Personal Development: Deepak Chopra On Enlightened Leadership

In the aftermath of a global recession and extreme political unrest, renowned author and teacher Deepak Chopra, M.D., believes it’s time for a different kind of leadership. For almost 10 years, Chopra has been teaching a course on “enlightened leadership” at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and to business leaders like those at Ernst & Young, Pepsi and Cisco. Now he has distilled his philosophy into a new book, The Soul of Leadership.

Forbes spokw with him about why he believes U.S. leadership has become so ineffective and how one might become a better, more enlightened leader.

Forbes: Do you consider U.S. corporate and political leadership broken?

Chopra: I think it’s bankrupt, actually. There are very few good examples of effective, nurturing leadership that unlocks people’s potential or even enthusiasm. Wall Street is broken for sure because it succumbed to greed and corruption and pure speculation with no values. The disease is systemic.

In Washington, politics are divisive and quarrelsome and frequently idiotic. It’s full of rhetoric but also full of inflammatory, vitriolic attacks and power mongering for the sake of power. So the system is particularly broken in politics, but it’s broken in business too–with a few exceptions. I think President Obama is a great exception. He fulfills all of the criteria that I talk about in the book. Again, he’s hampered by a divided Congress.

What is “enlightened” leadership?

It is a kind of leadership that unlocks the potential for greatness in the leader and those that follow the leader. Enlightened leadership is spiritual if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention. These are the ingredients of success, really.

Why has U.S. leadership become so unenlightened?

Our leadership is still a very male and predatory leadership. It’s based on a part of our brains called the midbrain. Whenever it feels stressed or threatened, it attacks. It’s reactive and greedy and acquisitive. I think we need the feminine qualities of leadership, which include attention to aesthetics and the environment, nurturing, affection, intuition and the qualities that make people feel safe and cared for. These are feminine qualities, but they are not restricted to women. Mature men, and mature leaders, have those qualities.

One of my mentors was Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine. Towards the end of his life he said the next phase of evolution is ‘metabiological evolution,’ which is going beyond the survival of the fittest to survival of the wisest. For that you need the feminine energy that is part of our ecosystem—that is 50% of the world’s population.

Why has this feminine energy been forgotten?

Partly for evolutionary reasons. The masculine energy was about survival. The male was the hunter who risked his life and had to be in the fight-flight mode. There’s a saying in evolutionary biology that a permanently victorious species risks its own extinction. We’ve seen the fall of it in Wall Street, in business and in a country that is constantly at war abroad and full of hostility at home. We need to move on, unless we want to risk our demise.

Most people consider great leadership a skill of looking outward, but you seem to suggest it starts by looking inward.

Yes, in all my research, the greatest leaders looked inward and were able to tell a good story with authenticity and passion. They asked questions of themselves like what do I want, what’s my purpose and how do I make a difference? They reflect on these things. They are also very good storytellers. A good brand is a good story.

Why is the step of personal reflection often missed?

We are a society that is constantly bombarded by messages of instant gratification. Everybody is looking at quarterly reporters and then betting on them. We have conditioned ourselves to think short-term and not long-term. That requires you to look over your shoulder to see what the other guys are doing instead of saying, How can I be my best? One of our mantras is: Pursue excellence, ignore success–including that of others.

Few leadership books consider spirituality to be a leader’s asset.

There’s usually no mention of spirituality because people are afraid of what they think they are bringing in—religion or self-righteous morality. There’s not much of an understanding of what spirituality is. It’s a domain of awareness where we experience universal values. So yes, it’s been a missing component. The first thing I ask people in the course is, Do you think you have a soul? Almost everyone thinks they have a soul. But then I ask them, How do you define it? They don’t know.

The soul is a part of your consciousness that has meaning, wants to contribute, is purpose driven, seeks meaningful relationships and tries to understand creativity.

Are our current leaders leading without soul?

I’m also a senior scientist at Gallup, and we get polls from throughout the world. In the U.S., 25% of people in the workforce are engaged, which means they enjoy what they do. About 75% of the workforce is disengaged, and the cost is $380 billion a year. One of the fastest ways to change a business is to find ways to engage people emotionally.

Simple statistics: If your boss ignores you, your level of disengagement goes up by 45%. If your boss criticizes you, it goes down to 25%, because you’d rather be criticized than ignored. If your boss notices your strengths, your rate of disengagement goes down to less than 1%. How we treat people has huge economic implications and yet it’s totally ignored by leaders in the corporate world.

If someone wanted to be a better, more enlightened leader today, what are the first steps?

Look and listen. Take time to be quiet. Learn to use emotional intelligence to be in touch with your feelings and the feelings of others. Be aware by asking four questions: What am I observing? What am I feeling? What is the need? How do I fulfill the need? Be action-oriented. Good leaders are not philosophers. They are responsive to feedback and set goals. Be responsible for yourself. Get good sleep, exercise, don’t be stressed and eat wisely. If you are not physically or emotionally healthy, you are not going to be a good leader. Finally, understand what good luck is–preparedness and opportunity coming together. Good leaders look for opportunities instead of crises and problems.


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