Monday, May 28, 2012

The Art of Zen Leadership

Many times as we discuss our thoughts, theories, and beliefs with friends and colleagues there is a reaction of "that sounds good in theory but how does one put it into practice?"  Here we share an excerpt from a new release in our Career Press line called The Zen Leader: 10 Ways to go From Barely Managing to Leading Fearlessly by Ginny Whitelaw.

The Zen Leader does not encourage you to just "be peaceful."  Nor does it suggest that you work harder, faster, or ignore the pressure.  Quite the opposite: the book is about using the pressure to propel "flips" in consciousness that create transformational leaders, leaders who create the future with joy and enthusiasm, rather than drive themselves and their people to exhaustion.

Here we share Chapter 2: From Tension to Extension

From Tension to Extension

I’m not tense,” Rob protested at my suggestion that he seemed about ready to explode. He was edged forward in his chair during our coaching session, right leg vibrating six beats a second, shoul­ders up around his ears. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a quick picture of him, setting it down on the table between us (love that technology!). “Take a look at this picture and tell me what vibe you get from that leader,” I say to him. “Intense,” he responds. I encourage him to keep looking. “Has his mind made up...not listen­ing...nervous...a time bomb.” Exactly.

That’s what tension does: it makes us small, edgy, and nervous. What’s more, most of us don’t even recognize how much tension we’re carrying, and how much that tension locks us into a cell of our own making. Try this experiment: Sit forward in your chair, press your feet into the ground, make fists of your hands, tense your forearms, and bore your eyes into this paper is if they were burning lasers. What do you notice? Almost certainly you notice the paper. But do you notice what’s happening out the window? Probably not. Do you notice how tension spreads through the whole front of your body, making every­thing tight? Is the feeling expansive or small? Connected or separate? Experiences vary, but most of us find this is a fast track to our most iso­lated, tense, and defended self.

Now flip that around. Let out a deep sigh of relief and sit back in your chair. Let your eyes drift into peripheral, 180-degree vision by extend­ing your arms to your sides, palms up and open, and seeing both hands and everything in between. Let your arms drift down comfortably, and imagine a line of energy flowing down the backs of your arms, and out through the backs of your fingertips. Check out the feeling: Is it larger than before? More flowing? More connected? Yes, you may say, but it also feels less sharply focused and...well...less productive. And therein lies a key tension in leadership: it’s easier to trust what we can control and get done using tension than it is to trust what comes when we let go, and let extension operate.

This simple flip between tension and extension shows up not only in the body, but also in emotions, thought processes, and everyday lead­ership behaviors. In this chapter, we explore how sustained tension can lead to barely managing, career derailment, and burnout, whereas exten­sion is based in the much more sustainable rhythm of drive and recovery. Extension enables the awareness and sensitivity that lets us transform situations, rather than crashing into them with unsustainable change ef­forts. Extension gives rise to natural durability in our energy, and in all that it creates. Building on the flip of Chapter 1, we look at three “laws” of energy management that flip tension into extension and allow the transformational Zen leader in us to spring forth.

Tension Produces Movement—Until it Doesn’t
Tension is not all bad. The truth is, we couldn’t move a single muscle without it. In its simplest form, in the simplest animals (and even a few plants), tension is a contraction: fibers sliding past one another, like the closing of a fan. When the ends of those fibers are connected to differ­ent parts of a body, tension pulls those parts closer together. Relaxation, like opening a fan, lets them return to full length. Alternating tension and relaxation, a body can start to wiggle and move, from the simplest, squirming paramecium, to the complex human body. Every muscle in our body linking every bone of our skeleton operates on this principle: When it tenses, things contract; when it relaxes, things move further apart. We also have muscles, such as the heart, that oscillate with their cycles of tension and relaxation to move our blood. Tension produces movement; that’s not a bad thing.

The start of trouble is when tension doesn’t let go—when it “for­gets” how to relax. This happens in muscle fibers when the little tracks that allow fibers to slide past one another get stuck. These tracks require energy (like lubrication) to operate, and without it, they simply freeze, like a sliding glass door stuck slightly off its track. As a muscle gets more fibers stuck in this condition, its starts to feel harder, less supple, and it takes more energy to get it moving at all. As one of my Zen teachers, Tanouye Roshi, used to say, “The body of a baby is soft and pliable. The body of a corpse is stiff and rigid. We’re somewhere in between.”

