"Transformation to me means the powerful unleashing of human potential to commit to, care about, and change for a better life."
When we want to make a difference in the world, a contribution, where do we start? With an issue? With an action? No, says Dr. Monica Sharma. The best place to start is in our own being. This is the place of compassion, integrity, and courage—Buddha nature, if you will—and actions that are grounded in and arise out of this are the actions that most truly make a difference.
Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis
Dr. Sharma is the Director of Leadership and Capacity Development, at the United Nations, OHRLLS*. She is responsible for whole systems transformation and leadership development worldwide, with a focus on least developed countries. Trained as a medical doctor and epidemiologist, she served as Director of HIV/AIDS for the United Nations Development Program from 2000-2005, generating over 720 initiatives with measurable results in 40 countries, reaching 4.5 million people directly and influencing another 130 million. In 2005 she and her team were honored by UNDP for the best practice area.
For three days during Urban Sesshin, Dr. Sharma led us in a series of exercises designed to illuminate the way we think about and deal with problems, both personal and social. She began by helping us to distinguish clearly between fact and interpretation, between an event and the story we tell about it. Not always easy.
As we search for meaning, we tend to conflate the event and the story, and a vicious circle results, in which what actually happened is muddied by our interpretation of it. But there is a third element which can change all this. Dr. Sharma calls it Being, or the stand we take. When we come from this place, we transform our relationship to the whole process.
We experienced this in a dyad exercise, in which we told our partner about a problem we were having with someone, re-capping the event and the story we told ourselves about it. Then we re-told it, coming from our stand. This was illuminating, as we saw what was missing in our behavior or perception the first time. As someone put it, "What was missing was me standing for what I stand for."
When it comes to responding to challenges in the world, Dr. Sharma's hologram clearly distinguishes among different levels of response, all necessary—a full spectrum response.
In a similar set of circles, the center is Action—measurable change; the next level, Systems Transformation; and the outer ring, Being—the space where we are all one.
Monica stresses the importance of recognizing and addressing the system you are dealing with—e.g. global finance. We should advocate for a cause in relation to the whole system, that is, hold the whole but act specifically. "When we do good things without engaging the system, it's like a Band-Aid."
But every project should start from discovery of the self: when people discover the difference between their being and their action—that is a moment of change, or, we might say, enlightenment. So, effective action calls for the full spectrum.
Monica has brought this work to thousands of people in dozens of countries around the globe, empowering leaders to take action on AIDS and other issues.
How did she come to this work?
The work of healing and medicine is indeed related to our deeper self. I got into it by accident, but I was primed through my childhood for it. My father embodied justice. My mother is deeply spiritual but not religious. We celebrated every festival at home (we lived in many places), and I met the Dalai Lama when I was six and Krishnamurti when I was seven. In my first large piece of work, mobilizing people throughout India to immunize 100 million children, there was not only strategy but inspiration in the way we designed the project, so that people would manifest their deepest self in it. As a result, immunization coverage increased from 20% to 80%. Daniel Goleman and Anne McKee later wrote about this work in a book called "Primal Leadership."
I started studying and applying transformational leadership at scale and refined it over the last 15 years. Transformation to me means the powerful unleashing of human potential to commit to, care about, and change for a better life.
How did she study this? Monica says,
I have built on so many people's wisdom. The wisdom of people working on the ground—policy makers, program managers, politicians, people—generating change, and many excellent coaches: Allan Henderson, Sharon Knoll, Ravi Pradhan, to name a few.She has studied the work of other thinkers who are exploring aspects of consciousness and transformation such as Robert Kegan, Peter Senge and Daniel Goleman, among others. She works on her own transformation (long way to go, she says!) through two approaches: first, her spiritual practice (for example, she meditates with Tsoknyi Rinpoche), and second through many personal transformation programs such as Landmark Education.
How would she describe her work today?
I design large-scale programs that simultaneously address both the technology and systems transformation along with leadership dimensions of change. I realized that a new level of leadership worldwide and a new commitment for transformation and sustainable change in development and business practice are needed to successfully respond to the global challenges facing humanity.
This kind of work is not about understanding; it's about discovering oneself in the moment. The joy of being with each other and discovering who are and how we will act—it's not just about me, it's about everyone who was in the room, what everyone brought to it.
What would you like to say to Sangha members who could not attend your workshops?
It would be that we are in a moment of great possibility and we are holding seeming opposites in the world. The opposites are—on the one hand, we have abundance, knowledge, connectivity, wisdom, and committed people; on the other, we have entrenched systems that marginalize people as never before. Because the power of technology is so great: the impact on the earth of a war 500 years ago was far more limited than the wars of today and what they leave behind. So we are at that strange place where we can either be healing the earth or not.
So my message would be that we are in a state of paradox and we have a choice. We have today at our disposal the wherewithal to make change; we know the technological solutions, we are the ones who create the systems—so for me that is a huge opportunity to create what's possible from who we deeply are. Influencing one or two things in the system—that will actually shift the whole. Because the whole doesn't get shifted by shifting the whole; it happens bit by bit. And I think the other great thing is that we are in this tremendous time when we can materialize and realize our dreams through so many pathways. It doesn't matter what religious faith we are. If we choose to, we can resonate at a deep level.
*Office Of The High Representative For The Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries And Small Island Developing States. The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Sharma and not necessarily those of the United Nations.