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Leading from the inside out

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment

“Storying is essential to the healing process. It allows the best of what we are to come together – reason and intuition, empathy and understanding.” -Dr. Jean Houston.


Have you ever felt that the leadership training and reading you’ve done over the years is missing something – that there’s something hollow about it all? While we’re offered principles and strategies for being ‘effective’ in the world of business and government, most of our learning skates across the surface of what it means to be human, and doesn’t even come close to dealing with the spirit or soul that we bring to our work. In fact, you could argue that soul is consciously left out of the equation as we’re offered tools and techniques that homogenise our approach to leadership and keep it bland, safe, focussed on our individual success and on the bottom line.

In May, several hundred Australians were introduced to a different leadership paradigm: Social Artistry. Social Artistry is a new leadership program developed by Dr Jean Houston, a US scholar, philosopher and researcher in human capacities. An internationally renowned educator and trainer for the UN, Houston believes that traditional leadership models do not adequately equip leaders to deal with a rapidly changing society.

“My work with leadership all over the world has convinced me that too many of the problems in societies today stem, in part, from leadership that is ill-prepared to deal with present complexity. This is not just because of inadequate training in the technical realities of global change, but even more tragically, because of a deficiency of human resourcefulness”, says Dr. Jean Houston.

“Leaders are living out of a field of awareness that is both limited and limiting in their abilities to deal with the world as it is today. Existing training does not explore the person’s greatest natural inner resources and is insufficient to prepare leaders to rise to the challenge and deal with the complexity of present and future human society.”

Houston’s work focuses on teaching leaders to develop the inner resources required to make sense of the world and the many situations and problems they seek to face and solve. It is leading from the inside out – harnessing the very essence of what it is to be human: the empathy, passion, creativity and vision we can bring to our work if we are willing to put more of our true selves into it.

“In order to be able to lead”, says Houston, “individuals must understand their motivation and expectations and be clear about their values. They must tap into their depth to develop a wide range of human capacities. By strengthening and expanding themselves as individuals, they can better walk into a wide variety of situations with wisdom, courage and compassion.”

Houston likens her approach to the organic, passionate nature of the artistic process, hence the tag, ‘Social Artistry’. “A Social Artist is one who brings the skills, dedication and wisdom of a great artist to the noble canvas that is the world, its cultures, its societies and its people”, she says.

Art also implies a creative messiness in the pursuit of expression – a weaving of fact, fiction, emotion, and inner and outer worlds. Accordingly, Houston draws on a rich tapestry of myth, story-telling and global culture to expand her students’ horizons and help them tap into their innate creativity. A former student of renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, Houston is the founder and principal of the Mystery School, a program of cross-cultural mythic and spiritual studies held each year in Oregon and New York. In her teaching, she uses story-telling to break down cultural barriers and to help people recognise the social filters through which they view the world and their own experiences. This is the first step towards learning to navigate within and between many cultures and belief systems, a core principle of Social Artistry.

In a paper delivered to the UN, Houston describes how she used the simple technique of story-telling to enable company executives and poorly educated locals in India to break an intra-cultural impasse and work together. She overcame the barrier of caste by asking people to talk about their everyday lives, dreams and desires.

“It became a day of stories – often about the simple things in their lives, a favourite calf, a much-loved grandfather, what it is like to see the first greening shoots from the seeds one has planted, how difficult it is to learn to recite in Sanskrit. Somehow I managed to draw a parallel between the villager’s greening shoots and the seed syllables of the executive’s Sanskrit, and we all had a good laugh.

“Storying is essential to the healing process. It allows the best of what we are to come together – reason and intuition, empathy and understanding. I have done work in mediation and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, in India, and between European and indigenous groups in other parts of the world. In all these places I find that despite elaborate process procedures created by the best think-tanks, or the most lofty and deliberate political and academic councils, old fears and distrust remain. Signatures may be affixed to agreements, but hearts have not been changed.

“Without storying, contending parties may agree to abstract principles, but there is no real meeting, no genuine human exchange. My technique is to persuade people to tell their most significant and heartfelt stories to each other, to meet at the level of deep listening before they get down to the ‘business at hand’. When lives are shared, everything else follows.”

Houston also describes her use of mythology, particularly in indigenous cultures, to bring a sense of passion and excitement to her work with a range of situations and people.

“Several years ago, while working in New Zealand to help empower a more cohesive and coherent national sense within the society, I found the country’s situation both static and chaotic. One evening, a group of Maori social activists recreated the story of the creation itself, as Maoris knew it, and also the awakening from dormant flesh of the human female. Most of the Pakehas, the Anglos, had never heard it, and had certainly never seen it. It stirred something vivid and deep within each person present. An essence of Maori legend reveals the power of desire, focus and the potent, precise, intense laser-like expenditure of energy required in order to bring something worthwhile to life.

“It was an immense teaching and ignited a pilot light within the participants yearning to create their new society. It wasn’t the details of the myth that mattered; it was the emotional energy of creation that the Maoris were willing to tap into and reveal that both taught and inspired us. Suddenly we Anglos got a glimpse of the Mana, the spiritual power that is available to the Maoris in the rocks, soil, sea and air of their country, especially, in this case, as it informs the need for the feminine as an expression of its energy.

“Witnessing that story immediately enhanced the feeling of profound respect for the Maori and set up fervent commitments to help in preserving their culture. A new story became possible, with the potential for enhancing gender understanding: even the non-Maori women felt themselves changed because they saw a different origin story from the one most Westerners are accustomed to hearing. It also facilitated the creation of partnership programs between culturally diverse individuals and groups, and ensured greater mutual cooperation.”


Thank you Dr. Jean Houston!

Tiffany White is a senior manager in government in Brisbane.
Jean Houston has worked in Australia many times in the past 15 years.

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