Zen, Leadership, And The Importance of Brain Filters

"It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself. " – Goethe

Power and Stress. If you want to be a leader, you better learn to deal with both of them. You don't have to be a CEO to experience them, and you don't have to run a large company. As long as you manage people and have a lot to do, you probably have power and you probably have stress. And if you have stress, there is a good chance that it negatively impacts your use of power. The first step in remedying this situation, is to take a closer look at yourself.

HBS has a unique look at leadership. The premise, in zen-like fashion, is that leadership starts with self-discovery.

How can leadership be so rich in information yet so poor in knowledge? Hundreds of books and "models" purport to advise on the best way to become a leader. Yet many people, asked to name a leader they admire, struggle to identify more than a few individuals.

According to Jagdish Parikh (HBS MBA '54), the gap between what everyone learns about leadership and what they actually experience exposes a fundamental flaw in leadership models today. The qualities that genuine leaders possess—and what makes inspiring leaders so rare—are not innate characteristics. Rather, he believes, they are skills that aspiring leaders can and should actually teach themselves, such as self-knowledge and self-mastery. Self-knowledge and self-mastery can be developed through conscientious practice.

"Unless one knows how to lead oneself, it would be presumptuous to lead others," Parikh said.

Zen is a good model for just about any business topic, but it works particularly well for leadership. They both require a delicate yin-yang kind of balance. Leaders have a lot to do, and they can't let their work overwhelm them or they become ineffective. The best way not to become overwhelmed is to master your own life. By being productive and focused, you get more done and are more effective. But often that means saying no to things, delegating, and making sure not to take on too much.

"But Rob," some of you might say,"I need to take on as much as possible. Stress motivates me. Stress helps me get things done." Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit on that one.

"Does stress bring out the best in us?" Parikh asked. Many executives, he said, buy into the myth that being stressed-out is an asset and means they are dedicated to their job—they use stress as rocket fuel. Parikh said he too adopted this mindset when he was an MBA student. As a child he had been taught the opposite by his family: that the most important thing in life was to be happy and content, to do his best but not fret about the results. But at business school the mantra was "Don't ever feel satisfied." Stress, he was told, would help him set goals and reach them.

Stress releases a chemical in your body called Cortisol. It's a good thing in certain doses, because it helps you focus and provides energy to your brain. But too much can have negative effects and your performance will decline. It's that yin-yang balance thing again. The article sums it up well:

It is important to get to know one's own inner dynamics deeply "in order to achieve sustainable peak performance," he said. When managers operate largely out of fear, they may perform at a very high level but not for long. "Adrenaline is energizing, but we want to move from the 'fear of losing' into the 'joy of doing,'" he said. "Unless one feels good about oneself, the momentum can't be sustained."

It makes sense. But how can you do more and still keep your stress at the right level? You use your brain.

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Brains are amazing filters. There is an overwhelming amount of information around us, yet our brains manage to figure out what is important and relevant. The nice thing is that much of this processing takes place outside of our conscious awareness, and we can take advantage of that.

Remember when you learned to read? It was tough. You had to sound out all the words. But over time, the words started to come naturally, without conscious processing. Once that happened, you were able to read and focus your conscious attention on higher level meanings (sentences, paragraphs, etc) instead of spending it to figure out how to say the words. Your brain filters that lower level out by processing it unconsciously, saving your conscious attention for other tasks.

That can happen with anything that you learn. If you learn a new way to conduct more effective meetings, you have to consciously employ it at first. But as time progresses, you just naturally hold efficient and effective meetings.

The same thing applies to stress and self-knowledge. If you get used to being introspective, if you get used to evaluating yourself, if you make a conscious effort to think about the way you think, eventually it will become easier. You will have changed the way you naturally think and it will be much more useful to you.

That is what makes learning so important for leaders. No one has time to go through countless mental checklists about all the aspects of running a business. But by focusing on them one at a time, you can incorporate them into your unconscious process. You can change the way your brain filters information.

So if you want to lower your stress and use your leadership power more effectively, it is going to take work. And working on yourself is often the most difficult thing to do. But then again if it was easy, everyone would do it. Master yourself and make your leadership a competitive advantage.