How To Face A Mess – The First Flip of Zen Leadership
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How To Face A Mess – The First Flip of Zen Leadership

How To Face A Mess – The First Flip of Zen Leadership

By Ginny Whitelaw
Originally published on on May 1st, 2024

Image created by the author

You’ve noticed the climate crisis. You see its impact on human health. You see examples of social, political, and environmental collapse coming closer to home. You see the volcanic eruption of AI already disrupting the profession you thought you entered or that your kids were schooled to enter. As one committed to making a positive difference—which is what we mean by leadership—how do you face messes like these and still authentically add your value?

The tendency may be not to face them at all, and instead get sucked into the endless distraction of daily errands and the pressing to-do list or who’s saying what on social media. It’s easier to throw up one’s hands in despair or blame than it is to take ownership. As Al Gore observed about people’s reaction to the climate crisis back when it was still the Inconvenient Truth of climate change, people would go from denying it was happening to saying there is nothing we can do without ever pausing in between to face the mess. Kosha Joubert, CEO of the Pocket Project, observes that what keeps us from facing messes like the climate crisis is trauma, especially collective and intergenerational trauma that keeps us stuck in reactive patterns, dividing us and sabotaging any effective response. Otto Scharmer cites three separations at the root of our tendency to make messes, rather than face and resolve them, namely separation within ourselves, separation from others and separation from nature.

What happens when we flip such conditions around, and lead from no separation? Such is the essence and work of Zen Leadership, which is both practical and practice-able. Leading integrated within oneself, one-with others and one-with nature, we become a resilient, healing force that faces messes, settles fears, and extends our energy and gifts to add whatever value we can. This way of leading flips around conventional leadership thinking, as it emphasizes connection more than control, listening more than knowing and relationships more than numbers. It’s not that conventional leadership thinking is wrong, but that its usefulness is limited to what Harvard professor, Ronald Heifetz, characterized as “technical challenges.” These are engineering-like challenges amenable to unambiguous answers, such as, what’s the load limit on a bridge? Technical challenges are the simplistic cousins to the far more prevalent “adaptive challenges” that require, as his book was titled, Leadership without Easy Answers.

We best adapt to the challenges of this time and face the fears, suffering and wicked issues it has given rise to not as separate stand-apart egos trying to figure things out with our cleverness, but as connected human beings. One with others, we act with compassion and care for relationships, which gives us a felt sense of diverse perspectives and creates conditions for better followership.  One with nature, we can be renewed and inspired by ways to re-balance our tasks, processes or businesses to be more regenerative. One with life, we are more resilient; we are able bring more healing resilience to others and build more resilient systems.  

To lead without separation is a simple enough concept to understand, but it is not easy to manifest. More than a concept, it is a visceral state called samadhi that arises through persistent work with breath and posture in Zen training and other integrative mind-body practices. When mind and body are experienced as one, one can start seeing through the illusion of all separation—e.g., between self and others, self and nature. Alongside such practice, the embodied skills of Zen Leadership can be cultivated through a series of flips, starting with the fundamental flip that takes us out of unproductive patterns of reactivity or coping, which is the first flip of Zen leadership: from coping to transforming. Only once we make this flip are we truly leading, that is, able to add our value.

At the hinge point of this flip lies acceptance. In coping mode, we’re not truly facing a mess, but skirting it. Coping produces inner walls or resistance, somewhere along the scale of denial, rage, anger, blame, disappointment, distancing, indignance or tolerance. If, for a moment, you imagine yourself in a game like charades acting out words, feel what your body does to model states like “rage,” or “indignance”. Becoming those words for even a moment, you might notice certain muscles tensing or heat rising toward your head. I once worked with a leader whose carotid artery would bulge as he started getting angry, while those around him tried, as they put it, to “contain the vein!”  Whether subtle or extreme, such physical reactions constrict the flow of energy in our body and reinforce separation in and around ourselves.

