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Personal leadership

Leading with Zen clarity

I never thought I’d start an article on leadership with a quote from an ancient Zen Master.  Until I realized that these lines guide me in my own work and life.

I never thought I’d start an article on leadership with a quote from an ancient Zen Master.  Until I realized that these lines guide me in my own work and life.  In many instances, they also guide me as I work with leaders in organizations:

“The Great Way is not difficult for those unchained to their preferences.  When idealization and vilification are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.” — Sosan Ganchi (d. 606 CE), Verses on the Faith Mind

What does this have to do with leadership?  A lot, I’ve discovered.

What are your preferences?

Jim is a hard working manager.  He arrives every morning at 7:00 a.m., grabs lunch at his desk and rarely leaves the office before 6:00 p.m.  This is the strategy that has made him successful.  This is, in his view, the way things need to be.

inks.  No one is perfect.

hours a day, thinks Jim.  Occasionally, her work falls short.  That’s because she doesn’t work hard enough.

Jim clearly has preferences for how his employees should work.  So do we all.  It’s only natural. 

“think things through.”   Others prefer those with a bias for action; they “get things done.”  Some of us love multi-taskers; others prefer people who do one thing at a time.

The list of human preferences is endless.  And often based on what is in our own comfort zones.  There is no problem with preferences unless they get in the way of seeing things clearly.

Who’s the angel and who’s the snake?

When Jim is called into his boss’ office to talk about candidates for the Leadership Development Program, he is prepared to talk about Pam’s merits.  His boss starts with this line:

“I’ve been thinking about Martha for this program.”

Jim is thinking, “You have got to be kidding!  When you have Pam as a possibility?” 

He says, “Oh.  Why?”

Jim’s boss points to successes that Martha has had; the respect of her peers; her demonstrated ability to listen actively and bring people together; and her stated interest in the Leadership Program.

department and I’m putting Martha’s name in for the Leadership Program.”

When Jim leaves his boss’ office, he’s annoyed.  Pam is the perfect candidate.  Can they see that?  Her hard work should be rewarded.  It will be de-motivating to her when she hears that Martha’s been recommended.  And what message will it send to other employees in his group?

On the other hand, Martha has had some successes.  But so much of that is because she is “Miss Personality,” thinks Jim.  Senior management sees her bright exterior and ignores her shortfalls.  In fact, she actually “kisses up” to the higher levels.  She’s kind of manipulative that way.  What a snake, Jim thinks.

Making things clear and undisguised

Most of us can read this story and admit that Jim might be wrong about Martha.  The old Zen Master would say that Jim is “chained to his preferences.”  He’s idealized Pam and vilified Martha.  So there is no way he can see things clearly.

But if it is natural to have preferences, what’s a leader to do?

There is no easy answer because our preferences are so embedded that it’s hard to see that they are not just “the way things should be.”  But here are a few steps that help me:

1. Be on preference alert.  Whenever you find yourself with deep opinions for or against someone, take a deep breath and think to yourself, “I have a preference!”  Just recognizing that something is a preference starts to give you a small amount of distance from it.

ol freak,” “bully” or other names that will not be mentioned here, chances are that you are vilifying that person.  If they can’t do anything right, you’re vilifying them.

On the other hand, if you are thinking about someone as a hero, chances are you are idealizing.  Eventually, they will disappoint you.  And then you might vilify them.

t of deep breathing and time for some perspective).  Become curious about the person.  Why do they react as they do?  How might I better respond to this situation?

As you settle into this frame of mind, you might begin to see some next steps to take, if action is appropriate.  And you will be more able to “let it go” if action is not appropriate.

Jim on preference alert

Let’s rewind Jim back to the moment that his boss suggests Martha for the Leadership Program.

Had he been on preference alert, Jim would have taken a deep breath and noticed how frustrated he felt that his preferred candidate, Pam, wasn’t the first one his boss thought of.  Wow! Jim thinks.  I really feel strongly about this!

His boss asks him why he just took a deep breath.  “I’m curious,” Jim answers.  “I feel strongly that Pam is the best candidate for the Program.  I’d like to explain why and I’d like to understand your thoughts on Martha.”

quo;s makes himself a note to take a walk at lunch to relax.

In other words, his vision has become a little clearer.

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Keys Organizational Consulting, LLC ~ phone 206-320-0708

Contact Dee Endelman ~ phone 206-320-0708 ~ email
Keys Organizational Consulting, LLC ~ 1521 17th Ave. E. ~ Seattle, Washington 98112
Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.

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