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Enlightened Leadership Part 2: Power and the Six Paramitas

Last week I referenced a wonderful article by Chauncey Bell and Guillermo Wechsler called “Leadership by Design”. First of all, anyone serious about developing real leadership capabilities should read this article – it is a valuable and unique perspective. Second, this week we will focus on one specific portion of the article – the concept of Power.

Bell and Wechsler write that “leaders accumulate, exercise, and manage power.” However, they use the word “power” in a very specific way. They define “power” as the capacity of an individual or organization to take action. Therefore, someone with more power is able to produce a result with more efficiency, speed, or quality than someone else.

While there are certain types of capital that enable a person or organization to take action (financial, pragmatic, and status to name a few), there is one major component of power that depends squarely on the character of the person or organization: Authenticity. Authenticity comes from being so finely in-tune with oneself and the surrounding environment that an individuals can be clear, confident, and decisive in their actions and those actions potently strike true to what is most appropriate in a given situation. Unfortunately, the practices that enable personal authenticity are not readily taught in business schools and most consultants/coaches miss the mark. Great leadership coaches such as Grinnell Leadership focus cultivating this type of personal leadership, but there is also a much older more comprehensive framework and philosophy from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that sheds some light on how we can develop this type of awareness and clarity. One of the many teachings in this philosophical tradition is referred to as the six paramitas (or personal practices of perfection). The six practices are: generosity, discipline, patience, joyful exertion, meditation, and wisdom. However, these are not just soft words for contemplation by monks in orange robes, these practices are just as relevant (if not more so) for the leaders of today and tomorrow as they look for clarity, confidence, and decisiveness in the busy, chaotic world around them.


Generosity is the practice of letting go. Pain (whether personal or professional) is a sign that we are holding onto something, holding back, or grasping for more of something – all of which are manifestations of fear and aggression. By sharing or giving of the things that we are most protective of, we deflate the fear of losing them and allow those things we cherish only become greater by sharing them. For example, if you own a relationship with a key client, sometimes the best thing that you can do is share that client with others in your organization – there is the risk that you may lose them, but more likely the client will see you as a trusted advisor and your colleagues will be indebted to you for providing them the opportunity – by sharing something of great value, you actually increased your own power and the total value of the situation. Similarly, in organizations where leaders work hard to empower others and create more leaders, they increase the total power of the organization. Whereas when individuals horde power and marginalize others, they decrease the total power of the organization and subsequently their own viability in the long run. As we contemplate the practice of generosity in our teams and organizations, remember that it is the things we grasp most tightly are often the things we can benefit the most from sharing. The individuals or organizations that master this will realize a totally different level of power.


By having some consistent practice of some sort, discipline provides the psychological safety and grounding for us to evolve to a place where we can be comfortable with even greater uncertainty. When coupled with awareness, discipline provides us the stability needed to slow down so that we can be present and really see our lives and the world around us (and not escape reality). For example, if you have the same walk to work every day, or a period of daily reflection, or an exercise routine that you do every day – if you do these things mindlessly you may hurt yourself or miss important things because you are just blindly following a habitual pattern (e.g. running your usual five miles even though you are tired and pulling a muscle). However, if done mindfully - with awareness - you will notice the subtle differences in these practices day-to-day and that will provide valuable insight as to what is going on for you internally and in relationship to the external environment. True discipline involves striking that balance between “not too loose (unstructured, inconsistent, and no baseline to be able to observe changes against), not too tight (overstructured and without any space to observe changes).” These subtle insights are what give you the clarity and discernment to know how best to act given the unique specifics of your disposition and the characteristics of the situation around you at this exact point in time – but this insight is only possible against the backdrop of a disciplined practice.


Patience is the practice of learning to love and appreciate whatever we encounter on our path. Patience does not mean that we “don’t care” or that we have to “tough it out” but rather it requires that we create enough space around an experience or emotion that we can explore it and learn from it. By doing so, we understand more about the nature of reality but more importantly about how we personally are affected by it and react to it. As Pema Chodron writes: “the opposite of patience is aggression – the desire to jump, move, and push against our lives to try to fill up space.” For example, part of my role at Balfour Beatty is to develop and embed new transformative practices. In the past, there have been moments where the appetite for a new idea has been less or slower than what I hoped. I used to think that meant I had to do more, push harder, or be more forceful. One day, I decided to give it some space – then the dynamic totally shifted. I was able to see more clearly the broader workings of the organization and project teams (their pain points and needs), realize the way to more effectively talk about and position the new idea, and let the business “pull” on the idea and actually want it. As a result, the benefit to the business has increased significantly and my relationship to my work has shifted to a much healthier and empowering situation. This is the power of patience.

Joyful Exertion

This is the practice of training with eagerness by without attachment to a specific goal. Basically this is loving what you do (rather than the outcomes of what you do). Intention is fine, but if our effort is too tightly dependent on a specific outcome then the potential fear and disappointment of not meeting that outcome may govern our actions instead of authentic leadership. Almost every organization has people that pursue new business opportunities (marketing, business acquisition, etc.); if they only care about landing the contract or winning the job, their benefit will be short-term and their power and influence will be limited. However, if they really care about providing the best experience and connecting deeply with a potential client, then the will see significant dividends in the long run. This is the power of loving what your do – your enthusiasm and shear curiosity end up being contagious, infectious, and something that people want to be around and that becomes it’s own reward.


Let go of the idea of someone sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, hands on knees - meditation is simply the practice of being present. When we leave behind the notion of the “perfect meditator” (or the “perfect meeting” or “perfect plan” or “perfect client”) we can simply be present to what is actually going on in reality. When we can hold the tension between what actually “is” and what we think “should be” with gentleness instead of instantly blaming, defending, or making excuses, then we create some space between us and a given situation. In that space, we can see more clearly and objectively, we drop the false story that we’ve fabricated and see what is actually going on. In addition, connecting to that space and openness is what provides the potential for change and that potential for creativity and inspiration. Occasionally, I will have the presence of mind in the midst of a heated meeting to stop and really see what is going on – one person’s idealism being threatened, another person searching for relevance, another trying to control – although we are all trying to reach the same positive outcome, our individual (unspoken) stories are getting the way. Sometimes, I can see this and by simply reframing the discussion in a different light so that we are reminded of the higher common purpose (and other times when I am “less present”, I’m in there slugging it out with everyone else pushing my own story/agenda). This is the power of what meditation can bring (the former, not the latter).


Wisdom comes from the continual practice of the other five paramitas, but it is also what allows us to know the different between a true practice and what Pema Chodron refers to as “idiot practice”. For example, “idiot compassion” would tell us to try to smooth everything over and to not “rock the boat”, but that is not true compassion which consists of feeling the full uncertainty and tension of the moment and letting it play out in a way that is supporting and understanding so that the whole system can find a healthier balance… We’ll get into more of this next week when we look at the importance of leaders creating unsettlement.

The things that weaken our personal power the most are when we act or react from a place of disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, or fear – especially when we are unaware that we are doing so. In these moments, we are blindly and defensively reacting or shutting down (the opposite of skillful action) and we are not even wisely leading our own life. These uncomfortable feelings are messages that we need to skillfully lean into the situation when we would rather back away from it and as we learn to stay with the discomfort of these situations, we begin to get good at navigating the uncertainty of the present moment and being able to lead from a more authentic place. This is how true leaders go about accumulating, exercising and managing power – regardless of their station in life.

In addition to the “Leadership by Design” article featured on www. (yes .co not .com), much of this post is based on writings of Pema Chodron (specifically her book “Comfortable with Uncertainty”).

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