Just where we are “in between” has a great deal to do with our energy. The more we are like a baby, the more energy flows smoothly through our body, the easier we move, and the more energy we have available to add value in the world. The tighter we are, the more that tightness traps energy, keeping it from getting to all the muscles that need it, leading to a vicious cycle of more tightness that requires more effort to overcome in order to make movement possible. Think how much energy it takes to open a slightly stuck sliding glass door. In effect, when our muscles are somewhat stuck we have to do the same thing—put a lot of energy into overcoming our own resistance!

Worse yet, we’re not even aware of it until symptoms are acute, and we don’t know why. We only notice how tired we are by the end of a day, how persistent certain aches and pains have become, or how we don’t have the energy for another project, a difficult conversation, or patience with our children. This tension doesn’t affect merely moving our bodies through space. It affects everything: our emotions, thoughts, and behav­iors. Coping mode exactly expresses this stuckness, registering its voice of no. Not moving. Blaming others. Remaining the victim.

Stuck tension in the body weighs into every decision regarding whether we have the energy to act freely in the situation and add our val­ue. So when we talk about tension as something to flip out of, we’re not talking about the healthy cycle of tension and release that’s at the heart of life’s movement. We’re talking about habitual tension that doesn’t re­lease fully and, in time, ossifies body and mind.

This habitual tension can reside anywhere in the body, but if we were to locate a fundamental source—the primal contraction—it would be in the deep muscles lining the front side of the spine. You can see this primal contraction in the simplest sea creatures that curl up when pro­voked, or little inchworms that become instant circles when they sense a threat. This biological version of “circling the wagons,” be they seg­ments of an inchworm or our own vertebrae, is a coping mechanism of animals large and small. In humans, we see it in the extremes among the most downtrodden and depressed, hence phrases like “huddled masses” and “curled up into a fetal position.” But in more subtle ways, we all carry some of this tension, which you can experience (not that you’d want to, but to make the point) if you feel into your body’s response to deflating news or an emotional sock to the gut. In fact, these deep, frontal muscles are great at storing pain and difficult emotions, as anyone who has experienced deep bodywork to release these muscles could tell you. Body therapists call these muscles “core” for good reason.

It doesn’t stop there. Because tension contracts muscles, held ten­sion distorts the body, and then the opposing muscles have to start working harder to compensate. Generally what we experience as back pain originates from over-taxed muscles in our back compensating for over-tight muscles in our core. Tension begets more tension, most of which passes beneath our conscious awareness—until it painfully doesn’t. The early warning signs are mostly benign: headaches, stiff necks, sore backs, achy shoulders, gastrointestinal discomfort, elevated pulse, high­er blood pressure. But most busy people (including myself for a good deal of my life) power through those signals with an aspirin here, an antacid there, so of course the symptoms have to get worse to get our at­tention. And why are we putting all this tension into our body? Because it’s the natural companion of coping mode. Whenever we’re in the grip (even the phrase suggests a contraction!) of anger, indignation, worry, or any of the faces of coping mode, tension is both the byproduct and exactly what holds it in place.

The Price of Tension for Leaders
“Contain the vein!” laughs one of the more vocal team members when asked what it’s like to work for Elliot, a senior vice president of product development known for his angry outbursts. I’ve been Elliot’s coach for a couple of months, and I’m meeting with the people who re­port to him to see how they handle his volatility. “We watch him closely,” the person went on, and when the vein in his forehead starts to pulsate, we know he’s about to blow.” They’ve made it something of a joke—“Contain the vein!”—and when the vein is well-contained, Elliot laughs along with them. He knows he has “a temper problem”; it was why the company suggested he work with a coach in the first place. What he doesn’t know is how much the team members shade what they tell him, protect themselves in partial truths, and carefully pick when to feed him information so as not to set off the vein. The more I talk to the team, the more I see how they’re managing Elliot, rather than him leading them.

Energy is contagious in general, but a leader’s volatility is doubly so, first because it signals danger and fear and, second, because it comes from the very person to whom others look for safety. At a deep, brain­stem level, a question we’re always asking about leaders is, “Do I want to follow you?” A leader’s volatility quickly spreads tension in the land and raises doubts.

In addition to volatility, there is a host of ways leaders pay the price of tension, perhaps best characterized by psychologist Robert Hogan, and applied to leaders by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo.They identify 11 ways that leaders under stress sabotage their effectiveness or derail their careers—a catalogue of coping mechanisms. For example: 

  • The cynic who’s always trying to find fault and cast blame 
  • The worrier, who agonizes over every decision or plays it safe 
  • The center of attention whose insecurity demands the spotlight 
  • The arrogant one who must be right and long ago stopped listening 
  • The perfectionist determined to get reality under control.

