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A Group of people walking up a trail in Bali

A Leadership Learning Journey to Bali

In January 2016 a small group of us from Saint Mary’s College ventured to Bali, Indonesia with the expressed intention to  immerse ourselves in Balinese life to see what we can learn about leadership. One year later the lessons learned from this journey went beyond our practice of leadership to lessons about on how to live life from a place of deep respect and connection. Co-sponsored by the Leadership Center and the Bali Institute for Global Renewal, we visited and engaged people and places in Bali in ways not available to most Western visitors. This journey was born from the idea that when we step outside of our own cultural context and step inside a very different one, we can see more clearly the taken-for-granted views and assumptions that color our lives and leadership, and we are offered new ones to consider. Our visit to Bali did that for all of us. One participant described her experience this way,

“The openness I held throughout this journey gave me so much more than I ever could have anticipated, and, if anything, the reminder to stay open to experience for further knowledge and connection is one guiding force that can remain throughout my life’s journey.”

While in Bali we experienced first hand what Alan James Yu describes as two fundamental values that animate Balinese life and leadership–Harmonic and Dharmic values. Emerged over the centuries from a unique synthesis in Bali of indigenous animism, Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu influences, harmonic values are based in the belief that that living a good life comes through the harmonious relations among people, land and spirit, which is also referred to as Tri Hita Karana.

Balinese have with their ancestral past, their moral obligation to preserve their land and culture for future generations, as well as fulfilling their own future aspirations in this life and beyond.

Throughout our journey we met many Balinese who embodied these values in their life and work. The story of artist, entrepreneur, and cultural leader Agung Rai was one that really touched me.  Agung Rai is the founder and director of the Agung Rai Museum of Art  and Resort (ARMA) in Ubud. At a young age, Agung Rai became alarmed by the effect of westernization of Bali and concerned about the future of Balinese culture. For nearly two decades prior to opening his museum in 1996 Agung Rai used the proceeds from his own art and traveled the world collecting and preserving Balinese art, many of which had left the island decades earlier. During this time, he also established programs to encourage and support young Balinese artists. Now the museum displays traditional Balinese paintings, fabrics, carvings, masks and costumes, as well as showcasing traditional architecture in the design of the buildings. As a cultural center it provides spaces and events that demonstrate other cultural practices such as music, dance, rituals and ceremonies.

While the fruits of Agung Rai’s early vision for preserving Balinese art and culture was impressive, what moved me the most was how he embodied Balinese values in his leadership. In response to a question about leadership, he made a gesture akin to making the sign of the cross.

The world and our unique contribution to it was represented by his outstretched hand in front of him, and moving it from left to right and back again along a horizontal line across his body. How we know what to do was represented by moving his hand to his heart, and then lifted his arm, pointing skyward and then along a vertical line down pointing to the ground. He went on to say, through aligning the heart, spirit and earth, we become morally wise and this wisdom is what allows us to discern what actions we are to take in order to bring the most benefit to others.

The life and work of Agung Rai was one of many extraordinary people who exemplified leadership infused by the values Bali we encountered on this journey. In asking participants what were some of the lessons learned, one fellow traveler shared that “the Bali trip has changed my way of looking at my leadership role. My staff has experienced a more inspired leader!” Another shared, “collaboration, with each other and our environment, and our relationships to faith, each other, and our environment is a trinity that the west could absolutely benefit from.”

While this leadership learning journey Bali spanned just a short ten days, we all left with lessons that will last our lifetimes. Not only did the beauty and wisdom of Balinese life enrich our lives, it  inspired us to do our part to ensure their life and culture can survive and flourish. We also left inspired to cultivate a more integrated practice of leadership and gained invaluable insights on what our unique contribution should be to help make the world whole again. One lesson I learned was to make the sign of the cross across and along by body to help me align heart, spirit and earth so that I may cultivate the wisdom on how best to contribute to world to which we all belong.

You are invited to join us for the next leadership learning journey to Bali entitled Indigenous Wisdom and Collective Leadership, it spans 14 days from July 28 to August 10, 2017. Go here for more information about this course, including how to receive graduate course credit.

About Ken Otter, Ph.D.

Ken Otter, Ph.D.
Ken is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Co-director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary's College. Areas of scholarship include: global leadership development, leadership coaching education, multi-stakeholder collaboration, collective creativity, and the application of lifespan and wisdom development in organizational life.

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  • Jennifer McKinney Paredes

    What a trip! Sounds like an amazing adventure.

    • Ken Otter

      Yes, it was amazing an amazing adventure. There was so much more I could have shared! I trust you are doing well!