How Can Meditation Make Us Better Leaders?

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By Marc Lesser, guest contributor

Perhaps most important, meditation helps lighten our hearts and let go of fear and hopelessness.

Leadership is a way to bring our hearts, courage, and optimism into our work and all our relationships to help make this world healthier and more compassionate.

I’ve noticed there is a good deal of misunderstanding about the practice of meditation. I’ve also noticed there is lack of clarity and understanding regarding the role and relationship of meditation with cultivating outstanding leadership.  

I feel extremely fortunate that my early leadership experience was in the context of an environment that was primarily centered around meditation, mindfulness, and self-awareness practices. I was 28 years old when I was asked to be the head cook of Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the western world. When I was 30 years old I was the Tassajara Director. (Tassajara functions as a traditional Zen monastery in the winter and fall – with an intensive meditation schedule.  In the summer, it is a retreat and conference center with 75 overnight guests and a staff of 60 students – featuring gourmet vegetarian meals along with natural hot springs. Tassajara is at the end of a 14-mile dirt road, that requires traversing a 5,000 foot mountain pass, in central California.) Meditation practice, mindfulness practice, and work practice were seen as fully integrated and ways to serve, learn, and develop as a human being.

To address the topic of meditation, I want to tell a story about three bricklayers. Someone asks the first bricklayer, “What are you doing?”  He replies, “I’m just laying bricks, paying attention, one brick at a time.” This same person asks the second bricklayer, “What are you doing?” He responds, “I’m supporting my family.”  And, he then asks the third bricklayer, “What are you doing?” He responds, “I’m communicating with God, since we are building a cathedral.”

I like this parable since it is a useful way to talk about meditation as well as leadership. Meditation looks like one activity but is actually three activities. The same is true of leadership – it may appear to be one activity but is actually three. The qualities expressed by these three bricklayers and these three different ways of framing meditation practice line up nicely with qualities of exceptional leadership.

The first quality is to show up, to be present, just doing what you are doing. In meditation this translates into being aware of body, breath, thoughts, and feelings. This leadership practice is showing up, with simplicity and authenticity. This is the quality of cultivating self-awareness, one of the most essential capacities of leadership.  A survey of 75 members of the Stanford Business School Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop.

Leadership is cultivating the ability to just do what you are doing--to be present, awake, and alert. There is a wonderful quote by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who says, “The real miracle is not to walk on water. The real miracle is to walk right here on Earth.” Through the practice of meditation, we train our minds to be more aware, more focused, and also to be more open and flexible. This is much like the first bricklayer, just laying bricks.

Second, we practice meditation with various intentions or aspirations. We might want to shift our relationship with stress, to increase our wellbeing, or to be more in connection with ourselves and others. Or we might want to be more productive or a better leader. We might want to reduce or transform our self-doubt. There are many possible intentions for having a meditation practice. The practice of meditation can help to clarify our intentions as well as build the skills and mindset needed to better fulfill these intentions. We all come to meditation practice with some intention, from reducing stress to wanting to be more aware, awake, alive, and free from our conditioning.

An essential aspect of leadership is having clear targets and goals. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, uses the term “creative tension” to describe the space or gap between where you are and where you want to be as a leader. These gaps can refer to revenue goals, or launching new products, or raising funds for your organization. They can also refer to internal goals such as the intention of developing greater courage or equanimity. Senge makes a case for the importance of staying with these tensions or gaps, while recognizing that it can be uncomfortable to be in the “in-between” places in our lives.  At one point, he says that the ability to stay with the discomfort of these tensions may be the most important quality of leadership.

A core capacity that meditation practice supports is the ability to not turn away from difficulty and discomfort.  In this way meditation supports stellar leadership by both clarifying intentions and helping us develop the ability to stay with the daily and relentless challenges of leadership.

Third, similar to the third bricklayer, meditation can be a kind of prayer or sacred act. Meditation can be a transcendent act, letting go of our usual ideas of effort and effortlessness, and our attachments to self -- touching something more basic, primal, and sacred. We sit without any intention other than to listen deeply, and to express ourselves fully, by stepping outside of the usual concerns and judgments about doing things right or wrong. We let go with each exhale of needing or wanting anything, cultivating the quality of aliveness and equanimity, not lacking anything – being whole and complete just as we are.

Dogen, the 13th century founder of Zen in Japan speaks about meditation this way: “The sitting practice I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the gate of repose and bliss….”  He goes on to say that the essence of mediation is to “learn the backwards step that turns your light inward.”