If you were playing a game of Charades and were asked to portray any of these characters (try the exercise to the right) you would instantly find that to act it out, you would start tensing your body in specific ways: a furtive, eye-darting look for the cynic, a puffed up chest for the arrogant person, and so on. These gestures are not accidental; in the game of Charades we might exaggerate them to make them more visible, but even when held inside, these same subtle tensions are at work.

From the research that Hogan and others have done, we know that everyone has potential derail­ers that are more likely to surface when we’re under stress or low on energy. In other words, these coping mechanisms function at a macro level much the way our muscles func­tion at a micro level: like sliding glass doors that can get stuck or derail when energy is scarce. The cost to the human being is a vicious, ener­gy-draining cycle. The cost to leadership is that it stops doing anything productive.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we stop doing. If we simply paused when we sensed our tension or tiredness, we would do less damage and return to a relaxed state more readily. But, no, we tend to keep on go­ing—we’re so busy, after all, and there’s so much to do. Besides, the first thing lost in our spun-up tension is the clear-flowing awareness that could see we’re digging our hole deeper. Spun up in tension, our mind can lock onto a particular goal and lock out the bigger picture: Hit this target, catch this flight, get through this agenda item. Or, if we’re less focused, before we get through one item, our mind has daisy-chained onto anoth­er and we leave a frenetic trail of half-doneness. In our tension, people can become objects to use, a means to our ends: Get this person to do what I want, ignore that person who doesnt serve me. We listen less and push more, focusing on tasks, numbers, and speed. We may find ourselves taking whatever we can get, spewing anger, shading the truth to an oversight committee, or turning a blind eye to corruption. In the grip, our aware­ness shrinks to a fear-driven dot of self, and we feel somehow separate from the chain reactions we’re setting off. Leaders in the grip create small, brutish worlds.

Leading With Extension
If tension makes us smaller, extension makes us larger, or, more ac­curately, returns us to our natural state. Extension doesn’t mean we’re always reaching for something. Rather it is the absence of contraction and the presence of openness, sometimes simply called presence itself, which plugs us into the free-flowing energy of the earth, of the universe. This may seem like wishful, woo-woo thinking to the pragmatic leader, yet throughout the story of humanity, this profound connectedness has been the wondrous skill of great warriors, the compassion of saints, the insight of mystics, the wisdom of shamans, the genius of great artists, the gift of healers, and the prescient intuition of great leaders. It is the Zen leader in you, rolling through life like a huge boulder, according the myriad changes—acting with gravitas and complete agility with what­ever is going on. This agile gravitas is you leading with extension.

Extension is the opposite of being stuck. It is a mind and body flow­ing naturally with the circumstances. Our self-in-our-skin is not so much the source of that energy as an open conduit for it, adding our unique value as it passes through. Far from being some kind of miraculous chan­neling, this state of openness is our most natural, unstuck self. In the absence of tension, there is simply nothing to block the flow.

Having said that, it is also inevitable that we get stuck on things, big and little: a song we can’t get out of our head, a replayed snippet of conversation, a recurring fear—the mind is easily trapped in eddies of thought. Thoughts whir around like blades of a fan, and if the same thing isn’t repeating, one thing leads to another. “Have to follow up with Jane...she never got back with me...I hate it when people don’t get back with me...what’s this other irritating e-mail about?...oh, I’m late for a meeting...where did I leave my notes?...” Add some emotion to the mix, as in a dollop of fear about making our budget, or a sprinkling of nervousness about speaking in front of a group, and we get even more tense, more stuck.

So to say extension is our most natural state is not to say tension is somehow unnatural. It is part of how we’re put together, and accepting the whole picture of who we are—coping and transforming, tense and extended—allows us to more easily relax into our transformative, ex­tended selves. For if we berate ourselves for getting stuck in tension, all we do is create more tension, plunging ourselves into our own civil war. Just as acceptance is at the cusp where coping turns to transforming, it also flips tension to extension. The actions that flow through extension come out “clean”: They don’t leave a scent of ego or smallness. As free expressions of the Zen leader in us, they create openings in the world and free up others as well.

