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LOVE THE WORK
Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.
— J. D. McClatchy
One of the first times that I co-led a Search Inside Yourself training at Google headquarters in Mountain View, we had participants practice what we call "mindful listening" — where one person speaks and the other person just listens, without asking questions or interrupting. This is a way of taking the awareness involved in meditation practice into engaging with another person. Just listening, with your full attention, can be a great gift and an important skill in cultivating healthy communication. Whenever I instruct participants, I suggest that the person speaking experiment by being willing to risk not knowing what you will say; perhaps even surprise yourself by what you say. Taking turns, each speaker is to address or answer two questions: What brings you here today? And what really brings you here today? Each person gets a few minutes to speak, and then as a group we take several minutes to debrief the exercise, to discuss how it feels to just listen and to speak without interruption.
At that early training, I could not help but notice a young woman in the back of the room wiping away tears as she spoke to her partner. As each minute passed, her sobs became more pronounced. When everyone finished, I asked the group how they felt. What was their experience of bringing meditation into speaking and listening? The young woman who had been crying was the first person to raise her hand. She offered to the group that she was an engineer and was surprised at the depth and intensity of her feelings, which arose as she expressed why she was here at this training, and then why she was really here. The questions helped her remember what first attracted her to meditation and mindfulness practice as well as the loss and sadness she felt by how busy and distracted her life had become. During the mindful listening exercise, as she was speaking, she touched something deeply inside herself, and she felt cared about. She felt seen as a person and not just for her role. This feeling, of being seen and valued, was something she yearned for, as was proactively cultivating more connection and appreciation in her work and relationships.
INSPIRE, ASPIRE, AND CONSPIRE: BREATHING TOGETHER
It is no accident that "love the work" is the first practice of a mindful leader. The work of mindfulness practice begins with love, with deep caring. Love is where body, mind, and heart come together. Love is more than an idea and more than a feeling.
"Love the work" is an instruction that is surprisingly practical; it can help us to overcome obstacles in many situations. What we love we pay attention to in ways that are palpably unique. Our task, our "work" in any given moment, may seem difficult or boring. It may involve many contradictions, hindrances, and setbacks. When we approach it with love, we see what's important and embrace difficulties as part of the process, as necessities to be overcome. Love is the ultimate, most powerful motivator when taking action or relating to others, but it is a particularly powerful force when it comes to the practice of becoming more yourself, seeing with more clarity, and not being fooled by the illusions of deficiency or separateness.
There are many types of love. The kind I'm referring to here is much like the first step of the hero's journey as described by Joseph Campbell, which he names "the calling." The calling represents a profound shift of attention, a shift in one's way of being in the world; the calling asks us to leave the ordinary and pursue the extraordinary. In Campbell's words:
The call of adventure is to a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight.
Answering the call leads to a heightened state of awareness and of purpose. The hero seeks something of ultimate importance, which means achieving "super human deeds" in the face of real danger (those polymorphous beings and unimaginable torments). In stories, the hero usually travels to a magical, dreamlike realm, but the calling really represents a transformation in the way you see your role, your purpose, your situation, and the stakes.
Loving the work is this kind of calling. It asks us to approach leadership, our work, relationships, and all parts of our lives with the transformative motivation of love. This kind of love emerges from a deep place within and inspires us to risk and reach for what's most important.
The word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, which means to breathe into. Love is something that is breathed into us and something that we bring our breath to. From inspiration comes aspiration, which also comes from the word breathe. Loving the work is aspirational — our aspirations, the things we yearn for and long for, are our ultimate goals, the aims of a lifetime. They form a deep intention, an enduring promise or vow, that continues to motivate us even when we complete certain tasks or fail at others. In Buddhist practice, there are two primary vows that express "the call," or this type of inspiration and aspiration:
Beings are numberless. I vow to save them. Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to end them.
These two statements, these vows, are inherently contradictory and impossible. The calling of love doesn't care. In fact, love is drawn to work that is difficult, even seemingly impossible. Love welcomes a challenging path, a path that seems impossible. After all, in many ways, we are impossible beings.
I often describe the work of meditation and mindfulness as a conspiracy, a word that literally means "breathing together." Meditation might sound like a solitary activity, but it is not, just like answering the call of mindful leadership isn't a solitary pursuit. That is, our aspirations and inspirations rely heavily on conspiring — so that we are all breathing together. So that we all conspire to support one another to become more ourselves and to help heal one another and the world. To me, this type of conspiracy embodies the culture that Peter Drucker suggests is all-important.
