This article is by Michael Carroll, the author of Fearless at Work: Timeless Teaching for Awakening Confidence, Resilience, and Creativity in the Face of Life’s Demands. http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2012/11/16/lead-by-ach...
By now we’ve all heard about the mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation, of the art of sitting still for defined periods. Hospitals are using it as a pain management tool, psychologists are helping clients manage their anxiety and depression with it, and even the military is finding mindfulness helpful for warriors confronting the wounds of war and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that mindfulness meditation is finding its way into the venerable halls of our business leadership institutions. The Drucker School of Management and Wharton Business School both offer instruction in mindfulness meditation as a leadership development discipline. Harvard Law School has sponsored entire conferences on the benefits of applying mindfulness to dispute resolution. Virginia Tech is planning a conference titled “Contemplative Practices for a Technological Society,” designed for engineers who want to integrate mindfulness meditation and other contemplative disciplines into their work.
Aetna, Merck, General Mills, Google—the list goes on—all are exploring how meditation can help their leaders and employees embrace and thrive in today’s hyper-competitive, fast-paced business environment. Yet as business leaders, we ask ourselves a simple, obvious question: Why would we do such a thing? Why would we sit still and do nothing for extended periods?
Typically, the answer to such a reasonable question is a lengthy list of benefits such as sustained attention span, improved multitasking ability, strengthened immune system, increased emotional intelligence, and improved listening skills. There is science behind such claims. Research is fast concluding that sitting still for defined periods is a very healthy thing to do.
But as a former corporate executive and long time meditator, I’d like to suggest that there is another reason why business leaders should learn to meditate, one that is not about collecting a list of benefits. Rather it’s all about discovering the secret sauce for preserving our sanity as we ride into the frenetic hyper-connected 21st century. It’s about learning to achieve nothing.
Now, such a notion can rouse passionate disdain, especially among business leaders. The idea that to be an inspiring, thriving leader we need to not accomplish, not achieve, not succeed is upsetting. It seems insultingly counterintuitive. Yet, as inappropriate as achieving nothing may seem, it may be exactly what we, as leaders, are looking for.
I am often asked, as a business coach, to help executives refine and improve their leadership abilities. At the beginning of each assignment, the executive is often eager to set goals, improve performance, and experiment with new techniques. But inevitably I have to slow them down and suggest a different approach.
“You know your job well and are pretty good at doing things,” I typically remark to the executive. “You wouldn’t be where you are in your career if you weren’t good at getting stuff done. So for you to develop as a truly distinctive leader we will need to focus less on what you do for a living and focus more on what you see for a living.”
And it is from there, from how well we as leaders see our workplace, that we can begin to appreciate the wisdom of not achieving as a valuable perspective. “What are the three central challenges that your colleagues face at work?” “Can you articulate the most important unspoken messages you are receiving from your customers or vendors?” “What are people afraid of in your organization? Can you describe what inspires them?” These and dozens of other vital questions are not about achieving anything at all. What they require is a form of wisdom beyond doing, accomplishing, and achieving. They require us to discern, recognize, and understand.
For committed meditators, cultivating this wisdom of seeing clearly is at the very heart of the mindfulness meditation practice that trains us to step out from behind the curtain of our restless minds and touch life directly, getting a full, authentic measure of our experience beyond self-deception and impulsiveness. And when we do train our minds to relax, open, and step out, we notice that our drive to achieve, with all its passion and forward-looking intent, can frequently blind us to the very things we seek to understand.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t do our jobs well or strive for excellence, of course. We all have responsibilities and aspirations. Learning to achieve nothing is not about ignoring our livelihood and the many challenges it presents. Rather, learning to achieve nothing is about being skillful when engaging the many provocative and complex circumstances that increasingly define our global workplace, discerning what is hidden, appreciating a gesture of affection, grasping the intention of a paradox, accepting an unexpected invitation, celebrating a mixed triumph, learning from an alarming emergency. The list is endless, all requiring that we drop our ambition to get somewhere and instead completely be where we are—being open, curious, and skillful.
In the end, cultivating the wisdom of achieving nothing is not about abandoning our jobs as leaders. It’s not about sitting by the pool sipping cocktails while everyone else unloads the truck. Rather it’s about not being blinded by our speed, anxiety, and passionate drive to achieve. It’s about understanding how to see our circumstances clearly and realistically. And today more and more leaders are learning to do so through the practice of mindfulness meditation.