming, unprecedented ecological disaster reflects the failure, thus far, of the great religions—including our own—to awaken us to the sacredness of creation and our interdependence as human beings. Additionally, our historical inability to live in cooperation as a human species further critiques our failure as people who call ourselves “people of God.” Maintaining the pr eva iling status quo in the exercise of leadership leads inexorably to disastrous failure. Dogmatic self-righteousness and brute force serve only to hasten our planetary, national, ecclesial and familial demise. We indeed have a great and urgent task to undertake together as believers: to assume a significant role in leading toward an alternative future based upon values of community, connection and compassion.

As I began to think about the role of leadership in light of all this, the image of the cloak, or mantle, came to me and I began to think about leaders as necessarily being those who serve to enfold creation in this cloak of communion, connection, compassion and awe as they accept the mission to be co-creators of justice and peace upon whatever ground they walk;

  • leaders as those who dare to call others to an alternative global vision, a vision wrapped in light and surrounded in transparent and truthful dialogue;
  • leaders as those who embrace an unwavering commitment to relationship and community as alternatives to separatism, exploitation and vengeance;
  • leaders as those who remind the community of its embedded-ness in the sacred;
  • leaders as those who tend to the heartbroken, disenfranchised, and suffering poor wherever and whomever they may be;
  • leaders as those who recognize the groans of all creation as it struggles to enter into a new consciousness predicated on principles of connection and attachment.

This mantle of leadership is not something that can be shirked by those who are alert to the vulnerability of these times, for the whole of creation is indeed groaning in one great act of giving birth, and not only creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, too. For those of us who are awake and keeping vigil in the nighttimes of war, terrorism, violence, xenophobia, gender d eva luation, and the abuse of power, we find ourselves increasingly pulled into spheres of influence where serious decisions must be taken. We dare not be silent or plug our ears to the roar of the groaning. Leadership today is all about having the conviction to connect across differences, division, discord, fear and alienation. It entails speaking the truth to power, and speaking that truth with love. Those who lack either the stamina or the commitment to undertake this should have the integrity to step aside and allow others to take the lead in this sacred work. Especially, as members of the community of faith who have committed ourselves to live the gospel, we—lay and ordained leaders alike—bear particular responsibility to transcend any “thinking binds” that keep us stuck in old patterns of compartmentalized self-righteousness, or too uncomfortable or frightened to enter into dialogue with the differing other. The imperative of this cultural, contemporary, relational emergence requires leaders in every arena of human enterprise to focus attention on the communal mission and the depth of community formation as these are critical to sustaining and healing this very precarious global reality. The universal communion, the connections inherent throughout all creation, lead us to awe and make reverence our sole rational response to one another, regardless of belief systems or cultural or racial differences.

Healthy Attachment and Its Application to Leadership

How, then, might the unfolding mystery of an interconnected cosmos and global reality and the insights we have gleaned from attachment theory have bearing upon the task of leadership today? It seems that there are at least four non-negotiable values a healthy leader must embrace today:

  1. the primacy of sustaining relationships over winning arguments;
  2. the imperative of dialogic interchange expressed through community;
  3. a commitment to witness to forgiveness and call the community to forgive;
  4. and interpersonal availability.

Before addressing each of these values, I would like to look for a moment at the profile of the healthy leader, for it is actually the healthy leader who will be able to carry out the lived expression of these four non-negotiable values. Attachment theorists have formulated, in varying ways, a construct of personality organization that is hinged on two axes: the vertical axis of power and personal and interpersonal control or passivity; and the horizontal axis of affectivity, or interpersonal warmth or distance. Those persons who maintain a positive sense of self-regard and regard for others have a sense of inner authority. They derive energy from taking initiative and find enjoyment in interacting with others are identified as “secure” individuals. These are people who have the capacity to exercise effective leadership as they call people to connection and community. They are able to subordinate their personal needs to the demands of the mission, for the sake of the good that is held in common. In the best of all worlds, anyone charged with leadership responsibility these days should fall within this quadrant of health and effectiveness. These leaders are engaged. They are connected to others. Intuitively, they sense the significance of relationship as it makes bold response to the mission possible. They elicit creativity as they encourage divergent thinking. Most of all, they have the ability to work through the ambiguity of contemporary agendas, all the while sustaining a high level of community commitment. Given that as a foundation, let us examine then, how the fundamental values of leading in these times can be expressed by these effective leaders.

