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Future Systemic Transformation: Leadership for Paradigm Shifts in an Interdependent World

By Dr. Monica Sharma[1]

The most urgent and sustainable response to the world’s problems and our ability to harness new opportunities lies in our capacity to expand solutions for problems that are driven solely by technology, to responses that also create new patterns and systems generated from our wisdom.

We have the technology and the resources: so what is missing? Too few see how limited our current responses are for the enormity and complexity of global problems which ultimately affect human well-being. In explaining the causes of our global crises, we generally focus on economic, social and political forces. Governments, corporations, the United Nations (UN), civil society, and other institutions focus on financial and monetary parameters, technological (e.g., medical, educational, informational), political, administrative, military, diplomatic, legal, and economic resources, measures and approaches. These approaches are necessary, but partial. Not until we see the global problematique as symptoms of a more fundamental, deeper-rooted crisis can we begin to mount a profound response that is likely to move us forward in a more sustainable way.

That crisis is in our individual and shared mind-sets, where psychological and cultural factors and forces reign. That crisis challenges all of us, in the Northern countries and in the Southern countries alike!  Our sense of scarcity, no matter how much we have; our definition of “success”  where the proxy is basically money; or “ wealth” without any sense of sufficiency; our rhetoric of partnership in the midst of systems set up for competition, precludes creative responses.

1.      Source personal commitment and inner power for systems and norms -- it works!

Evidence indicates that sourcing action from personal power for systems transformation, works. Personal transformation is the powerful unleashing of our human potential to commit, care and change for a better life. As leaders our ability to create  spaces for the same potential to manifest in others is critical-- effective, results-oriented engagement with citizens, government, civil society, academia, media and private sector--- providing platforms for how my being, my essence, my stand, is the source of my action. An example leading to change: we are in Djibouti where the most influential religious leaders have gathered from 20 Arab States to address female genital mutilation. We work for over 4 years to create platforms for discovering new ways to generate results. The results: for the first time, fatwas against this practice and sermons in mosques and churches against female genital mutilation. And, as expected, death threats from fundamentalists who promote entrenched, harmful social practices and norms! Here, personal transformation manifests in significant, sustainable change, and where interior deeper-rooted forces are addressed along with systems change and technological approaches. Personal transformation is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for sustainable change.

2.      Design differently to make a difference!

A system delivers what it is designed to deliver – so let us activate and cultivate the fearless architect within us to co-create  new systems for a new future! The rules of the game - the formal rules that determine who gets to play, where and how; or informal norms in culture and society—determine what happens to people and the planet. Too often, we are unable to identify, distinguish, design and generate responses that integrate the different domains related to the entangled hierarchies of any given situation.  Too often, we have a “solution to fix a problem”, without examining the systems and norms —the rules of the game and invisible factors-- which give rise to the problem or keep the problem in place.  Too often, we push aside the greatest resource we have in every person for shifting the paradigm—our inner capacities and power.  A few thoughtful people from governments, business and civil society are now designing programmes incorporating different principles.  They are asking piercing questions: “Why are so many people poor and hungry when we have the technology and resources to prevent this? There are so many ‘good’ people with ‘good’ intentions, yet we don’t seem to make a dent in the world’s problems. Why?”

New pathways are being charted generating  results: examples -- leaders building resilience in clinical settings, reducing maternal mortality in parts of South Asia, transforming the life of miners and neighboring communities in the world’s second largest platinum mining company in Africa, involving artists to source their wisdom and create new approaches to violence at home in in society. These leaders are pattern-makers, not just problem-solvers. They deal with what is not working by creating alternatives. They are able to identify, distinguish, design and generate responses that integrate the different domains related to the entangled hierarchies of any given situation. They do not only solve complex societal problems at a surface level. They actively address the deeper dimensions of the problematique. They are not caught up in protracted either/or conversations, such as: “Is it about being or doing?” They demonstrate that it is possible to design and implement programmes differently.

