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Enlightened Leadership Part 3: The Art of Creating Unsettlement

Effective leaders have rich practices for producing and managing unsettlement.” This is one of the most provocative and fascinating statements in the Bell and Wechsler paper entitled “Leadership by Design”. They go onto say that creating unsettlement is what allows a true leader “to attack and dissolve parts of the current common sense, demolish current certainties – things that people previously had confidence in – and create space for new questions to emerge, new ways of listening, and new issues to be taken in account.”

This notion that it is a fundamental role of leadership to create unsettlement within their organizations has significant implications for the types of people and thinking that is best suited for leadership. The focus of this series of posts is that enlightened leadership requires a different breed of leader - or at least a different skillset and mindset that what is traditionally emphasized.

Regarding this week’s focus on “creating unsettlement”, there are some important points to explore further. These fall at the crossroad of psychology, mindfulness, and leadership theory – so needless to say, fascinating topics that we will only scratch the surface of here.

Treading the balance between discomfort and pain

Disappointment, embarrassment, uncertainty, ignorance - these are all types of discomfort. They are not comfortable or “good” feelings, but when confronted, they can result in insight, growth, and force us to transcend our previous limitations. Pain, on the other hand, can be traumatic and cause shock and contraction – which cause people to hold even more tightly to whatever they still have that is safe and grounded (rather than opening up to some new possibility). The leader’s responsibility is to know the difference and push people to their edge but carefully tread that line between discomfort and pain.

Leaders need to create enough discomfort that their people realize that something must change – some “old” way of thinking, behavior, or paradigm must “die” so that a “new” one that is more relevant for the new environment can take hold and flourish. As Pema Chodron points out: We spend so much time fighting against this type of “death” (fear of change) that we often fail to realize that reaching our limits is not some kind of punishment, but actually a sign that we are growing into something new - something more powerful, something wiser, and something more profound.

One aspect of the discomfort/pain spectrum is the magnitude of the shift, but there is also the question of the duration of the shift. As Bell and Wechsler state: “How the unsettlement is produced is far less important than having the capacity to produce it and keep people unsettled as long as necessary to produce a new background. The unsettlement we speak of gives space for capitalizing emerging opportunities.” The “quick fix” or the “strategy du jour” is not a way to create meaningful discomfort, in fact, these efforts often do more harm than good because they distract us from facing the true underlying reality but they give the false perception of movement, change, or growth. Going for a five-mile run every once in a while will not enable a healthy lifestyle – in fact you may hurt yourself or suffer from a heart attack. However, when the focus is prolonged and substantive – running every day, changing diet and behaviors, stretching, etc. – then, even though it is not easy, the stage is set for meaningful transformation.

Clarity in Vision

Last week’s post on the six paramitas provides a robust framework for how leaders can build their own authenticity and subsequently their power to effect change. These practices also are the key to being able to see the present state clearly – so clearly, that you can also make sense of how past has contributed to the current state and what the future trajectory of the current state will be. This is partly what organizations look to their leaders for – interpretation of the past, sensemaking of the present, and their vision for the future. In creating unsettlement, leaders have the opportunity to reinterpret the past and clarify the vision for the future – and to do so in a way that weaves a cohesive and compelling story. If leaders can integrated the past, present, and future into a simple, elegant, and motivational story then they have a great tool to meaningfully drive organizational change.

Commitment to the Path

Once an enlightened leader has chosen a path, the most critical factor is the commitment and discipline that the leader and their organization have in following through with the path they have chosen. Prominent organizational strategists have proposed that organizational strategy could be nothing more than simply a consistent pattern of decisions making – in most cases, organizations that are disciplined and commitment to a single strategy will always win out over those that constantly shift their strategy to respond to the market. From the Buddhist perspective, Pema Chodron has written that “shopping around” (for different paths or strategies) is an attempt to find security, an attempt to find a way to always feel good about yourself. Elements of truth can be found almost anywhere, but until we find that particular way that rings true to you and you decide to follow it – until that point, you have not begun the warrior’s journey. Once committed, then you let the path put you through your changes. “Without commitment, the minute you really begin to hurt, you’ll just leave or you’ll look for something else.”


Despite the clarity discussed in the one of the earlier points, leaders, more than anyone else, need to also know that they don’t know everything. There is the famous quote from the great philosopher Socrates “All I know is that I know nothing”. This humility and constant willingness to face their ignorance is what gives great leaders the presence of mind and ability to discern wisely the best course of action in a complex environment.

One of the great teachings of the Buddha came when he gathered some of his most advanced students at Vulture Peak Mountain. There, he delivered a revolutionary teaching that dropped the ground from beneath them; He told then that whatever they believed, whatever lessons had gotten them this far in their development, whatever ideas they had held as keys to their success – they had to let go of those ideas. Holding onto anything blocks wisdom. As Bell and Wechsler state: “Expanding our ignorance is the only chance we have for something new to emerge.”

The continuous realization that everything that we think we know is fleeting (i.e. it becomes an outdated story the moment we’ve grasped it) is a foundational realization for enlightened leaders. The great teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, was famous for putting it this way: “The bad news is that there is no parachute, the good news is that there is no ground”. Fearlessness is not the reduction of fear, but moving beyond it.


The responsibility of leaders to create unsettlement is a tricky proposition. It is the unsaid key to great leadership, but it requires that leaders tread very carefully along a number of lines. In order to do so, they need to have the presence of mind and clarity to know the path, the resolve and commitment to follow through with it, and the awareness to know how much the can shake up the reality to create the perfect catalyst for meaningful change.

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