Anne is a leader in a large technology firm. She and I have a longstanding coaching relationship, and she comes in when she needs extra guidance or support. When she called me this time, she said, “Carley, I have been diagnosed with breast cancer.”
When Anne came to me with this news, I helped her make some wise and quick treatment decisions, but it felt imperative that we also speak about her well-being. I knew from working with Anne that she is a driven “go getter.” We often spoke about how she tended to push herself too hard by working 10 to 12 hours on top of a long commute and how she needed more sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and breaks. On top of that, she wasn’t getting enough quality time with her kids. Anne broke down in one of our sessions and said, “Carley, I feel exhausted. My whole life is scheduled, and I am in ‘go’ mode all the time.”
When life throws you curve balls, it is helpful to look for the silver lining. I said, “I think this is an opportunity to re-prioritize what really matters to you and downshift to a more enjoyable and more effective speed. It is time to start honoring your feelings and your body, both at home and at work. Let us honor that wise inner wisdom of yours. What do you think?”
Finding Better Balance
Too many leaders feel the need to produce constantly and operate in an “always on” mode. The quest to be “more, better, faster” seeps into every facet of our lives — at work and at home. Bringing our best is the ideal. But without pause, rest, or balance, we burn ourselves out, become disillusioned and, yes, even make ourselves sick. We can see how this way of leading is responsible for the economic and ecological debt we see all around us.
The truth is, we have a choice. Pushing that hard and never letting up is not the only way to lead, and it’s becoming more and more evident that it’s not the best way to lead either — not for our bodies, our relationships, or even our success. We bring our best performance when we honor our inner wisdom — that part of us who listens, feels, and sees what is needed — and bring it forth in our actions. We do better when we learn to respond and not react.
What would my inner Buddha do?
To restore balance to the world and to our work, we must give ourselves permission to be our full selves on the job — in mind, heart, and body — which I call leading from our inner Buddha. I often ask myself and my clients, “What would my inner Buddha do?” These are some of our responses:
- Feel your feelings — no matter how big, messy, or difficult.
- Express your desires, and let them direct and empower you.
- Allow things to come versus striving to make them happen.
- Be authentic, direct, and kind in your communication.
- Lead with compassion and understanding.
- Pause to listen to your whole self — mind, body, and heart — before making decisions.
- Own your “no” and your “yes.”
- Be strong in the face of uncertainty.
- Make wellbeing a priority.
- Lead from a place of collaboration and community.
These qualities — collaboration, compassion, resilience, communication, relationship-building, high EQ, and good decision-making under stress — have been shown in many research studies to help companies thrive and enhance employee satisfaction. They are talked about all the time, but how often are they actually in play? And how does one cultivate these ways of being from the inside out?
Put it into practice
These three tactics can help you begin to lead from your inner Buddha by bringing your mind, body, and heart to your work.
Mind: Increase your tolerance
Life will always change, and with change unpleasant emotions will arise in the mind and body. If we can increase our tolerance for change and discomfort, we will be able to navigate the ups and downs more gracefully. We begin by embracing the discomfort in ourselves in order to extend this tolerance to others.
The best way to increase your inner tolerance is to develop a daily meditation practice and practice mini meditations throughout the day. When you are experiencing difficulty, ask a simple question, “What am I feeling, and what is needed right now?” I have found that when I face an unpleasant situation or experience difficulty with another person, it’s helpful to turn toward the sensations in my own mind, body, and heart and ask a question to understand. With that understanding, I start moving closer to self acceptance and increasing my emotional resilience.
Tolerance is divine. It takes more courage to tolerate than to attack.
Body: Honor what your body tells you
To make your wellbeing a priority, you must renounce your “always on” way of being. Soon you’ll find that you can indeed meet deadlines, support colleagues, and care for family members without sacrificing yourself. Rather than putting yourself on the back burner, listen to your body and ask it daily, “My beloved, how can I serve you?”
Heart: Lead from within
To lead compassionately, one must practice self-compassion. When you bring kindness to yourself, it has a positive ripple effect on your direct reports, your teams, and your fellow leaders, and it can shift your workplace culture into a more caring and compassionate direction.
Ask yourself, “What is the tone of my voice when difficulty arises? Is it kind or critical?” And commit to bringing the same compassion you want for yourself to your leadership style as well.
The bottom line
Anne shifted how she lead herself and others. She started working from home three days a week. She moved to a smaller community and house to simplify her life, and eliminating a two-hour commute gave her more time for exercise, wellbeing, and family. She began to support her direct reports with more flexible work schedules, too. Within six months of this switch, Anne received a promotion. Rather than keeping her foot on the gas no matter what, she now navigates life’s turns with much more grace and strength.
As we lead from our inner Buddha, we cultivate greater focus and attention so we can find more common ground, hear what is not being said, and bring our full selves forward. We emerge as natural leaders regardless of organizational or social rank, and we wake up the workplace and the world in profoundly positive ways. How can you honor your inner wisdom in this moment and be the kind of leader the world needs now?