3.      Deal with complexity- simultaneously solve, shift and source inner capacity.

In the midst of complexity, it is an art to simplify without being simplistic. How can we co-design and implement responses to diverse conditions to innovate, generate breakthroughs and sustain specific changes needed? Emerging new leaders understand both the visible and hidden sources of action and inaction, and the attitudes that determine them. They understand factors and forces that create and legitimize structures and the systems and cultural norms that inhibit or enhance progress. They enhance their own personal awareness, realizing that this is the most critical element of social transformation.  New archetypal leaders are emerging. Largely unnoticed, they are more like midwives giving birth to other people’s ideas and dreams,  rather than like ‘stars’ of the show; they foster just and sustained change for a thriving planet where everyone lives with dignity. They invest in their own spiritual (not necessarily religious) growth; they proactively inform themselves about the state of the world; they see patterns in addition to events; they have the courage to take on difficult issues; they act from a source of wisdom, courage, compassion and empathy, rather than charity and ‘doing good.’ They do not reflect the traditional sage, hero or savior archetypes. They are informed sages, wise in the ways of the world; they are courageous non-violent heroes with a cause; they are compassionate saviours, grateful to be able to serve --- sage-hero-saviours.

4. Integrity: principled patterns makers.

The values underpinning a system guide strategic action. We formulate ethical norms, enact laws to promote democracy, and fight for social justice.  We establish rules and systems for financing, intellectual property rights, trade, health care, education, etc. Much of what we have done in these areas heretofore has benefited a few while depriving many. Some of us can see the unworkable systems and connect them to how we set the rules of the game.  For example, we have laws to essentially promote human well-being; yet well-being and justice are often not attained. We talk “about values” rather than “embodying values”. Three major impediments stand in the way. First, most of us do not even recognize the new generative patterns of response and therefore do not use such methods or support them. Second, our own spirituality has been a personal matter that is often equated with our religious practice. Most of us do not know how to provide the opportunity for ‘secular, sacred, strategic action.’ Third, we have little experience in innovations that foster the expression of both individual and collective wisdom in action. Considering the urgency of today’s crises, interdependence and global complexity, we have no option but to learn to do things differently.

5.      Speak out and speak up.

Leaders co-creating the future have the courage to speak up for actions that result in sustainable and equitable change and to speak against those that do not. They are not reactive. They speak from a creative space that is sourced from a place of valuing diversity, equity, interdependence and dignity. They say, “It is not okay with me, and I will no longer contribute to it by my silence.” It is a burning for justice for all beings, a burning sourced in deep wisdom, in my non-dual self, being all—of being humanity.  Example: A youth leader speaks out against violence in rough and dangerous situations—in the streets, in schools, and with gangs. He develops skills in young men, fostering leadership and integrity. He says he works to develop young men of respect, walking in character, and living their purpose and identity as leaders among their peers.

It is vital to enable change by bolstering others’ capabilities through active support in the public domain. We create the new emergent narrative by supporting each other in the public domain and actively choosing to stand in solidarity, knowing we are pushing the envelope on the edge of the unknown.

6.      Shared Leadership.

Being a leader while actively supporting others to lead, is an emerging concept. This is not about simply switching roles; it is a way of being and leading. The ‘shared leaders’ do not work in conventional multidisciplinary teams. They bring everyone’s talents to the table, with processes to assure that everyone is heard and that decisions are not made by ‘the few leaders.’ They do not view themselves as stars of the show, rather as servers of humanity. They are riding the wave of change with wise principles and modalities. Michael and Kobi from Occupy Wall Street say, “The success of our movement rests on the shoulders of all those who are involved in the work of sustaining it and moving it forward. We are essentially the midwives of the new world. To accept this responsibility requires that we step into a substantially new manner of thinking and acting. We must become the true servant leaders of the new world, holding our core selves in highest regard while genuinely and intelligently giving our full selves to the good of the whole, and actively choosing to do all we can to better the world.”

