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Election week and the most needed leadership quality nobody talks about

November 1, 2020
Borderless Leadership

Smart strategies from Zen leadership and the science of resonance.

Yamaoka Tesshu, a renowned 19th century Zen master and sword master, was asked by another swordsman to teach him the secret of the highest stage of swordsmanship. As recounted in Zen and Budo, Tesshu told him the secret was “entrusted to the Asakusa Kannon.” He was referring to a temple in Asakusa, a region of Tokyo, which held a statue of Kannon, the Japanese name for the bodhisattva of compassion. Somewhat puzzled by this answer, the swordsman nevertheless traveled to the temple. Was there a special teacher he would find there? Was there some secret around this statue? He reached the temple and searched around, growing more confused, as he found no teacher, nothing around the statue, nothing. Ready to leave, he happened to look up and noticed three characters carved in the wood above the door to the temple: Se Mu I, which roughly translates as “Give Fearlessness”. The words sliced through him as he suddenly realized the highest stage of any act is the fearlessness one feels and conveys when functioning, not as a separate self, but wholly connected.

Fast forward to this week where a divided country, amidst a divided response to a pandemic, slings its divisive language and casts its divided votes in a pitch battle for power. No matter who comes out on top, or how long it takes for a result to emerge, fear has been stirred up to a frothy level. Since energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form, this fear-energy, based in separation and divisiveness, will be healed only by an energy that brings people together – something closer to love and compassion. That’s a form of leadership, needed not just from the top, but from every level, from each of us healing the divides in the families, friendships, companies and communities we touch. This time calls for the highest quality of leadership, which is rarely talked about in leadership books or training, and that is the ability to dissipate fear, to give fearlessness.

Nelson Mandela was an exemplar of this quality of leadership. He exuded an all-embracing warmth that made others simply feel better in his presence. The energy of room reportedly brightened the moment he walked into it. When traveling, he would buttonhole South Africans living abroad and compassionately cajole them into repatriating to help their country. On a larger scale, he led South Africa through a bloodless reconciliation of racism, healing the scars of apartheid practices. He settled the country’s fear of “the other” as people felt connected to the bigness that came through him. Now Mandela was a remarkable person, to be sure, yet what he was manifesting – love, compassion, connection – is as available to you and me as it was to him.

Indeed, accessing and manifesting this bigness is the training of Zen Leadership. It involves, not adding a new skill, but stripping away the blinders that would have us miss the most wondrous aspect of our nature. The divine paradox of being human is that we are both energy and matter, we are universal and differentiated, we are one and we are separate. Ignoring the whole self and seeing only the separate self causes the misery of our lives and is the source of fear.

We don’t have to live that way. We don’t have to lead that way. We can embrace the ever-present evidence of our energetic, connected nature and increasingly see beyond our separate self to the healing possibilities of our wholeness. How? Here are three strategies from Zen Leadership conducive to leading from a more expansive state where healing is possible.

Become Breath

When you find yourself triggered by outrageous events or results you don’t like, feel in your body what’s tense or stuck. Go there with your breath and awareness, as if you were breath itself, rhythmically flowing through that stuck point, inviting it to relax. Even as an act of imagination, you’ll be directing energy to the area. Stay with any changes in sensation, lovingly present with yourself, enabling tension to run its course and ease to return. Fear drains away.

Become the Other

In conversations, especially those where there may be conflict or a desire to influence, become the other person. Imagine looking through their eyes, inhabiting their posture, feeling them as an aspect of yourself. This may start as an act of imagination, but it is a potent way to develop empathy. The very effort to empathize builds a neurological map of the other in you, physically creating conditions for stronger resonance. Getting on the same wavelength, you’ll have more connected insight into what’s possible in that conversation. You may not be able to fix the issue, but you can always heal someone’s aloneness, which takes away fear.

Become the Whole Picture

In facing difficulties and challenges where your actions could make a difference, become the difficulty, the challenge, the whole picture. Imagine shapeshifting into being, not a local player on the gameboard of life, stuck in this challenge, but the whole game and game-maker. From this big view, ask what wants to happen here? Imagine if your local self were dead but still able to act, what would be its best use in this situation? Download, as it were, your best piece of advice to your local self. Using oneself as a tool in service of the whole picture enacts a selfless quality that others sense. In the field of that bigness, fear dissipates.

We face a divisive time. Let it be the painful necessity that propels us to become larger than fear, that we may heal ourselves, others and the whole picture.


By Ginny Whitelaw


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