What is Surrendered Leadership? (A First Look)

We believe you can more elegantly express your unique service to the world… here’s how.
by Jordan Myska Allen

Surrendered leadership is a paradox: Self-leadership, in connection with the whole.

In other words, you have to be willing to open to yourself and your connection to everyone and everything else.

We hope this article will interest you and others into our work in Circling, and we hope it clarifies what we do so we can go more quickly and easily into depth together. We also hope that by sharing this understanding of leadership, we create stronger, more creative, dynamic, and aligned individuals—and therefore a more conscious, supportive, abundant and loving whole.

Opening to Yourself: Self Leadership

*Self-leadership* means deeply owning your experience, trusting what is arising, staying connected at an embodied level.

It means not tolerating anything. It means seeing the opportunity for your own responsibility in every situation and finding more ways to not leave responsibility outside of you. Another way to say this is to love yourself as much as you are loving others.

Opening to Yourself: Do Not Tolerate Anything

Not tolerating means not going along with what is happening simply because of social or group norms, or your own discomfort challenging the leadership or power of others. It means realising the responsibility you can take for your life and experience in every moment. It means stepping off the wheel of judgment and resentment into empowered action.

For example, the leadership in a meeting is focusing all of their attention on one issue and you are uncomfortable with the direction they are going. Instead of tolerating it because you “should” follow the rule of the leader, you speak up and own what is happening inside of you.

Reversing the Golden Rule: Love Yourself as Much as You Love Others

Loving yourself as much as you are loving others means including your experience and giving it as much value as someone else’s.

For example, your attention is wandering to the Syrian refugee crisis when you are hanging out at a bar—you think your friends are wasting their time talking about issues that do not matter—even though everyone else seems really engaged. So you gently encourage yourself to speak your relative truth even though it is vulnerable to admit that you are not absorbed in the current conversation.

Opening to Others: Acknowledging Our Connection With the Whole

*In connection with the whole* means acknowledging that we are not isolated; that we are always in relationship(s). It is a commitment to connecting with what is arising, to deeply feeling another’s expression, and being open to the feedback that the group (and the world) is giving us in any moment so that we can be more deeply aligned and present to what is.

Opening to Others: We Are Always in Relationship

We are always in relationship means that we are co-created by the people and circumstances around us. Our experience is a direct result of our connections to the larger contexts.

For example, when we are teaching something to a bunch of newbies, our experience is being created as much by our understanding of their experience level as it is by our own confidence. Our reality is co-created by the social situation, the group norms, the physical space we are in, the physical bodies we inhabit, subtle energy, the language we are using; all of it creates the “I” that leads in any given moment. To ignore that is to ignore reality, and will likely cause unexpected and unwanted experiences.

Another way of saying this is that for every “I” there is a “we;” for every physical body there is a system of physical bodies that it arises in. It is a four-quadrant affair, in Integral terminology.

Or, as The Jungle Book puts it: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

Going Beyond Our Personal Filter (While Including It)

Another way to understand Surrendered Leadership is that we are surrendering our personal ideology, ego identity, and personal intelligence to the larger intelligence of the whole.

This means that we are acknowledging our own filters and limitations: that as individuals we cannot possibly be smarter, wiser, or more prepared than the collective intelligence of everyone showing up fully.

A key factor in this everyone showing up fully,” which, paradoxically, must include US as leaders showing up fully as well.

We must go beyond our personal agendas to recognize our wholeness, but we cannot just go beyond them, we must fully include them as well. There is no power in the collective without including the power of individuals.

This kind of showing up includes revealing what is happening to us and being willing to express our experience authentically. The level of authenticity is usually in line with the level of vulnerability it takes to really be ourselves with others, especially if we are in a leadership role with a lot of expectations.

To surrender deeply into what is happening involves being willing to rest in the mystery of what arises in us and between us and to let go of preconceived ideas of what should happen. (At CirclingEurope we use the 5 principles of Circling to support us in the space, but this kind of leadership is not Circling-dependent).

Creating a Vision—A Super Heroic Example

As an example, Marvel movie fans will remember from the second Avengers that The Vision—a character essential for defeating the villain Ultron—is created as a result of both collaboration (between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner) and conflict (with Quicksilver removing the power and Thor’s attempt to destroy Vision accidentally giving him cosmic power—watch the scene here). Tony’s personal agenda was necessary for the creation of this being but insufficient… he needed the power of the collective, especially their dissent.

We must all show up fully, while surrendering to the greater intelligence of the whole: not just the people in front of us, but life-force moving through all of us as we meet in the moment.

Six Misunderstandings of How this Next-Level Leadership Looks in Action

This is a complex type of leadership, but when done well it seems simple, even elegant. And it can serve every level of development. The following will help clear up a few misunderstandings of what this looks like in practice.

1) Surrendered leadership does not mean expressing every little thing that happens inside of you.

This kind of expression is usually narcissistic and actually not very authentic—in that it is not owning the motivation for the self-expression; it generally ignores the relationship with the whole, and it generally ignores that the act of speaking changes the truth of what we speak.

Expressing everything lacks discernment, which is a key piece of leadership (1/2 of the equation of surrendered leadership).

Discernment means using our best, in the moment interpretation of what is happening (we all have a framework whether we realize it or not). It also means inquiring more deeply into what is happening inside—continuously asking “is it true?” “Is there something deeper?” “What is the meaning?” “How can I take responsibility for this?” and “Why might this be arising within me?”

