The Zen Of Leadership – And How It Can Save You In These Wild Times
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The Zen Of Leadership – And How It Can Save You In These Wild Times

The Zen Of Leadership – And How It
Can Save You In These Wild Times

by Ginny Whitelaw. Originally published on

Jill got the big promotion a few months ago: a coveted VP role in a Forbes1000 company. She’s now in charge of a huge transformation project to create Covid-compatible ways of working, trying to ignite a team she’s never met in person and, as a single parent, home school her two preteen sons – a full 48-hour day. In contrast, Carl has too little to do. At 28 years old, he was hoping to get back to school this fall, but those plans were dashed when he was laid off from the low-paying job he thought further schooling would help him break out of. What Jill and Carl have in common and, indeed, in common with a third of Americans in this wild year are symptoms of anxiety and depression.

From a global pandemic, to rising racism, division, tempers and temperatures, it’s easy to get triggered in this time by a sense of urgency or helplessness, anxiety or depression. Yet there is a way to lead into this time, making the difference that is ours to make. That way, grounded in the 1500-year tradition of physical Zen training moves us beyond a struggling self, where we can be in a mess without being a mess.

How is such resilience possible? In my 40 years of Zen experience, it comes in waves. The first wave of resilience arrives as we learn to center ourselves. Physically, this center is in the lower abdomen, the power center known as hara in the Japanese martial arts. Even as you read this, I invite you to let out a deep sigh of relief. Phewwwww! Almost certainly you’ll feel a dropping down toward this center, as some upper body tension falls away. If you continue to follow this downward direction with your next few exhales – long, slow exhales, as if your breath were like a rain gutter guiding water from the eaves to the ground – you may notice a further quieting down.

Physically, as you slow down your breathing, you’re changing how you resonate, dropping into a slower, more stable frequency. From this centered state, you’re better able to handle physical or mental stress and do the heavy lifting of leadership. This simple centering practice is available to you at any time, however, the physical training of meditation makes it a deeply embodied habit so you don’t forget that it’s available to you at any time.

The second wave of resilience emerges as we increasingly see ourselves, often called a Witness perspective. This self-awareness is like getting up on the balcony and seeing the action below. It lets us see our difficult emotions – from jangled nerves, to anger, exasperation, sadness, whatever – as temporary states, rising or falling, not getting all of us because the Witness is not consumed.

This perspective is invaluable for leaders because it lets us see ourselves in action. For example, we can catch ourselves in a knee-jerk reaction and pause to get another opinion. We can notice when someone has triggered us and trace our chain of reactions for whether we really want to show up that way. We can see how we interrupt our concentration by checking our phones too often and build a different habit. By seeing our ourselves in action, we can bring choice and creativity to the actions we take.

This seeing can be cultivated a number of ways, a highly efficient one being meditation. As we still the body and focus on breath in Zen meditation, for example, we increasingly strengthen the Witness that sees our thoughts and emotions without getting hijacked by them. As an impulse arises, we see it, yet don’t act on it; as the impulse fades away, we see that, too. This simple process, repeated again and again, becomes life-changing as we expand our capacity to remain centered and clear, even in a mess.

This leads to the third and greatest wave of resilience that Zen brings to leadership, which is when we see through ourselves. This is not an easy thing to do because just as a fast-spinning propeller appears as a solid disk, so the flurry of our life and the richness of our story give us a solid sense of identity as a self-in-a-skin. Science would tell us that such a self-definition is way too small, for we comprise both energy and matter. We radiate an electromagnetic field that measurably strengthens when we’re in a more positive, coherent state. Our energy can be sensed at a distance. It contributes to the “vibe” of our relationships, the climate of our teams, and the culture of our companies. Our energetic nature is far-sensing and far-reaching. Nevertheless, our conventional sense of “I” remains an ego in a skinsuit.

But when we slow down the fan blades of life enough through meditation, slower breathing, and deeper centering, we can see through that not-so-solid self. Indeed, we experience a radically flipped sense of self that embraces and includes the whole picture and is able to act through our particular pair of hands and feet: a local self in service of the whole.

The Zen of leadership is when we lead as the whole picture. From this all-embracing state, we feel others as a part of ourselves. We take care of the earth we would our own eyes. We sense opportunities in problems. We bring possible futures into the present by conducting energy through ourselves into things that matter. What I’m describing is not a pipe dream, but your own true nature. Whether your life is too busy like Jill’s, or feels hopeless like Carl’s, or just feels wilder than normal and there’s no normal to go back to, know that you can expand into your whole nature and boundless resilience. Not only does this save you, but the world needs the leader you can be when you’re not spun around by these wild times.

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

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