Featured Article: Leadership for Sustainable Change

March 2011 / Feature Articles

“I don’t have a message; my message is my life.”  ~Gandhi

Vernice Solimar


Vernice Solimar

Being the change

We live in a time of great transition in which our experiences and concepts of self, society and the universe are continuously dying and transforming; a time in which the most compelling need is visionary leadership that initiates opportunities for sustainable, healthy, wise and creative action in the world.  In this article, I explore the cultivation of a visionary leadership for sustainable change that is sourced from essential qualities of inner Being and that authentically responds to the many challenges on the planet today.

How might we begin to understand leading from Being?    Let’s begin with the power of imagination.   Imagine a business, educational, political, religious or social organization whose leaders embody the essential qualities and values that they wish to see in others. Imagine leaders who truly walk the talk and live from a place of Being/Wisdom that manifests as Integrity, Peace, Compassion, Courage, Justice and Creative Possibility.   Imagine leaders who move the world towards a new understanding of what it means to be a human being in relation with all life on the planet.  Imagine leaders who sense and act from Being as a source of deep connection with the earth.

How do we define Being? Throughout history, Being has been described and experienced from ontological, spiritual and psychological perspectives.   Kevin Cashman (2008), in his book, Leadership from the Inside Out, writes: “Being is our essence, the source of our character, the core of who we are.  Being supports all our energy, achievement, effectiveness, and contribution.  Accessing and expressing Being – our innermost Self – is a key to leading with presence, authenticity, and dynamism.  Although this may be unfamiliar territory to many people, we can learn practices for leading from this deepest presence” (p. 147).  Being as a source for leadership then becomes the driving force for principled, creative action in our life and work.

Why is sourcing leadership from the wisdom of Being important?   The world today is the most populated, the most diverse and the most complex in history.  Three billion people face poverty, illness and lack of access to education, employment and opportunity.  A recent study entitled, Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009, modeled on the United Nations Development Program’s Global Human Development Report, provides rankings for the United States on health, education and other social factors.  This report, published by Columbia University Press and The Social Science Research Council, states that of the world’s 30 richest nations, the United States has the highest proportion of children living in poverty and the most people in prison.   Other statistics in the report are equally of great concern and serve to demonstrate the need for a new approach to addressing community and global issues.

In her article  “Personal to Planetary Transformation,” Dr. Monica Sharma (2008), former director of Leadership Development at the UN, writes that the world crisis cannot be resolved only through economics, military, politics or business as usual but through a shift in consciousness.  The source of leadership has to shift from conditioned mind to Wisdom:  “The crisis is in our individual and shared mindsets…Emerging new leaders will enhance their own personal awareness, realizing that this is the most critical element in social transformation” (p. 33). We need a new consciousness, a new vision and a new paradigm of leadership that can address major issues in this new way.

The Earth Charter offers potential leaders such a vision and a world-centric philosophy for global change.  It states in its Preamble:  “As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise.  To move forward, we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms, we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.  We must join together to bring a global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.”

Cultivating access to Being

Developing the consciousness vital for manifesting Earth Charter principles requires profound commitment.  Daily self-inquiry, reflection, meditation and other practices access greater inner peace, wisdom, integrity and courage, which in turn awaken us to deeper levels of love and appreciation for all life.  From here we can see and feel our own suffering and the suffering of others more deeply and respond more compassionately.   Accessing Being as a source for action also requires that we become more aware of shadow aspects of our personality: those unconscious beliefs, past experiences and hidden aspects of self, that keep us from expressing our highest values.   This inner work creates the space for what C. Otto Scharmer (2009) calls Co-Presencing or “the movement…that helps us connect to our deepest sources of inspiration and stillness” (p. 464).   In this place, seeds of new possibilities arise that are able to respond more authentically to future needs.     

Visionary leaders for sustainable change who are willing to do this inner work of self-knowledge and self-development and who commit to being conscious co-creators of social and planetary transformation will inspire and enroll others as partners in their vision for the world.   Through daily practice, they become more authentic, sincere, transparent and trustworthy.  Their goals, plans and directives create a field of possibility that is real, grounded, relevant and achievable.  Because of their presence and wise example, they are able to sustain momentum and support others when morale weakens or change becomes difficult.   This is not magical or idealistic thinking.  This is realistic leadership that is possible when practiced with courage, strength, insight, and continuous accountability, and when leaders walk their talk.

