When we read about the lives of the most successful women, we feel inspired, but we may ultimately think that their level of growth and success is beyond our reach.
But by demystifying the essence of leadership, we can begin to see that we too can be exceptional leaders. Having researched the lives of an international group of visionary women for my book, Pioneers of the Possible, I now see that these women were indeed extraordinary because of a set of traits they all had in common.
Pioneering women, or women who are able to rise and lift themselves to greater heights, are what I call “everyday mystics”. Many of their unique qualities fall in the realm of spiritual and personal attunement, which allows them to be both great visualizers and actualizers.
Below are five principles that can help us along the path to becoming an everyday mystic and visionary leader:
1. Pursue a vocation, not a “job”
Successful women who have excelled in a particular field are primarily driven by a sense of quest, a search for meaningful experiences that transform them and enlarge their sense of self. These women, however successful they may be, did not set out building a career or “having a job” per se. A job is what we do to earn money to meet economic demands. But a vocation (from Latin vocatus, calling) is what we are called to do with our life’s energy–it gives us a sense of direction more than just meeting a goal.
In a survey conducted in the 1980’s, it was noted that successful people, regardless of vocational field, defined themselves unconventionally. They referred to their functions rather than a trained specialty. For example, a physician described herself as a teacher and a teacher described herself as a futurist. Thinking of ourselves in terms of our functions rather than a specific job title allows us to relate to work on a transformative level, which corresponds more naturally to our ever-changing needs. Those who full-heartedly pursue a vocation will attest that their path was never straight, but a series of unfoldings that activated yet another facet of the developing self. This is what our truest self demands of us.
Another pioneering woman, Wangari Mathaai, the first African woman to win the Noble Peace Prize, had aptly noted, “Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps…You raise your consciousness to a level that you must do the right thing because it is the only right thing to do.” Her key to success was that she was less concerned with career tracking and more interested in responding to what was most engaging and relevant in her work.
2. Know yourself
Getting a sense of vocation strengthens our resolve to bring work in alignment with our beliefs and values, head with heart. When we are in alignment we feel an uncanny sense of ease. This certainly doesn’t mean that the work is always easy, and it doesn’t mean that it’s the only work we have to do; it just means that there is a conviction deep inside us that tells us we are in tune with our deepest nature.
A mystic Sufi proverb says that in order to connect to our truest self, we need to ask and listen at the same time. It is this kind of subtle vigilance that draws us into a mindful state in which we dip into the wellspring of our own brilliance. The great American dancer, Martha Graham, called her dancers athletes of God and she too spoke like an everyday mystic. “You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you…There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is one of you in all time, this expression is unique,” she used to say.
And better to have our unique answer to our summons, whatever it is, than someone else’s. That means we need to take risks to stay true to our center, because it may not be at first embraced by the collective norm.
Take for example, Jacqueline Novogratz. As a young banker she always had the dream of making lasting changes in the lives of the most marginalized people in the world. When she approached her boss and suggested that their bank start experimenting with loans to Brazil’s working class, he scoffed at her. It didn’t take long for Jacqueline to walk away from a successful career in Wall Street to start work for a non-profit microfinance organization for women (a field that was in its infancy back then). Now she is recognized as a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship and her face graced the cover of the December 19th issue of Forbes magazine this year.
As she told me in my interview with her, the task for her was to listen—listen to herself and listen to the needs of those she serves. It is incredible to believe that her Acumen Fund has changed the lives of 86 million people living in Africa, Pakistan, and India. The lesson here is that pioneers and strong leaders begin with their own vision even when it flies in the face of popular culture.
3. Think beyond confined constructs
Visionaries look at the world through a different grid. They have an expanded vision which enables them to see the same things in a different perspective. Asking new questions and imagining different answers is the essence of transformation, for it connects us to the part of ourselves that knows, that doesn’t feel threatened by challenges. Therefore, instead of worrying about our situation, we have more available energy to move forward.
Every time some higher or wider perspective appears on our horizon, problems and solutions appear in a different light. Simone De Beauvoir, who was the founder of the feminist movement, had the ability and fortitude to do just that. She moved beyond the constraints of historical and cultural conditioning and came up with groundbreaking ideas and solutions. This kind of paradigm shift is noted when she said, “When I was tormented by what was happening in the world, it was the world I wanted to change, not my place in it.”
4. Measure success in terms of change
Highly successful people measure success in terms of change rather than a success vs. failure model. Those who have a fluid framework of evaluating their performance are able to enjoy the journey rather than focus on “getting there.” Success is never a place to stay, but only a momentary reward. The great joy would be in risking, and in making anew.
“To show your true ability is always, in a sense, to surpass the limits of your ability, to go a little beyond them: to dare, to seek, to invent; it is at such a moment that new talents are revealed, discovered, and realized,” Simone de Beauvoir once said.
This means that our next step, our next creative idea lies somewhere in the frontier of our lives, and as we take steps, we see that the path appears, awaiting our faithful steps. And when we look back, we see that what we thought was the horizon of our potential is now only the background.
5. Create a network of people for moral support and feedback
We may think that our quest for growth and greatness is a lonely path, but we shouldn’t be alone on it. As a matter of fact, human beings are a biologically social, cooperative species. We have survived by helping each other. Erich Fromm’s blueprint of social transformation emphasized this very need for mutual support, especially in small groups of friends. Therefore association with like-minded people gives innovators an opportunity to share experiences and discover of the pieces of the puzzle of their lives.
Case studies of the most successful women in the corporate, political, and non-profit world also show the importance of building a network of supporters. Take for example, Susan G. Komen, the founder of the most widely known and well-funded breast cancer foundation working for the cure. Her organization has 100,000 volunteers and a network of over 124 affiliates worldwide. She was a leader’s leader, not only for building the largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists, but for championing a cause with the help and support of so many. The Cure has become the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight of breast cancer in the world.
These five principles are guideposts in helping us connect to the leader within – our innermost core that is source of pure potential.
As everyday mystics we all have our own personal journey. For some it will be a path which brings public recognition; for others still, it will be private epiphanies never seen by anyone.
Nevertheless it is a path that brings wholeness and fulfillment and inspires others to do the same. These ripples of change have a lasting effect in the world.
So, let us challenge ourselves to find and embrace the leader within and to inspire others to do the same.