If you need an image of a leader who has exemplified this contagious openness, Nelson Mandela would certainly be a good one. In smallness, he could have sought revenge for 27 years spent in prison. But instead he extended forgiveness and opened a spirit of forgiveness throughout South Africa. He could have appropriated his power to the needs of his ego, as so many political leaders have done. But instead he applied it in the spirit of service, inspiring a similar spirit in everyone from rugby players to businesspeople. Writer John Simpson, attending a banquet in honor of Mandela some years ago, watched how this openness irresist­ibly drew people to Mandela: “It was the way he looked you straight in the eye and spoke just to you—to the person you wanted to be, perhaps, rather than the one you actually were.”2 John saw the contagious spirit of service when his South African wife spontaneously greeted Mandela. Mandela stopped and listened as though no one else mattered and time stood still. After she finished he said, “We need you back in South Africa. When are you coming home?” Who could resist such a leader?
Openness begets openness, freeing others to be more of who they are. Leading with extension extends our value into the world.

The Zen Leader Flip 2: Tension to Extension
You can make a mini version of this flip in any moment—as you had a chance to do at the start of this chapter. But to make it a way of life and leadership, you need energy. So here are what I’ve come to call the “3 Laws of Energy Management.” If you follow them, you’ll have energy to burn.

Rhythm, not relentless. Waking and sleeping, inhaling and exhal­ing, even the beat of our heart reminds us: as biological systems, we’re made to operate with rhythm. Stretch and release. Drive and recover. From the work of Yerkes Dodson in the early 1900s, extended by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz,3 we know the best way to manage our energy is on and off, not on and on. I often ask leaders, “What do you do when your iPhone shows a low battery?”

“Plug it in. Recharge it,” they say. “What do you do for yourself when you’re at low charge?”
“Keep going!” they laugh.
But they get the point. We often take better care of our iPhones—a little piece of technology that will be in the trash heap in a few years— than we take care of our priceless, ir­replaceable selves.

As Loehr and Schwartz empha­size in their work with “corporate athletes,” this pulse of drive and re­covery is also the key to full engage­ment.4 Steady stress pushes a system to habituate and run down over time. Pulsing it keeps the system in a state of fresh activation. What’s our equiv­alent to plugging in or recharging? What we do may vary, but invariably, energy comes through the body: we have to do something physically renewing. A best practice combines brief (two-minute) breaks every 90 minutes or so, with longer breaks (30 minutes) for meditation or exercise once or twice a day. You may already know of the perfect pulse practice for you, but if you’d like a good suggestion, see the Centering mini-break at the end of this chapter. You can also download further ideas for mini-breaks and renewing activities from

In addition to creating this macro pulse in our day, there is another kind of rhythm we can sense in the day itself. This is more subtle, and requires a good deal of sensitivity. If you’d like to try it, stand outside for a couple of minutes, open your senses, and take in the day. Slowly clap your hands at about a walking pace, making the pace faster and slower until you come to a rhythm that somehow takes less effort to maintain.5 This is the energy or rhythm of the day. If you pace yourself to it, you will find your energy going much further.

As I said, this rhythm is subtle, and I, myself, missed it for many years because of my hurry-up habits. I thought if something is done in half the time, that’s twice as good. I see this habit in leaders who move through their day so quickly that others can’t keep up. People get into a refractory state to protect themselves from a whirlwind leader, while the leader gets frustrated that messages aren’t being heard, delegation isn’t working, and people aren’t following. “Slow down,” I now tell these leaders. “Find the rhythm where people can move with you, or you’re going to be stuck doing everything yourself.” The easiest rhythm to find with a group is the rhythm of the day we’re all experiencing together. If you can sense this subtle pulse and let it be a soundless drumbeat underlying your actions, you will notice your energy is better supported, and others are more able to move with you. But don’t take my word for it; sense it yourself.

Down, not up. The second law of energy management is already deeply embedded in our language and common sense. We have numer­ous expressions for what happens when we’re tense, and the image is always of ener­gy rising up: spun up, upset, uptight, hotheaded. Flip that around and you find expressions like settle down, calm down, pipe down, ground yourself, and the image is always of energy dropping down.

