Eric Kaufmann has been coaching and training leaders and executives since 2000. His earliest lessons in leadership and coaching, though, were in the water, not in the office – he was a Scuba Diving Instructor in his college days. It’s there that he refined the ability to organize and influence people to learn new skills, work together, venture into the unknown, and have fun in a process that can also be dangerous.
20 years ago Eric left his corporate role as a marketing Director at Corning Clinical Labs to establish an executive development consultancy, and work with leaders to think more creatively, decide more effectively, and relate more wholeheartedly. In fact, he describes his work as an unrelenting commitment to results with an unyielding regard for the human spirit. His clients include Facebook, Verizon, Sony, Dr. Bronner’s, Sunpower Corporation, Navitas Organics, and Petco.
Eric is the author of Four Virtues of a Leader. He’s also a Fellow and an official Thought Leader at Harvard’s Institute of Coaching, a former Vistage Chair and Speaker, and a speaker for TEDx.
Now, if you’re up late and you want to read the soap opera of Eric’s life, here is some entertaining (with a smidge of alternative) story in four chapters.
The Back Story
After 20 years of leading, leadership coaching, publishing books on leadership, and being appointed a Thought Leader at Harvard’s Institute of Coaching, I’ve earned my expertise in the field. But I wasn’t born an expert on leadership. As a child I was shy and introverted and didn’t offer up much leadership. I was an independent thinking child and had some influence over my close friends, but I preferred rebelling to leading. Until about age 14, that is. That’s when my leadership flame got lit; not by a girl or a book or a teacher did my leadership love get turned on, it was scuba diving. Really.
When I was 14 my uncle took me diving in the Red Sea, and I was immediately hooked. The complex equipment, the anxiety and excitement, the strange marine life and sense of flying, and the altered soundscape were so fascinating that I kept learning and advancing, becoming a Divemaster, then PADI scuba instructor, and by 20, a Master Scuba Instructor. Teaching diving was a cool and powerful arena for leadership lessons; I learned authority, influence, responsibility, motivation, reading people, pushing people, celebrating, encouragement, and tender care for people. And as my leadership fire and confidence grew, it spread to other parts of my life.
By the time I earned my bachelor’s degree (which included getting kicked out of college and a twisted road to redemption and re-admission) I was leading in a host of places: as a Teaching Assistant, a warehouse supervisor, a Scuba diving instructor, and an assistant teacher in our spiritual community.
And for ten years after college I was disciplined at practicing my leadership at work and in my spiritual community. I learned especially from crappy leaders. The most challenging job I had was selling copier machines. My job was to haul a copier on a gurney, go from business to business, and convince unsuspecting business owners and professionals to watch my demo, and sell a machine. My sales manager was a howling wolf who threatened me with his with six-inch claws and couldn’t show kindness from his peanut sized heart. I was scared and demoralized and learned from this experience that leadership should be about relationship and growth, not fear and threat.
My last job in this period, as a marketing director in a Fortune 100 company, was an awesome experience. As I applied myself to leading and cultivating other leaders, my team thrived, our results were celebrated, and the horizon was full of opportunity. But after a couple of years I wasn’t feeling excited anymore. I was still enjoying the results we were getting, but I noticed that my love was turning toward the teaching and cultivation of other leaders more so than the execution of plans.
So it was a big shock to my team and an incomprehensible surprise to my boss when I told them that I was quitting. I shared that I decided to leave corporate, drop off the grid, build a cabin in the mountains and live there to contemplate reality and the nature of my life.
My Year in the Woods
I didn’t get to building a cabin in the mountains by accident. I came to the mountain for a long retreat to meditate and delve deeply into my mind, heart, and spirit. I was well prepared. For the ten years that I worked, I also studied and lived with spiritual teachers. I practiced thousands of hours of meditation and was at the point that I decided to deepen my practices by quitting my job, giving away worldly possessions, and retreating to a mountain top to find myself, to find Truth.
It took me three months to build the cabin, and when I was almost done I freaked out. What the hell was I thinking? How was I to survive being isolated in silence for months, or longer? Why did I throw away my career and life? To be fair, I planned for many things, but I had no idea that I would face my fears so directly and so intensely. It was like scuba diving at night, in 200 feet of water, on a broken sunken ship. A depression set upon me as my fears and negative self-talk came swimming into consciousness like sharks and eels in the dark. The parts of me that I disliked, was ashamed of, rejected, and even hated filled my thoughts and dominated my feelings.
First, my fear of failure spoke of failing in my meditation, then failing in life. Next, my fear of incompetence promised that I’d be found out – that I’m not as smart as I presented, and not as strong as I claimed to be. Eventually, my deepest fear became clear; not fear of snakes, or heights, but fear that I’m fundamentally unworthy and unlovable.
The inner voices became a deafening choir of negativity and self-loathing that eventually shouted for my self-destruction. After two months of isolation my inner demons started convincing me to kill myself. I became convinced that I was lower than the lowest worm. In fact, I thought, worms at least add value to the world, I only take. And I concluded that only gift or real service I could offer the world was to remove myself; to stop being a leech on society and end my life. This was a terrifying period.
