21st Century Leadership Development and a Return to Eden

Kirk Souder
Jul 18 · 11 min read

“He who ain’t busy being born is busy dying.” — Bob Dylan

Recently an event shook me awake to the reality that the needs of our world are calling for a new era of leadership development. The foundation of most of today’s leadership work was generated almost 100 years ago and centered on personality. If leaders are to ascend to the level of today’s challenges, a new paradigm needs to emerge recognizing something more limitless and innovative within them than the veneer of personality.

I was shaken awake at about 6:15PM, in Eden, Utah, when we fell from what truly felt like Eden, into what felt like a very different place.

We had gathered from the various bubbles — LA, SF, SJ, SEA, etc. — at a leadership retreat on the top of Powder Mountain, smiling as we listened to Jamie Wheal give an update to his book “Stealing Fire”.

Mr. Wheal began recounting he had just been witness to multiple supercomputer projections of future world states given volatile new inputs: climate change, AI and human replacement in the workplace, large scale refugee migrations, water scarcity, nationalism, ocean health, etc.

We were still smiling at this point, naively anticipating a happy ending.

That didn’t happen. He described how every one of the projections pointed to a dire scenario, and that we may well be past the point of being able to stop any from transpiring.

And that’s when the smiles fell and the rumble in the room started.

It was then, with the timing of a trapeze artist, that Jamie Wheal came swinging back with an emphatic: “..But..” and proceeded to relay the existence of one variable that was too fuzzy to be uploaded into the simulations but many of the scientists believed could potentially avert the disaster of almost half the world without jobs and sustenance, worldwide water wars, large scale crop failures, mass starvation, etc.

The fuzzy variable that could decide our fate as a species and a planet is human consciousness.

That is, if there could be a sudden, significant, and sizable evolution in human consciousness, and new human behavior and choices became natural, automatic, and exponential, as opposed to needing to be legislated, enforced, and incremental, that disaster might actually be averted.

I imagine many minds in the room went where mine did: “So how do we do that?”

That is when I remembered Joseph Campbell’s words, “You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the center of economic life.”

In those words I found breadcrumbs leading to how a sizable and significant shift in human consciousness might be catalyzed. As Campbell observed, start in the highest places that are most strongly informing society — today they are the office buildings — the global business platforms — the cultural stakeholders with today’s greatest resources, human capital, innovation, and distribution. And specifically, if it is transformed people that are going to, in the nick of time, transform our world, then it will be accelerated by transformed leaders who by virtue of position, can create conditions, opportunities, mechanisms, and perhaps entire companies for the transformation of those around them.

The challenge then becomes the large-scale transformation of the consciousness of leaders.

Today’s tools and programming for leadership development, remain for the large part, artifacts from the same age and mindset that created the all-too-real inputs being put in the supercomputer simulations currently showing a road to catastrophe.

The primary leadership assessment and development tools of today largely concentrate on determining personality (strengths, weaknesses, preferences, behaviors), as of course they would with their basic origins being personality tools like DISC (1928) and MBTI (1962).

Is it a surprise that tools and mechanisms developed in the age when personality and ego reign, will be designed to make these particular aspects of leaders what organizations should revolve around?

Einstein had something to say about that, “One cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

So let’s not.

What if “a significant and sizable shift in human consciousness” is just a nerdy way of saying “to become our best selves”?

What if our “best self”, that which can save us, is something beyond personality?

What if, just as dirty gray rock covers the luminous awe inside the geode, personality is simply the dirty gray rock of outdated cultural and mental conditioning we’ve chosen to take on, generation after generation, and is covering a much more limitless and innovative self?

What if the C-suite, instead of relying on leadership consultancies to determine what exact shade of gray the personality of a leader is, so as to place that leader in a role that matches their shade, had 21st century tools and experiences that could crack open the gray to unite the leader with the unrestricted and innately visionary true self inside? A self that already knows how to lead and create from a place of interdependence, creativity, generosity, humility, transparency, vulnerability, love and betterment?