In our physical bodies, this principle plays out when we let energy drop down into our lower abdomen, rather than rise up into our heads, as in Figure 2.1. Even as you read these words, notice your breath and relax any tension in your shoulders and rib­cage. Invite your breath energy to drop more deeply into the lower abdomen. This area, what the Japanese call “hara” and what we likened to the bulb of a large thermometer, is the center of our most powerful actions, our nucleus for balance and natural control. “Natural control” is not a forced, taking-matters-into-my-own-hands kind of control, but rather a confident centeredness that reads the situation, senses the openings for change, and uses them appropriately. This deeper-than-conscious intu- ition that appropriately and spontaneously extends our energy comes from hara more readily than from the head, because in the head it can get second-guessed and caught up in all the whirling fan blades. Developing the hara gives more opportunity for this spontaneous Zen leader to arise. The Centering mini-break at the end of this chapter is a great practice for developing your breath and hara. Breathe deeply to and from your hara, and energy will naturally de-velop in this center, along with the intuition to use it well. 
Out, not in. 
You know the importance of this energy direction from Chapter 1, but now you can experience the physical essence of how to send your energy out, not in. Try this: Raise your left arm out to your side. The front of your arm—the flexor side—is what tightens when you make a fist (see Figure 2.2a). Relax your hand and feel a line of energy running along the back of your arm—on the extensor side—running through the back of your hand and out through your fingers (Figure 2.2b). Similarly extend your right arm, and make the same flip to a line of energy running along the back, exten-sor side. Feel into your spine and similarly relax the muscles along the front of the spine and extend slightly along the back of the spine, feeling a lift through the back of your neck, the rims of your ears, and out the top of your head. Sense this line of energy extending down through your legs, gen­tly extending the balls of your feet into the earth.6 Now dial back the gain on all of this until you just barely feel these lines of extension and you have the idea of this third law of energy management: out, not in. This extension manifests physically by relaxing of the front, flexor side of the body and extending through the back, extensor side.

“Out, not in” gives a natural direction to our energy. It aligns our actions along a vector emanating from inside out, and directed toward where we want to go. As we’ll see, leadership vision, mission, and goals are but practical expressions of this sense of direction. In combination with a sustainable rhythm and centeredness, this flip into extension gives us more energy, better aligned. Who wouldn’t want that?

Putting It to Work: More Energy, Better Aligned
Applying this flip in your life and leadership makes everything else possible, for it is the fuel you run on and the authentic extension of that energy into the world. The reflection questions that follow, which I of­ten ask leaders in development programs or coaching sessions, will help you connect with your own wisdom regarding what best practices will support you in building energy, and what you know about the vision or purpose to which you’d apply it. Before starting, you might take a mo­ment to relax, open your senses, center your breath, and ever so slightly open the back-side extensor channels. Once you’re centered, even if you’re not sure what to write, read the questions and start writing with­out hesitation:
1. What is an early warning sign for you that your energy is low?
2. What could you do in a two-minute recovery break that would help you most?
3. To better pace yourself in the rhythm of the day, which of these do you generally need to do most? (A) slow down, (B) speed up, (C) stabilize, or (D) better focus your energy.
4. If you could prescribe an energy-renewing activity you could do maybe 30 minutes per day that would help you in whatever way you just identified, what would be your best prescription to yourself?
5. Write down six things you do—inside or outside of work—that make you feel most energized, satisfied, and “on purpose.”
6. Write down six things you know about what you’re creating and wanting to create through your presence and leadership.
7. Looking over the previous two lists, craft a statement that cap­tures your leadership vision or purpose. Write a second sentence that captures a key way you will go about it (for example, an important strategy).

We know that vision, purpose, and strategy are important for inspir­ing and aligning followership. But perhaps now you can also appreciate that only transformation-grade energy (as opposed to coping) gives rise to a vision, purpose, or strategy worth following. Even within us, more energy, better aligned, feeds a virtuous cycle. With more energy, it’s easier to remain unstuck; there’s more lubrication for the tracks of our internal sliding glass doors. When we’re unstuck, energy naturally flows to rejuvenate us. When that energy is aligned toward a vision and way of working, it’s better focused and less drained by distractions and irrita­tions. Finally, when our vision and way of working arise from what we find intrinsically energizing, we get more energy as we go.

The flip from tension to extension is the physical realization of mov­ing from coping to transforming. Being able to build and align energy is also the foundational tool for sustainable leadership and all the flips to follow. If you’re ever stuck, drained, frustrated, tormented, indignant, frightened, defensive, dull, or depressed, come back here.

Flush with energy, we’re ready to dive deeper into the complexities of leadership today, most of which can be characterized by a single word: paradox.

Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is both a leadership expert and a roshi (Zen master) in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. Cofounder of Focus Leadership, she has taught and coached in countless programs to Global 1000 leaders, in part through her affiliation with Oliver Wyman Leadership Development and Columbia University’s Senior Executive Program. Formerly Deputy Manager for integrating NASA’s Space Station Program, she has a PhD in biophysics as well as a 5th degree black belt in Aikido. 

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