Gaian Leadership

Leadership that helps people overcome "disabling beliefs"
is an important part of mobilizing global action

One of the articles in Global Climate Change (IC#22)
Originally published in Summer 1989 on page 54
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

David Gershon and his partner, Gail Straub, were the organizers of the first Earth Run, a remarkable event in which a torch of peace was carried around the world by relay teams of long-distance runners. (See "Earth Run," IC #17.) For ten years they have also been leading workshops in personal empowerment, and David has now brought his experiences to bear on the question of global organizing to effect transformative change at the grassroots – critical to addressing the challenges associated with climate change. Developing highly skilled leaders is, he believes, essential to the process.

For further information on David and Gail’s work, contact them at 449A Route 28A, West Hurley, NY 12491.

Robert: You have the unusual background of having organized a global level activity in the first Earth Run. What do you think can be done to organize a world-wide response to the challenge of global climate change?

David: The area I have begun to explore is leadership. We need to find a new way of approaching the challenge. It’s not just coming up with solutions, because there are any number of good solutions out there. It’s mobilizing people to believe that we can make changes. And that starts with leadership. It starts with a new kind of leader who integrates effectiveness – knowing how to inspire and motivate people – with an understanding of the deep, inner part of the person that needs to be touched if people are to be fully engaged.

The activity required right now to move the planet to a new place is beyond the normal sphere of everyday activity for most people. Just doing good works to relieve one’s guilt isn’t sustainable. While doing the Earth Run, I discovered that people will reprioritize their lives on behalf of something larger than themselves when they have a vision of what can happen, what is possible. Everyone who participated in organizing their community, country, or region of the world had an inner calling that gave them the willingness to go through all the hardship that’s required to make anything happen. They were creating something they thought could make the world better, as opposed to reacting against something that wasn’t working.

Robert: What other contributions can leadership make?

David: One of the keys is a global vision, something capable of galvanizing people all over the world. People need to see that their individual actions are building up to something. To use one of your images that I’ve now adopted, they need to see that their drops in the bucket are filling up the bucket. So creating a bucket – an overall strategy, and a campaign in which everyone can see how they fit in – is a central ingredient.

Robert: The Earth Run is a great example of that process. What other lessons did you learn from that experience?

David: Doing the Earth Run was like climbing Mt. Everest. We learned a lot about how to bring a large number of key elements together around a single objective, including leaders of countries and people at the grassroots. We learned how to mobilize social creativity. I had thought a single event like that might be catalytic, but I learned that change is a much longer-term process.

Robert: You’ve continued to explore ways of facilitating change. What are you focusing on now?

David: My new project is called the Gaia Leadership Project, and it involves developing leadership skills, knowledge, and networking among leaders, as well as an overall campaign. I use the term "Gaia" because it speaks to the more ecologically and spiritually balanced approach to leadership that’s needed now.

Since doing the Earth Run, I’ve been looking at how to overcome things that prevent people from acting – things like disabling beliefs. One of these is "I can’t make a difference," or "The problem is too big, and whatever I did would just be a token." So, as part of the Project, I designed Gaia Leadership Training program specifically to provide us with the knowledge, skills, empowerment, and cross-fertilization to overcome those beliefs and to help us take the effort of transformation seriously enough to learn how to do it well.

It’s as though we have to fight a battle, but no one really knows how to go about fighting it. We all go out in isolated ways, and often at cross-purposes, and our skills are whatever we’ve picked up along the way. We’ve never stopped to look at what we want, how we want to get there, what’s the best way to do it. So one of the elements in my long-term strategy was to design a training program to upgrade our quality and skill level.

The second element was to look at these different activities and initiatives and ask how we can align them. Again using the metaphor of a battle, all these different generals need to go out together in concert. We’re all individuals, and it’s very hard to find ways to synergize, to cooperate, to share resources, even though we recognize that the problem is bigger than any one activity.

The third thing that I’ve begun looking at is an overarching strategy or campaign to which everyone would be willing to give their allegiance – not really a coordinated activity, because the system’s far too complex, but rather a context. The phrase we’re using is "The Campaign for the Earth," but it needs to be larger than simply an umbrella organization.

Robert: Because that’s not broad enough?

David: Right. But how do you manage that? What’s the best way to coordinate, the best way to communicate? I don’t know, but I do know that decentralization is a key principle. With the Earth Run we created this key idea of the light circling the Earth, and each of the countries – and the communities within those countries – was responsible for making sure that the light moved through their part of the planet. They did it in their own way, they celebrated it in their own way, and so forth.

Robert: What are some of the graduates of your training program doing?

David: They’re doing a number of things, from developing community environmental awareness programs to running organizations with more environmental sensitivity. There’s not any one issue they focus on, but they’re looking at how to do things from a transformational perspective. That’s the key underlying concept. I call them "transformational change agents" because they’re looking at what we want to create, as opposed to what isn’t working and needs to be fixed.

When we fix something, we’re still at ground zero. And ground zero isn’t good enough anymore. We need to find new models, new systems, new approaches – drawing upon the old ones, of course, but looking at what we want as opposed to what we don’t want in our lives, our communities, or the world at large. We need to envision how we want the world to be.

Along with the visionary work, graduates are taught practical skills in leadership, empowering others, financing your activity, doing public relations and media-outreach, motivating others on your team, creating synergy to draw forward true group genius, and on and on – everything that I think is needed to be a transformational change agent.

I sometimes like to think of what I’m doing as the "spiritual warrior school," and I define "spiritual warrior" as one who is integrating the path of action in the world on behalf of something larger – in this case Gaia – with the path of inner development. I think the time we’re living in is calling forth people who are skillful; who understand strategy, tactics, effectiveness; who can get the job done and who are doing it from a more enlightened perspective – and in a way that furthers their own individual evolution.

Robert: What would mobilize media attention and other kinds of support for your program and others like it? What would really get a global effort going?

David: There are several levels to that question, and let me address the deepest one. What needs to happen to make a transformational worldview come forward? People are open to it now in a way that I’ve never experienced before. During the Earth Run it was an effort to get people to respond to a global initiative. But now, people are ripe.

I think the largest challenge we face is learning to cooperate. There is an implicit assumption that cooperation is something you just do – but very few people know how to go about it. True cooperation is a deep process of aligning the person, the project, and the vision, synergizing it all, and getting it to work at the organizational and financial level. It’s hard work.

One aspect is that the individuals who are leading projects are very much in the old paradigm of scarcity: "There’s not enough to go around." They fear cooperation either at the ego level ("I’ll have my work diminished"), or at a financial level ("There’s not enough money for everybody"), or at the level of external recognition ("Who’s going to get the credit?"), and so on. With the Gaia Leadership Project, I’m bringing together leaders and looking at these issues straight on, with an open heart – acknowledging the challenges, the difficulties, the ego issues, and working on them. Part of the work is building enough trust to tackle them.

So that’s one of the bigger issues. If there can be some kind of an alignment – and that’s not a given – then I think we’ll have enough force and power to influence the media, which is very receptive to any kind of initiative right now, and to be a force for change.

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