What impact might that have on the inspiration of their teams, the innovation and pro-societal orientation of their products, and the betterment of our world as the transformation of that leader flows out into these massive platforms potentially transforming everyone and everything along the way?

If we are to somehow create a significant shift in human consciousness, and thereby increase the chances of a world we can live in, we have to let go of our attachment with that one small-acting aspect of consciousness called “personality”, and embrace the much more expansive, connected, and limitless true self. A self that has the capacity not just to create a new meeting entry in iCal, but the capacity to create new worlds.

Last week I had the privilege of a chat with renowned neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (TED talk here). Her considerable awareness and experience put it far better than I: “It’s impossible for the part of our brain that can only label and archive that which has already happened to truly create — in the real meaning of that word — to emerge with something truly new and non-derivative. That has to come from parts of the brain beyond the left side and ego.”

We may be reaching the fulcrum where access to this place for leaders in a scaled way has become an imperative for all of us.

Already there are people, events, and organizations emerging to answer the call of cracking through the gray rock around the true potential of today’s leaders:

There is the Nomadic School of Wonder, founded by Barb Groth, a master experience designer whose clients span from Walt Disney Imagineering to Google. The Nomadic School of Wonder uses a traveling troupe of artists and experience designers to help generate “adventures in awe” rooted in nature, art, community and play. They crack through the gray rock by bypassing the head and immersing people in powerful sensory-based experiences, having them become aware of the wonder that is all around us. In that state of wonder, temporarily disconnected from conditioned personality, participants experience more openness, empathy, and creativity and feel a deep pull and belonging to something larger than ourselves. They are “re-wilded” and put back in touch with their more natural, essential, true selves.

These have spanned all manner of themes and places: “Belonging” on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, “Death & Rebirth” in Santa Fe, New Mexico , “A Walk in the Woods” in Woodstock and “Fire & Ice” in Iceland . Recently I was fortunate to participate in a Nomadic School of Wonder wild mustang encounter in southern Utah, which included a “heart-hug” with a mustang matriarch named Everest. The sound and mightiness of a nine pound mustang heart against mine had the gray rock of my personality break thoroughly apart and a connection to a deeper true self allowed a flooding of new insights to emerge in me about what our next generation of leaders might be and act like for an optimal workplace and world. Another participant, Carla Fernandez, co-Founder of The Dinner Party (an organization creating a nationally scaled experience for millennials suffering from grief), shared this about her experience, “The wild mustangs are some of my biggest teachers. In my time with them, we learned lessons on teamwork on an embodied level that a thousand pages of literature couldn’t convey. These masters teach and demonstrate sensitive, responsive leadership that builds trust through words and presence.”

And then there is Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy, founded by Paul von Zielbauer, formerly an award-winning New York Times journalist and Iraq war correspondent. Roadmonkey combines physically challenging adventures — in Vietnam (backcountry cycling), Tanzania (climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro), Peru (Class IV & V whitewater rafting), Nicaragua (learning to surf) and Argentina (Patagonia wilderness hiking & horseback) — with hands-on volunteer projects in those countries. It is a powerful combination of pushing people beyond what they think they can achieve physically, mentally, and emotionally, and then directing the positive energy of that breakthrough experience into sustainable volunteer work alongside members of a local community in need. Beats clicking “Donate Now,” right? If you believe Roadmonkey clients’ descriptions, these expedition experiences are often transformational; they become a potent remedy to a personality- and ego-based consciousness that gives participants a connection to a new self, with a greater capacity for achievement, service and creation than their old selves gave them permission to believe was possible.

Example: Andrea Guzman, an American finance professional living in Geneva, read about Roadmonkey in Oprah Magazine during a doctor appointment. She flew to Peru for an adventure-volunteer expedition that featured remote whitewater rafting on the Apurimac River, followed by a playground-building project for indigenous Quechua school children in Ollantaytambo, in the shadow of Machu Picchu. This is how she described her experience in a subsequent blog post:

“The Peru trip gave me a perspective — on myself, my career and the world I live in, that I couldn’t have gotten taking a conventional adventure trip. It showed that no matter how much time or money we have, or don’t have, we can make a difference. It just takes going the extra step to transform the urge into action.”

