Zen Monks, Navy SEALS, And You

zenThere exist remarkable leadership lessons drawn from areas other than business. Thankfully, in the last decade, many of the sources have come out of the shadows and been accepted by certain forward thinking companies for their wisdom and applicability.

In the area of mindset management, nothing rivals the lessons from Zen philosophy or from Navy SEAL training. And, the most important of those lessons differs very little regardless of which of those sources you explore.

Start with a recognition that your company is an organism, holistically integrated and successful to the degree that the component parts interact and communicate well with one another. In fact, come to realize that impaired function is almost always more a result of ineffective systems than ineffective people. Breakdowns are indications of poor communication compounded by low levels of awareness.

Understanding this, the highly-functional leader operates on two cardinal imperatives.

“The well-run organization relies on leaders who welcome feedback from those with boots on the ground.”

First, he or she endeavors to increase his or her self awareness, cultivating non-judgmental hyperfocus. Like a Zen monk, the leader practices periods of silence, drilling the art of bringing attention back into the moment and away from whatever mental distractions arise. Thus, the highly functional leader makes peace with the moment, masters the allocation of attention, and deepens the ability to reach stillness, from which arises creativity, acceptance, cooperation, and wisdom.

Taking a page from the Navy SEAL’s playbook, highly functional leaders diligently practice staying the course, acting responsibly, maintaining a clear vision of the desired outcome, and marching forward despite the clear and present dangers all around them. They’re courageous under fire, impervious to pain, and disciplined in the face of the temptation to back off or run away. This can best be seen in the Navy SEAL adage, embrace the suck…meaning notice the pain, and lean in.

Second, he or she endeavors to duplicate that level of acceptance and awareness within the systems of the company. Like the monk, the highly functional leader first looks unflinchingly at the reality of his or her inner experience, and then applies that same eyes-wide-open discipline to every aspect of the organization. What’s working? What’s not? Where are the breakdowns in communication? What are the unspoken points of resistance in the minds of the employees? What can I do to draw out a more honest, engaged response from them? What am I or my leadership team doing to keep them from sharing what they feel and what they view as potential improvements in how we do business. And what can we, the leaders, do to help our employees elevate their levels of self awareness?

The military equivalent of this second part of the formula is the reliance on a clear chain of command, the importance of after action reviews during which each soldier soberly evaluates the successes and failures of the mission in an effort to gain valuable insight for future missions, and the use of bottom up refinement, a process by which directives from above are modified by those in the field and sent back up the chain for fine tuning. The well-run organization relies on leaders who welcome feedback from those with boots on the ground, those doing the actual work conceived by leadership.

As an executive, consider making it priority to first enhance your level of non-judgmental self awareness and second to encourage a series of processes that support self awareness in your organization and open communication between your employees.

If you’re interested in learning your “Unshakability Index” (how well you stand up to the pressure of your job) you can take Dr. Taubman’s Unshakability Quiz by clicking here.

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Steve Taubman
Dr. Steve Taubman has dedicated his life to showing people how to thrive through their challenges. He's written extensively on the application of contemplative practices in stressful situations and has spoken throughout the United States on mindset mastery for goal-oriented professionals.

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