Zen leadership is a term that gets thrown around as a “new age” leadership philosophy. It sounds cool and cutting edge; however, the real principles of Zen leadership are deeply rooted in balance, mindfulness and a deep understanding of one’s self. So, what does “Zen” mean? For me, it’s bringing all your experiences into the moment, which could be a project, dealing with a stressful issue, working out, tending a garden, strategically planning a board retreat or helping with a personal issue. It is enlightenment and personal expression of direct insight. In a professional setting, it’s using your personal values to lead people of all cultures and beliefs with integrity, balance and focus.
A leader with a Zen-like mentality accepts and promotes various traditions without his or her own belief system being threatened. One must have the mindset that there are several paths toward the same destination and what works for one, might not work for another. This is extremely important when promoting various dimensions of wellness and activities to a community.
A Zen leader should have the following traits:
Zen leaders can maintain a calm presence and awareness in day-to-day life. This requires having a deep understanding of the functions, thoughts and actions around them. It does not mean that the leader is not passionate or is an unfeeling robot. What it does establish is a practice of awareness and analysis to help make decisions and actions from a position of wisdom rather than a reactionary process of “fire, ready, aim.” Zen leaders can show mindfulness when they are comfortable with their inner self and know that they don’t have all the answers, despite their title or influence.
Zen leaders live the mission of their organization daily. They lead the way in coping with and promoting change not only to the organization, but also to the individuals within. They seek out “mission moments” that celebrate actions that demonstrate the organization’s core values. Zen leaders understand that promoting the mission is a promotion of principles. The mission helps guide them as they balance between acting gently and leading with strength.
Zen leaders work side by side with those they serve. A true leader leads without making others feel they are being led. Leading from the front, very naturally as part of the whole, is an art form.
Zen leaders understand that each member has his or her own skill sets and abilities that blossom in different ways. Therefore, they can maintain person-centered relationships without changing who they are and what they stand for. Remember, where the focus goes, energy flows.
Zen leaders find life balance, not only in themselves, but also in recognizing the needs of others. They are the same person in or out of the office. While Zen leaders find time for other interests, friends and families, who they are at their core, is the same.
We all have a constant battle of “heart vs. head” as we sift through emotions, such as anger, stress, anxiety, vengeance and ego. Zen leaders rise above these emotions and make balanced decisions based on honor and fairness rather than ego and revenge.
When leaders can focus on and know their true selves, they discover these six truths:
- Fight for it. Do what’s right, not what is easy. These leaders know that short-term adversity and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to life-long success. They do not shy away from failing.
- Stand beside yourself, 100 percent of the time. Self-respect, self-worth and self-love: There’s a reason they all start with “self.” You can’t receive them from anyone else. Zen leaders never let insecurity and negativity run their lives. They know there is always someone who will tell them, “No.” The mission is to smile and prove them wrong.
- Be a beacon of honesty and respect. Be the type of person you want to meet and be around. Words, actions and values should always agree with each other.
- Follow your excitement. Neglecting your interests and passions is self-deception. Live a life for which you are proud.
- Move forward with a positive spirit. A small attitude change always makes a BIG difference. In any situation, it’s not your specific circumstances that shape you, it’s how you react. Zen leaders understand that you cannot direct the wind, but you can always adjust the sails.
- Seek growth. Challenge yourself to beat your own records. Zen leaders understand that we all struggle, but life is about breaking our own limits and becoming the strongest version of ourselves.
The impact of Zen leadership should resonate in your organization’s programming. The activities should reflect that we are all driven by a spiritual dimension that holds a belief that positively sustains and affirms life. This need requires more than just physical food and activity to live. We also understand that each of us has a personal journey to explore. The programming of a park district needs to reflect choices for each community individual to become engaged in his or her own life and then, in turn, with each other, building community and spirit.
We all should strive for mindfulness, mission, engagement and balance. The more we cut away from our own ego, the more we can really grow as individuals and can grow the people we lead, serve and impact.
On your path toward enlightenment, you will fall and fail. This just gives you another opportunity to grow, understand and rise above your challenges.
Michael McCann, MS, is the Executive Director for Sandwich Park District.