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Enlightened Leadership Part 1: The Buddha in the Boardroom

Holling, C. S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. European Journal of Operational Research 30(2):139–146

We live and work in a world where change is constant, where the speed of communication and disruption is ever-increasing, and the complexity and expectations of clients are only getting greater. The question is “how can the leaders of today and tomorrow navigate such a chaotic and dynamic environment with grace, wisdom, and confidence?” This exploration of “enlightened” leadership will be the focus of this next series of posts.

To kick this series off, I want to explore the convergence of three different trains of thought: 1) the nature of adaptive cycles, 2) the difference between management and leadership, and 3) the implications of Buddhist philosophy for leadership in today’s complex and dynamic world.

Adaptive Cycles

When looking at our natural environment, there are cyclical patterns that characterize the way certain species are introduced, flourish, die, and are new ones are created. While these cycles were derived to describe the natural ebb and flow of ecosystems, they are just as applicable to the world of ideas and paradigms. One model for these cycles is the adaptive cycle where systems go through four distinct phases.

  1. Reorganization/Renewal Phase - Beginning at the point in the cycle where the old paradigms have just fallen, there is a new chaotic emergence of creativity and a great diversity in ideas. This multitude of ideas begins to take on a new character and the inklings of new paradigms begins to emerge.

  2. Growth/Expansion Phase – These ideas begin to spread into all sorts of fields and industries and they grow rapidly in complexity, context, and relevance. Weak ideas begin to fall away and the ideas that are the best suited for this new environment and the psyche of the population begin to really take off and flourish.

  3. Conservation Phase – At some point, growth in the entire system slows and certain leading ideas become dominant. Although growth has slowed, the emerging dominant paradigms continue to increase in connectedness and stability and they moves to a conservation phase characterized by storage or accumulation of energy/materials/capital. New, smaller ideas cannot realistically complete with wealth of resources possessed by the dominant ideas at this time so diversity decreases. Additionally, the dominant paradigms develop such a structure around themselves that they become massive – this gives them greater influence over the entire ecosystem but also makes them less able to adapt to new changes in the environment.

  4. Release/Revolution Phase – At some point, the difference between the imposed structure created by the dominant paradigms and the natural structure that exists in an ever-changing environment becomes too great. The lack of diversity leaves the system even less able to cope with changes so the whole system begins to collapse. In the chaos that follows, there is fragility and instability in the system and therefore a need to find a new order out of the many new ideas emerging - and the cycle repeats itself.

Management vs. Leadership

One of the major challenges for today’s managers and leaders is that we get fixated on only one phase of the adaptive cycle and fail to lead our teams and organizations in a way that acknowledges the entire dynamic cycle. Recently, I was referred to a paper entitle “Leadership by Design” by Chauncey Bell and Guillermo Wechsler that featured a wonderful quote by John Kotter. The quote reads:

[Those] ... who invented modern management ... were trying to produce consistent results on key dimensions expected by customers, stockholders, employees, and other[s], despite the complexity caused by large size, modern technologies, and geographic dispersion. ...

Leadership is very different. It does not produce consistency and order.... It produces movement. Throughout the ages, individuals who have been seen as leaders have created change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.” ~ from John P. Kotter (1990). A Force for Change: How Leaderships Differs From Management, New York: The Free Press.

The thing that struck me so profoundly about this quote was the notion that leadership creates movement – leadership does not create consistency and order, it doesn’t even respond to movement, but rather it creates and encourages it! Therefore, true leaders are the ones that can fuel adaptive cycles and navigate their teams and organizations through the constant change of those cycles rather than those that try to grasp onto only one part of the cycle and resist change and movement.

Buddhist Philosophy and Leadership

This desire to grasp onto certain positive or comfortable aspects of reality and ignore other difficult or challenging aspects of reality is a psychological and existential tension that is as old as time and something that is central to Buddhist philosophy. One of the foundational aspects of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths: 1) there is suffering, 2) suffering comes from grasping/holding onto certain aspects of reality and resisting/ignoring other aspects of reality, 3) if we can overcome grasping and resisting then we can overcome suffering, and 4) there is a path of practice that can lead us to this place of overcoming suffering. Although very simplistic, this is just begins to scratch the surface of a wealth of insight and teachings that can help us navigate a constantly changing world with grace, wisdom, and clarity.

Setting aside religious or cultural aspects for the moment, Buddhism has developed a complex and comprehensive set of philosophical teachings that above all else invite individuals to have an authentic experience in the full reality of the world. It does not strive to eliminate difficulty or problems, but rather shift our relationship with these situations (i.e. shift our perspective) so that we do not suffer within the uncertainty and constant change of the world, but rather become more fulfilled and enlightened as a result of it. This is where I see a great synergy with Kotter’s quote and the long line of Buddhist teachings – in a world of constant change, or ups and downs, cycles of growth and collapse, how do we develop true leaders (not managers) that can navigate through such a world and skillfully lead their respective organizations? This is the question that this next series of posts will explore.

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