EXPLORING VALUES: WHAT DO YOU LOVE?
What inspires you?
What really brings you alive?
What do you aspire to?
What is most important to you?
What do you most love?
In The Leadership Challenge, a classic, bestselling leadership manual first published in 1987, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner interviewed US Army Major General John H. Stanford, a highly decorated military leader who became the superintendent of the Seattle public school system. The authors asked Stanford for his advice about developing leaders, whether in the world of business, nonprofits, government, or academics. Stanford responded:
The secret to success is to stay in love. Staying in love gives you the fire to ignite other people, to see inside other people, to have a greater desire to get things done. ... I don't know any other fire, any other thing in life that is more exhilarating and is more positive than love is.
Then, to emphasize their point, Kouzes and Posner end their book by stating: "Leadership is not an affair of the head. Leadership is an affair of the heart."
I could not agree more, which is why "love the work" is the first practice of mindful leadership.
TRY THIS: I helped develop this exercise within the Search Inside Yourself training as a way to help participants explore their values, what matters to them most, and what they love the most.
In a journal or on a sheet of paper, write down the names of three people whom you most admire. They can be alive or no longer living, from your personal connections or from history. They can be fictional movie characters or even cartoon heroes. Who comes to mind? Let yourself be surprised.
Then write a sentence or two as to why you chose these three people. What have they done and what do they represent to you? Think of situations that exemplify what led you to choose them. (I suggest doing this first before reading further.)
Usually the people we choose, those we most admire, represent what is most important to us. Does that fit for you? From your descriptions of these three people, write down what you consider your top three to five values. As you reflect on what you value, other ideas may arise that aren't captured by the people you chose. You can add those as well.
Once you have your list of values, experiment with writing whatever comes to mind based on one or more of these prompts:
What is most important to me is ...
My values are ...
The ways my values show up in my work and life right now are ...
The ways my work and life and values are not in alignment are ...
Actions I might take to narrow the gap between my values and activities include ...
WHAT IS LOVE?
Love is certainly a "calling" of leadership, but it's also helpful to define love as a way to reflect on what this practice is really asking us to do.
While there are many kinds and definitions of love, I'd like to focus on four qualities or practices that make up love. In Buddhism, these teachings are known as the four immeasurables, since it is said that, as you practice them, each of these elements and the four together will continue to grow beyond what can be measured. These four qualities are:
LOVING KINDNESS: This is the practice of caring about others. I remember many years ago when I was CEO of Brush Dance, I was interviewed for a magazine article on the topic of integrating business and Zen. The reporter asked me, "What does it look like to practice Zen in the workplace?" My response was that the core practice is kindness — to care about and be kind to the people I work with, to our customers, to vendors, and even to be kind to myself. The reporter was clearly not satisfied, and he said, "No, really, what does it mean to practice Zen in the workplace?" I repeated my answer, saying that kindness is more difficult than it seems, especially when things go wrong, when there are conflicts, when cash flow is challenging. Kindness goes a long way at work.
COMPASSION: Compassion has three parts: feeling another's pain, understanding others, and desiring to help others. Compassion, and leading with compassion, is a core part of mindful leadership. Compassion is a core thread that runs throughout these seven mindfulness practices.
JOY: This refers to a deep sense of happiness that is not dependent on conditions. It is the joy of appreciating being alive. This isn't the Small Mind joy of doing well at work and getting a bonus; this is the Big Mind joy that appreciates and celebrates everything, good and bad. This particular practice of joy is also sometimes translated as sympathetic joy, or the practice of feeling joy by acknowledging, feeling, and celebrating the happiness of others.
EQUANIMITY: This is the practice of letting go of self-concern, of cultivating acceptance and composure. Equanimity doesn't mean suppressing or tamping down feelings. It is the practice of finding composure right in the midst of stress, confusion, change, challenges, and urgency.
In one of the early teachings of the Buddha, he names a variety of benefits that come from cultivating these practices of love. These benefits include
lightness in the heart upon waking,
being well liked by others,
being able to concentrate easily,
that your face will be brighter and clearer, and
at the time of death, the mind will be clear.
