A couple of weeks ago, I did a 2-day “CorporateTheatre” workshop exclusively for the Directors of a globally renowned, high profile organization. The theme was ‘Transcendental Leadership’.
One of the tools that we used as part of the theatre-based workshop were Zen Parables of Leadership compiled by W Chan Kim, and Renee A Maughbourne (writers of the Blue Ocean Strategy), and published by the Harvard Business Review. A parable that we used as a script for a theatre production, talks about an Emperor who is celebrating the unification of the Empire after years of military and diplomatic campaigns. Among the ‘star performers’ who are being felicitated and awarded by the Emperor are, a. The General who has never lost a battle that was fought, b. The Logistician who ensured that the armies were well armed and well supplied wherever they fought, and, c. The Diplomat who annexed kingdoms even without having to wage wars.
Among the invitees to the celebration is a Zen Master and his disciples. As the resplendent celebrations are in full flow, one of the disciples asks the Master a question. He says he can well understand why the three ‘stars’ are being celebrated. What he cannot understand is the role of the Emperor himself. “He is not known to be a great general, nor a great logistician, nor a diplomat. He is not even of noble birth. Why then is he the Emperor?”
In a typical Zen response, the Master uses the metaphor of a chariot wheel. He explains how the strength of the wheel is not determined merely by the strength of the spokes, but also the space between the spokes - "good spokes, poorly placed make a weak wheel". The Master compares the Emperor to the master craftsman who makes good spokes, puts them in the right places, then empowers them by creating space around them – the space of clarity, trust and freedom - and goes on to win their undying loyalty by giving them full credit for what they accomplish.
As is characteristic of Zen, the story is very simple but the learning is profound. Here are some of the insights that emerged during the course of the production and the processing:
1. A leader does not have to be better than everyone else in the team in every task. She needs absolute clarity about what needs to be achieved in terms of goals, and not necessarily everything about how to achieve them.
2. She defines the fundamental competencies required to achieve the set goals and then gets the right people who can deliver these competencies. Having assigned them their objectives, the leader gives them the freedom to operate. In the process, the leader ensures that across the different competencies, everyone is clear about their interdependencies toward achieving the set goals, and also know that unless the overall goal (Unification of the Empire) is achieved, there is no cause for celebration and no significant reward.
3. Once the goal is achieved each contributor is recognized and rewarded for their contribution.
4. The leader realises that while competencies can and should vary, the clarity of, and commitment to the set goal has to be total and undiluted.
5. There is no comparison of competencies. The leader does not evaluate the general’s diplomatic skills, or the logistician’s military prowess.
As explained through the well-known metaphor of the Zen master-archer who has gone to that level of unconscious and effortless competence where he becomes merely a medium through which the arrow finds the target, the Transcendental leader becomes a medium through which Leadership happens. There is an air of clarity, commitment, collaboration and celebration around her that is created merely by her presence, her commitment, passion, sensitivity, and energy. There is no need of great speeches, and constant monitoring, simply because every single individual and departmental ‘ego’ is aligned to a common goal and collective success.
As everyone knows, Leadership is not exercised under Utopian or ideal conditions. There is the occasional possibility that one may come across a person who is not ‘alignable’, whose concept of personal success and growth does not align with organizational goals in terms of values or even material rewards, and thereby become distractions or hurdles in the leadership environment. Other parables in this series give insights into how to deal with such obstacles and these will be shared in another post.