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Interview With Deepak Chopra on 'The Soul of Leadership'

Older, wiser population has multiple built-in assets

The voice on the telephone is calm, centered, compassionate — the very qualities that Deepak Chopra, spiritual guide and best-selling author of the new book The Soul of Leadership has been training others to cultivate for decades. In a chaotic and often unpredictable world, Chopra, 64, believes that "we have never needed enlightened leadership as much as we do now." (Read an excerpt from The Soul of Leadership.)

Deepak Chopra

Merlijn Doomernik/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

Deepak Chopra.

It is the mature individual, he adds — the person who has accrued and developed wisdom and experience over the years — who is in a unique position to be a leader today. Perhaps that's why over the past decade Chopra's devotees have increasingly included top executives from major corporations and other institutions who have attended his executive classes at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University or heard him speak at Harvard, Stanford, Wharton or other business schools. To be an effective leader, says Chopra in his new book, "we must go beyond the constant clamor of ego, beyond the tools of logic and reason, to the still, calm place within us: the realm of the soul."

But leaders can be anywhere — and be anybody, as Chopra stresses. The old models of corporate power and massive ego — those blustery bosses who strutted their stuff in front of the troops, pounding podiums and blowing a few fuses in a strained, misguided effort to lead — are long gone. Or should be, according to Chopra. The flawed models "exalted power, and the use of power has been directly linked to abuse." Instead, quiet and effective leaders can reveal themselves throughout daily life — at the community center, the school, the bank, the post office, the grocery store. The best leaders improve the lives of those who follow them, says Chopra.

The author of more than 55 books, Chopra started out as a physician and eventually moved to emotional and spiritual healing. Together with David Simon, M.D., he opened the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in 1996 in Carlsbad, Calif., "to help people experience physical healing, emotional freedom and higher states of consciousness." Recently Chopra spoke with the AARP Bulletin about how his new book applies specifically to the mature population in America today:

Q. How can older people best embrace their leadership qualities?

A. They have the capacity for being looked up to. No matter what they do, whether it's at work or in their private lives, they can be leaders. It takes a little bit of mindfulness and a little bit of attention to others to be a good listener, which helps cultivate emotional nurturing and engagement. Once you're more aware of people's needs, you can create action plans for others to follow. That way, you're responsible for your own well-being, too.

Next: Why is well-being relevant to leadership? >>

Q. Why is well-being relevant to leadership?

A. Not only does it have implications for your capacity as a leader, but if you are physically, emotionally and spiritually well, with a rested body and a joyful mind, people look up to you for your presence alone. The mature worker has a greater ability to be that leader.

Q. Yet in today's competitive workplace, when people with 20, 30 or more years of experience are marginalized or even dismissed in favor of younger, cheaper workers, how does one respond?

A. It's our job as people who are 50 and beyond to make others aware of all the research that's coming out on neuroplasticity, on gene regulation, on the fact that there is nothing more powerful than the wisdom of experience — and at the same time, well-being and health. I tell organizations, "Mature workers are your major assets." Mature workers are less impulsive, less reactive, more creative and more centered. It's almost reflexive for a lot of organizations to think that younger workers are more effective, when often they're not.

Q. Why not?

A. Younger people tend to be distracted. They're still on the learning curve; they have less attention span. In my executive classes, I show that mature people with years and years of experience now realize they have to set a new standard for leadership. In societies where mature workers are respected and where their wisdom is respected, everybody benefits. Workers are more engaged and productive. Their health is better. They live longer.

Q. Does an increasingly tech-savvy and plugged-in world hinder the engagement with others, though?

A: I've always felt that technology can be used to our benefit and should be used to our benefit. It's not going to go away. So all of us, including the mature worker, should be savvy about that. I use technology even for emotional team-building skills in corporations.

Q. Let's talk about "widening your gaze." Why is that vital?

A: It means asking yourself: What am I observing? What am I feeling? What is the right response to the situation, and how can I help other people?

Q. Why is that vital?

A. We're less self-centered than we were when we were younger. And if you're involved in your community and are passionate about what you do, if you volunteer or provide some kind of service, you're likely to be much healthier. As your well-being is enhanced, so your community will be, too. Your circle of friends is likely to be much enhanced, too. Your social and physical and professional well-being are all linked.

Next: How does a new leader become more comfortable? >>

Q. How does a new leader become more comfortable?

A. It's complicated. It has a lot to do with self-esteem, which basically comes from three areas in life. One is how you were brought up as a child. Those experiences affect people well into their old age. The second source of self-esteem is from using your strengths. And the third area is from living up to your core values.

Q. This is all very reflective.

A. Yes. When I work with the kinds of people you're talking about, I ask them several questions, such as:

  • Can you recall a moment when you felt extreme joy? Write it down.
  • What is your idea of a best friend? Write it down.
  • What are the qualities you bring into a personal relationship?
  • Who do you admire in history, mythology, religion, as public figures — and as mentors?

People have never really faced these types of questions. When they start to reflect on the answers, it's very interesting: Life has an interesting way of moving them into the answers.

Q. How so?

A. They find the right situations, the right circumstances. They take advantage of the right opportunities, and they happen to be in the right place at the right time. They recognize that more often, too.

Q. You feel our country has a wounded psyche — and that every one of us is in need of healing right now.

A. With the angry dialogue that is going on, the vitriol, the victimization, the sense of entitlement, the complacency that has crept into our country, yes, we're coming from a place of fear and victimization. I teach people that no matter what the situation is, no matter how chaotic, no matter how much drama is around you, you can heal by your presence if you just stay within your center. That ocean of self-centered calm will help give you more insight, more intuition, more creativity, more compassion, more inspiration, more conscious choice-making — rather than just being reactive to every situation as it occurs.

Next: More opportunities for the mature person >>

Q. And with the population growing older and living longer, there seems to be more opportunity for the mature person to share these qualities.

A. That's my goal. I want to bring our society to respect people who grow old, to recognize that they can learn from their experience. The mature leader has many important roles — protector, motivator, team builder, nurturer, innovator, transformer, guide and sage. Just by their presence, they should be able to dispel any doubts or darkness. If leaders can share hope, trust, passion and stability, they're very likely to be respected.

Q. By trust, you mean to trust the new worker who's still finding his or her sea legs, right?

A. The more you trust and give them that trust, the more likely they are to live up to it.

Q. That's true for children as well.

A. Absolutely. People live up to the kind of message you give them. The most important thing we can do is show emotion and caring, and if it's authentic, then it will be reflected no matter what the situation is.

Maureen Mackey is an editor and writer in New York.