  1. Conflict-partnering and the primacy of sustaining connection

 Persisting in traditional methods of using power as a wedge to control, we are recklessly playing with terribly high stakes—the very survival of our Earth. How will we learn to replace overpowering the other with partnering with the other? Knowing what we do about the necessity of respecting and intensifying bonds of relationship, I believe vigilant leaders must engage in conflict-partnering that counters the impetus toward destruction, the annihilation of life, and the loss of a sustainable future. We must replace rageful mastery over the “enemy” with efforts toward establishing some level of connection with the feared other. This will be extremely difficult and sometimes quite dangerous, but it is our only hope toward a sustainable future. This calls for entirely new modes of managing conflict and discord. We may consider, more closely to home, situations in which we Catholic Christians are challenged to relinquish our sometimes imperious need to prove our points, sacrificing the opportunity to fashion relationships through collaborative dialogue with one another. This becomes an even more serious challenge for us as we open ourselves to dialogues with the other great religions—and yet more precarious as we look toward international efforts in service of peace-building. Permit me to elaborate a bit.

Conflict-partnering is not the same as conflict resolution. Rather, it is a means of enabling persons to communicate, to strengthen connection, when they do not agree. So, conflict-partnering is not a matter of being right, or more powerful, but instead represents a commitment to start a flow of energy that results in mutual understanding directed toward the intensification of community. At its best, it is a search for what unites rather than divides. It is based upon the ability to sustain the dialogue, no matter what. No topic is prohibited in an atmosphere where mutual learning and understanding is valued as a means of connection and community bonding. In this way, conflict partnering counters the cultural pull toward alienation, separatism, and the cold wars of back to back stand-offs—replacing this behaviour with the intimacy of face to face and eye to eye contact. Winning the argument is thus always subordinated to sustaining the relationship.

Those of us who purport to be leaders in our Catholic communities of faith, who adhere to values of mercy and compassion and the search for truth, face an obligation to turn inside-out old conceptions of conflict resolution and develop ways of collaborating, relating with, and entering into extended communities on behalf of the suffering poor and the anguished Earth. This calls for nothing short of examining methods for managing disputes at all levels of ecumenical, ecclesial and parochial life, and developing methodologies that foster rather than shatter relatedness. The work starts in our own “back yard” and it will not be easy. It is simply a necessity.

  1. Community promotion in light of a “gift economy”

 Community is the human expression of the yearning for relationship and purpose, the promotion of vibrant interconnection that is both a proclamation of the mission of the gospel and a means toward realizing the mission. As such, community becomes a metaphor for global healing. At a time of heightened individualism, alienation and loneliness signify the plight of so many. The loss of connection and meaning leaves people standing on very fragile precipices with few supports. And, as previously stated, the loss of relationship escalates fear and allows paranoid, hostile responses to gain a stronger foothold.

Effective leadership entails making certain that relational connections are sustained even in the face of inevitable discord. Community formation stretches us beyond our differences to realize our common participation in life. It attests to the fact that no one is really a foreigner. We have all come from stardust. The world has become so small that we are neighbors—no matter how much we behave otherwise. Leaders must, therefore, call the community to replace xenophobia with great-heartedness and to refuse to allow the night terrors of separatism to destroy the possibility of standing in relationship. There is no way to underscore adequately the challenges leaders face in engaging in such an effort. Leaders-in-hiding simply won’t do.

On a practical level, this implies leaders’ calling the community to a reformulation of how we think about the “different other.” There are inherent implications for us, especially as we think about how we Catholics have sometimes looked apprehensively at one another, assessing the other as too liberal or too conservative, or too much of a feminist, or too patriarchal to be deserving of relationship. Frankly, I find this a bit scandalous. We are metaphorically killing each other. And, if we do this among ourselves, how will we ever be agents of community-building beyond ourselves? As I say this, I am aware that there are many who will think I am being a bit naïve about all this. I would be the first to say that I have no magic answers, but would like to join with you as others in leadership who search for a better way to intensify the community of believers rather that to continue to flirt with the consequences of continuing the status quo. It is truly the love of God that binds us through connections that are not to be broken by our differences.

Community goes beyond the difficult task of remaining in the tension of differences as we value relating. It leads to a conviction to diminish emphasis on a market economy where individual wants are pursued as we move more toward what Elaine Prevallet calls a “gift economy” where we recognize that all of life is in a continual process of “exchange.” As part of creation, we own nothing, but have at our use the gifts of all that has been created. We share the “Global Commons”—oceans, the air, space, and the soil. We use what we need, for as long as we need it, and then pass it on.

Such a global communal attitude defies hoarding and invites us into a covenant of cooperation. It flies in the face of denigration—either of our sisters and brothers, or of our earth.

Leaders invested in fostering global communion call us to mindfulness as we make use of the goods that we have and invite us to pass over that which would move us to hoard, and pass on that for which we no longer have use. [cf., Elaine Prevallet. In the Service of Life: Widening and Deepening Religious Commitment, Nerinx , KY 2002.] This is initiative that is likely to be undertaken only by those leaders who possess sufficient self-confidence and affection for others.

  1. Leading in forgiveness

 There are few topics where the fields of theology, philosophy, spirituality and psychology intersect with such invigorating significance as that of forgiveness. It frames healthy attachment behaviour as it informs our way of being in relationship with God, with other persons, with other nation-states, and with human institutions of all kinds. I might go so far as to venture that to the extent we fail in the exercise of forgiveness on a personal level, we place peace at risk on a global plane and taunt one another to continue along the precarious precipices of destruction of one sort or another.