At a recent gathering, I shared these views with someone in a leadership position who replied, “That sounds great but I don’t have time to do all that inner work in my office.”  When I answered that the inner work begins at home, he said, “But I have even less time at home!”    Many of us can relate to this feeling.   Life in the modern world is often hectic and fast moving.  However, assumptions such as “I don’t have time; I cannot make the time; making the time for this isn’t as important as other activities” can be questioned and reframed.   In the midst of so much change and complexity, leaders of the 21st century will need to choose to create the time and space for inner reflection in order to clearly discern what is factual and what is opinion, what is essential and what is optional, what is healing and what is hurtful, what is meaningful and what is trivial, what sustains life and opportunity and what destroys life and possibility.  This is especially necessary with issues such as education, ecology, business, politics, health, war, and other areas of great concern.

Being the change we wish to see in the world and leading from a place of wisdom requires focus and patience.  In The Dance of Change, Peter Senge (1999) writes, “The challenge of ‘walking the talk’ is more complex than it often appears…assumptions will only change gradually through reflection, experimentation and example” (p. 196-197).  For Senge, the credibility of leaders depends on the integrity, authenticity and clarity of their intentions. When leaders are willing to continuously clarify their highest values, face the personality blocks that keep their Being qualities from expressing, receive feedback and learn from their mistakes and their environment, then walking the talk is not so much a challenge as an on-going, stimulating, healing process of authentic engagement with self, others and the world.  In the past, the inner work of accessing the wisdom of Being and the outer work of worldly activities were experienced as separate.  It was expected, for example, that monks live in monasteries and merchants work in the marketplace.   Twenty-first century leadership requires that leaders cultivate the integration of inner life and outer worldly expression so that the silence, spaciousness and wisdom of Being manifest as effective, inspiring and visionary action in the world.




Leadership for sustainable change requires an open heart that desires to be of service to the world.  Andrew Harvey, in The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism (2009), shares the story of a wealthy business man who meets Mother Theresa and says to her, “You are the Super Holy One. You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast!”  Mother Theresa laughed and replied, “Oh my dear man… It isn’t I who have given up everything, it’s you.  You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life…the joy of giving your life to other beings…to serve with compassion.  It is you who are the renunciate”  (p.12).

Corinne MacLaughlin, in The Practical Visionary (2010), makes an important distinction between visionaries and true leaders.  Visionaries have visions, but true leaders transform visions into visible results.  One must be visionary and practical at the same time. She writes, “Practical visionaries…are proactive…they think systemically; they’re aligned with inner essence…and relate individual vision to the needs of the world” (p. 206-209).  By proactively exploring, learning and applying new methodologies for designing and leading change sourced from Being, leaders will produce measurable, sustainable results that benefit the greatest good.  They will create new possibilities and new patterns that shift organizations and systems towards more socially responsible behavior.  They will enroll other agents of transformative change and together generate greater community well being, ecological integrity, social and economic justice and world peace.

Assessing leadership development through Integral Inquiry

Twenty first century leadership for sustainable change requires a new level of accountability, a new alignment of interior values with external measureable results. Too often cognitive dissonance or psychological defense mechanisms obscure or distort our intentions and motivations, and justify actions that are not ethical, lack integrity and which benefit the few at the expense of the many.  How then do we assess the inner potential and outer results of our leadership?   How do we evaluate our Being-in-Action?

An excellent assessment tool is Ken Wilber’s Integral Model, a framework in which the whole and the parts of any experience or situation can be understood. The integral model is made up of quadrants, levels, lines, states and types, and is a resourceful guide for inquiring into and aligning our inner experience with measureable external results. For example, in A Theory of Everything, Wilber (2001) mentions two presentations given by consultants of UNICEF.   In working with global issues, the consultants found that an integral approach is essential “to ensure that evolution and the state of children, humanity, culture and society returns to a state of sustainable process…(and) that actions we attempt…have a chance of being part of a sustainable, directional, transformative change process” (p. 99/102).   The four quadrants can become a lens to highlight and bring forth a leader’s multiple dimensions of Being and evaluate the relationship of inner qualities, capacities and outer expression.  This helps leaders to see the alignment between their thoughts and actions, their walk and their talk.

All of the elements of the four quadrants arise simultaneously. The Upper Left quadrant of the integral model reflects the interior of an individual where feelings, intentions, values, meaning, perception, interpretations and qualities of Being arise.  The Lower Left is the interior of the collective where shared cultural values, beliefs, assumptions and worldviews arise.  These are the I AM and WE ARE aspects of experience.  The Upper Right reflects the exterior of the individual as expressed through physical behavior, professional skills, measureable achievements and observable results. The Lower Right is the exterior of the collective which expresses as social action systems that include forces of production, organizational institutions (religious, political, economic etc.), and other concrete social structures (Wilber, 2001).

