ATD Blog

Zen and the Art of Leadership

Friday, November 30, 2018

Throughout my life, I have been a casual consumer of Eastern philosophy, such as the Dalai Lama, Howard Cutler’s The Art of Happiness, and westernized Eastern philosophy tomes, including the late Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While marshalling through particularly troubling days or weeks, I have found solace from a daily Zen calendar, as well as simple adages like Pema Chodron’s “Only to extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” and Akazome Emon’s, “Into what world shall I awake from this bewildering dream?”

In digesting these offerings on leadership, I have given considerable thought to my own leadership blunders and my observations of other leaders, whose actions and inactions have on many occasions controverted eons of management philosophy, research findings, and intersecting truths.

To be sure, leaders must grapple with staff, personal agendas, politics, budgets, and countless other nuances that influence decision making. Nevertheless, leadership victories and failures constitute an unfolding journey in balancing these variables. During the journey, great thuds can follow successes (think GE), and critical mistakes can set back years of best efforts (think Musk), often accompanied by the predatory, ravenous gnashing teeth of competitors or co-workers.

Two recent reads, The Elements of Taoism by Martin Palmer and a colorful translation, Laozi Tao Te Ching on the Art of Harmony by Chad Hansen, have codified for me a few incontrovertible similarities of Western leadership and Eastern thought. The following constitutes my “Way”—a mashup of the Tao/Dao/Zen of leadership.


Daily, the Way is a riddle of action or nonaction, a reconciling of governing forces. The circumstances of business decisions should not to be confused with situational leadership, which, regardless of contexts, governs exclusively through taking some sort of stylistic action. Rather, leaning toward servant leadership, altruism always paves the Way. By extension, a universal precept is love of work, love of others (best evidenced by the Golden Rule), and love of aesthetics. Two central questions serve as a fulcrum: What feelings emerge through my actions? and, How do decisions affect others in the long and short term?

Aesthetics, you ask? Yes! Poet John Keats lays this maxim bare, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Aesthetics matter whether your journey is personal or professional, whether it represents a collaborative leadership role within a project, or if you are formally interacting with and developing others.


Without acting from false interest, how we enlist, enlarge, encourage, and listen matters most.

Just as the dictionary defines lead as “moving forward, to show the way,” true stewardship transcends modeling. Simply, the very moment one reaches the height of power, leadership should give way to the other. Empowerment is wholly consistent with the language of shared leadership, featuring terms such as enable, flattened hierarchies, trust, respect, initiative, discretionary effort, and synergy.

Much more paradoxical than situational, the Dao suggests that the yin/yang of leadership “gives way to overcome, bends to become straight, is an emptying of oneself to become full.” Leader and follower become synonymous and synchronous. Sensing and responding replace power and control. When the leader’s work is done, everyone says, “It happened naturally.” Moreover, everyone knows and feels their roles are a pivotal part of the whole.

Naturally, other-centrism is interconnected with heart. As Shunryu Suzuki instructs, “We pay attention with respect and interest, not in order to manipulate, but to understand what is true. And seeing what is true, the heart becomes free.”

Mission and Expectations

What do work and outcomes look like, sound like, taste like, and feel like? Typical company mottos contain these prominent concepts: excellence, efficiency, effectiveness, quality, or innovation. One of the most-often quoted lines from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sums up the disconnect between expectations and reality: “If you can't say what quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists?”


Anyone who has worked in an overly compliant, mediocre, or complacent environment— all of these usually accompany one another—understands that the Way embraces breaking from convention. The absence of constant thought and assessment about the connectivity of our work to our values beckons Yoda’s simple assessment: “Do or do not?” But we often confuse doing nothing with doing something. For instance, risk mitigation can squash risk-taking. Listening from leaders requires the virtues of respect, acceptance, and silence, while instilling silence in others defeats improvement.

A functional work culture lives authentic values. Colleagues quickly record mental notes of contradictions when the espoused values or policies do not equitably apply to leadership. When universal principles such as “practice what you preach” are not followed, our actual expectations tend toward distrust and distortion. The accompanying sigh one hears is resignation.

