Eastern Wisdom and Traditional Leadership Development Approaches

Surya Tahora

Author: Surya Tahora

Date: Wed, 2017-07-12 10:16

How the infusion of Eastern Wisdom insights and practices can enrich traditional leadership development approaches ?

There is a fundamental shift in the way the domain of leadership development is looked at. Time has come to reflect upon the content and the depth of these interventions to yield better outcomes. In this article, through an example, we will examine the case of a senior executive faced with a challenge and see how contemplative practices and insights from Eastern wisdom traditions can enrich traditional leadership development approaches. 

Anil Kumar is a confident and suave professional whose rise to the upper echelons of the corporate ladder has been fairly dramatic. At a relatively young age, he has become the Chief Technology Officer of a fairly large IT company. Always identified as a high achiever, he took up a new challenge and joined Quest Informatics eight months ago. Quest’s vision to create innovative product solutions leveraging AI technology lured Anil to make the switch. While the technology was not new to him, the application of it in the solution space was different. 

One day, as he sat looking back at his past eight months, he somehow felt, in spite of setting stretch goals and driving his team to achieve them, outcomes were sub-optimal. He had observed changes in his own behavior. He was losing his temper, felt irritated numerous times in the day and patience seemed to be in short supply. It came to a point, that he began to doubt his own ability to address the challenges of his new role.   

In fact, the HR Head having detected these symptoms, had assigned him an external coach, Paresh. Under his able guidance, Anil underwent a battery of personality assessments, sat through grueling feedback sessions, and attended a behavioral training program. In spite of these efforts, Anil had the nagging feeling that he knew himself even less than before. Performance did not improve and nor did his confidence. 

As Paresh dialogued with Anil, he realised that his ability to grow further was dependent upon two deeper shifts. One, in addition to being a strong achiever, he could also learn to become more aware of his thoughts and emotions, and their impact on himself and others. Second, he could replace his obsession with outcomes by a more realistic perspective on the dynamics of actions and results.

Many studies are indeed beginning to unravel that awareness, or the capacity to be fully present to both inner and outer events, is the foundational principle for all leadership competencies. Furthermore, when developed sufficiently, it, in turn impacts other competencies such as emotional intelligence, creativity, adaptability and so on. In the words of Daniel Goleman, “people who have self-awareness are able to cultivate other strengths. People who lack it cannot.”

Coming back to Anil, he could participate in 8 weeks mindfulness workshop based upon Eastern wisdom traditions contemplative practices backed by findings from neuroscience. He could learn practices such as connecting back to his body and breathing through short daily sessions of yoga and stretches or tai chi meditative movements. He could give himself two, three minutes breathing space breaks during the day, especially when he feels frazzled; Additionally, he can sit in daily meditation to anchor himself through watching his breathing, emotions and thoughts for ten or fifteen minutes. In her Harvard Business Review article in 2015 titled “How meditation benefits CEOs”, Emma Seppala says “Multiple research studies have shown that meditation has the potential to decrease anxiety, thereby potentially boosting resilience and performance under stress.” Also she tells how “brain-imaging research suggests that meditation can help strengthen your ability to regulate your emotions.” 

For researchers like John Teasdale and Michael Chaskalson, one of the core processes behind this improved management of self and others is called de-centering of the self from thoughts and emotions, a well known practice in Vedanta and Buddhist wisdom traditions. Decentering is about how the feelings, thoughts and sensations are seen as mental events i.e. as ‘objects’, rather than as aspects of our sense of subjective self. Janice Marturano, the well known founder and executive director of the Institute of Mindful Leadership says in her book “Finding the space to lead” how this training can enhance the ability to make decisions from a calm and centered self, and develop the freedom to choose the appropriate action without getting identified and thereby reacting impulsively to a challenging situation. 

From the lens of Eastern wisdom traditions, when the fundamental views, through which we make sense of our human experience are not in keeping with realities, they become are the root cause of our existential suffering, dukkha. One of these realities is the dynamics of actions and results, karma and karmaphala, which is elaborately commented in Vedanta. It is particularly relevant to leaders such as Anil, with a strong achievement orientation.

According to Vedanta, the shift that needs to happen is to become ‘aware’ that, sooner or later, we need to ‘accept’ that things do not always happen our way. The reason being, there are hidden and complex variables at play, within an immense and dynamic web of cause and effect relationships. Our actions are the only variables which determine the outcomes which are in our hands.

Anil is feeling overwhelmed by the challenge over which he has only partial knowledge and control. The very premise on which he has taken this new challenge – that everything should happen according to my wishes, I will deliver the outcomes at any cost, I know everything in this field – are faulty. When things do not happen his way, as long as those faulty premise is intact, he will only develop further frustration, blame, anger and get further entrenched in low self acceptance and limiting mindset. 

