Life with purpose
The Weight of the Worldview, Part 1: The Heavy Lift
The Purpose of Capitalism

The Weight of the Worldview, Part 1: The Heavy Lift

Learning how to articulate your personal worldview is a leadership imperative.
By Jody Ono
21st Sep 2021

In my MBA leadership development course there are no tests, but there are repeated demands for written responses to open-ended questions. The very first set asks students to articulate their worldview: to describe the world, people and things that are happening around them, and then to express their feelings about all of this.

Being asked about their own worldview, as opposed to one offered up by maybe, religion or politics, is new to nearly all of my students. Yet once asked, many produce profound and thoughtful articulations of worries and wishes for the world (from climate change to fewer inequities); of arguments for idealism (global cooperation) and for realism (geopolitics); of observations on human goodness (generosity in the wake of natural disasters) and wickedness (opportunism in the wake of natural disasters).

What is and what ought to be

Your worldview is the lens through which you observe the world and its inhabitants and then make assumptions and judgements about what is, every day. Living in Tokyo, for example, to get downtown you assume “I’ll take the train.” You don’t doubt that the train will a) be running and b) get you to your destination; you “know” this about your world based on experience and learning, as in a mental model or heuristic. Alongside the practical assumptions, you make profound ones too such as “generally speaking, the world is a snake pit” and about human nature such as “people are mostly hard-working.”

Here’s an expression of worldview from Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome CE 161–180, in his Meditations (2.17):

“Human life. Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain…”

Marcus isn’t always this bleak, but he is laudably candid. So is David Bowie, attributed with this: “I’m not one of those guys that has a great worldview. I kind of deal with terror and fear and isolation and abandonment.” That’s just very good information to have about oneself, and it is precisely the level of self-insight anyone aspiring to lead anything should cultivate.

Worldviews aren’t only about what is, but also what ought to be. In Barack Obama’s Atlantic interview he offers: “…humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant… if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.” 

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The sharpest tool in the shed

Understanding your own worldview is a remarkably incisive self-awareness tool. Honing it, you cut through the noise to the basic form of leadership you are bound to offer, by default. In other words, questioning your own worldview is imperative for becoming a leader of your own design. 

To illustrate this, ask yourself: How do I view people? If you view people as mainly well-meaning, when leading them you’ll most likely afford them some level of trust. If, however, your default setting is that people are often deceitful, as a leader you’ll likely be hard-pressed to extend trust to others readily. 

Questioning your own worldview is imperative for becoming a leader of your own design.

Leadership talks today never fail to mention authenticity and empathy, which is great. But these are outcomes of character; as individuals we possess them in varying degrees and forms. You cannot simply install an authenticity-empathy patch onto your operating system. To offer good leadership essentials reliably, you need to acknowledge what you offer as an individual  — your soaring strengths and your dismal limitations, your intellectual apogees and your basest compulsions. 

It both makes and takes strength of character to examine your worldview under bare light, because once you do, you are forced to confront what’s illuminated. But, courage: this may well be your first act of self-leadership, your first step towards an intentional practice of leadership.

Worldview awareness is important for the famed why, or purpose, or even meaning, which leaders are also rightly urged to cultivate. As you identify the default settings governing your daily interactions with the world, you’ll gain better control in deciding how you want to engage. You’ll empower yourself to define your personal purpose, values and vision, and ultimately decide what you believe is right for the people you lead. Your leadership will develop to rely more on resolve than on reaction.

Way before the why

To identify a why, you must observe what gets through the lens of your worldview, to build (at least some) objectivity about yourself. What filters are at play? What gets distorted most? Because the “why” stems from worldview, not the other way around.* Careful: getting the sequencing wrong here can rob you of an opportunity to self-determine. For example, from my worldview work I decide that I see too many inequalities around me, and that for me, being purposeful means helping to make the world a place of greater equity. This decision emerges straight from how I see the world and how I believe it ought to be. This is how intentionality works. It’s fundamental, but we often get it wrong, adopting a conveniently “borrowed” purpose from an external source.

We all have a worldview that is unique to us, but we are not its original authors. It is shaped by our families, experiences, cultures—all contributing a mix of good and evil. Time, exposure, learning and love keep a worldview evolving.

*For this precious insight, I credit Dr. Tony Brown of the Center for Leadership Excellence, Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets, from whom I learned so many principles of responsible leadership development. 

We all have a worldview that is unique to us, but we are not its original authors. It is shaped by our families, experiences, cultures—all contributing a mix of good and evil. Time, exposure, learning and love keep a worldview evolving.

The importance of tilling

Yet more than a few individual worldviews go lifetimes untilled, left to crack into the dreaded “binary” form of worldview — glib, shallow, triaging people into winners and losers, worthy and worthless, thinkers and doers. Binary worldviews are both the cause and effect of a lack of questioning and a resistance to continuous learning.

We live within the bounds of our existing worldviews; that’s human. For a leader, the risk of an unexamined worldview is that rather than lending gravitas, it will drag you down. It will limit your perceived range of possibilities and therefore your capacity to inspire, and can be a real ball and chain if it fails to evolve with social norms. We saw outdated worldviews on parade here in Tokyo, prior to the Olympic Games, when unmodern utterances on gender and race dragged the socially clueless from high posts.

Never fear

So now ask yourself: How do I describe the world and what’s happening in it? What’s true about it, for me? What do I think of people, in general? Why do I have these perceptions? Then: Ought it to be this way? Or should things be different, and if so, how?

The deliberate discerning of your own unembellished voice is what makes worldview work the heavy lift in leadership development. Hold the line, be brutally honest and do not judge yourself. It may feel lonely at times, so find sanctuary in the like-minded in your life, and cultivate community with those you intend to lead.

Jody Ono is a faculty member at Hitotsubashi University Business School in Tokyo where she teaches leadership development to MBA students from some 20+ countries and in executive education programs for Japanese and global companies.

The Purpose of Capitalism: Lessons from Japan premieres on CNBC in October

Japan’s unique business worldview

The Purpose of Capitalism: Insights from Japan documentary takes an inside look at some of the largest and oldest Japanese companies to find the answer. It premieres on CNBC in October.

To read more about the film and be the first to receive insights and updates, click here.