It is important to seek out potential leaders and create opportunities for their manifestation, while leading. Several people in transformational work say, “I want to empower others to make a difference.” In my view, in addition to empowering others, personal commitment to results—and it is immaterial in what social issue or topic—makes a huge impact. It makes us stretch and grow beyond our grasp. This creates a new field with the resonance and synergy necessary for large-scale change.

A World That Works for Everyone

The next 50 years will show whether the world as a whole can come together as one, resolving the many seemingly intractable problems we now face. Or will we continue to muddle through, from crisis to crisis, never solving the problems of humankind in a definitive and sustained way? Yesterday, we were engaged in resolving a crisis:  HIV/AIDS. Today, we are focusing on global warming. Tomorrow, we may focus on nuclear waste. What remains constant in this changing world is the power of human wisdom. Let’s inquire.

  • Am I a pioneer who dares to speak up and challenge the reliance on the ‘technology-only’ paradigm? Am I willing to source all action from creative and sacred wisdom, despite the ridicule by experts?

  • Am I a new architect who knows how to design large-scale programmes that source from wisdom? Do I know how to simultaneously address the practical problems embedded in complex world issues?

  • Am I willing to invest in learning new architectural skills and competencies for transforming the aching world? After all, a system delivers what it is designed to deliver!

  • Am I willing to ‘see’ the invisible patterns that keep one in three human beings in dire life-and-death circumstances? Have I decided it is enough and I will put myself out there to create new systems?

  • Am I willing to examine myself deeply to understand how I am contributing to the global problematique? Do my actions and decisions subtly perpetuate gender, class, and ethnic inequalities resulting in the intolerable situation where 30% of us cannot ‘make it’? 

  • Do I see myself as a courageous, compassionate contributor for alleviating suffering and creating a thriving and just planet? Who am I being, how am I thinking and what am I doing?

  • Am I willing to be the emerging ‘shared-leader?’ How and when will I reflect deeply and inquire into my relationship with external power and money?

  • Will I support those who are taking the risks and speak in the public domain to bolster their work? Or am I afraid? What am I afraid of losing—Reputation? Face? Expert Status? Money? Social Approval?

The persistence of poverty and the lack of opportunity to live and thrive for so many is a measure of our response to date. In this era of global abundance and seeming scarcity, we need to understand and challenge the factors that allow the massive divide between the rich and the poor to persist. In a world of interconnected threats and challenges, many different competencies are required. We will only have impact if we break with business-as-usual and dramatically accelerate and scale–up action in this interdependent world.

Today we stand at a historical crossroad: we can continue to muddle through, from one crisis to the next, or we can chose to transform today’s crises to seek a new beginning and a different trajectory for human evolution. In the face of global instability and insecurity, we have the opportunity to declare that this is enough – that we are more than mere means of development and exchange in a global marketplace. We can learn to trust the power of human agency and wisdom to create a different future, allowing new patterns to unfold so that we can embrace our essential oneness and realize our full potential. The choice is ours.


[1] The Emerging Future: Women Co-creating a World that Works, Oxford, UK, 28th  October – 1st November, 2013

Trained as a physician and epidemiologist, Monica Sharma worked for the United Nations from 1988 to 2010. As Director of Leadership and Capacity Development at the United Nations, she designed and facilitated programs for whole systems transformation and leadership development throughout the world with measurable results. Currently as an international expert and practitioner on leadership development for sustainable change, she continues to assist the United Nations, as well as universities, management institutions, governments, business, media and other organizations.

She designs and directs large programs globally and has lived and worked in both developing and developed countries. For example, she established and implemented programs in 40 countries to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS and pioneered the strategy for whole systems transformation to reduce maternal mortality in South Asia. She received The Spirit of the United Nations Award in recognition of her contributions. Monica Sharma created and uses a unique response model based on extensive application — a conscious full-spectrum model — which simultaneously in time solves problems, shifts systems and creates new patterns sourced from individual inner capacity and transformational leadership. This model has generated sustainable results worldwide.

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This article appears in:
2015 Catalyst, Issue 2: Rising Women, Rising World

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