Leadership on the Edge of a Quantum Leap

03/08/2011 04:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Leaders are being toppled from high towers all over the world. Leadership itself is on an evolutionary trajectory, and many of the assumptions we held about authority are looking, at second glance, like illusions. Illusions are false beliefs. They are notions and ideas that we have inherited from our culture, our families, and almost every institution with which we've been associated. Illusions take up residence in our minds because we receive them, for the most part, when we are young, impressionable, trusting and open to the ideas being handed down to us. They are part of our social conditioning, but they do not serve us. Illusions are, in fact, the only cause of our unhappiness.

"You can't fight city hall" is an illusion that is going the way of the wild goos in the Midwest, in the Middle East, in the middle brain of youth around the world. A new kind of leadership is rising up, and it is not rooted in the illusion of "rugged individualism" but in the vision of the "resilient community."

Freeing ourselves from illusion may seem like an esoteric concept that has nothing to do with leadership, but that's because one of the biggest illusions we suffer from is the notion that what goes on inside us has little to do with who we are on the outside. We've become so good at compartmentalizing our lives that we think our corporate selves are distinct from our private selves -- that who we are on the golf course has nothing to do with who we are at home, or that the persona we project in the board room ought to be different from the persona we project in the family room.

My best friend in high school became a chief executive for Time Warner Books in Australia, and when I went to visit her she talked about how sad it was that she couldn't be friends with any of her employees. She felt so isolated. I'd started a few businesses in the States and said to her that they had been successful because I'd made friends with every employee. Her response was that in big business you just couldn't do that. "You can't be personal with people you supervise." That, to me, was an example of an illusion -- an inherited notion, a handed-down tradition. She honored it like it was a holy corporate commandment, and perhaps it was, but organizations are living things, like evolving organisms. They only thrive when they adapt to their changing environments.

Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychotherapist, and retreat director, taught that all our negative emotions are caused by illusions that we allow to obstruct our thinking. If we're sad or angry, it's because there is some underlying illusion preempting our natural state of joy. He says, "When the eye is unobstructed, the result is seeing; when the ear is unobstructed, the result is hearing; when the palate is unobstructed, the result is tasting. When the mind is unobstructed, the result is wisdom and happiness. Drop your attachments and you will be free. Understand your illusions, and they will drop."

What's causing so much turmoil from Wisconsin to Washington these days is the notion of "us and them." People are looking through the lens of duality and keeping their imaginations in a prison of delusion. We are at an evolutionary threshold, and as we know from Einstein, no problems can be solved with the consciousness that created them.

We don't need to know what we disagree on. We need to get down to what we agree on and begin to make foundational changes in education, social services, defense and health care. The question is not, "How can we fix it?" The question is, "What do we want our future to look like?" It's time to be visionary, to imagine ourselves forward, to release the hostilities and meanness that is spewing like lava all over our land. It is time to repair the opposites and bring together the positive and negative, so those sparks that fly can ignite a new moral sensibility that we have hungered for for years.