Two big factors kicked in when I was 30 – I reached eleven years of intense meditation practice and I was intensely called to dive into an overtly spiritual exploration. I started meditating at 19 as a survival strategy because I was kicked out of college and had to get my head screwed on right. So at 30 I left a great management job, shaved my head, sold my stuff, bought an old Ford F100 and drove to a remote property in New Mexico to build a cabin. I built a 625 square-foot cabin and, with a little help from my friends, spent a year in silent and isolated meditation. It was a year that changed my mind, heart, and even career choice, but I’d like to go right to four insights I learned in isolation that are vital for every leader.
1. It’s easier to break than to build
A friend of mine had an old structure down the hill and we agreed that if I demolish the building, I can keep any salvageable building materials. Tearing down required almost no vision or planning, just a ten-pound sledge hammer and brute force. Breaking takes a fraction of energy required for building. Building my cabin, on the other hand, took purpose, vision, planning, execution, energy, and consistency.
As a leader you must stand for something, reach for something, build something – you have to create, not just tear down. And Purpose is the first step; clear purpose gets your people to face the same direction and build together. So, what are you building? How are you going to get people to focus in the same direction? What’s your vision, your unique design for the team and organization? What do you stand for, believe, and champion?
2. You are 100% responsible for your life
I was shocked when I realized that deep meditation wasn’t all peace and cosmic joy. When I encountered my demons, complaints, and fears, I impulsively blamed my parents, old girlfriends, foes, and anyone I could. But when I realized that there wasn’t anyone to blame for my current state, I had to embrace that I am 100% responsible for my experience. I finally understood Denis Waitley’s comment that: ͞”A sign of wisdom and maturity is when you come to terms with the realization that your decisions cause your rewards and consequences. You are responsible for your life, and your ultimate success depends on the choices you make.͟”
I see leaders who don’t take responsibility, blame others, and fall into a victim mentality, and that mind-set limits relationships, ambitions, and achievements. On the other hand, leaders who take responsibility empower their achievement, convey authority to their people, and significantly reduce their reliance on external validation and praise.
So stop blaming circumstances, reject the victim mind-set, and accept that ͞the buck stops here.͟Regardless of your level of management, you have a scope of authority, and your effectiveness is proportionate to your responsibility. Your decisions are what you stand for, and what you stand for is your responsibility. You are accountable.
3. There’s no such thing as a “self-made man͟”
At some point during construction I realized that my belief that I was a self-made man was BS. I didn’t forge my tools, or weave my clothes, or write the manuals I studied to learn how to frame and mud and lay tile. I depended on countless people, both known and unknown. Heck, even Luke Skywalker had R2-D2, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Yoda, Dorothy had Toto, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, and King Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table.
The paradox of leadership is that you’re both part of and apart from your team. So abandon the notion of being a solitary champion who alone achieves success; this will destroy your ability to build loyalty, collaboration, and trust. The term self-made is misleading. Yes, you have to make independent and, sometimes, difficult decisions. But, no, you don’t have to exhaust yourself through isolation. The most persevering leaders establish systems and relationships that promote and nurture their grit. They surround themselves with allies and guides that provide ideas, insights, emotional support, tools, and supportive connections.
4. Your fear defines you
Zig Ziglar, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Tom Hopkins, and other motivational teachers convinced me that my life would be unlimited and fully realized when I conquered my fears. So I spent my 20’s conquering fear: scuba diving with sharks, skydiving, walking on fire, fasting for weeks, bungee jumping, lying in sensory deprivation tanks, and confronting my parents. While my confidence grew, to this day I’m not fear-less.
As a leader, heights or spiders aren’t the issue; fears of the mind and heart are the issue. Leaders share fears like, ͞”I’ll lose credibility,͟” or ͞”If I say something stupid people will lose respect for me,͟” and, ͞”I have fear of failure, so I delay making difficult decisions to the last possible minute.͟”
Fearlessness, I discovered, is an immature and misguided goal and not the objective of a fully realized life; the objective is courage. Fear is biological. It is a survival imperative so deeply woven into our neural system that it practically defines what it means to be alive. Courage simply requires that you recognize and acknowledge your fear and then choose to move toward it. To be courageous is to walk toward what you’d rather run away from.
I left the cabin not because I ran out of time, but because I realized that my spiritual evolution was going to be accelerated through wife, children, and professional service. I returned to master the lessons of leadership –being connected, communicative, and collaborative and balancing ambition with wisdom with compassion.
Eric Kaufmann has coached and consulted hundreds of leaders, including executives and teams at Sony, T-Mobile, Genentech, Alcon Labs, and Sunpower. He is the founder and president of Sagatica, Inc. and the author of the forthcoming book, The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results (Sounds True, September 2016). Eric lives in San Diego, CA, where he is a Master Scuba Diving Instructor and a life-long practitioner of Zen Meditation. For more, visit www.sagatica.com.