"As we live internally so, we affect the external world. Culture is something which we must create or establish starting from our situation as it is, because our rules are actually for ourselves, as human beings. I am not saying this jokingly. I am pretty serious, but I do not want to be too serious. If you become too severe, you will lose your way. On the other hand, if we are playing games with it, we will lose our way. So little by little, with patience and endurance, we must find our way for ourselves."
Suzuki Roshi, 1969
I spent a good deal of time looking at walls in my late twenties.
No, I was not in prison.
For a brief period of time, I was fortunate enough to study in a traditional Zen monastery in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition started by Suzuki Roshi on the Big Island of Hawai'i.
One afternoon, the senior monk asked me to join him for his daily swim. We bustled down the cow-lined country roads of Waimea in his beat up pick-up truck until we made it to a small beach. He quickly jumped out of the truck and into the water and began swimming out around a cove beside an immense cliff. I followed nervously, even though I was a lifeguard in my teens and a pretty good swimmer in my own right. Truth is, I am not that keen on ocean swimming. I could see all the way to the down- right down to a jagged reef, and it freaked me out. Making matters more precarious- there was a powerful current and Joshin was a strong swimmer, and the beach was famous for shark sitings. He was quickly far out ahead of me, and I became terrified. As we moved farther from the beach and into the choppier water, my thoughts began to run.
What am I doing out here swimming? I am going to drown!
Suddenly as if he had read my thoughts, he sprang from the water in front of me. He jumped out so far of the out of the water so that I could see his feet.
-What the hell ?
Is this guy a water polo player and a monk too? I was too tired to think, so I kept swimming and starting praying that I would not drown. My fear was very real. As anyone that knows water-sports will tell you, fear and panic is exactly why people drown. Suddenly, he did it again! He shot out of the water like a dolphin. Now my head really began to run. He is a flying Zen Monk! I have found a hidden master! How fortunate! As I was dreaming up what incredible abilities he must possess and trying not to sink, I heard him call out to me.
-There are many places to rest, if you'd just stop and look down, you'll see them!
I looked down to see that I was swimming above some outcroppings from the reef just a few feet below the surface. One could easily stop and stand on them. Joshin was only indicating to me where to rest. The irony amuses me to this day. I was so busy worry about keeping up or drowning, that I swam right over the places I could take a rest. I was panic-ridden for no reason at all. There were many safe places right there, in plain view, the whole time.
As we rush through our day, what are we missing? Are we just trying to keep up and keep our head above water? Often, especially as leaders, we will work too hard and drown. Learning to lead is about listening and being inherently mindful. Think (and swim) long-term. Instead of stressing about what we need to do in the beginning, and the more ambitious plans we have, learn to rest and learn the territory in the beginning.
In business today, it is not often that anyone will tell you to slow down and drop urgency, never mind show you where you can rest. Keep in mind that this is not a good thing. Competition can be deadly, especially when it is with ourselves. You do not have to prove anything other than that you are also a human being. When you start a new gig, or you take a new leadership spot, you are just swimming. People will appreciate candor and transparency more than you can imagine. Let some swim ahead, let some fall behind. Just make sure you find the resting places.
If you are realistic and drop urgency--you will succeed. Let the culture shape itself, and you, let the current take you. Let things unfold, and look for the rocks you are swimming over.
That day, Joshin swam back to me and sat on one of the many outcroppings of the reef that dotted the shoreline.
-Are you okay?
-Yeah, I begrudgingly answered.
My bruised ego was only a little more banged up than my feet were from scrambling onto the rock beside him. We sat for a long while out there in the water. He didn't say much generally, but his presence alone was reassuring and comforting. We swam back to shore in silence.
As a leader, your calmness can determine the entire mood of the workplace. During the uncertain period of leadership transition, you can be an anchor in a rough sea. When questioned on matters you feel confident about and on which you have exercised good judgment previously, speak your mind, and do it with grace. Offer people a safe place to rest.
There is never any need to panic. Find the rocks you are swimming over. Take a minute, slow down. No need to rush.
Louis D. LoPraeste is a former corporate strategist (2003-2012) and founder of www.quodfatum.com. If you liked this essay, please take a minute to share it.