Whether you know much about Zen Buddhism or not, anyone can find growth within its practices of patience, peace, and inner-exploration. These traits are useful for those in leadership positions. After all, our jobs as leaders are about connecting, teaching, inspiring, and showing true vulnerability.
With a rare gift of teaching ancient wisdom wrapped for the modern world, Roshi Joan Halifax, the founder of Upaya Zen Center and Institute, shares the lessons learned from her decades as a social activist and Buddhist scholar under the legendary Zen Master and author, Thich Nhat Hanh. He taught Roshi, “one could be a social activist and be contemplative,” she remembers. This undoubtedly applies to leadership as well.
Since then, Roshi has carved out a path that allowed her to study and share insights that have impacted her life and the lives of countless others. Here are some of Roshi’s most eye-opening Zen-inspired lessons on becoming a stronger, more mindful leader.
Standing on the Edge of Failure
Like it or not, failure is an inevitable part of life, business leader or not. Combined with our world’s uncertainty, it sometimes feels like we’re always on the edge of collapse. “Often, we find ourselves over the edge, losing our footing and sliding down the mountain,” Roshi says.
However, Roshi teaches that these moments have some of the biggest potentials for your future well-being. We don’t have to pretend to love failing. But Roshi believes that there’s a side to suffering that, if used correctly, leads to incredible personal and professional growth.
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“When we fail, we find ourselves correcting course, learning from our experience, embodying humility, and gaining insight from our difficulties,” says Roshi. “It produces a profound quality of strength within our character.”
She encourages us to get curious about our mistakes. This means examining the psychological, social, and environmental sides of yourself that may be toxic and even block your success. “It’s important to understand these qualities in order to transform the problematic side into forms that are healthy,” she says.
“We don’t have to seek going over the edge,” Roshi says. “Don’t worry. You’ll encounter failure. But when you learn from failure, that is what builds character within your experience.”
Compassionate, Respectable Leadership
“Compassion is not a religious business. It is human business. It is not luxury. It is essential for human survival.” — H.H. the Dalai Lama
Compassion is key to leadership, but what does it actually mean?
“This is such a big question,” she says. Several years ago, looking to find the answers herself, Roshi intensely studied what it meant to be a truly compassionate human. “I began to unpack the elements, or the suite of features, that comprised compassion,” she says.
Though it’d be impossible to fully explain compassion within a few paragraphs, “in the simplest terms,” Roshi says, “it’s the capacity to really see the suffering of others and have the aspiration to transform that suffering.” In short, it’s about empathy and genuinely caring about the fulfillment of others.
“Compassion includes attending to the experience of another and feeling concern for another’s well-being,” says Roshi. “Then, [do you] engage in actions that might be skillful enough to serve in the transformation of the individual?”
The Five Gatekeepers of Speech come from adapted Buddhist teachings about communicating with respect, care, and authenticity. Before talking with others, first, ask yourself:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it beneficial?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it the right time?
“These are such simple but important guidelines of what it means to engage in respectful speech,” she says. “How do we engage in speech that does no harm?”
Roshi acknowledges that always following these guidelines is difficult—if not impossible. However, it’s a powerful practice that can help anyone communicate more compassionately and constructively.
Cultivating Gratitude As a Mindful Leader
Servant leaders should see their leadership role as an opportunity that’s been gifted to them. It doesn’t matter what diploma you have on your wall or how long you’ve been in the industry—nobody is entitled to any position. Instead, it’s all indebted to those that you lead and those that support your organization. And for that, they deserve your utmost gratitude.
“The opposite of gratefulness is entitlement,” she says. “It’s the sense that I am owed.” That’s why Roshi finds the act of gratitude to be an essential mindful leadership practice. Roshi encourages all leaders to regularly reach out to those who play even a small role in upholding their status.
“Opening up to gratefulness gives the experience of looking deeply into the fact that everything that we have—the clothes on our body. The food that we eat. The structures that we’re living in—all of them are given [to us],” she says. “And as givens, what is our response?”
One way that Roshi shows gratitude is by writing a simple thank you note to someone each day. It sounds simple, but it’s become an integral part of her routine that bolsters the support of those around Roshi while reminding her that she didn’t get to where she is today alone.
Another easy way is to be more intentional in saying thanks to others. In our nonstop society, we’re often jumping from one phone call or Zoom meeting to the next without stopping to breathe—and certainly not to say a genuine word of thanks.
Instead of giving in to the rush, take a moment to pause and offer a quick note of gratitude. It doesn’t have to be much, but even a few words of acknowledgment will mean more than you can imagine.
The conversation with Roshi Joan Halifax continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast where you’ll hear so much more of her incredible wisdom. Don’t miss an article or episode of the podcast by signing up for my mailing list. You’ll also get a free guide to my favorite mindful resources. I’d love you to connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne and our new smart health solutions.