I have written about koans before. The most famous koan simply goes:
“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
How would you answer this koan? I have seen people answer by tapping their leg with one hand. Or closing their hand so it makes a sound. Most people, when trying to come up with an answer, will engage with it from a rational perspective. They are getting almost academic or scientific about it. But the purpose of koans; the purpose of Zen is never about academic exercises. Koans are not parables. None of them is. Koans ask you to engage with them on a very personal level. This koan is asking you to become the hand.
In the Zen tradition, if you work with a teacher on “solving” a koan, there is an actual “answer”. Interestingly enough, pretty much any beginner will convey the answer through words. Explaining what it is. But the teacher will be quick to ask the student not to use words, but “show” the answer without using words. Words lie. We are really good at explaining things with words that we haven’t actually understood. But acting out the answer requires you to get intimate with the koan. You have to find yourself in the koan.
You might wonder what all of this has to do with leadership. Well, leadership, just like koans, is not about an academic exercise. It’s about you. It’s about your employees. In order to be a good leader, you have to put yourself into the situation and react to it authentically. Make it personal. Experience it.
I challenge you to think about that the next time you are in a tough situation. Connect with it. Embrace it. Don’t push it away and don’t try to solve the situation through some “academic” approach.
In my last post I introduced the concept of leadership values. Today I am going to reveal my own five core leadership values. In no particular order they are:
accountability / responsibility
objectivity / rationality
efficiency / achievement
Since I got clear on what my values were, it’s been helpful to pay attention to situations where I get frustrated or lose interest – either with people or with the situation itself. In 90% of cases, one of my values got violated. Where people trigger the frustration, they don’t know that. They don’t even know what my values are. Understanding where the frustration comes from allows me to address it and make sure I can leave the interaction on a positive note and make sure I get what I need from it. Rather than blaming the other person and nurturing a frustration.
Values are not something you choose. They are inherent to who you are. Putting some work into it, you can change them. But also know that you shouldn’t assign any judgment to your values. This is part of who you are. Part of who I am. Values help explain how I show up when you work with me. For example, my value of clarity means that I like things to be rational; clear. Give me 5 bullet points on a topic. Don’t give me a slide filled with 200 words. In the next blog post, we will explore a bit more what we can do with the values and how we can use them.
If you manage to ‘hit’ someone’s values; when you do things that are in line with someones values, you create trust with them. If you make an irrational point in an argument with me, I won’t trust you. In fact, I will probably start questioning you on everything you do. Even if you start being rational, you lost that trust with me and it will take time to rebuild it. This is not something I (or you for that matter) do on purpose or very consciously. It’s how we work as humans.
Have you figured out your values yet? If not, go back to the last blog post and take one of the value discovery tests. Once you have your list of values, sit with it. Can you identify situations in your past that now suddenly make sense? Maybe a situation where you got frustrated with a co-worker or with your boss; what value did they violate? How could you have handled the situation differently, knowing that they didn’t mean to upset you, but one of your values was violated?
For the past few months, I have been working with an executive coach. In one of our sessions we touched on the topic of leadership values and my coach asked me to explore my own values. At first I felt some resistance within myself. I didn’t know where to start and I couldn’t have articulated example leadership values. Let alone coming up with the 5 values that characterize my leadership style and encompass my values.
I ended up pushing myself past my resistance and spent a couple of hours digging through some online resources and filling out various questionnaires that I found. Here are some resources that I played with:
These exercises all work approximately the same: You go through a list of words / values. You pick the ones that speak to you and you think characterize you best. Then you go through the values and either summarize or group them. In the end you have a set of “words” that should characterize your leadership values. You can obviously go back and forth to massage your list and that’s totally okay.
After going through a few of these exercises, I combined the results and I was able to distill my values down to a list of five elements. I was very pleasantly surprised about the final result. The list really characterizes me and my leadership style.
After identifying my five values, I spent a little bit of time thinking about what they really mean to me. How would I explain them to someone else?
For example, one of my values is Responsibility. There are two ways that I characterize the value: a) People that work with me need to take responsibility. And b) I am responsible for my team’s mission and objectives. How does that show up in my daily (work) life? If I assign someone a task, be that in person or via email, I expect the person to take ownership of it. That doesn’t mean they can’t push back or discuss the task with me, maybe even get out of it, but responsibility for me means that if I don’t hear from you, you got the ball. The same applies to myself. If you send me a calendar invite, I will either accept or deny it. If I accept it, I’ll be there. I subscribe to my goals and missions and execute accordingly. If you don’t hear from me, that probably means that I am working on it. Of course, there are exceptions. Things happen. But if I say I do it, I’ll do my very best to get it done.
I encourage you to give it a try. Explore your own values with one of the online value finders.
In the next post I will reveal the rest of my five values and then in a follow-on post explore a bit more what to do with them. How did and do they change what I do on a daily basis?
One of the ways that this blog about leadership is different from most others that you might be following, is that every now and then I am trying to sprinkle a little bit of Zen wisdom into my posts. Rather than trying to preach anything, I’ll introduce an old tool that Zen practitioner of the Rinzai lineage have found useful on their journey to enlightenment. Not that we are trying to get to enlightenment, but if Zen monks find grounding and insight in koans, why shouldn’t we use them on our path of becoming better leaders?
As I mentioned, in the Rinzai school of Zen, it was found that the process of meditation can be greatly enhanced through the use of this device called a koan.
“a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”
Let me give you an example of a koan to confuse you a bit more:
“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?“
This is probably the most famous koan and you might have heard it mentioned somewhere before. How I first approached solving this koan is from a rational perspective. Well, I can slap my hand on my legs. Or maybe by quickly closing my hand it makes a sound too. You might have other ideas. Well: “wrong”. None of these are the solution to the koan. Sorry.
What you learn when you start working with koans is that you don’t need to approach them with your rational mind. A friend of mine likes to say that it’s like art: You don’t approach looking at art with your rational mind; you’d miss out. So, it’s really only when you strip away your stories, your believes. Everything. Only then will the koan open up to you and reveal it’s answer.
This openness, this state of letting all your stories go is where I will try to hook into leadership. What if you were given the gift of letting go of your stories before you reacted in a tough leadership situation? Sit (meditate) with that for a bit …
I’ve been blogging on and off for many years. Mostly exploring topics at the intersection of cyber security, data analytics, and visualization. As of recrecent, I find myself exploring aspects of leadership much more than diving into technical problems. Be that in my day job, when advising startups, or when trying to figure out what my next conference presentation will be about 🙂 That’s how this blog came about.
I am trying to highlight the topic of leadership from a tech and Zen perspective. I have been practicing Zen mediation for many years and have really enjoyed working with Koans. They are a very interesting (maybe even addicting) tool to bring meditation and Zen philosophy into our daily lives. You intrigued yet? In the next couple of posts I will explain a bit more what these Koans are and how they tie into meditation and leadership.