Articles January 1, 2001

Leadership: A New Narrative

Pamela Weiss

There is a new narrative that is needed today more than ever, and it’s a narrative about leadership. The assumption or hope is that Buddha’s teaching has something to contribute to a healthier, wiser narrative of leadership. Perhaps it can help us all survive the difficulties that we face and find ways to shift our perspective so that we can find answers where it looks like there are none. The normal ways of addressing problems of today aren’t working. Ultimately, we’re going to need a new perspective.

When I speak about leadership, I mean it in a very broad sense of the word. I think of leadership as being not so much a role or a title but a way of being. You may find yourself in a leadership position in your family, in your community, in your workplace, or within the context of the government. But really, leadership is not so much about what you do but about how you show up.

I looked up traditional definitions of leadership, and one of the key findings is that there’s a very clear distinction between leadership and management. Management, in a way, is about execution. It’s about getting things done. And we need that. Although, as a side note, frankly, in our world, I think a lot of things would be resolved if we got a little less done if we were moving a little less fast.

Leadership, in contrast to management, is about holding a vision and being clear about what’s important. Having the willingness to take a stand for that, to hold that up, to be steady behind what matters most. And then, paradoxically, in addition to that clarity and vision – there is passion.

This other quality that I’ve seen in the best leaders I've known—including being clear about what’s important from a heartfelt place and being open and curious—is an authentic willingness to learn. There’s a kind of passion around what you know is important, but there’s also a willingness not to know. There’s a willingness to use our beginner’s mind.

In a way, part of what’s at the crux of leadership is being willing to straddle this paradox, being willing to absolutely go for what feels important but also not to hold on too tightly.

These key qualities of leadership can be simplified into three things starting with “C”, easy so you can remember:

  1. Clarity: knowing what’s important (not such an easy thing to do in an environment full of clutter and noise). It can take a day or several days like this (sitting in meditation, practicing mindfulness) just to let the dust settle enough so we can begin to hear clearly what it is that is important, and what really matters.

  2. Courage: the quality of the heart; to stand behind what’s important, especially when it bumps up against the norms. When we think about great leaders, they’re often people who, like the Buddha, swam against the stream. So whether those are leaders like Steve Jobs in the realm of innovation who created something completely new or like Martin Luther King, who took a stand for social justice, that’s often the difference between a good leader and a great leader, someone who is really willing to take a stand even in the face, and often especially in the face of going against the norms.

  3. Curiosity: the quality of being willing to be open, to learn, to be ongoingly interested in life itself and in other people, knowing that no matter how much you know, the wisdom of the collective is always greater.

A professor named David Thomas at Harvard studied diversity in teams. What he found was that if you look at a bell curve relating to performance, the most diverse teams were on both ends of the curve, meaning they either did the worst or the best. He describes, “If you were to draw a bell curve of performance, you’d find more diverse teams at the two tails of the distribution. Either at the very high end or the very low end.”

He concluded that there were three narratives that determined whether the teams succeeded or failed. Two of the narratives were failure narratives, the first being around race and diversity within the team that said, “We’re colorblind. It doesn’t really exist. Let’s just put our heads in the sand and pretend that this is not really an issue.” That didn’t work. You can relate this to what’s happening around climate change, right? It doesn’t actually work to pretend it’s not happening.

The second narrative was what they described as a kind of falling into stereotype. This group said, “Sure, we’ll admit that everybody is different, but we’re going to make those differences into little boxes that we can put people in.” It included saying things like, “Well, women are better at relationships, so let’s have the women do the facilitation of the group.” This didn’t help, and the failing narrative also created poorly performing teams.

There was only one narrative that worked. And that was the narrative that was summarized by curiosity. It was the group that was willing to stay open, ask questions, be curious, and learn in an ongoing way. So as this is true in teams, it’s also true for leaders, and it’s true for us as human beings. There’s this kind of paradox between listening deeply, finding out what matters, and being willing to put ourselves on the line for that and, at the same time, not getting too rigid, not getting too sure, not holding on too tightly, not being convinced that we’re right and everybody else is wrong.

Real leadership. I think it has to do with realizing—that’s why I use that word, because it links to part of the terminology in the Buddhist tradition, “To realize.” In other words, to make real this full spectrum of our potential as human beings. To be clear and awake, to listen deeply, to step into what we care about and what matters, and to stay open, fluid, curious, and willing to learn.

Pamela Weiss

Pamela Weiss

Residential Retreat Teacher

Pamela Weiss is a Buddhist teacher in Theravada and Soto Zen, and a guiding teacher at San Francisco Insight. She has been practicing since 1987, including several years of Zen monastic training and retreat teacher training through Spirit Rock. Pamela is the author of A Bigger Sky: Awakening a Fierce Feminine Buddhism.