By contrast, now model the word, “acceptance.” Rest there for a moment and notice how your body responds. Perhaps you can feel a dropping away of tension and a felt connection with gravity. This state of neutrality is the “zero” we pass through as negative emotions give way to positive states, such as joy and enthusiasm. Acceptance does not mean we like the mess we’re facing. It means  we take it as it is. We accept that it is the exact and natural product of a slew of causes and conditions converging in the present moment—and here we are, too. With acceptance, our body opens and relaxes. We can sense better, giving us a better read on the situation and a felt sense of connection. Moreover, without tension to siphon off our energy, we have more to offer to the matter or mess at hand.

As a practical way of facing a mess, this flip from coping to transforming can be practiced in 3 steps: center, enter, add value. Here’s how they work:


If you experienced the upward tug of “rage” or the downward settling of “acceptance,” you’ll recognize that down is the better direction for centering ourselves and moving toward acceptance.  It’s also part of our commonsense language, for example to calm down or settle down. In Zen training one uses breath and posture to settle down into the lower abdomen, i.e., the hara, for cultivating an energized quality of centeredness. You can get a feel for this by standing or sitting upright with your feet in solid contact with the earth. Imagine a plumb line dropping through the crown of your head down through to your lower abdomen. On a long, slow exhale, imagine your breath sliding down this plumb line, into your hara. On your next exhale, go further still and imagine sending your breath down through your hara, and through your feet to the center of the earth. Make your exhale long, slow and luxurious, and your inhale relaxed and expansive. After even a few breaths like this, you may find yourself feeling more calm, more grounded, more connected. This is the starting point you want for facing a mess.


To enter is to accept whatever difficulty is facing you and join with it or become one with the relationships that are part of it. As we enter, for example, we’re no longer dealing with a concept in our head like the “climate crisis” but joining with the hurting human lives of a climate migrant family that arrived by bus to our neighborhood. Or we’re no longer contemplating AI as an abstract disruptor to our industry but entering into connected conversations with our team to explore where we need to accept and adapt together.

To enter is to move into the heart of the matter. Don’t try this without being centered first—that’s why it’s step 2. But don’t skip this step either and try to add value without entering fully. Only when we’re fully one with others or the situation can our radiant energy have its full transforming effect.

Add Value

Once you’re centered and entered at the heart of things, you can extend your energy, intent, skills, voice—all the tools at your disposal—toward the positive intent you bring to this matter and the value you want to add.  While we rarely control outcomes, we can control the quality of our care, the sincerity of our positive intent and the thoroughness of our effort. When we’re acting in a state of true connection with others, whatever good, beauty or healing can come about has a chance to do so.

A good example is Dr. Kristi, a physician who trains in Zen leadership and used this flip to turn around not only a potentially difficult conversation, but a patient’s life. Her patient, Bob, was a self-employed contractor with debilitating back pain, making him unable to work, which in turn meant he couldn’t afford treatments. He felt hopeless and was angry with the world and with her as well; if only she had ordered the MRI when he first asked for it, he would have met his deductible. All of this flashed through Dr. Kristi’s mind as she stood in front of the door Bob was on the other side of.

For a moment she was stuck, wanting to distance herself. In the past, she might have just given him a prescription and a referral for physical therapy—anything to get out of the room quickly. But recognizing this was a coping reaction, she remembered how to flip it: center, enter, add value. She dropped her breath into hara and opened, not only the door, but herself, remaining honest and curious as she empathetically connected with Bob. “I can’t explain what happened,” she later said, “Except that we joined. He shifted. I listened and asked unlikely questions for a doctor-patient visit. He came out of the visit with new, completely unexpected plans to teach his craft to others and wanting to have coffee with me to discuss his ideas.”

From healing a person’s hopelessness to igniting creativity on a team, developing regenerative processes, adapting AI, creating beautiful music or restoring a landscape, the ways of adding value are as numberless as the skills of human beings and the constellations of relationships where those skills can be applied. What these ways of adding value have in common is that they work best with centeredness and without separation.

Center, enter and add value is a practical, effective way to face a mess. Here’s to making every mess you face a triumphant opportunity for practice. 

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.

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