These are pretty great benefits! I would add that, if you practice "love the work" in these ways on a regular basis, you are more likely to be happier and the people around you will be happier. Your work will be more effective and more successful. And you will influence the culture around you to be more engaging, creative, and lighthearted.
WHAT IS "THE WORK"?
While "love the work" means bringing the intentions and perspective of love to everything we do, this practice also refers to a very specific kind of work: cultivating mindfulness. This means seeing with greater clarity what really is and letting go of whatever more limited worldview we have constructed. It means cultivating greater self-awareness in order to, paradoxically enough, become less self-centered. It means actively questioning what is with an open-ended curiosity.
To love the work is to open ourselves and notice, the best we can, the ways in which we create limited mindsets and narrow mental models. To use the terms raised earlier, it both embraces and transcends Small Mind, or our default mode network, by accessing the perspective of Big Mind. When we reduce or let go of self-referential fears and worries, we realize that wonder and connection are our true default modes of being. Loving the work recognizes that there are many realities, many ways of being, and that we should not be overly attached to our version of reality.
The work of mindfulness is to step outside ourselves in order to see ourselves and notice what we aren't aware of. We try to identify our unspoken fears, blind spots, biases, and assumptions. This means cutting through the places where we are caught, limited, attached, beholden to outmoded beliefs, and stuck in patterns or stories. By loving the work, we build trust in ourselves, we become more trustworthy, we cultivate inner strength, and we improve relationships and results.
This work requires courage. Not the physical courage required to save someone's life or fend off an attacker, but the courage to be real, open, and vulnerable. The courage to feel uncomfortable and exposed, like the Google engineer who wept openly and shared the pain that had brought her to the workshop. It's the courage to speak and take action in the midst of these feelings. The payoff is well worth it.
MEDITATION: LEARNING TO STARE, PRY, EAVESDROP
Meditation is a core practice for cultivating mindfulness. Meditation is designed to help us interrogate reality and to increase our comfort with change, difficulty, and the unknown. In recent years, this has been verified and quantified in scientific research. For instance, a 2011 study entitled "How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?" by Britta Holzel, Sara Lazar, and others describes some of the concrete benefits of mindfulness meditation. The study's summary describes it like this:
By closely observing the contents of consciousness, practitioners come to understand that these are in constant change and thus are transient. The mindful, nonjudgmental observation fosters a detachment from identification with the contents of consciousness. This process has been termed "reperceiving" or "decentering" ... and has been described as the development of the "observer perspective."
Here's a closer look at what that means in more everyday language.
"CLOSELY OBSERVING THE CONTENTS OF CONSCIOUSNESS": An important aspect of mindfulness practice and of interrogating reality is observing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations — becoming more aware of our experience. Sometimes we feel things without fully realizing what has triggered those feelings. We also construct an identity, an "I" and a "me" with particular desires and aversions. Mindfulness is becoming intimate with our consciousness and noticing habits and patterns.
"UNDERSTAND CHANGE": By becoming familiar during meditation with the fleeting nature of our thoughts and emotions, and gaining more understanding of change, this aspect of mindfulness becomes a regular feature of moment-to-moment awareness.
"DETACHMENT FROM IDENTIFICATION": Mindfulness supports the ability to see our stories and narratives as reflecting our subjective, and not objective, reality. As the Google engineer stated, we are more than our roles, more than the persona we develop. Meditation helps us step back and observe our thinking and emotions as an outsider might. We increase our ability to see ourselves with more perspective.
"REPERCEIVING": This is related to detachment. The practice of noticing and becoming familiar with our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions helps us become less identified with them, so we can see them in a different light or perhaps in more useful and accurate ways.
Mindfulness Meditation Practice
Begin by bringing attention to your body. Find a way to sit, whether you are in a chair or on a cushion, where you can be fully alert and fully relaxed at the same time.
To emphasize relaxation, start by softening the area around your eyes and the muscles in your face. You can keep your eyes open, without focusing, or close your eyes if that feels more comfortable. Notice and if possible let go of any places you are holding or feeling any tension. Notice the transition from whatever you were doing to stopping, pausing, and letting go. Whatever you were engaged in, your projects, to-do lists, all your unfinished business — let it all go. It will be there later.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader"
Copyright © 2019 Marc Lesser.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsThe Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader
Don’t Be an Expert
Connect to Your Pain
Connect to the Pain of Others
Depend on Others
Keep Making It Simpler