That is, the failure to forgive brings harm to the self, distance between peoples, and heightens the likelihood of retributive, violent response. While the decision to forgive is clearly a choice we may or may not make, I believe it is an obligation we bear, both as a community of believers and as global citizens. Furthermore, it is a particular obligation of leaders today.

But entering into the place of the soul and psyche where forgiveness beckons leads us into an uncomfortable and intimidating confrontation with the truth about ourselves. The wastelands of unforgiveness, these are the places where language has been ruptured and communication has ceded to frigid silence, the places where relationships have been shattered and replaced by the violence of impassive disregard. It is in this self-cultivated desert of imprisoned loneliness that we each face—if we are courageous enough—the starkness of our own humanness. And, if we are brave enough, it is here that we may just make the decision to forgive and take leadership in the journey toward greater hope and freedom.

Leaders who are not sufficiently grounded in compassion or who are too insecure in their sense of self will be unable to lead communities in the act of forgiving. More dangerous are those leaders who lack empathy for others and refuse to offer forgiveness, at the same time, seeing no need to seek forgiveness themselves. I believe this covert despotic attachment style has taken a serious toll on the exercise of contemporary leadership in nearly all areas of human discourse.

What does forgiveness entail? Allow me to share with you some definitions of forgiveness offered by persons in the behavioural sciences:

  • The willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her. (Enright et al, 1998, pp. 46-47)
  • Forgiveness as a summary term representing efforts to reduce motivation to avoid and to seek revenge, and increase the motivation to reconcile or seek conciliation. (McCullough et al, 2000, p. 229)
  • Forgiveness means letting go of every hope for a better past. (Kokomon Clottey, Ghanaian shaman)
  • Forgiveness is the adaptive framing of a seeming mistreatment or transgression such that one is no longer constrained by the negative attachment to it. (Snyder et al, 2001, p. 6)

While these definitions are a small sample of the wide array of efforts on the part of clinicians and others to describe what forgiveness is, these and other definitions seem to point to the fact that forgiving clears a path toward peace. It quietly restores reconnection to the community as it releases the grip of anger and vindictiveness. You will note from these definitions, that forgiveness does not mean pardoning, excusing or condoning either the harmful behavior or the offender. It does not mean that one forgets what harm has been done. The focus of forgiveness is fundamentally on the person of the forgiver and includes absolving the self of our own offenses and destructive capacities, as well. Thus, forgiveness becomes a decision to opt for inner freedom, peace and a more hope-filled life.

Perhaps the reason we make the choice to forgive is that at some level of our existence, we are in touch with the excruciating pain of a life imprisoned by grudges and vengeance. It is from the vantage point of personal anguish that we recognize in ourselves the desperate need to make a new choice for life.

Two decades ago, I was part of an international team directed toward fostering dialogue between Israeli and Arab leaders in the Middle East . I remember being astounded by the long memory—literally thousands of years old—of being harmed by the other. I quickly realized that, despite my youthful idealism and best intentions, it was not possible to budge either side toward forgiving. Vengeance had been seething for centuries and the standoff was yet to intensify further and become even more horrific. I learned much from that experience. I witnessed then, and on many other occasions, what happens when unforgiveness poisons the heart and intoxicates the soul.

Even in the shadow of failure, leaders must continue to call their communities to forgiveness. More importantly, as leaders we must be willing to take the steps over and over again to forgive and to ask for forgiveness in the interests of re-establishing the interior landscapes of right-relationships.

4.Physical, spiritual and emotional availability

Predicated on a healthy sense of self and a desire to be in relationship with others, the effective leader is affectively available to others. Intuitively and contemplatively aware of participating in a far larger creative unfolding of life, these leaders never lose their capacity to relate in wonder and reverence as they work to connect persons in a web of compassion. They serve as mentors as they stand in the tension of ambiguity and refuse to walk away from difficult conversations. They know that the healing of human life, the repair of the planet and the connection to the sacred are inextricably bound together and this drives their behaviour.

So, in the end, the mantle of leadership is all about connecting. It is about engaging others in the sacred work of creating universal communion. Contemplative wonder grounds relational presence in these leaders. Thus, the cloak of leadership is about fostering and sustaining relationships throughout our families, our churches, our countries. To wear the mantle of leadership means that we never stop the dialogue; that we refrain from harsh judgment as we strive to make our adversaries our partners. It is about recognizing and reminding the community that we are connected to all that is created, that we reside alongside one another, and to harm another person or any part of creation is ultimately self-damaging. It’s about realizing that this connection we share leads simply to awe and,indeed, makes reverence our only rational response to one another. And so we realize that in our God we are, indeed, clothed in honour and wrapped in light as with a garment.