As he becomes more aware of his thoughts and inner chatter, and their impact on his emotions and behavior, he can reframe his limiting story to a more realistic story. This practice will release him, in time, from the unnecessary pressure he has been creating for himself and impacted his relations with others. 

He will then be gradually much better placed to recognise his own position of power and influence in the organisation, his strengths and limitations, which determine his unique sphere of influence, in alignment with what Human Resource principles would say. From that realistic base, constructive actions, svakarma, can be planned and executed. 

Because of these two major shifts in consciousness, couples of things will emerge. When attending to multiple critical priorities, Anil will face the pressures with samatvam, composure and centeredness. Consequently, he will be able to strike a fine balance between his capacity to drive change and his acceptance of what is beyond his control. 

Thus, with the infusion of Vedanta insights and practices into the traditional approaches to leadership competencies, we could very well be building the next generation of holistic leaders.

This article was published in Business Today on 28 June 2017  as Going Beyond Leadership Development

Thanks to Snehal Shah for her contribution to this article. 


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There is a famous quote saying"The Mind is a Lousy Master and an excellent Servant . The Author has very beautifully expressed the Connection between our thoughts , feeling and actions . The Situation which Anil is going through is a challenge which every new leader goes through in his endeavours towards success. A leader has to have greater self awareness of the thoughts he create because that is the cause of his feelings which in turn has drastic impact on him and the surroundings . We have always Known Meditation as an art of inhaling , exhaling and breathing but as explained in the article it is a state of mindfulness . Mindfulness practices teach our brain to Pop Up Out of that Old pattern of thought and recognise it is for what it is thereby having a greater control on ones thoughts and emotions. In such a state a person is more focused in the realistic action of "karma" rather than following a blind obsession . We have to train our mind to be still . By being present in the moment one can prevent Rushing and making a mistake. A Holistic Leader can attain their balance at the right time as the turn of the events Potray and this can be achieved through the Practice of mindfulness and changing the course of actions by having a more realistic perspective on the " Law of karma" .

I deeply resonate with this article and I am a firm believer of mindfulness in all walks of life. However, I believe that the debate between the context of empathy and servitude will remain a point of great debate in a very capitalistic environment that we live operate. What is being addressed in this article is the need for ‘mindfulness’ which is the foundation of building a great connection with everyone around us. Let me share a personal experience, my superior and I once had a conversation about one’s ‘personality’ and one’s ‘role’ in an organization. His point of view was that one’s role in an organization should supersede one’s personality in the context of work - this means that a person should be able to be a different person when working. I contested this point strongly, as I believe that a human being is made up of a set of emotions and feelings which then form very specific set of values and principles that is unique to a person. Hence, it is psychologically impossible to be a different person at work and outside of work without compromising one’s value or principle. I believe the point here is that, such point of view is the foundation of what we call ‘masks’ that professionals may lose themselves into. As each role that a person take in the course of a professional career may vary, it is very possible that a person, immersed in these ‘masks’ may lose sight of their true self along the way. This is a situation that I refer to as “mind fullness” where one’s mind is filled with what is required for the outside environment while neglecting the need for ‘mindfulness’ that focuses more on self and how one needs to react to an external stimulus. In my opinion, mindfulness is more reflective whereas mind fullness is reactive. Being mindful enable to identify one’s capability and therefore identify the same in others, this, in my opinion, is the key in understanding what a ‘role’ truly demands. Therefore, to conclude, I believe that all Eastern Philosophy, rooted in philosophy or religion address the need for mindfulness and inner-peace. Mindfulness leading to self-awareness will indeed take Leadership to new heights. Therefore, I truly resonate with each statement that is shared in your article. Thank you sir!

Thank you Sir for this greatly relevant article in today’s world of cut throat competition, on the importance of mindfulness for leadership roles. I really enjoyed reading the content and could deeply resonate with it. I could relate well with the example of Anil cited here. In this competitive world, where people are driven by the obsession of outcomes, a similar failure is bound to occur to anybody who challenges himself continuously. Here the article explains that failures and frustrations are due to faulty premises set by strong achievement oriented people. This has been explained with the help of eastern knowledge and Vedanta. A person should definitely be an achiever but at the same time, should have a realistic perspective on the dynamics of actions and results as mentioned in the article. Self-awareness is greatly required in order to understand our actions and emotions and thus its impact on our lives. This has been explained using a broader term of Mindfulness. The article, with the help of Vedanta, further quotes the need to accept the outcomes the way they occur. I believe that with mindfulness, one can understand his strengths, capabilities and weaknesses and thus gauge the victory of events occurring in one’s life. This will further help in opening up to new thinking and possibility thus leading to victory. Mindfulness is essentially being aware of self, our emotions, our actions, open to new thinking and listening to other’s views. Emotional exhaustion reduces with mindfulness. In a workplace setting, this will help the supervisor in maintaining a perfect work life balance. Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. —Jack Welch. A leader is someone who shows way to those under them. I agree with you that a leader should be in touch with their emotions and inner self. The movie, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, is a great inspiration for aspiring leaders where the protagonist, Po, who no one thinks can lead a band of kung fu masters, comes by his ‘chi’ before anyone else because he is closer to his being. Chi is a strong life force which makes a human being totally alive, alert and present while a weak force results in sluggishness and fatigue. He then goes on to teach his people to fight and leads them to victory. I think that stability is the most undermined quality of a leader. Every other quality will be moot if the leader is not level headed and does not believe in themselves. People look up to confident leaders who are calm in the face of a sticky situation.To conclude, I would say that to be an effective leader of today and tomorrow, it has become greatly important to infuse eastern knowledge of mindfulness in managerial practices.

