The Broken Open Heart of Leadership


Thanks, to the many of you who responded to my Fathers Day invitation to reflect on the lessons and gifts your fathers gave you. If anyone is in need of some inspiration – especially if you wonder whether your own efforts as a parent are bearing fruit – I encourage you to spend a few minutes perusing the powerful “everyday fatherhood” testimonials at

Speaking of powerful . . . Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and author, delivered a remarkable talk this weekend at a Kellogg Foundation gathering. Parker offered the notion that in our personal lives our hearts are sometimes broken open, and we become transformed. At first though, our hearts just feel unbearably broken, as loss of some kind makes our reality excruciating. Perhaps you have had this experience of loss, and grieved and reflected so that you emerged from it with a larger heart – more real, more open, perhaps more forgiving and empathetic. And you emerged with deeper knowledge about yourself, others, and your world. But at other times – or before our heart breaks open – we act in fight or flight. We sedate ourselves or react angrily, lashing out at (whatever appears to be like) the cause of our downfall or suffering.

Palmer suggested persuasively that there is a similar phenomenon with groups and states and even nations.* The experience of 911 broke our hearts, he argued, but perhaps we couldn’t stand having them broken open, and we never really got the lesson; in our haste we lashed out at a problem, but quite clearly not the underlying problems. Worse, we have run the very real risk of exacerbating the conditions and perceptions that have made the U.S. unpopular in parts of the world. That is once again . . . a heartbreaking reality. Parker’s argument is both spiritual and practical. From a spiritual standpoint, as leaders we have to stand in there – as Lincoln did – and hold the pain – the pain like cancer or a fatal accident or a fire – that makes no sense. And then we have to do the disciplined work that my friend M.A. Hastings would describe in this way: “don’t leave the loss without the learning.” Figure out what’s really causing the pain and what you can constructively do to avoid a recurrence.

After Parker’s talk I had the extraordinary opportunity to pair up with the person who happened to be seated next to me and reflect on how he and I were managing some of the discomfort of America’s pain and the pain in our own lives of leadership. I went first. Bill thanked me for my candor about my struggles to lead when I feel like I am — like my country is — falling short of the ideals I and we hold. When it was his turn he shared that Palmer’s talk was challenging, “because,” he said, “my wife died on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center.” Bill travels with the families of other victims. They have gone to Spain and England to console those victimized by terror. And in their work they seek a deeper understanding of the madness going on in our world, and they work to build bridges to end the ignorance, misunderstanding and painful violence. Now, that’s what I call

Leading with your best self!


* Parker Palmer’s brilliant essay is contained in a book out called Deepening the American Dream: Reflections on the Inner Life and Spirit of Democracy.

By: Parker J Palmer

buy now

  • Envy is an old emotion. Resentment between the haves and have nots have historically been used for years to advance the Machiavellian ends of the unscrupulous. The USA is neither evil nor saintly. The hatred of America that led to 9/11 came from our desire to protect the infant state of Israel from individuals who hate and envy both of us. Although America is not perfect, we did not do anything in civilized society to deserve the sucker punch of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. As you well know bullies must be confronted and exposed. The bullies we pursue are in Afganistan, Iraq, the Phillipines, Germany and the USA. I applaud President Bush’s determination to confront the evil of a minority who would treat women as property and would seek to take away the freedoms our forefathers fought and died to give to us. I know you join me in this belief.

  • Hi Dan,

    This is a rich topic, and for me the richness is not about party politics and who is right, it’s about growing even when that’s hard. You are pointing to a paradox that is extremely challenging:

    While we’re in pain we seek to protect (by hurting others, hiding, obfuscating) — and those reaction make it hard to learn. The rub: until we learn lesson of the pain we stay in pain… so some of us end up staying in the reaction.

    And your example of your “neighbor” in the workshop illustrates a wonderful possibility: We can Give Ourselves and step out of the cycle.

    – Josh

  • Right on the mark, Dan. I can attest personally to the benefit of change. One of the books that was significant to me is “Broken Open” by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute,which is known world-wide for retreats in holistic health and spirituality. I feel that with an open heart, a leader leads with compassion as well as strength. Spirituality is an essential component of my efforts in life.

    In the prelude to her book, Ms. Lesser quotes Anais Nin; “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”


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