The furthest thing from the mind of most leaders is the value of silence. Mornings begin with the compulsion to check messages in case something important happened while sleeping. Meetings are scheduled back to back and meals are eaten mindlessly or not taken. Many consider “work/life balance” a normal and inevitable struggle. Entire workshops have been designed around the seemingly banal problem of “managing the calendar.” The time between office and airport has become an extension of meeting time. How often have I worked with leaders while they travel, aware of the irony that we are discussing the chronic stress that dominates their life while they are going through airport security?
Over the years I have been highly attuned to the destructive pace at which my clients lived and worked. I was not living at this pace, and it was shocking to my system when I stepped into their reality. During conferences or all-day meetings, conversations were inevitably scheduled back to back. At most, there was a one hour break before heading out to dinner. The clock was the Master of Ceremony, with the sense that any moment that was not filled with activity had been wasted. Everything was highly orchestrated. Silence was the Great Enemy. I would come away drained and exhausted. I knew in my bones that this unrelenting pace was not good. Companies were running a long distance marathon as if it were a sprint. Something was so fundamentally out of balance. How is it possible for the best decisions to be made when an entire senior leadership team is in a state of overdrive?
I was working with leaders who were making the visionary and strategic decisions for their company. Yet, when I would have this conversation with them they became strangely passive. They could solve all kinds of complex problems far beyond my imagination, but the issue of how to slow down the workplace in order to utilize the highest capacity of their people, more often than not, failed to take root. I was hitting up against a deep resistance to something that seemed so incredibly obvious, that is, that we do not see as clearly, problem solve as easily, get the best out of others, or make the best decisions when we are chronically stressed. And yet, when I asked leaders to consider changing their relationship to time and slowing down their pace, resistance arose, born out of a sense of helplessness. And this helplessness fueled a need to defend the craziness. This is the pace at which we must work in order to be successful and to keep up with the competition.” Period. End of conversation. I would think, “but what if this is a competitive edge?”
Over time, I, too, was affected by the helplessness. Senior leaders tended to view the issue of the destructive nature of the pace of work as a “soft” concern. There were other, more pressing leadership challenges. Building high performing teams, figuring out the relationship between leadership and strategy, finding and retaining talent, and building an organization that was capable of learning from itself - these were worthy leadership conversations. The importance of down time, the necessity of creating a boundary between work and home, the need for unstructured time, and the value of spending time in reflection were “feel good” conversations, luxury items in a world that was efficient and pragmatic. It was not that leaders resisted
me outright; there was a certain amount of longing for a more forgiving pace. Rather, there was an unspoken sense that what I was asking was simply not within reach, and that I was a bit naive for raising the question. And so when I advocated that leaders take time off, slow down, or spend time in reflection, I was, more often than not, spitting into the wind. It did not occur to me, at that time, that this issue would become much worse, that the global economy would usher in a relationship to time that was completely unhinged.
In the past two decades our relationship to time has, indeed, become unhinged. We are moving so fast and with such fury that we have completely lost perspective; what most leaders consider as “slowing down” is often a meaningless drop in an enormous bucket. Many of us are intolerant, if not downright terrified of silence.
Over time, it became clear to me that it was not possible to address the issue of pace by simply coaching clients to better manage the external world - taking their vacation time, finding a better system for managing the deluge of email, or setting better boundaries around their work and home. Although these things were helpful, they were small steps in a relentless storm of activity. The only answer was to help leaders find their way to a deeper quiet within, so that in the midst of tremendous pressure they were anchored to a greater sense of calm. The heart of my work became about helping leaders understand the value of finding greater peace within, and then accompanying them on the journey that brings this to fruition. In so doing, it became clear that only when leaders recognize the value of equanimity within their own lives, would they be in a position to address the insanity that has been normalized around them. We cannot lead what we are not able to live. In this way, a conversation about our relationship to the pace of our organizations is a conversation about our relationship to ourselves.
Most of us make the assumption that the outer world shapes the inner world. “I am pretty sure that if the world would behave as I wish, I would be fine.” But the opposite is true. As we work on our relationship to ourselves, we find greater ease in our relationship to the world around us. We have all had the experience of being in the presence of someone who is alert yet peaceful, and, as a result, has tremendous clarity. We can see the way that this catalyzes greater wisdom in others, raising the bar for everyone. We have also had the experience of being in the presence of a leader whose inner world is tumultuous and murky, and the way that this creates unrest and contraction in those in their midst. This is the interplay of the inner and outer world.