Sir, this article is a beautiful piece of writing, I felt I will relate to this article at every point of time in my life. I became so engrossed in reading this that for a moment I felt as if you have etched my story in words. As the article mentions the case of a high achiever protagonist, I had the good fortune of being a bright student in academics and hence I grew up believing that I can always have the best of all the worlds and would continue to excel in my school and college. When I joined a boarding school, I found that life had something different in store for me. It was a great effort to reconcile realities of this new and challenging life with my self-beliefs and that is when my mother advised me a short book on teachings of Bhagwat Geeta. It was through reading of that book, I realised that any human being is floating in an ocean of actions and consequences. It is not just my actions that drive the consequences that affect me but a variety of efforts by various people creating a variety of consequences. We can perform to the best of our abilities and still only hope to get the desired consequence. I also learnt that instead of consequence if I focus more on my learning by carefully analysing this process of efforts and consequences, in conventional wisdom also known as “Darshan” I would be much more satisfied. In the end, we can only make efforts and analyse the cause and effect relationship to the best of our ability and the growth in this ability to know more and more why’s of life is the ultimate objective of a human life. I have also started valuing my relationships with people more after going through those reading exercises as I felt that no achievement that is material is permanent as only a slight change in that cause and effect web can change the dynamics of material life altogether but these relationships that I form with other people in the process and also with my inner self (through knowledge about the world and self) would stay with me forever and would always be a guiding light for me. Thus this article I believe perfectly resonates with my idea of combining Eastern wisdom of mindful reflection and introspection with western efficiency to become a happier person and a respected leader.

Sir, this article clearly depicts that the essence of meditation is awareness and focus. Meditation gives us an opportunity to review our own-self instead of reviewing others. This act of understanding our own body, mind and soul will help us realize what we’ve had with us all long to be grateful about it and at the same time improvising our attitude/behaviour on the things we don’t possess. I firmly believe that in life it’s more important to control thyself than controlling people or situations around us. To receive blessings we should always bless others. Our relationships, emotions, health, spiritual, financial aspects are all interlinked with the stress we face. Negative energy/thoughts in any one aspect on our life will affect other areas of our life too. A leader with a poor self-esteem criticizes not only his own-self but also his subordinates ruining their self-confidence & lack of trust. Leaders should always be calmer/peaceful from within which will help in creating a conducive work atmosphere for people to perform with excellence. Nowadays, corporates have started with meditation zones for employees to increase their will-power and positivity both in personal and professional life. A leader always helps other grow as their existence makes him their leader.

Who is a leader? What is the imagery which comes to our minds when we think of a Leader – An Extrovert, charismatic and dynamic personality? The fact that most of us have a common imager of a successful leader, speaks volumes about the influence of the West on our understanding of the Leader and stereotyping it. Hence there is definitively a need for an infusion of Eastern philosophy into the traditional leadership attributes. What the East philosophy teaches us very well is the need for us to be more balanced. It teaches us to be more inclusive in our thought – that decisions are best taken when they are taken from the detached viewpoint. Similarly, the East teaches us the need for Fast & Slow thinking as compared to the typical myth arising from the West that only Fast & Quick decision making is the only attribute of a successful leadership. This is what the author describes in the case of Anil – Meditation therapy, mindful workshops are different ways of training the mind to act slow when required. To take decision in a calm, non-panic mode, while detaching oneself from the scene. At the same time, taking quick decisions, showing clarity when one doesn’t exist is nothing but fooling the mind into thinking that this is what leadership is about. The big shift that the author articulates is from mindfoolness to mindfulness. The author beautifully also brings in the concept of Influence of Control – which means to do everything possible to best improve the things in our control and ignore those outside it. This ties with the history & significance of Lakshman Rekha. It teaches us that there are boundaries that we need to draw and not get tensed about things which are beyond that. Another landmark philosophy from the East and more specifically from China is the Confucian theory which talks about the etiquette of daily behavior. In different words it explains that for daily behavior if one is mindful of his/her impact, his/her context then leadership becomes more inclusive and more wholesome.

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