In The Mindful Leader, author Michael Carroll’s premise is that the best leaders aren’t those who take charge and make things happen. They’re the ones who are willing to be fully human and inspire the best in others. Sunada reviews this book that shows us how to pursue excellence at work and do so with decency, dignity, and authenticity.
Pick up a typical book on business leadership and what do you get? Advice on how to motivate others to do more, do it faster, and win in a zero-sum game. But on the first page of The Mindful Leader, it’s suggested that we sit quietly and do nothing for a while.
Outrageous? Not at all!
Michael Carroll takes a decidedly unconventional, but thoroughly refreshing perspective on the subject. He explains as follows:
“When we lead a career that is sharply focused on being more successful, more admired, or just more comfortable, we can deceive ourselves into neglecting the world around us. We end up managing our lives like projects rather than actually living them. Consequently, for mindful leaders, cultivating this ability to be at work and throughout our lives is not just a nice idea or an interesting thing to do. Rather, by learning to be at work we discover how to stop kidding ourselves and … to open respectfully and realistically to our workplace as it unfolds in the present moment.”
If this strikes you as too soft and “touchy-feely” for the take-no-prisoners business world, I urge you to read on. He isn’t advocating becoming a nice, well-liked person who gets left behind in the cut-throat race to the finish. Carroll would argue that being a genuine human being and an effective leader are not contradictory. In fact, there’s a synergy between these two realms that’s greater than the sum of their parts.
In the introduction, Carroll talks about the concept of the bodhisattva-warrior. A bodhisattva is a highly advanced spiritual being whose sole purpose in life is to help others. A bodhisattva-warrior is a courageous figure who uses his power and ingenuity to overcome the forces of arrogance, aggression, and greed in the world. This book is in effect a training manual for modern-day bodhisattva-warriors. It’s not a job for sissies.
Michael Carroll has the background to know what he’s talking about. In his 25-year career, he held executive positions in major corporations like Shearson Lehman/American Express, Simon & Schuster, and Walt Disney. During that time, he also studied Tibetan Buddhism in the Shambala lineage, graduated from Buddhist seminary, and is now a senior teacher. Drawing on his training in these two worlds, he now consults to businesses on how to be respectfully in the moment while confidently pursuing one’s work objectives. (Note that I also wrote a review of his related previous book, Awake at Work.)
The heart of the book lays out the Ten Talents of the Mindful Leader: Simplicity, Poise, Respect, Courage, Confidence, Enthusiasm, Patience, Awareness, Skillfulness, and Humility. He discusses each talent by introducing a common business challenge, and then shows how mindfulness naturally expresses a quality perfectly suited to countering the situation. He discusses how to cultivate this quality through meditation or conscious reflection, and how to bring it out into our work world.
One chapter at a time, he shows how we can heal “toxic” workplaces, cultivate courage in the face of risky situations, pursue long-term goals without sacrificing what’s here and now, and lead with wisdom and grace instead of ambition and power. Every chapter is filled with real world anecdotes and parables from the Buddhist tradition that bring his points colorfully to life.
It’s the section that follows, Bringing Our Full Being to Work, that I appreciated the most. Here, Carroll draws out a higher level of integrative skills that I think are the mark of a true leader. It’s where all the previous ten talents meld into a holistic vision of masterful leadership. These skills are Synchronizing, Engaging the Whole, Inspiring Health and Well-being, and Authenticity.
I particularly enjoyed his story of a capsized ferry disaster in ancient China, which is an illustration of Engaging the Whole. I’ll let the story speak for itself.
… all the villagers dropped what they were doing and raced down to the ferry … except for the blacksmith. … He ran in the opposite direction. People stopped and grumbled, ‘Now we know who to depend on when things go wrong. Look at that cowardly blacksmith scurrying away when he is most needed.’
As people rushed to the capsized ferry, they struggled valiantly to save those in the water, but they were too late. Those who had fallen into the river had been pulled downstream by the strong current, and the villagers could see people struggling in the rapids as they were swept out of sight and around the bend. No one could see the blacksmith, however, just past the curve of the river extending a bamboo pole to those in need, pulling them to shore one by one.
Unlike the well-intentioned villagers, the blacksmith ‘engaged the whole’: his behaviors were as much an expression of the circumstances as they were a reaction to them. He knew that ‘results’ – saving the drowning passengers – were inherently defined by the river, terrain, and timing, not by his personal need to help. Going downstream rather than rushing in panic to the scene of the disaster was a choice that followed the contours of his world: because he was synchronized, he was skillfully in tune with the facts, and his presence was, in many respects, an expression of the situation’s intelligence.
Let me mention a couple things you WON’T find in this book. First, it doesn’t teach you how to meditate. There is a section on meditation and reflection, but it’s clear the intent is to provide just enough guidance to engage with the reflection exercises. It won’t help you start a full-fledged meditation practice, which is really beyond the scope of this book. You’re better off using the chapter as a reference and seeking instruction elsewhere.
Second, you’ve probably figured out by now that this book isn’t about management methods and competencies. You won’t find anything that you can bring to your office on Monday and get cracking on. What it does is invite you to pause and reflect. It gives you lots of food for thought about what it means to be more fully and authentically human. And it encourages us to cultivate the basic attitudes and mental skills that form the ground upon which great leaders naturally emerge.
There’s one other important point from the book I’d like to emphasize. Although the subject is leadership in a business context, I think the principles can apply to anyone. Leadership isn’t something that only CEOs do. Each and every one of us can be a leader in whatever we do – whether we’re teaching children, designing software, or driving taxis.
As Carroll says:
… all human beings instinctively want to offer their best to others and in turn inspire others to do the same, and this can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
In that regard, I hope this book is read by a much wider audience than just business people. If everyone followed these principles and engaged with the world in this way, our planet would be a very different place indeed.
Here’s a YouTube video of Michael Carroll speaking at a “Meet the Author” event at Northeastern University in Boston MA.