Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction: The Tradition of the Mindful Leader
Tuesday afternoon, and in forty-eight hours, you and your team have to deliver the final budget for the new product line. Two of your team members have to catch a flight in eight hours, and they are working feverishly to complete their piece of the plan. The senior product designer is leaving to pick her children up at school, and the finance department is on the phone requesting—well, demanding—some preliminary numbers for the CEO to review before the day is out. And you . . . well, you’re trying to keep the team focused and coordinated in an atmosphere that feels like a pressure cooker on steroids. And then your boss enters the room and says, “I want everyone to stop what they’re doing right now and give me your full attention. Set your laptops aside, hang up the phones, put the spreadsheets away, and stop editing the PowerPoint presentations.”
Now, such an entrance will grab our attention no doubt, because it hints of some ominous business,
indeed. But then your boss says, “Now that I have your attention and we’ve stopped working, let’s sit here for a moment . . . just quietly sit here and do nothing at all.”
For many of us, such a scenario would be absurd. Here we are in the midst of a fast-paced project,
trying to meet a tight deadline and handle some unpredictable demands,
and suddenly we are asked to “stop and just sit here”?! While such a suggestion may appear unacceptable or even insulting, it is exactly what is happening in many work settings throughout the United States and around the world. People are taking time to simply “sit still” and practice what is widely known as mindfulness meditation. Let’s review just a few examples:
- Confronted with the distressing fact that over 60 percent of medical interns were exhibiting symptoms of severe burnout, Dr. Craig Hassad of Monash University Medical School in
Melbourne, Australia, taught his doctors to meditate.
- Companies such as Raytheon, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Nortel Networks,
Comcast, and many law firms have offered their employees classes in mindfulness meditation.
- When Harvard Law School sponsored a conference of practicing attorneys to investigate why lawyers tend to get trapped in adversarial mind-sets and suffer from remarkably high rates of depression, it began the conference by practicing mindfulness meditation.
- “Protecting and
Serving without Fear,” a seminar offered to law enforcement agents in
Madison, Wisconsin, taught the attending police officers how to meditate.
- Executives such as Bill Ford Jr., the chairman of Ford Motor Company; Michael Stephen, the former chairman of
Aetna International; Robert Shapiro, the ex-CEO of Monsanto; and
Michael Rennie, the managing partner of McKinsey, meditate and consider such a practice beneficial to running a corporation.
while such a suggestion as “stop and sit still” may appear absurd, many of us are, in fact, doing just that in a wide variety of business settings.
But why? Why would we—or anybody, for that matter—stop and sit still for fifteen to thirty minutes or even an hour? Recent research seems to be giving us many reasons: repaired immune systems,
heightened emotional intelligence, reduced anxiety and depression,
sustained levels of joy and satisfaction—even gaining control over some of the most distressing emotional disorders. Scientific studies are indicating that practicing mindfulness is just plain healthy, giving us plenty of reasons, indeed.
But despite all these apparent benefits, maybe there is another reason why it makes sense to stop and sit still—something that has nothing to do with relieving stress or achieving anything at all. Maybe the millions of people throughout history who practiced mindfulness meditation were rediscovering something about being human—something so simple and so deeply profound that it could only be understood intimately rather than scientifically; something so direct and authentic that it demands vulnerability and heart rather than ambition and achievement. The Mindful Leader
is about exploring this intimacy of sitting still and learning how such a simple act could transform our complicated and demanding modern workplace.
My journey into today’s workplace started in the 1980s on Wall Street, where I was one of thousands of determined young people arriving in New York in search of success and personal fulfillment. And
Wall Street was a fantastic place to get started: a world filled with passion, brilliance, and ambition—ever on the hunt for profit and seeking “business leaders” who could lead the way.
As my career unfolded, I was invited to attend various leadership seminars and felt honored to be considered a candidate for becoming a leader. At the time, I wasn’t sure what being a business leader meant. I knew it involved making decisions, galvanizing teams, assuring quality, and strengthening productivity. But I also had the vague feeling that becoming a business leader was about power, ambition, and success; it was about moving “up”—rather than “down and out”—which seemed the right direction to take.
At the same time, I was also studying Buddhist meditation under the guidance of Tibetan teachers, foremost among them
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the renowned master. Unlike today, when meditation and yoga have become mainstream, in the 1970s and 1980s, the workplace did not consider studying such topics the brightest thing to do. If the subject of meditation or Tibetan Buddhism came up at work,
people would often ask the strangest questions: “Is it true that meditation can teach you to fly?” or “Do you have a secret mantra such as ‘Om’ that can place mystical powers into crystals?” Or even more disturbing, “I’ve heard about that tantric sex stuff. What is it like?
How often to do you get to do that?” And on occasion, there would be snidely dismissive smiles, as if those who meditate were profoundly out of touch with the “adult real world” of business and work. There were so many misconceptions about meditation at that time that, generally, I
kept my spiritual path to myself, discussing it rarely and only with my closest colleagues.
Of course, my Buddhist training had nothing to do with learning to fly or meditating on crystals. In fact, my training was quite rigorous, requiring daily meditation, frequent solitary retreats, and regular study. And as my Buddhist education naturally mingled with my corporate training, I gradually came to recognize that there was more to leadership than pursuing success or making weighty decisions. My Buddhist training revealed a different model of leadership not based on ambition, will, and achievement but inspired by wisdom, gentleness, and authenticity. While Wall Street was training me to become a business leader, my Buddhist teachers were training me to become a bodhisattva-warrior.
I, for one, never considered myself a candidate for the leadership job of a bodhisattva.
Traditionally, bodhisattvas were considered spiritually accomplished beings who could overcome arrogance, aggression, and greed and fully realize their humanity. Bodhisattvas were noble leaders who inspired the best in others and worked to help those in need. And while I wanted to achieve such lofty goals, I pretty much considered myself a
“wannabe”—or, at best, a “gonnabe”—bodhisattva. Over time, however, I
came to realize that such leadership was far more down-to-earth than I
had imagined and that the workplace, with all its ingenuity and passion, had, in many respects, lost its way and could benefit greatly from the vision, skill, and leadership of bodhisattva-warriors.
aspiring to be a bodhisattva leader, whether at work or elsewhere, can be tricky business, especially if we have some preconceived notion about making the world a better place. Such spiritual aspirations can often create more confusion than clarity, so it’s always prudent to be a bit suspicious of such things—to slow down and get a realistic picture of what we are trying to do.