Distilling Principles from Spirituality and Resilience:  Insights for Transformative Leadership

By Julia Novy-Hildesley

In today’s fast-paced world, we often look for “hacks” as a way to cope with living beyond our evolutionary comfort zone in busy, high-stimulus and demanding environments. How can we find short-cuts to meet immediate needs, and get what we want with minimal effort? But hacks are largely a figment of a fictitious fragmented world, a place where optimizing one variable at the expense of another – like maximizing financial gain at the expense of social and environmental well-being – is seen as legitimate and even strategic. But living and working this way only hurts us – as we see clearly through the impacts of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism – because the real world is comprised of complex, interactive and highly interdependent systems. Anything we do to our systems, we do to ourselves. There are few short-cuts or hacks that result in sustained and equitable improvements for the entire system.


As leaders, it is our responsibility to see reality as it is – holisticially – and to see beyond the short-term to the future. It is said that “integrity is foresight.” Leaders with integrity foresee events and anticipate the impacts and potential unintended consequences of each decision. They work to build an inclusive path that supports the well-being of all people in a VUCA world – the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous context in which we find ourselves. Rather than looking for quick fixes, great leaders identify principles – ways of living and orienting – that foster holistic and inclusive systemic change.


Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed how powerfully important these universal principles are when he said: “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” To me, the simplicity on this side of complexity is the “hack,” the quick trick that gives an immediate result, but at the expense of something else in the system. The simplicity on the far side of complexity represents universal truths, fundamental principles or ways of being that derive from understanding complexity and support positive evolution in the entire system. Sometimes these new ways of being introduce massive efficiencies, and thus may appear like hacks; the difference is that they are beneficial to the system as a whole, and any tradeoffs are made explicit and considered against overall improvements.


Spirituality offers an interesting avenue for identifying such principles and ways of being. Studies of resilience, too, offer clues. What I’ve found is that because both are concerned with navigating uncertainty and flux, they offer insight into fundamental orientations that can guide us as we strive to be effective leaders in highly dynamic, interdependent systems. Whether you look to spirituality, or explore resilience through the lens of ecology, psychology, neuroscience, or military strategy, you find three core ways of orienting that allow us to thrive, as well as drive holistic, and sustained societal improvements:  in short, we must “connect,” “adapt,” and “innovate” in order to be effective transformative leaders in a VUCA world.


So, what exactly does it mean to connect, adapt and innovate, and how do spiritual leaders, resilient people and natural systems manifest these orientations?


Connecting is about being grounded – first being connected to yourself, your principles and your history – and then being open to seeing your connections to the broader world.

It’s about adopting a relationship lens to seeing and being in the world, recognizing our fundamental interdependence, reaching out across borders, building trust, and seeing the dynamic nature of local and global connections. When practiced well, the Connect orientation fosters sound decision-making that integrates diverse perspectives and considers impacts over large timescales.


From an ecological perspective, the connections and relationships among species enable pollination, seed dispersal, and nutrient recycling – the fundamental features of a flourishing forest. From a psychological perspective, social connections and meaningful relationships are essential to overcoming traumatic experience and emerging stronger. From a spiritual perspective, we know we need to connect deeply within ourselves before being effective in reaching outward. Joe Jaworski reminds us that “before you can lead others… you have to discover yourself.” Great leaders are self-aware, authentic, and also guided by the spiritual insight that pulls us toward self-transcendence. Derived from the Latin verb “spiro”, meaning “breathe” or “be alive”, spirituality taps into the essence of what it means to be human, to be part of something larger than ourselves, a profound insight we seem to have lost and are striving to regain in modern society. As Vaclav Havel, former Czech President, said: “We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.” In spiritual practice, connecting is about being present, sitting with oneself, focusing one’s attention, and seeing the profound connections that define our world. Spiritual fulfilment comes from the peace of belonging, and transformative leadership is defined in part by the holistic and highly integrated thinking that naturally emerges from seeing these connections.


Adapting is about being open – to your own potential and to signals from the complex,

changing environment around you. It requires dismantling fixed orientations and unconscious biases, being willing to leave your comfort zone to explore the unknown. The combination of internal exploration and continuous upgrading of your orientation in response to changing context drives rapid growth and learning. When practiced well, the Adapt orientation engenders the foresight and agility needed to pursue effective pathways in rapidly changing contexts.


From an ecological perspective, species adapt to changing environments through the process of evolution and natural selection, finding niches to thrive. From a psychological one, individuals with a growth mindset see challenge as opportunity and are more resilient when shocks hit. In spiritual practice, adapting is about radical acceptance, forgiveness, surrender, embracing what we cannot control. Great leaders work with others to anticipate the future and reorient to facilitate positive change. Transformative leaders do not resist change, they foresee it and create the kinds of relationships that enable them to sense it immediately and respond.


Innovating is about being radically proactive – seeing new possibilities and tapping into one’s

own agency and creativity to shape the future. It’s about making novel combinations from the

adjacent possible and finding “flow” – a state of optimal performance where one’s inner critic is

silenced and the capacity for insight is dramatically heightened. When practiced well, the Innovate orientation provides a foundation for optimizing creativity in service of intergenerational wellbeing.


From an ecological perspective, genetic mutation is nature’s way of “innovating” by randomly testing novel combinations that could yield greater fitness. Resilient individuals, psychological research tells us, possess a sense of agency and belief in their ability to shape the future, harnessing their creativity to make an impact. Transformative leaders create enabling conditions for solutions to emerge, working to bridge the gap between current reality and our desired future. Spiritual practice and transformative leadership both demand self-transcendence – aligning and mobilizing our intentions, words, and actions to serve something larger than ourselves. Interestingly, Maslow’s unpublished, later thinking identifies self-transcendence, not self-actualization, as the highest motivational step in his hierarchy of needs,[1] aligning with the spiritual insight that a meaningful life is built through service, contribution, and offering our gifts to the world. It is this capacity to see beyond our own immediate needs and to recognize the fundamental interdependence of life that bring us spiritual fulfilment, and also fosters our ability to lead meaningful change in society by grounding us in the truth of interconnectedness.


We know from decades of research that changing mindsets is the greatest point of leverage in driving paradigm shifts. I have come to believe that if we intentionally cultivate our capacity to connect, adapt, and innovate, we will develop the fundamental mindsets and orientations that, combined with a clear purpose, will foster spiritual fulfilment and enable us to lead transformative change. While I do not believe in hacks, because hacks often lead us to make tradeoffs for personal gain or immediate benefit, I do believe in finding universal truths or principles, that if practiced with discipline, can serve as reliable and trustworthy guides – the simplicity on the far side of complexity. Perhaps the connect, adapt and innovate orientations offer a window into how we can cultivate ways of being and doing that will help us lead and live well, radically accelerating our progress toward a flourishing world.

[1] Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research,

and Unification, Mark E. Koltko-Rivera, Review of General Psychology 2006, Vol. 10, No. 4, 304-317.


Caroline Watson

Founder of Hua Dan, a China-based social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for personal and social transformation. Young Global Leader 2011 of the World Economic Forum. Writer, speaker and entrepreneur. www.carolinewatson.org


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