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New visions of leadership

08/20/02 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) After attending a leadership workshop, commentator Cheryl Hanna has been thinking about why "politics as usual" doesn't feel very meaningful any more.

(Hanna) Two recent events have influenced my thinking about campaign finance reform. First, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions hinted that although a higher court found Vermont's campaign finance reform law constitutional, he wouldn't impose the new rules until after this Fall's election.

And second, I attended a leadership workshop sponsored by the Snelling Center for Government. Now, I'm a supporter of campaign finance reform, but these days I find myself thinking: We don't need new laws as much as a new vision of leadership - and that requires courage, not cash.

The guest speaker at the workshop was Margaret Wheatley, president of the Berkana Institute, a think tank that supports leaders. The goal of Wheatley's work is to re-introduce the topic of spirituality into leadership. I have to admit that I was skeptical, since I'm trained as a lawyer in a Western tradition that relies heavily on science, logic and only that which we can measure.

Twenty-five or so school and community leaders attended. Most of us had never met before. Wheatley asked us to sit in a circle, so we could all see each other, and then began with a simple, yet profound, statement. She said that the job of leaders today is to facilitate meaningful conversations and bring people together.

Wheatley believes that since September 11, have people hungered - hungered! - for a sense of meaning and connection in their lives. She led us through one of the most inspiring conversations that I've ever had. We talked and listened about how to navigate the turbulence in our own spheres, and how to make sense of the confusion of public life.

Someone in the group remarked that the challenge for our public leaders is to be able to talk about the role of care and love in public policy debates - without embarrassment. Now, I honestly can't remember ever hearing a politician talk about the role of human emotion in their political agenda before, and it still feels a bit strange to talk about here. But if Wheatley's right, and I'm beginning to think she is, then instead of debating campaign finance reform, our leaders need to start having serious conversations with us, not at us, about what is really important in our collective lives. That's an act of bravery - one that distinguishes a mere politician from a great leader.

Later that day, Wheatley spoke to over 300 educators from Vermont about the challenges schools face. She then read a poem called "For the Children" by Gary Snyder. He writes that as we face growing mountains of science, we need to keep in mind what's truly important. With statewide elections looming, I've been pondering the meaning of the poem's last line, and maybe you will too:

To climb these coming crests
one word to you,
to you and your children.
Stay together, learn the flowers, go light.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
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