Fun Path

The laugh one hears is resilience. Palmer in Elements of Taoism repeatedly speaks to the humor embedded in the trying to reconcile insurmountable contradictions and paradoxes. A classic quote from the Buddha captures the essence, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Or from a New York Yogi (Yogi Berra), “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

One of the greatest paradoxes in reconciling Eastern metaphysical thought and Western business leadership rests in the notion of fitting the natural pattern. Philosophically, the challenge is finding the intersection of heaven, earth, and humanity. For the sake of this exploration, stellar business practice is framed as nirvana, whether measured by recorded profits or commendable public/client service. Earth liberally translates as policies and procedures that aid navigation. And humanity best refers to the choices we make, balancing our place or be-ing in the universe and our individual choices.

First, understandably, rules are necessary because even well-intended people just stumble on the way, making wrong choices. Secondly, why blow a whistle, no matter how justified, when the whistleblower suffers unjustified consequences for disrupting the status quo? Because of these caveats, courage and creativity insist that every individual be an original, not a copy. Palmer emphasizes, “The whole point is to revolutionize our ideas of what is definable and to open us up to new ideas and awareness of meaning.” Scores of convergent findings, such as discussed in Daniel Pink’s Drive and Jim Collins’s Good to Great, conclude that capitalizing on meaning is a key motivator.

While institutional structure aids purpose, place, and meaning, the more we are locked into complying, less fun is probable. A reflective and humble leader is one who champions others’ work-life balance, innovation, and dissent rather than being a defender of the status quo.

Ping pong tables and other perks represent having fun at work. What matters most is fun in work. Adaptability, flow, camaraderie, and involvement are characteristics of fun emanating from work. Thus, policies and procedures should aid that flow.

Values and Teamwork

The volume of flow is aided by affirmation. Hansen suggests the “heart-mind” structure is guided by moral attitudes and intuition. All virtues come from being in harmony; conversely, leadership and team guru Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage, suggests that artificial harmony is a symptom of team dysfunction arising from absent leadership. We often corrupt the team and cultural fit metaphors of “finding one’s seat at the table” or “rowing the boat in the same direction.” Someone whose work is not “propelled with positive energy” can be conveniently cast as an “energy vampire.”


Shared commitment is found more through this question: “Who else should I ask to provide input or counsel?Failure of inclusion leads to injustice; injustice leads to revolt, or worse, complacency. When someone rowing in the same direction cautions, “There’s a leak in the boat!” and the leader’s megaphone at the front of the boat responds, “Row faster,” rowers instinctively reach for the life preservers. In other words, everyone for one’s self.


Individual roles, environmental rituals, and change intertwine in a delicate dance, where the leader serves as virtuoso choreographer or conductor. The challenge is transcending norms and boundaries while remaining in consort. Within the workplace, everyone must feel safe and be provided latitude to innovate, translate, and imagine or reimagine.

Ideal leadership embraces discovery and sharing. Hansen’s Dao translation suggests that ideal leadership “lets people find what succeeds, talk about it, trade ideas, and spontaneously work things out for themselves.”

Reflection and Self

Throughout our careers, we have participated in 360-degree feedback and been subjected to a variety of screening instruments, personality tests, and leadership profiles. Some of these exercises can aid our career journeys, especially if we have not spent much time in reflection, but ultimately, they tend to reveal what we and others already know.

Self can be summed up by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki in the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Mastering self is the most difficult goal and a lifelong endeavor. Reflection upon self, however, requires discourse.

Discourse means challenging conventional wisdom and assumptions. The Dao instructs, “After we lose our way, then we rely on virtuosity. Losing virtuosity, we rely on humanity. Losing humanity, then rely on morality. Losing morality, then rely on conventions. In general, conventionality is the thinning of trust and the forerunner of disorder.”

The Leadership 10K

One additional structure remains pivotal to being a better person—and a better leader. This is the concept of “10,000 natural kinds,” which can represent an infinite number of corridors, spaces, openings, or courses in any one person’s journey. Along our journeys, we struggle and make mistakes. Rightful course corrections are natural when they align conscience with universal moral and ethical beliefs.

Ultimately, what makes a great leader? Fittingly and comically, the answer is found in this Socratic scripture from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “And what is good . . . and what is not good—need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

About the Author

Vincent Miholic, author of Bridging Engagement Gaps, serves with the Louisiana Division of Administration’s OHR organizational learning and development team.

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Daljit, I am grateful for your kind words.
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You have made very helpful connections between these seminal works for me. Thanks!
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