Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Leadings - powerful messages that may be available to those who listen.

Most mornings I am able to set aside time for quiet reflection, reading and, most recently, Tibetan Buddhist meditative practice.  On rare occasions, during these times, I seem to experience what Quakers call ‘Leadings.’  (For those interested in Quakers’ views on leadings, information can be found on the website of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, ).  ‘Divine Guidance’ is how some define a Leading.  However I am not entirely comfortable with the notion that an anthropomorphic Divine Being (God) has taken a personal interest in me.  This seems presumptuous.  My preferred definition of Leadings is  ‘powerful messages of guidance that may be available to those who listen.’

In my life, Leadings have been few, but defining.  The decision to embark on an entirely new research direction, studying the relationship between conflict and development, responded to a Leading.  So did my decision, nine years ago,  to become Director of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence.   Two years ago, I received a leading to change the direction of my research once again; to begin focusing on the question how do nations that transition from high to low levels of poverty, over time, achieve that goal.

Soon after visiting one of the nations I propose to study, Singapore, this summer, I received another leading.  I was reading the magnificent autobiography of Singapore’s former Primer Minister, Lee Kuan Yew,  In a concluding chapter, he wrote of his decision to step down as Prime Minister.  He explained how he observed the energy levels of some Cabinet colleagues, who had been at his side since Singapore’s founding, flagging. Though still vigorous,  Lee recognized that his own energy level, too, was less than it once had been. Soon afterwards, he announced his resignation from the Prime Ministers post, accepting, instead, the position of “Senior Minister.’ In this role he has continued to attend cabinet meetings and provide policy guidance, but has distanced himself from day-to-day decision making.  

Reflecting on Lee’s words during a period of quiet reflection (I was then in Malaysia) I received the Leading that it was time to step down as CTE Director.  Soon I began exploring, through reading and meetings with my personal management consultant, how I could effect a transition that was both seamless and sustained the Center’s eight year trajectory of growth and high performance.  I remembered an aphorism taught me by my mother (who was a virtually inexhaustible source of aphorisms): 'always leave the stage while the audience is still applauding.'

Leadings provide direction. I believe they must be taken seriously.  But the scenario to which they point can be uncertain... ambiguous.  The scenario that is now unfolding, following my announcement that I would be ‘passing the baton’ (Lee Kuan Yew’s phrase), is different than the one I might have hoped for.  Leadings can point us to new directions, but life’s realities periodically remind us that we can not fully control the destinies of others or even our own.

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