Meditation and Leadership

Out of all the leadership drills and skills I explored, meditation has made the most impact on how I led. This article is going to be a deep cut into meditation and leadership.

Life is choosing; Leadership is deciding

At the core, life is a collection of moments of decision making. These decisions can be how you react to something someone said. These decisions can also be which button to press when a zombie shows up on your video game screen.

The same is true with leadership- leadership is about how you choose and react to situations and people. These decisions can be how you react to what your boss say about you. These decisions can also be how you react to your team missing a target.

Therefore the most important thing to figure out, in life and as a leader, is to press the right buttons, to respond appropriately.

Once another monk asked Yunmen, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”

Yunmen said, “An appropriate response.””

雲門文偃, Yunmen Wenyan, a monk in China during the Tang Dynasty (864–949).

The Gap Between The Trigger and The Reaction

In order to press the most appropriate buttons on the “game controller of our lives,” we need to give ourselves enough space between the triggers of our reactions and how we actually react. We need to create enough space for ourselves to understand the situation and to choose and press the appropriate button.

Let’s look at an example:

When my daughter whined during her violin practice, I had a choice to make and I needed to respond. When we slowed things down, a few things would emerge:

  1. There was a mess of emotions triggered by her whining:
    • “She was disobedient and did not respect me”
    • “I felt ashamed that she had no perseverance”
    • “I was a bad parent”
    • “I was angry because she sucked at playing and that made me look bad”
    • etc.
  2. I could actually choose how I wanted to respond to these emotions
  3. There were actually more than one response to choose from. There was more than one button to choose from:
    • Button A: Yell at her
    • Button B: Groan loudly
    • Button C: Passive aggressively question her
    • Button D: LOL
    • etc.

Essentially, if we could slow time down every moment in life, we would see that these steps were sandwiched between the trigger and our reaction. Let’s explore a moment in the workplace:

“Employee did not appear to be paying attention to me during a meeting”

  1. Mess of emotions:
    • “I feel disrespected! You ignored me!”
    • “She is slow”
    • “Argh I suck. I must have been too verbose”
  2. I could actually choose how I wanted to respond to these emotions.
  3. There was more than one response to choose from. There was more than one button to choose from:
    • Button A: “Repeat what I said”
    • Button B: “Call her out for not paying attention”
    • Button C: “Convey the same thing again, but differently”
    • Button D: “Do nothing”

Practice Choosing

Meditation was the most effective intervention to help me slow down. Meditation allowed me to practice pausing and noticing. It gave me the time and the “training space” so then I could strengthen the mental muscles of pausing and noticing:

  • How often did I pause and notice during my one on one chat with my boss?
  • How did I choose when the audience was not engaged?
  • What were the emotions when the other side counter-offered?

It was an on-going effort to remember to pause. It was an on-going effort to battle overwhelming and novel emotions. It was an on-going effort to remember what buttons were available for me to choose from. Meditation created a highly controlled environment so I could practice continuously. It allowed me to work on paying attention to the most subtle movements and changes. Meditation gave me techniques to notice the quietest emotions and the most hidden thoughts. Meditation allowed me to strengthen the muscles inside my brain to discern the signal from the noise inside my head.

Another wonderful thing about meditation was I got to work on my ability to magnify even the most subtle feelings. For example, metta meditation trained me to trigger and resonate specific emotions on demand. When I got good at manipulating emotions, I became more agile in creating the appropriate emotional state to respond.

When I first began meditating back in 2012 when the meditation app “Headspace” was launched, I did not think it would have anything to do with how I led. Throughout the years, meditation and I were on an on-and-off relationship, until 2018, when I discovered Sam Harris’ Waking Up App. It fundamentally changed how I understood meditation. It opened doors to how I could apply this new way of living and leading. The app turned meditation into a practice of a lifetime.