New on this scene is Soul Purpose (in transparency, an event this author co-founded with Licia Rester MFT). In an experiential group dynamic, business leaders from around the world gather to work with each other to confront the often unconscious limitations their personalities have set for themselves that are keeping them from their true purpose and scaled impact. The process over two days is for the leader to recognize these two aspects of self — personality/ego and the true self — replace the personality as the inner-CEO with the true self, let go of the personality’s limited preferences for the true self’s bigger possibilities, make an impact vision, and then supported by an accountability team of fellow participants, go back out into their business platform to innovate from there or create an entirely new endeavor.

One of the most visible stories is that of Kim Culmone, Global Product Design Lead, Mattel. Kim came to the very first Soul Purpose on the fence about whether to stay at Mattel or to leave and pursue something to fulfill her personal purpose.

Through her inner work at Soul Purpose she became united with both her inner purpose to help the disenfranchised of the world, and that she was sitting in one of the most pervasive business platforms on the planet. So might she let go of her personality’s preference to leave and start a nonprofit, to embrace her true self’s limitless sense of purpose and impact, and use the immensity of the Mattel platform to make the impact of scale she truly wanted? Kim stayed, and has been seeing through revolutionary initiatives, some she started even before the workshop — a diverse line of Barbies of every race, color, body shape and size — what Time Magazine called one of the top 25 inventions of 2016 [case study link here]. Kim has since continued her crusade, adding dolls representing physical disabilities including dolls that have wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs.

Seeing what was happening with Kim and the business success of the new line, Mattel approved a Soul Purpose workshop for the entire design division called “Being Limitless” that Kim co-facilitated [case study with pre/post metrics here]. A participant flown in from Hong Kong said this during the workshop:

‘I had never known about the “ego” and the “true self”. I had always thought all those negative thoughts and the “I can’t do thats” were actually me — not just my thinking. Seeing that, I can now choose to let those thoughts go, and choose new thoughts that fuel my creativity and productivity.’

What seems to be illustrated in this person’s first-hand experience is a transformation from the conditioning of personality to the expansion and limitless possibilities of her true self. Being present when she stood in front of 70+ colleagues to vulnerably share with the emotion that comes with such a realization, I can tell you that inside of her was a significant and sizable shift of consciousness. It had actually started nine months earlier with Kim’s transformation. The leader.

What might make it difficult to move from the current paradigm of personality tests and personality-based models of leadership development, is that their packaging is filled with the kinds of things that make the personality/ego of the people making decisions feel comfortable, safe, and have the illusion of value: lots of acronyms, history, prominent companies demonstrating incremental benefit, quadrant graphs, process flows, etc. To create the kind of participation and scale of consciousness shift that was discussed back at Eden, Utah, to avert future nastiness, we may need to add more of those items to the packaging of a 21st century leadership model of transformation beyond personality.

If so, that is fine.

The success metric of a livable future will be worth it.

Hopefully though, the people making the decisions on how to develop leaders will see beyond decoration and want something more fundamental, significant and transformational. And the growing stories of the Kims, the Carlas, and the Andreas, will catch their eyes and ignite that part of them that is beyond personality and pull them beyond the default of comfort, control and safety.

If they dare choose that new way, I know that very soon a leader will burst into their office to express gratitude with a heart full of aliveness and dozens of new possibilities for that organization that for some reason never even existed before. As will soon her team, and their teams, and so on.

Perhaps an evolution in leadership development is one mechanism by which we create a significant and sizable evolution in human consciousness.

I hope there are many others.

It would be nice to be back in Eden without the fall.


Culture, brands, and people at the intersection of creativity x impact. Made by enso, a creative impact agency.

Kirk Souder

Written by

enso / leadership coach. We align business success with positive impact using shared missions and transformed leadership. leadership event: soulpurposenow.com



Culture, brands, and people at the intersection of creativity x impact. Made by enso, a creative impact agency.

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