I headed to the mountains to find myself, not to face my worst fears and think about killing myself. In the depth of my personal drama I realized that to find my way back I had to do three things: I had to learn to make friends with my fears, I had to reconnect with a purpose in life, and I had to genuinely serve other people. As I meditated and prayed through my darkest hours, I began to recognize that the virtues that brought me this far, can take me much much further.
As I came through my self-loathing, suicidal dark-night of the soul, a new light and perspective crystalized in my consciousness, a fresh form of love for life, people, and myself. With each passing day, with every walk through the wild forest, and in the hours of still meditation, I felt the life force returning to my bones and blood.
My inner critic – so dominant for decades – faded and stilled, and gave way to the much quieter whispers of my higher-self (also referred to as Big Mind, Inner Teacher, Guiding Spirit, Inner Wisdom, Divine Within, Essence, Source, Atman). I spent three months listening keenly to the gentle, and now clear, whispers of the higher-self. I sat quietly and patiently; I didn’t expect that I was owed a realization, nor did I demand answers, I spent the majority of my waking hours meditating and attuning to this higher-self. And, in fact, as this voice grew more audible, I did get more guidance and insight.
When I dropped off the grid and into my intensive retreat, I planned for this to mark the end of my worldly life and the beginning of a life dedicated to spiritual practice and teaching. I even gave away my stuff and money (and my dog), shaved my head, and left my friends and community. This wasn’t going to be an adventure, this was going to be my life. So when I deciphered the message that came through, I was deeply surprised and not at all interested.
You see, I’d set my mind to one kind of lifestyle and the revelation for me was a different kind of lifestyle; one that didn’t align with my personal plan and goals. So, of course, I ignored my higher-self message for a couple months and waited for a more agreeable insight. I figured that if I meditated longer and listened more deeply, my Higher-Self would reveal a more pleasing message. I know what you’re thinking, “foolish man, you can’t negotiate with Higher Self!”
I really wanted a life of seclusion and meditation, but my wiser-self had a very different plan, a plan that would be far more spiritually enriching, now that I’m 20 years down that road. The message was, “get married, have children, and be in service to community.” Oh, and the finer point was, “embody connection, communication, and collaboration.” So just imagine how blown away I was by this totally opposite insight about life; I didn’t want to follow.
Ultimately, I was more committed to Truth than to comfort. I went to find my purpose, and it to be different than what I had in mind. Actually, that’s a win. It’s a win because it’s truly revealed rather than forced. My purpose was a life of blended disciplines – worldly achievement AND spiritual practice. Service to community is working on and with leaders, that’s where I’m happiest and productive.
Being a warrior for spirit, I marched on my orders with focus, courage, grit, and faith. Within four years I started my consulting firm, got married, bought a house and had two daughters. I describe my work as an unrelenting commitment to results with an unyielding regard for Spirit. I’m completely switched on to developing specific kind of leaders, conscious leaders. Leaders that know how to meet their ego needs and include the needs of others; leaders that are curious, bold, and kind; leaders that do well and do good.
When we re-branded our company name, I chose Sagatica – it’s derived from Sagacitas in Latin and shares a linguistic home with sagacity or sage. Conscious leaders are wise, loving, and courageous. And our world is aching for conscious leaders.
The Urgency to Lead
We have real problems and our society, planet, and coming generations are desperate for solutions from conscious leaders. Now! Our life is unlike anything our ancestors experienced and this is a true historical inflection point of humanity. This period started with the Industrial Revolution in the 1700’s, and established completely after World War II. As we’ve increased manufacturing and consumerism and established systems of transportation, communication, and globalization of markets and economies, we have entered a new dimension of human life.
Commercialism and economic growth have birthed a business class and a social dominance by business leaders, global trade, and multinational corporations. This rise to power is timed with a decline of the power of religion and a flattening of the authority of government. As government and religion have lost their moral high ground, business has become the bearer of social and moral responsibility and business leaders are the de facto shaper of society.
These business leaders are mostly unaware and unprepared for the role that they’re playing as shapers of societies and stewards of humanity. So here’s our crisis point: as government and religion steadily decline in power and contribution, how is business going to tend to humanity? Since commerce was inherently formed to provide profit for the owners, how will it now prepare to care for society?
This is the call for Conscious Leadership; this isn’t a wish or distant vision, this is a global-scale felt-sense need. We need business leaders to step up, step into, and embrace the inevitable role that they didn’t sign up for, but are pulled into by social forces. We need leaders to have the awareness, skill, and support to carry the new and unexpected mantle of Shapers of Society.
Now is the time for you to become a Conscious Leader and wear the mantle of social responsibility that comes with your vestments of commercial power. Now is the time for you to use your power to do well and to do good. Now is the time to adopt an unrelenting commitment to results, with an unyielding regard for the human spirit. Now is the time to abandon useless either/or destructive thinking and adopt a both/and creative mindset. Now is the time because if we don’t, then we are witnesses and accomplices of our demise.
Now is the time to become a conscious leader. Let’s do this together.