President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in the final sparring match of the election season, vying for the top leadership job in the land. Each modeled the leadership they would bring to the Presidency and, while many have commented on the differences in their policies, an even more fundamental difference was on display in their leadership: one is real and one is fake.
Joe Biden exudes leadership that has grown through suffering, that has touched and been touched by human hearts, that admits mistakes and owns its vulnerability. Whether you agree with his plans or not, his leadership is real. The effect of real leadership is that is pulls the best out of others. Donald Trump projects an image of leadership that is full of confident-sounding bluster stating falsehoods as facts, that is empty of empathy, that doubles down on mistakes and covers any whiff of vulnerability. Regardless of whether you like his direction, his leadership is fake. And the surefire sign of fake leadership is it makes others regress to their lesser selves.
Real leadership is not the product of position or power; it doesn’t happen by promotion or election. Rather it resonates from the inside out, to quote Kevin Cashman, as “authentic self-expression that creates value.” Authenticity is the necessary starting point because someone who can’t be authentic with him- or herself can’t be authentic with others, which means we never quite see the real person or fully trust the person we see. Authentic self-expression requires self-awareness, that is, an orientation toward truth over ignorance. It honors the truth of what it is to be human, which is to live in a vulnerable body, conditioned by a particular family, culture and life experience, to have a particular, partial view of reality that can be wrong and make mistakes. Embracing this truth (not ignoring it) makes it a less of an issue (not the elephant in the room), and from this limited but sincere self, actions can flow that create value for other people. And what is value? It may be a product or service, a beautiful work of art or music, a caring conversation or inspiring speech, or numerous other forms, all of which have in common that they lift others up.
Zen leadership takes this even further by radically expanding the “authentic self” that can be expressed. Our sense of self, which has been evolving through our entire life, becomes larger and more inclusive as we mature. This expansion been characterized by Ken Wilber as moving from egocentric, to ethnocentric, worldcentric and finally “kosmocentric” (i.e., embracing the entire subjective and objective universe). Others have described the more expansive developmental stages as self-transforming (Kegan), alchemist (Torbert), integrative, and holistic (Beck), where we co-create one-with the whole picture. Physical Zen training both accelerates this journey and enables one to see through the ego that is taking it. As such, the value created through Zen leadership reveals the transcendental possibility of the human being, where limitless energy can function through a limited self.
Fake leadership, by contrast, regardless of its content or intent, sends people backwards toward their egocentric, impulsive, fear-based selves. We see this playing out in our country, both in the people who support Donald Trump and in those who don’t. Supporters tend to fall into two camps: those who feel left behind and think government is to blame and those who are doing quite well, thank you, and prefer as little government as possible. The first group is thrown back into fear mongering and impulsiveness, such as we see among the well-armed Proud Boys or the QAnon conspirators. The second group, many of whom are incredibly sophisticated, mature leaders in other aspects of their lives, are thrown back into egocentric concerns for their personal wealth. Among those who don’t support Trump, again many of whom are highly evolved in other aspects of their lives, fear and anxiety are rampant, as they watch justice undone, institutions weakened and even the democratic process of this election threatened from within and without.
*This article originally appeared on Forbes.com