Expressing everything is generally not very embodied; as the vast majority of what we can track in ourselves tends to be mental chatter. Most of this chatter is like leaves on the branches of a tree. I prefer to express the trunk once rather than a thousand leaves. Sometimes it involves waiting, going slower. But this clarity of expression ends up aligning us with truth much Another is to feel how the words will speak themselves when they are ready to be spoken (rather than perceiving an “I” that chooses when to speak).

2) Surrendered leadership, by definition, includes awareness of the greater wholeness we are a part of (including the group and the individuals in the group and the greater societal context).

What are we surrendering to, otherwise?

That includes if there are newcomers to a team, that includes your family history if you are at holidays, that includes the cultural context you are working in, that includes economic and physical limitations. The difference is that you are as suspicious of your own assumption and ideas about reality and what the group needs as you are about those of others.

This suspicion, while still leading fully, creates the space for spontaneity and moment-to-moment course corrections. It leads to a sense of your identity being co-created from one moment to the next.

3) Surrendered leadership can absolutely include planning and tight structures.

Sometimes people think surrender does not include planning, or keeping a tight structure. There are a few key factors to understand here about what makes surrendering to structure  (be willing to follow) different from maintaining structure (using willfulness to uphold):


  • We are open to surrendering our plan or timing to the greater intelligence of the moment (just as we’re open to surrendering our need for approval from others by following our plan instead of giving them what they want).


  • We recognize when we are using the act of planning to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty, to protect ourselves, or to push our own agenda above others without being open to feedback.
  • Even when we recognize that our planning is a bid against uncertainty, planning still may be a part of our surrender… it just depends on the moment, and it will go way better when we are in deeper touch with what is really driving us (and willing to let that change us).
  • We may still push our own agenda, but we open to feedback and learn to incorporate it, allowing it to shift us. As a simple example: We are still driving our car (we are sure as hell not letting the passengers drive the car by consensus), but when we find out there is an accident blocking our original route, we are willing to go a different way even if we are not very familiar with it (instead of sticking to what we knew in advance).
  • On the other side, we may realize that we are pretending to surrender so that we do not have to accept the responsibility and discomfort of sticking with a strong container of time—in which case our surrender would actually include a strong directionality.

I have yet to discover something surrender cannot include, because surrender is about including all of what is available to us in the moment.

It is the willingness to follow what appears to us as the most true direction. It is active in the sense that we are opening to all that is (our habit of relying on what we already know and are accustomed to would be passive, and closed to new information). There is also an active letting go to the deepest truth we have access to.

This leaves us open to way more information as we are always receiving the fullness of information from the moment and letting that guide us, together with our plans and intentions.

4) Surrendered leadership is absolutely appropriate for all levels of development.

Aside from my personal experience, the best research on this is Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s new book on Deliberately Developmental Organizations: in it they show how (amongst other things) the process of constantly giving and receiving feedback in a (highly successful) theater company (that employs everyone from low wage teens making popcorn to some of the most sought after CEOs) supports development from the simplest to most complex ways of making meaning of the world. The type of feedback and cultures they describe in the book are similar to surrendered leadership.

How does this work? If you are not interested, or not a developmental nerd, feel free to skip to the next section.

  • From an initially totally egocentric motivation (2nd order), it is easier to go with the flow of authentic expression than to fight it, and by participating in the honest expression one gains more power and respect. But the very activity of participating in the group—of having one’s thoughts and feelings held by the group, and being let in to the interior experiences of others—puts one into something larger than themselves and their immediate goals and needs, pulling them into a more socialized mind (3rd order).
  • From the ethnocentric motivation (3rd order), one must participate in the culture of giving and receiving honest feedback to follow the rules, but in doing so they are forced to speak the difficult things that challenge the norms, roles, and loyalties that make them up, pulling them into a more autonomous, 4th order way of being.
  • From the autonomous point of view (4th order), one must receive difficult feedback that does not fit their agenda, purpose, or ideology of how reality works, from the most surprising sources (often people of lesser developmental complexity, for example). This pulls them beyond their own identity and forces them to look at, instead of through, their ideology and self-understanding, beckoning them into a self in constant transformation (5th order).

5) Surrendered leadership does not mean checking in with everyone all of the time, nor following their desires.

The need to check in with everyone might arise in any given moment, but if it is a global assumption it is probably an ideology you should check in with in yourself before plodding ahead. You can also check in or get a group pulse in a variety of ways that do not include verbal checkins—such as a show of hands.

You can get a feel for where the group is at while being very explicit that such feedback does not mean the majority rules. This often challenges assumptions and initiates creative solutions that an individual leader nor the group would generate on their own.

6) Surrendered leadership is not something to turn on and off.

The idea of “turning off surrender” seems to turn off the willingness to take in input that might challenge one’s preconceived notion of what is best for a particular situation. This clinging to an already-decided way of being in the moment closes one to direct contact with what is actually here—which may or may not fit our assumptions about how reality should be.

This turning off also tends to close a leader to their own insecurity and vulnerability—feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, volatility, etc.—usually because of the pain of threat of these feelings. Besides closing off to a true and 

beautiful aspect of in-the-moment reality, this is a huge mistake since inadequacy, uncertainty,complexity are huge assets that we can learn to trust. Trusting our own inadequacy can be a doorway to recognizing wholeness that allows for incredible creativity to spring forth. It can also show us where we truly are adequate, so that we can show up more fully, with confidence and humility, without any need to prove ourselves or overcompensate for feelings of not being enough.


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