This “backward” step is the practice of “beginner’s mind” – the practice of letting go of being right or being an expert. Meditation is a way of cultivating real presence and vulnerability. It is an act of innovation and courage.
This third quality is perhaps the most profound way meditation and leadership can be integrated and support one another. This practice of authentic presence shifts how you show up, how you embody the values you aspire to live and work by. This third quality, much like a prayer, combines the sacred with what is ordinary.  It allows for a radical readiness, focus, and flexibility – all essential qualities of stellar leadership. And, it emphasizes the core value that leadership is primarily about service and helping others.

To Meditate Is to Stare

This third quality of meditation and leadership reminds me of a powerful an surprising passage from Walker Evans, one of America’s greatest 20th century photographers:

Stare. It is the way to educate our eye, and more.

Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something.

You are not here long.

When I first read these words, especially his instructions to “stare,” my entire body was jolted. I became immediately attentive and sat upright. I was always taught, as most of us are, not to stare. We are taught to turn away from what is different, what is uncomfortable. “Don’t stare,” our parents told us repeatedly. (In fact, Walker Evans’s mother often scolded him for staring or pointing.)  

Then it occurred to me: meditation and leadership puts us in greater touch with the inherent richness of our life, both its delights and its sorrows.  Meditation, as described by the third bricklayer, is a sacred act, in which we recognize the shortness of our lives and the miracle of being alive. Through mindfulness practices and leadership practices, we shift the quality of our attention and our effort, our relationship with effort, with time, and our relationship with ourselves. This quality of mindfulness is not esoteric or rare; it’s available to us all the time in every moment.

The line “die knowing something” stays with me, encouraging, urging me to become clearer of important things to know each day, and especially before dying. It encourages me to be clearer about how I want to live. I was surprised by what emerged as I began to write my list of things to know before dying:

- We should know how to say hello and how to say good-bye, and appreciate the preciousness of these words when we say them.

- We should know how to meet ourselves and others, fully, and spend time thinking about what that “meeting” means.

- We should know how to be separate individuals and know that we are radically connected to others at the same time.

- We should know that we matter and that every life matters.

- We should know how to love and how to open our heart to being loved.

- We should know that we belong and that our belonging goes beyond this lifetime. We belong to our family, to the family of humanity, as well as to the stars. After all, scientists know that each of us is made of stardust.

“You are not here long,” Evans said, and you are not alone. Above all, your life—the ways you contribute to the world in big and infinitesimally small ways—matters! 

As I thought about the words of Walker Evans, I realized something else: My entire adult life I have practiced staring through meditation. Through meditation practice, and by integrating meditation practice with my daily life — both my personal and professional lives — I have aspired to be more self-aware and to embody a different way to live. The practice of meditation is to consider life and death and consciousness, and whatever arises as most important, sacred, and ordinary.

Meditation helps us live with an appreciation of the power and preciousness of our human life. Meditation practice and all contemplative practices can be described as cultivating depth and sacredness in our everyday lives, for preparing, and simplifying our lives for the purpose of not only getting more done, but getting more of the right things done, with the least amount of resistance or unnecessary effort. It helps us really know something and at the same time, let go of knowing with each breath. 

Through meditation practice, we can see and cultivate the qualities of leadership as the ordinary act of being present, of working to meet goals and intentions, and as a sacred act of presence, of service, of meeting people and challenges beyond the limitations of fears and our self-centered concerns.

 As a mindfulness teacher and leader, I practice and teach meditation and leadership as core activities for this human life. Meditation is a way to educate our eye. To stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop, to allow ourselves to connect more deeply with others; to find ways to become better listeners; to see and try to solve both small and enormous problems—from the ones confronting us each day to saving our planet from environmental catastrophe. Perhaps most important, meditation helps lighten our hearts and let go of fear and hopelessness.  Leadership is a way to bring our hearts, courage, and optimism into our work and all our relationships to help make this world healthier and more compassionate.

Some practices:

During meditation and when leading, explore noticing three activities:

  1. Self-awareness - just being present and aware.
  2. Intention – what is your intention?. In particular, notice the gaps between where you are and where you aspire to be.
  3. Letting go, enter a more sacred space – explore letting go of all intentions, ideas of right and wrong. Allow meditation practice and leadership practice to have the quality of deep connection with yourself, and beyond yourself.  Who are you when you are not doing anything extra, when you are perfect, just the way you are?

Marc Lesser is an author and teacher. His most recent book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader, Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen, will be published in February 2019. Marc is the co-founder and former CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. To learn more about Marc, please visit his website.



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