- Published: 04 November 2008
I was browsing through some books on leadership, reflecting on the qualities of effective leaders. Many of them were obvious - vision, empowerment, collaboration, creativity and so on. One stood out, as something I had never really considered as a quality of a leader, and on closer inspection there are few that deserve more exploration than the somewhat misunderstood idea of asceticism.
Wikipedia (that oracle of modern culture) defines it in its historical context as ‘a life-style characterised by abstinence from worldly pleasures, especially sexual activity and consumption of alcohol, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals’1. Sounds great - where do I collect my cilice and Opus Dei manual? Although this term may initially conjure up images of silent religious hermits living in caves on a diet consisting entirely of moss and beetles, the principle of asceticism can have useful applications for average people who have trouble pinning down the things that really matter in life.
‘Ascetic’ is derived from the Greek term ask?t?s, meaning ‘disciplined exercise’ or ‘training’2. In its broader context, asceticism is defined by one author as ‘the discipline of defining life’s boundaries and following a path of life that reflects one’s core values’3. Some of the world’s greatest leaders, activists and visionaries have been described as secular or ‘worldly’ ascetics for choosing to focus much of their time and energy on causes critical to them - Mahatma Gandhi is a notable example4. A modern interpretation of asceticism is the ability to prioritise the activities that make up our lives and place limits around parts that are not productive. It is essentially a more considered approach to the instinctive time management skills most busy people employ to make the most of their time and energy.
The vast majority of people in who take on leadership and advocacy roles combine busy work and life schedules with a desire and commitment to bringing about change in the issues they are passionate about. One of the most limiting factors for others to embrace this role in their own lives is a sense of having no time, and in many ways time is the most precious resource we have. Asceticism is the ability to focus and harness time and energy effectively by weighing up the values of the things that make up life, and making intelligent choices to enhance the things that matter to create a life that is meaningful and authentically yours.
Asceticism says that it is okay to compromise and set limits around things that don’t add meaning to your life - the things that aren’t critical to a deeper sense of happiness and real fulfilment as a person. Why waste time and energy on things that don’t matter when you could be doing something you love? Thank God epitaphs don’t actually reflect how people spend their lives - ‘Samantha never did compromise on the quality of granite bench tops’ or ‘Jane worked so much she hated it, but she kept working anyway’ (mine would be ‘Angela checked her email several times a day, despite the fact that there was never anything interesting’). Emotions drive a vast and wonderful array of counter-productive and compulsive behaviours. Everyone has them and they can become surprisingly time-consuming parts of one’s life. Who has time to consider the meaning of life when you’re busy with everything else? In a modern context asceticism would suggest putting a time and energy limit on the peripheral things. Perhaps relinquishing one unrewarding role will give you time and energy to pursue another, or putting a time limit on some aspects of your life could give you the chance to develop others.
I think asceticism is also a great tool for taking care of yourself. Identifying and nurturing elements of your life that protect and replenish you physically and emotionally can get lost in the mix when other parts of life seem to clamour for your attention. Medicine is a fantastic example of how highly intelligent health professionals can completely ignore their own needs and dispense with incredibly simple self-care principles they routinely prescribe to other people (eating well, BMI 25 or less 25, eight hours of sleep a night, 30 minutes of exercise a day, manage stress and give up the cigarettes and drinking too much) when pressure takes over. I speak from personal experience as an practitioner of the somewhat unfortunate habit of thinking that an hour at the gym is way too much effort when you’re tired after a long day, but spending two hours blithely wandering around shops is a great way to manage stress (unsurprisingly my LDL is not what it used to be). Asceticism says you have to recalibrate your life when your find your system is out of kilter. It’s not so much juggling as the Music of the Spheres, and the harmony you feel when your life is in balance after a period of discord.
By taking time out to consider what has meaning and value in life, and consciously setting (and resetting) the agenda for our lives, we create a sense of commitment to the most important and fruitful parts. Asceticism asks us to take on the mantle of leadership within our own lives, and articulate and live by our values. It’s one thing to value a professional culture that respects women as strong, capable and articulate leaders in their field, and another thing entirely to engender this principle and work towards its realisation by making it a priority in your life. Perhaps this means you spend less time overloading your work plate, or having lunch with people you don’t really like (what a delightful idea!).
Although I can’t say the concept of purgative fasts and extremely difficult yoga thrills me, I do think those monks were onto something. Perhaps there is something we can take from the concept of asceticism, and incorporate into the hectic lives of brilliant and inspiring women leaders. The broader interpretation of asceticism may form the backbone of discipline required to ‘be the change’ or simply an opportunity to reflect on one’s limits and boundaries in life, and find the point of strength and balance within it all.
Asceticism for the Time Poor was authored by Miss Angela Wilson (VIC) as part of her 2008 AFMW Leadership Scholarship.
1. ‘Asceticism’. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed 26/10/2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asceticism
2. Treston K (1995). Creative Christian Leadership: Skills for more effective leadership. Twenty-Third Publications, Connecticut.
3. Chambers W (2001). Chamber’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Adamant Media Corporation. Online version available at http://books.google.com/books?id=kf8n2v9ZjxIC
4. Pinch WR (2000). Killing Ascetics in Indian History, ca. 1500-2000. Political and Legal Anthropology Review 23(2): 134-140.