But there is a deeper and more profound dimension to this conversation and that is this: that the highest form of leadership emanates from our capacity to go inward and not only tolerate, but actually evoke silence. Silence is the great master, the great teacher - the fountainhead of all wisdom. Yet, there is an innate resistance to cultivating a relationship to this hidden place within us because we know, at some level, that there is an entry price to pay. When most of us are quiet even for a few minutes we begin to feel anxious and impatient. We start looking around for something to do or we seek out a problem to solve. To slow down and breathe both in and out requires that we develop some tolerance for sitting through this impatience in order to find our way to the stillness beyond it.
This natural resistance is, in part, the wall that I hit when I encourage people to slow down. Even though a relentless pace creates a certain level of suffering, it also keeps us preoccupied with the surface of our lives. We are afraid of the inner journey because we are afraid of negative emotion that surfaces when we are quiet. We are afraid of the problems that arise in our mind that we feel compelled to face and solve. Most importantly, we are afraid of the prospect of taking full responsibility for our lives. What if our discontent actually emanates from within us? What if the world around us is largely a creation of our own projections? What if our leadership is not challenging because of the unruly nature of other people, but rather because of our own limitations? Deep down we know that if we face these truths we will be handed an invitation to initiate change. This is a sobering realization.
Sometimes we have to push a strength past its threshold in order to discover its underbelly. Driving people as a way of getting better results has crossed this threshold, becoming a destructive force that is no longer serving companies, families, or individuals. This is illustrated by a younger generation that has watched its elders sacrifice too much on the altar of efficiency and overdrive; many are not willing to do the same.
The pace at which we are working is outstripping our capacity to keep up. An increase in illness, chronic stress, low grade depression, ongoing anxiety, a disruption of home life, and the loss of spontaneity and joy are symptoms of this. We have become so focused on efficiency and hard work as a means to achieve an end, that we have forgotten that the means is life itself. We are waiting for the great reward at the end of the tunnel, unaware that this is a full blown illusion.
But there is a hidden gem at the heart of this struggle. As we hit this threshold we are more willing to do the inner work that is necessary to find equanimity and balance putting into motion the possibility of awakening our greatest potential. Although the work of going inward and taking responsibility for oneself is sometimes arduous and painful, it is also liberating. In so doing, we step into our highest capacity as a leader.
Most of us are aware that, on multiple levels, our world is in trouble. Many of our leading values are fueled by greed and fear. Our culture has become so degraded that most parents work to protect their children from it, instead of feeling supported by it. Globalization has introduced a level of complexity that the world has never known. We need people that can lead from a place of wisdom, not reaction, and from the wide lens of compassion instead of relying so heavily on the analytic mind. We cannot solve the problems we face using the same template that created them. This means accessing a deeper substratum that lies within all of us.
The cultivation of self awareness within the context of a deeper silence opens a portal to this substratum. This is the font of all wisdom. Knowledge comes from the intellect. Wisdom arises from immediate apprehension or direct perception, available only in the present moment and informed by the context we are in. To access wisdom more consistently three significant pieces of inner work are necessary: stabilizing our relationship to the present moment, developing a state of mind that is both relaxed and alert, and working through the aspects of our identity
that are in the way. This includes learning to tolerate negative emotion. We don’t “create” wisdom. Instead, we uncover it. At the heart of the inner journey is the return to this creative stream.
When we work through the layers of identity that block our access to wisdom, we discover the ways in which all humans are the same. We recognize the universality of our desire for happiness, a sense of self worth, a sense of purpose, and love. We realize that everyone struggles with insecurity, fear, shame, and anger. This inevitably guides us to a deep and abiding humility, born out of an understanding of our own true nature. With this as a point of departure we find the doorway to a leadership that is truly transformative.
The crisis of stress that is threatening many individuals and organizations has the potential to fuel our resolve to begin- or deepen - this journey. A balanced and peaceful mind is the key to a happy life, relaxing our relationship to the world around us. Once we achieve this as a base line, when disturbances do arise they come and go relatively quickly. We begin to live with a greater sense of ease and with more joy. This is the potential pearl imbedded in the oyster shell of our insane relationship to time.