Leadership talk pushes boundaries

On Thursday, Feb. 26, Jane Barrash ’78 visited St. Olaf to share her ideas about leadership and a paradigm shift that she believes needs to take place to produce more effective leadership.

Barrash is the executive director of the Continuum Center, where she shares her holistic curriculum with many leaders, athletes and students all around the country. She shared with the students her firm belief that we live in a “magical, unpredictable universe” and we need to shift our framework of leadership and way of thinking to one more supportive of mental health, creativity, productivity and quality of life.

During her visit to campus, Barrash visited classes, talked to the men’s rugby team and gave a presentation entitled “Philosophy and Psychology of Leadership.” Presented by the Student Leadership Institute and the Piper Center, this wellness-swiped event took place in Viking Theater and attracted a variety of students interested in hearing Barrash’s ideas.

At the beginning of the talk, audience members wrote down what qualities they thought made a good leader. After Barrash’s presentation, these ideas were revisited as students were then encouraged to turn over their cards and write whether their ideas about what a leader should be had changed. During her lecture, Barrash emphasized the importance of looking at evidence and keeping an open mind to a new way of thinking in order to “revisit our operating assumptions.”

Barrash “followed an unconventional path” from Chicago to St. Olaf, where she said she did not fit the common Lutheran and Scandinavian profile. She had her own perspectives to bring to this campus, and learned to embrace a different style of life on campus than she was used to in Chicago. Barrash said she was forever grateful for the philosophy class she took at St. Olaf that helped her further broaden her perspectives and ideas about the world. Graduating with a degree in political science and philosophy, Barrash said she had a hard time finding a job right after college, but that she used the time to learn about herself, manage her fear and think about the world in a new way.

Barrash asked the audience to challenge conventional assumptions, pointing to our traditional education system to make her point. She said, “I am convinced that conventional education only teaches a thin band about who we are and how the world works,” and emphasized that more attention should be given to developing and working with the right side of our brains. She proposed that breathing exercises and better connections between people will solve many of the world’s problems.

“I believe in diversity and I think a lot of growth and health and healing come from connections,” Barrash said.

Barrash’s main point is that we should be moving from a materialist paradigm which gives great power to logistics, control and predictability to a quantum paradigm where all humans are interconnected in the universe and using their brains and bodies together as creative tools, rather than only the left side of their brains as “human computers.”

Instead of taking the world apart piece by piece and labeling its parts as part of the current materialistic paradigm would do, Barrash suggests that a quantum approach would take a more interconnected approach where there is not “one” reality, but each person has his or her own reality that is interconnected to other humans and the world itself.

In a short small-group discussion, Barrash challenged the audience members to discuss whether they thought human consciousness could determine reality, or as she put it, “whether you think consciousness is a causal reality.”

To explore this idea, Barrash posed this scenario: if you see one cockroach crawling away from a closed cardboard box, could your mind and consciousness change whether or not the box was full of cockroaches? Barrash argued that a positive attitude and letting go of fear could cause there to be no more cockroaches in the box.

However, it was a bit more challenging for all audience members to understand her idea on this scenario. Tiller Martin ’17 said, “I agree with her that we need to take a holistic approach in leadership, but I don’t think we have the power to destroy cockroaches just by willing cockroaches to be gone.”

Barrash said that in the current paradigm of leadership and conventional systems, “we’re falling apart,” but that ultimately humans are “wired for optimism, compassion and connection.” Therefore, she emphasized her new quantum paradigm as an opportunity for leaders to “fly from the mountain tops, not run like rats in a race” by questioning the status quo instead of blindly following it and by looking for other options to solve problems.

Barrash noted that thinking and leading unconventionally is challenging, and there is not overwhelming support to follow this new paradigm, but said she teaches people from all backgrounds because she wants “people to focus on creating dreams rather than drama.”