Leading Like a Monk: Is It Possible to Be a Contemplative Leader?

Leading Like a Monk: Is It Possible to Be a Contemplative Leader? April 19, 2018

Is It Possible to Be a Contemplative Leader?

The monks I know teach me about what it means to be contemplative. I believe the wisdom in what they teach can shape the ways we become leaders.

There was a time when I was convinced leadership had nothing at all to do with being contemplative. Leaders were people of action who made decisions and implemented them.

It felt to me like contemplation was an extra step which wasted too much time. I wanted to be the kind of leader who knew what to do and got things done.

What are the benefits of contemplative leadership? How could it not be better to be a decisive leader than a contemplative one?

Is it even possible to become a contemplative leader? It feels like an oxymoron, the two words contradicting each other. What would contemplative leadership even be?

We think we understand what each of these words mean, but do we?

Our definition of contemplative includes things like prolonged thinking and being lost in thought. The way we perceive contemplation seems like the opposite of decision and action.

The way we perceive leadership is based in motivating people and sparking enthusiasm.

My enthusiasm is not usually sparked by watching someone who is lost in thought.

It can seem to us like contemplative leadership is more of a contradiction than a strength.

Our context for contemplation is mainly passive while for leadership it is primarily active. It is easy for us to see them as separate, distinct in our everyday lives.

I see contemplative leadership differently.

How does contemplation help us become stronger leaders? What could monks possibly teach us about effective leadership?

What Does it Mean to Be a Contemplative Leader?

Leadership is more than getting people to do things or building enthusiasm. We can all think of examples of leaders who are excellent communicators or especially motivating. Those qualities can help leaders be effective, but they are not the essence of leadership.

The leaders who inspire me are able to bring out the best in people around them.

I believe this ability is an essential quality of leadership. More than planning or setting goals, more than having a vision or communication. Bringing out the best in people is central to what leaders do.

We may do what we do for a diverse variety of reasons. Some of us try to motivate people and create enthusiasm by tapping into their anger or their fear. Those motivations often do not serve us well in the long run.

The leaders who seem to lift us and help us move forward draw us toward the best within us. They know themselves well and recognize our potential.

How do leaders appreciate who we can become?

Contemplation is not being lost in thought for a long time. While contemplative people can appear to be absorbed in thinking, it is more than that.

The monks I know, and my own practice of contemplation, teach me it is about the present moment. They are not distracted or lost in thought, but trying to see and consider beyond their own thoughts.

People practice contemplation by closing their eyes and opening their minds. It is a way of setting aside our assumptions and expectations to pay attention to what is deeply real.

One of the implications of practicing contemplation is experiencing life as it is. My own contemplative practices help me see myself, and other people, as we are.

Becoming a Contemplative Leader

Contemplative leadership is complex, but not complicated. It is based in understanding each of us has the capacity for contemplation and for leadership.

Each moment holds a vast network of personalities and relationships. We see life from our own point of view and cannot even begin to grasp its complexity. How could we possibly analyze all the variables of each moment and think strategically?

The only way for us to see each moment clearly is to go beyond thinking.

Contemplative leadership involves seeing the big picture.

We know each of us, each person, has a contribution to make. Contemplative leadership engages in appreciating how our contributions all fit together. Our capacity for contemplation strengthens and deepens our ability to lead.

As we see and appreciate the complexity of each moment we realize we do not need to be in control. Our role as leaders is helping things fit together well. We see what people bring to a situation and help them do their best.

Contemplative leadership allows us to experience each moment in a new way.

Are There Examples of Contemplative Leadership?

The leaders who inspire me tend to practice aspects of contemplative leadership. They are people who allow their contemplation to shape how they lead themselves and other people.

Some contemplative leaders appear to work against the odds. They find within themselves the capacity to take on overwhelming tasks. Their leadership draws other people to work with them. Together they find creative responses to significant problems.

Parts of their contemplative leadership influence and shape the leadership of others.

Some of us look to contemplative leaders and say, “I could never do that.” We may see them as larger than life, as accomplishing nearly impossible tasks. Their leadership is sparked and fueled from within themselves.

Contemplative leaders consider aspects of situations beyond what they understand. They may find responses and solutions which are, as well, beyond what we think is possible.

Each of us can find our own examples of contemplative leadership throughout history and today. As we gain insights and information we come to see how contemplation has shaped leadership.

Because they see things outside our conventional approaches, contemplative leaders work in creative ways.

Contemplative leadership focuses on making the differences which matter most.

Each of us, as we practice contemplation and leadership, become contemplative leaders.

What does contemplative leadership mean to us today?

How will we practice contemplative leadership this week?

[Image by litratcher ]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and leadership coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and university professor, and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com, and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.

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