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Enlightened Leadership

What is it that separates good, great, and transformative leaders?  Is this something that can be learned, and what do mindfulness and meditation have to do with this?  It turns out, according to the Harvard Business School, quite a lot.

One of our teacher training course participants, a trainer himself, introduced me to the Seven Transformations of Leadership.  This is a model from the Harvard Business School which states that leaders are made, not born, and how they develop is critical for organizational change.   As I discovered more about this model, I found that the highest form of leadership embodied the skills, insights and forms of awareness that is the specialty of the meditation tradition.  This they called the Alchemist.


What is an Alchemist?

The article, from the Harvard Business Review, (Rooke and Torbert, 2005) states that The Alchemist is the seventh level of leadership, the others being, in order:  Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist and Strategist.  I can now understand why they chose this term while talking about transformational leadership because alchemy, the precursor of chemistry, was all about transmuting essential elements into a superior form – at the popular level, transforming lead into gold.

Enlightened leadership womens rowing team

Here is the description from the article: “The Alchemist has an extraordinary capacity to deal simultaneously with many situations at multiple levels. The Alchemist can talk with both kings and commoners.  He can deal with immediate priorities yet never lose sight of long-term goals”.   Put simply, an Alchemist can not only make clear decisions, keeping both the long and short terms in view, but also be open to and relate to people at all levels of society.  That is, they are skilled at being both clear minded and open-hearted.

I was naturally very interested because the reason I had studied meditation and mindfulness was to find a way to bring my thinking and feeling, my head and heart, together – not keep them separate as I was being taught at school and university.   I found that meditation and mindfulness, those extremely valuable skills that the East has developed, are designed to do just this.  Their purpose is to bring the mind, the emotions and the body into an integrated whole.

The secret of leading from the inside-out

A famous saying of the Buddha states, ‘All experience is directed by mind, led by mind, made by mind’.  When he is talking about mind he is including both thoughts and emotions, for we have both a thinking mind and a feeling mind.  This applies to everything we do, including leadership.

The secret I discovered is that, if you want to create any kind of transformation, you can only do it from the inside-out.  That is, you need to transform yourself first.  And, of course, the famous saying, ‘Know yourself’, points to the same thing.

The key is to understand how the mind works and how to use it fully.

The mind can do two things – think and feel.  It can be powerfully focused on something (the thinking mind) or open to the body and the senses (the feeling mind).  However, we can’t do both at the same time.  Usually everyone chooses one in preference to the other and this determines their personality.  This is what limits leaders.

 A ‘thinker’ can get so caught in their theories and charts that they completely lose touch with what is happening on the ground.  A ‘feeler’ can get so lost in what everyone is feeling and doing that they become incapable of making clear decisions. 

Meditation and mindfulness are the only tools that enable you to bring these two abilities of the mind together, and so open up new possibilities in leadership.

The power of embodied thinking    

As Edward Hess, the well-known writer and Professor of Business Administration at the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia says, future leaders will need to think creatively, go into the unknown, be able to access emotional skills as well as understand human emotions.

He is saying that embodied thinking, bringing thinking and feeling into partnership, is a necessity for future leaders.  The senses tell you what is happening which is registered by your body and mind.  The senses give you the information.  The mind then organises it so you can make decisions and act.

Decision Analysis gives an excellent model for making good decisions.  Meditation and mindfulness give skilful tools for opening to your senses, collecting the information you need and truly connecting with your people – your team, your staff, the people on the ground who are doing the work.

Your mind needs to be open and to feel in order to talk with, and especially listen, to your people. These are the ones who are creating the relationships with your customers and clients. I’ll never forget Warren Buffett talking about a multimillion-dollar business he had just purchased.  It was created by a Russian emigree woman who could neither read nor write, with $2000 she had managed to save.  Buffett said she had succeeded because ‘she looked after her customers’.

Bringing head and heart together in partnership brings mind and body, your thinking and feeling together. Your thinking and your ability to make good decisions is half of the process. The other half is being open to your people, the ones you are leading, listening to them, being open to their experience and ideas, as well as listening to your clients and customers. This is embodied thinking, and being able to do this skilfully is what makes an enlightened leader.


Graham Williams

Director, Lifeflow

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