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Leading with Freedom: Lessons on Vision, Engagement, and Being

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As the CEO of a leadership institute that trains and coaches emerging and seasoned executive leaders from Fortune 100 companies and leading business schools, I continually seek examples of leaders who transcend traditional boundaries of sector and conventional approaches to achieve audacious goals. One such leader I’ve been following is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who recently received India’s second highest civilian award - the Padma Vibhushan - from the President of India, added to a list of other awards and honorary doctorates. While he is a foremost thought leader on meditation and spiritual wisdom, I’ve noticed that many of the approaches Sri Sri has been spontaneously deploying for years are only now emerging as trends, including network leadership, open innovation, mindfulness and holacracy. Just a few months ago, I had an opportunity to observe his approach to catalyzing social transformation across sectors and cultures, by attending the 35 year celebration of his organization at the World Culture Festival. Freedom to Envision: Take a huge vision for humanity When we take an expanded vision for humanity, it creates room for the whole world to show up. Less than a year ago, Sri Sri set a vision for the World Culture Festival in order to counter the terrorism and violence rooted in bigotry and hatred springing up across the globe. With news headlines dominated by ISIS and sensationalist political theater, the World Culture Festival provided a concrete action that galvanized hundreds of thousands of people to stand up for peace and celebration of cultural diversity.
Held this March 11 - 13 in Delhi India, this cultural and peace event brought together global politicians across parties, artists and musicians, spiritual leaders from almost every faith, and everyday people. The complexity of pulling off such an audacious and complex event might have steered many leaders to reduce the scope and scale of their vision. Yet people came, and it worked. The event created a platform where leaders from across sectors could rally behind peace as a value and a goal. A Syrian Muftah, a Baptist minister, a representative of the Vatican, and other religious leaders lifted up their responsibility to actively seek commonality across faiths and to foster peace in the hearts of their congregations. Spanning the political spectrum, conservative and progressive politicians and heads of state - including the Prime Minster of India, members and representatives the EU, the UAE, Colombia, Russia, Lithunia, Slovenia, Peru, Japan, the US, and Jordan - stood side by side, proclaiming the importance of solidarity in creating peace. In a world where youth are rejecting traditional art and culture for homogenized pop culture, 37,000 young dancers and musicians from across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South and North America proudly revived and displayed indigenous and traditional performance, literally meeting across cultures on the festival’s 7-acre floating stage.
Too often, leaders don’t give their minds the freedom to stretch beyond the limitations of our existing life experience, and instead reach for something that feels safe. Yet in observing Sri Sri, I’ve seen how when we set an audaciously huge vision, and we create room for wonder as we move into action, we set the stage for innovation and ingenuity to blossom. Big visions require minds that have practice expanding into the unknown, with the discernment to know when to wait and when to act as we move in uncharted terrain. Freedom to Engage: Let people make your vision their own How is it possible that Sri Sri was able to mobilize over 15,000 volunteers to spend countless man-hours on an NGO budget for this event when leading companies around the world are struggling with engagement? According to Gallup, 70% of employees in the workforce are disengaged, and 87% feel emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.
After setting a huge vision, Sri Sri lets people connect to it in their own way. Art of Living’s numerous educational and humanitarian programs were not designed with expensive consultants through robust strategic planning or organization development. Sri Sri has set a broad vision for the organization, and focuses on developing his students as leaders, teachers and teacher trainers, ensuring they are uplifted, feel a sense of culture and community, and are connected to a shared purpose. He gives his network the freedom to build and lead programs and projects as they see the need and feel compelled to take responsibility through action, while ensuring core principles and practices remain consistent. This responsive, organic approach to manifesting a vision allows people and projects to be nimble and adaptive. It has allowed Sri Sri to build one of the world’s largest growing networks of inspired and committed volunteers, a pipeline of fresh and dynamic leaders who are transforming millions of lives through anti-corruption campaigns, prisoner rehabilitation, environmental initiatives, veteran resilience, youth leadership development, and community-driven development. Because the goal is to inspire people to commit to social change, Sri Sri’s model is less about the perfection of outcomes and more about challenging and growing his leaders. This chaotic and messy culture creates a safe space for volunteers to learn and respond with grace to their mistakes, which encourages experimentation and innovation.
True engagement requires deep connection, trust and a very long-term perspective. Even if we would do things differently, even if people make missteps, when we move from a space of inclusion and from a spirit of taking care of our people, when we trust that our vision will manifest in its own way, in its own time, we can relax our need to control.
Freedom to Be: Don’t let your mission overshadow you From negotiating peace between the FARC and the Colombian government to engaging religious and political leaders in the Red Zone during the peak of conflict in Iraq, the complexity and nuances of the massive challenges Sri Sri tackles and the endeavors he takes on would be overwhelming for almost anyone. Yet somehow, he moves freely as he acts. Challenging the status quo to create positive social change can stir up resistance, opposition and blame. From what I’ve seen, however, Sri Sri doesn’t seem to let criticism slow him down or negativity stick to him, instead looking to be of service to whatever is in front of him.
Every day, he fields back-to-back meetings with an endless and diverse stream of volunteers and visitors asking him questions both profound and everyday. From a seasoned businesswoman seeking advice on complex workplace challenges to a farmer yearning for hope in the face of drought, from an anxious new mother to a volunteer seeking input on their project, they leave feeling he is with them. And no matter how serious the mood, he’ll inevitably ask whether they have eaten, slept, and are comfortable and happy. It’s amazing to watch the agility of his mind switching from laser-like focus to playful humor, from fully and compassionately seeing only the human being in front of him, to addressing pressing systemic problems. His response is unpredictable and agile, depending on the need of the moment and the person sitting in front of him. Because he’s not holding tight to a fixed idea or expectation, he is able to simply be. And when the meeting or event is over, it seems that Sri Sri cares more that the person feels the freedom and support to act, than that they achieve a particular outcome.
As leaders, our actions can never be perfect. When our identity is not defined by what people say, our lives can become an expression of something deeper. When we hold on to either our failures or our successes, we become stuck in the past. When we are caught up in our goals, expectations, or desired outcomes, we become lost in a future that may never be realized. Freshness and dynamism can arise when we are 100% in our action in the present moment.

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