Why reflective practices are attractive to business leaders
With the announcement of Mark Zuckerman that he is studying Buddhism, he follows in the footsteps of other business leaders who are drawn to Buddhist practices of meditation. Steve Jobs, who practiced in the Zen Buddhism, attributed key creative insights to his regular practice of meditation, and more recently firms such as Google, Microsoft, Nike, McKinsey and Carlsberg have introduced mindfulness meditation programs into their workplaces. Well documented is the example of Google’s Search Insight Yourself program, which integrates Buddhist inspired practices with insights from neuro-science and psychology.
What are the benefits of these practices for business leaders? Why are they becoming so popular? What are the possible drawbacks, when these so-called religious practices are introduced into the secular business context? I have studied the intersection between Buddhist meditation and business over many years, and have held several conversations with the Dalai Lama on this topic to see what modern-day business could learn from Buddhism (Recounted in my recent book Business as Instrument for Societal Change).
First, it should be noted that Buddhism is quite unlike other religions by placing a strong emphasis on critical analysis, and little on faith. The founder of Buddhism, Buddha Sakyamuni, stated 2500 years ago that his followers should examine his teachings like a buyer of gold on the marketplace, carefully scrutinizing the authenticity of the object, before deciding to buy it. The Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism is more a science of the mind; partly religion, partly philosophy and partly psychology. It also comes with a set of practical tools, such as meditation, with which one can develop the mind and its qualities such as focus, clarity, patience, creativity and compassion.
Enhanced health and well-being
It is particularly because of these practical science-like aspects, that Buddhist ideas are finding their way into business. The reasons for this are evident. People spend on average 66% of their time at work .Yet – as researchers have found – these hours at work are on average the least happy and fulfilled part of our lives. A recent study found that 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged at work, which means that a mere 13% is fully engaged and committed to their work. Endemic stress in knowledge-based industries accounts for a large proportion of workplace absence and represents a huge loss of productivity and increasing health costs for both employers and society.
Meanwhile, success in most organizations relies on the very things that unhappiness and stress erode – collaboration, creativity, focus, cognitive flexibility and effective decision-making. Moreover, the work force of the future will be characterized by the need for self-employability, entrepreneurship, adaptability and continuous learning. Additionally “millennials” (people younger than 30 years) want meaningful, values-based and societal development-oriented work.
These job- and life skills in the fast-spaced and complex world of today, require new mental and emotional capabilities – very different from those of the last decades. Increasingly, companies realize that these capabilities form the core of future leadership skills. Leaders cannot succeed in the ‘outer’ business world if they cannot lead their own ‘inner’ mental and emotional world.
The effects of meditation
What has this to do with Buddhism? The answer is meditation as self awareness tool which can enhance leadership capacity. Neuroscience has shown that the effects of meditation can be observed in measurable change patterns in the brain and results in positive effects on one’s mental, physical and emotional health and well-being. As Steve Job discovered, meditation is a gateway to develop the ‘inner’ aspects of leadership and high-performance. The result is that meditation, especially under the name of mindfulness, has become a recognized method for enhancing people’s health and well-being and capacity for certain leadership skills.
Mindfulness is a natural capacity, present in all of us to some extent. It involves paying purposeful attention to our inner experiences, with particular attitudes like calmness, openness, focus and curiosity. We are all too familiar with its opposite: a heedless, distracted state that’s often described as ‘autopilot’. This default inattentiveness and disengagement from present experience can mean we react to life out of habit or impulse rather than care, openness to new solutions and consideration. When we spend more time alive to our inner experiences, however, we unlock our potential for learning and growing, work more collaboratively with others and are better able to respond effectively and creatively to life’s challenges. Naturally, mental qualities such as enhanced focus, awareness, collaboration, and better quality of life are indispensable for success in the high-pressured workplace of today.
Yet this fusion between Buddhism and business is not without risks and concerns.
Evan Thompson at University of British Colombia has pointed to the danger of “McMindfulness” diluting the potential benefits of meditation. In the original Buddhist context, mind-training occurred generally in a communal context with a defined set of ethics and transcendent purpose. Most Buddhists believe in notions of karma and reincarnation for example, which don’t sit well with mindless consumerism, environmental damage or maximizing material wealth in this lifetime alone. When mind-training occurs in a context of maximizing shareholder value, for example, the effects of the practice may be very different than originally intended. The Dalai Lama, too, emphasized the ethical dimension of meditation: the very purpose of training the mind is to be of more benefit to others, he says. But in his mind this should not be in conflict with the purpose of business, which should likewise be geared towards creating value for clients, employees and the communities that they are part of. The purpose of business is to create societal value, according to the Dalai Lama, because on the long run the success of a company depends on the success of the society of which it is part. This is in line with another key tenet of Buddhism: everything in life is deeply interconnected and interdependent with each other.
The question remains whether the current forms of Buddhist-inspired practices will do enough to support the societal value creation of business. There is emerging consensus that meditation practices at work enhance people’s sense of personal well-being and happiness, but we don’t know yet if they help to enhance social and ecological well-being. From a Buddhist viewpoint, this would be the next step in leadership development, something I call ‘societal business leadership’. It is based on the recognition how the inner world of the leader, his mindsets and motivation, drive business outcomes. The benefit would be the creation of “triple value”: value for the organization, customers and society. How would the world look like if leaders start practicing these ideas too?
Sander Tideman is a former banker and lawyer who specialized in leadership development for sustainable business. He is Managing Director of Mind & Life Europe, Senior Researcher at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) and co-founder of Flow Foundation. He is author of Business as an instrument for Societal Change: In Conversation with the Dalai Lama, based in two decades of dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
 Tideman, S.G. (2016) Business as Instrument for Positive Change; In Conversation with the Dalai Lama, Greenleaf Publishing
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