The following diagram of the four quadrants can be used as a tool for assessing one’s capacity for Leadership for Sustainable Change:

Upper Left Leadership Inquiry

  • As a leader and human being, who am I?
  • What leadership qualities and values do I aspire to?
  • How do I access and experience my wisdom, integrity, emotions and courage in the face of adversity?
  • What is my vision and purpose for my life and my work?
  • How deep is my commitment to leading from Being?
  • How strong is my love for the world?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • How do I experience the dignity, freedom and joyful expression that I wish for others?
  • Am I experiencing gratefulness, peace, compassion, justice and creative possibility?
  • What daily practices do I commit to for developing my inner self and vision?
Upper Right Leadership Inquiry

  • Am I walking my talk?
  • Am I embodying my values?
  • Am I taking care of my physical health?
  • Is my leadership behavior aligned with my inner Being?
  • How do I demonstrate ethics and integrity in my life and work?
  • Do I have the expertise and skills to design, develop and implement my projects?
  • Am I managing change in a responsible, relevant and creative manner?
  • How do I measure the results of my plans and decisions?
  • How does external feedback create more opportunities for learning?
  • What practices do I commit to for achieving measureable results that are aligned with the needs of the world?
Lower Left Leadership Inquiry

  • As a leader, how am I being with others?
  • Do I communicate with wisdom, peace, compassion?
  • Do I build trust?
  • Am I enrolling partners to co-create new possibilities for the community?
  • Do I appreciate the contribution of others?
  • Do I speak up with integrity and sincerity in meetings?
  • Do I listen to others?
  • How do I respond to those who are different from me in race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, politics and social status?
  • How do I respond to disagreements?
  • How do I receive and give feedback?
  • Do I seek common ground and shared vision?
  • Do I create a new level of discourse?
  • Where do we share universal values?
  • What practices do I commit to for developing cross-cultural awareness, multiple perspectives, diverse worldviews and trans-partisan solutions?
Lower Right Leadership Inquiry

  • Do I understand the systems in which I live?
  • Do I understand the systems in which I work?
  • Do I understand the systems I wish to change?
  • Am I aware of the underlying systemic causes and invisible patterns that create low morale, injustice, inefficiency, conflict and suffering in organizations and in the world?
  • How am I shifting systems towards greater social responsibility and service in education, healthcare, law, politics, ecological conservation, corporate business?
  • What practices do I commit to in order to foster and generate systemic change in service of person, planet and profit for all?
  • What is the next step for generating evolutionary social change?



In the beginning of this exploration, we imagined the kind of leader who would create sustainable change in today’s society.  Now imagine yourself as this leader and ask, as Hillel did, “If not I, who?  If not now, when?”  As we cultivate our access to Being, and manifest this Being-in-Action in service of the world, we “convince by our presence” as Whitman said, and we embody the change we wish to see in our lives, in our organizations and in the world.  Here there is no separation.  Here we are the world.


In summary, 21st century Leadership for Sustainable Change requires that leaders:

  • Proactively explore and apply new methodologies for designing and leading change sourced from Being.
  • Walk their talk and act from the wisdom of Being
  • Serve from a deep connection with the Earth and all creation
  • Commit to daily practices that cultivate the qualities, values and behaviors they wish to see in the world
  • Are willing to face and feel personal and global suffering
  • Are willing to commit to facing and transforming their shadow
  • Embody their vision, are proactive and accountable for results
  • Enroll others as co-creators of personal and planetary transformation
  • Sustain momentum and emotional support in the midst of change
  • Integrate inner and outer dimensions of personal growth and development
  • Commit to the integration of inner values and outer worldly expression


Cashman, K.  (2008).  Leadership from the inside out. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Harvey, A.  (2009).  The hope:  A guide to sacred activism. Carlsbad, CA:  Hay House.

MacLaughlin, C.  (2010).  The practical visionary:  A new world guide to spiritual growth and social change. Unity Village, MO:  Unity House.

Scharmer, C. (2008).  Theory u: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler.

Senge, P. (1999).  Dance of change:  The challenge of sustaining momentum in learning organizations. New York:  Crown Business.

Sharma, M.  (2007, Fall/Winter). From personal to planetary transformation.  Kosmos, 31-35.

Social Science Research Council. (2009). Measure of America: American human development report. Retrieved from http://www.measureofamerica.org/human-development/.

Wilber, K.  (2001). A theory of everything. Berkeley:  Shambhala.

About the Author

Vernice Solimar, PhD,  is director of the Leadership  for Sustainable Change certificate and chair of the Integral Psychology Department in the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at John F. Kennedy.  She has also taught at the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.  Her main interests include the integration of psychology, philosophy, spirituality, transformative education and leadership in service of social and global change.

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