Real Leaders

Mindfulness is Spreading, But Here’s What’s Missing

I’m thrilled to discover how many multinational corporations are embracing mindfulness as a desirable skill for their executives and leaders. Google, General Mills and Philips are only some of the global companies involved in helping their highest decision-makers stay present and attentive to the many crucial details hidden in the present moment. The list of top-ranking executives coming forward to advocate benefits of meditation techniques on business efficiency is growing fast: from Arianna Huffington, or Philipp Hildebrand at BlackRock, to Janice Marturano at General Mills, and Chade-Meng Tan at Google.

Even the late Steve Jobs described in his biography how meditation had shaped his fantastically successful vision for Apple.

There’s only one thing that baffles me in this growing wave of deep-breathing enthusiasts: how do they conquer the emotional conflicts that still bother the rest of us? Does their fear of loss simply dissipate between yoga postures? Or do their worst disappointments dissolve silently under the buzz of heavenly mantras and chiming bells?

Almost every brilliantly worded personal testimony I’ve looked up leaves these gritty details out of their poetic success stories. But seriously, this is the most interesting part! In feudal Japan those who dared to train as Samurai warriors had to overcome a seemingly impossible feat before diving into fancy sword movements and kinky jumps in the air: apprentices had to overcome their own fear of death before they could envision any real future as a noble Samurai hero. Do you think they just sat under a beautiful tree for hours until their deepest instinct of survival flew away with the gentle summer breeze? Of course not!

If a young man was ready to embrace one of the noblest and most well respected arts of warfare of his time, he had to expel any and every fear from his body before confronting his enemy on the battlefield. It wasn’t enough to erase negative thoughts from his conscience, as so many so-called self-help books and meditation gurus would have us believe. Physical shivers had to be gone forever if one was to incarnate Bushido accuracy to the point that “the mind forgets about the hand, the hand forgets about the sword”. There really is only one way to achieve this: shivering your body dry. Shivering the fear right out of your system in as many horrific hours of real-life terror as needed.

The path to Samurai glory was never about forgetting or denying that fear had been sinuously sewed in to every muscle fiber in the human body by Evolution.

Unbreakable courage came from surfacing every possible flight instinct hidden in one’s own psyche by exposing oneself to live threats: the more numerous, the more complex and the more unpredictable the better. It took decades of experience, and we can safely assume it didn’t happen while sitting in front of a laptop. Or a tablet.

If we look into preparation rituals for warriors and shamans in aboriginal tribes around the world we find similar rites of passage to maturity once and again in as many formats as cultural interpretations of the world: defying gravity in impossible feats of balance, challenging evermore powerful wild animals to combat or daring to guess which trail wouldn’t lead to certain death…They were all about helping young men experience their deepest fears as the quickest way to release them for good. It’s true that board rooms today hold many unforeseen dangers which could fatally end one’s career at any moment. Our best and brightest leaders, however, seem to breeze right through such hurdles without a scratch, if we believe what they tell us. Or more probably, they hide their wounds from hungry media predators and aggressive, blood-thirsty competitors.

Showing emotion, especially the kind we judge as negative, demeaning or unflattering, is forbidden in the business arena of Fortune rankings. Bringing meditation into our corporations as a subtle maneuver to keep conversations positive defeats the very purpose of these millenary techniques. Mindfulness is not supposed to be about feeling calm, motivated and happy all the time. Quite the opposite: it’s about giving yourself the opportunity to release all that negative mumbo-jumbo that pulls you down before you even know it’s there. And it’s not meant to be pretty.

It’s just meant to be real. Corporations who fail to enable safe spaces where employees can ventilate the negativity out of their systems will inevitably deform the essence of mindfulness practice, nipping such initiatives in the bud: Employees will become frustrated with new impositions of fake peace, tree-hugging exhibitions and deceptive smiles. Meanwhile, executives will grow impatient with zen-looking rituals that don’t achieve any tangible business goals or make a real difference to their productivity.

The secret to Samurai heroism is authenticity.

Staying true to who we are pushes us to embrace our entire self, with our smart ideas and all our sorry little feelings of fear, anger and grief. Without judgment. Without hiding embarrassing details or denying ourselves the right to have a tantrum worthy of our wildest toddler memories. The only way out of our own self-loathing is to swim right into it. Just as Japanese young men had to do hundreds of years ago, we will conquer our emotional whims by facing them, expressing them and giving into them…in spaces where we are not exposed to unwanted stares or undesirable consequences.

Mindfulness is indeed the next frontier of leadership training in a world where noticing the present impact of our business practices on our Natural surroundings is more urgent than ever before. Let’s not use it to escape our wild, unpredictable emotions. Let’s be mindful to embrace the wild Samurai warriors we already are, carrying our scars and sharing our war stories with pride.


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