Leaders are students, too

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How to Approach Life with a Beginner's Mind

We often think of leaders as infallible god-like figures, standing tall, ever-ready to make pronouncements and take action. We see them as having all the answers, based on their experience and some intangible "leadership gene".

But leaders are not infallible. They're human just like us. This goes for monarchs, millionaires, CEO's, astrophysicists, and the pope. Nobody ever gets out of being human alive.

I started thinking about this after reading a statement by the self-help guru Tony Robbins:

"...sometimes, the teacher has to become the student and it is clear that I still have much to learn."

In case you don't already know the context, that statement was part of a recent public apology made by Robbins after he proved himself embarrassingly ignorant on the #metoo movement at one of his “Unleash the Power Within” seminars.

After pronouncing to his amphitheater audience that women speaking out "use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance", female attendee and sexual assault survivor Nanine McCool, raised her hand and questioned his remarks. Robbins then proceeded to interrupt her statement, intimidatingly tower over her, and physically push her with his hands backwards down a narrow aisle. (If you want to facepalm, read and watch here)

Thankfully, but at the expense of her dignity and safety, McCool was courageous enough to stand up to Robbins. And since the entire incident was caught on video, we all got to weigh in and help school him. By saying "...sometimes, the teacher has to become the student", it does seem that he was able to humble himself, step off the podium, and really look at what went wrong. I do hope Robbins is authentically engaging with his obvious ignorance and genuinely seeking to understand more.

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All leaders must remember that they never stop being students. Regardless if they've written New York Times #1 Bestsellers. Regardless if they fill out multi-day seminars with thousands of people who pay thousands of dollars to be there. Regardless if people look to them for life-changing advice.

In Zen Buddhist philosophy, there is a concept called shoshin, or "beginner's mind". Shoshin brings us to each moment in life with complete openness, without preconceived notions or assumptions. Shoshin is the reverse of bias.

I think of "beginner's mind" as mentally hitting refresh, as often as possible. So when we are learning, producing, communicating, and sharing, we can try come to arrive at these spaces as if we know nothing.

Meeting daily life with no assumptions requires humility and practice. And it can seem like a counterintuitive approach for a leader, since leaders are supposed to be providing answers and teaching others their version of The Way. As teachers and leaders develop increasingly complex and personally defined systems, those systems become ever more difficult to change.

It’s actually proven that people who think themselves experts are more likely to be close-minded. In a paper about "earned dogmatism," which appeared in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in November, 2015, Professor Victor Ottati from Loyola University of Chicago reports on a series of experiments he conducted showing that "self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition."

I would argue that every system we create must also possess an open door for new information and feedback to flow in and out. If we keep our personal leadership systems open and somewhat fluid, we are more likely to receive new ideas that will make those systems smarter and more inclusive. And we can more easily release old ideas that are no longer relevant or useful.

Right now, we have a unique opportunity to investigate and overcome our biases, and approach the world with the beginner's mind. The world is waking up to the concept of privilege, which means that some groups of people benefit from oppressive systems (social, political, economic, spiritual, the list goes on), while other groups of people are oppressed by them.

Tony Robbins, with his hard-luck background story, definitely suffered. He definitely experienced difficulties. We all have. But his trials and consequent triumph over them in the form of power and success don't excuse him from humility. His success doesn't grant him a free pass out of listening to others.

A hallmark of privilege is that the privileged aren't able to see it (thank you, Bell Hooks, for that clear insight). So we have to not only listen to others, but explore what we may not know about ourselves and others. We all have access to the opportunity to try to wake up to our own privilege.

I, a white woman, economically and educationally privileged, cis-gendered, and able-bodied have this opportunity. It's time for those of us who have historically and still presently benefit from institutions like capitalism and colonialism to step up and out of our comfort-zones, dive into how we have benefitted, and understand that others have not and do not.

We need to listen to others. We need to witness, hear, and make ample and secured space for people with diverse experiences, ideas, and backgrounds.

Our world is incredibly multi-faceted. Developing and holding onto one-sided perspectives based on assumptions is just plain WRONG. It will lead us down a road of cumulative and eternal misunderstanding. It will result in an unfulfilled and cowering life of bias and fear.

What we need to do is incorporate the beginner's mind. We need to practice addressing situations with receptivity and an eagerness to learn, even when it proves painful. We need to crack open our tendencies to judge harshly ideas which we don't yet understand--that judgement stems from fear.

One of the keys to a fulfilled life is appreciation for the mystery, the unknown, the complex and incomprehensible web that is life. How can we integrate ourselves into the multiplicity? It's not easy, but a first step is to approach life with a sense of openness, each and every day. We must become the student.

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Here are five steps to integrate the beginner’s mind into your daily life:

1. Say “I don’t know” out-loud to yourself 10+ times, every day.

This might sound silly, but saying simple phrases to yourself over and over can calm and change your brain patterns. Take this idea one step further by humbling yourself, admitting that “I don’t know” anything. This will take you immediately to the beginner’s mind, and help you start your day fresh and unbiased. 

2. Approach each moment with presence.

Focus on your breath and body. Take a few deep breaths and pay attention to your surroundings several times throughout the day. Integrate mindfulness practices into your life. Not only will incorporating mindfulness make you less biased, it will also make you happier.

3. Practice empathetic listening

When you are engaging with someone, avoid engaging in immediate judgment, prejudice, assumptions, rebuttal or criticism. Simply try to comprehend what they are saying, and even repeat it back to them. Our default mode is to take in and interpret information, then, based off our past experience, generate predictions and spit out responses. But this can often lead to misinterpretation and bias. One out of four CEO's derail their companies by not really listening to what others’ are saying. Don’t let this be you!

4. Release fear of failure

Often we try to build up an expert persona because we are afraid to be wrong. It’s ok to be wrong, in fact, being wrong is necessary for growth.  Consider conducting a “pre-mortum”, developed by psychologist Gary Klein, an exercise in which you imagine scenarios in which your project fails.

5. Cultivate Curiosity

Curiosity helps us become open to learning about differences. Turns out we humans really enjoy learning. When we are curious and start to seek information about something new, dopamine is released. Start cultivating curiosity by focusing on questions, rather than answers. If someone approaches you with a problem or even criticism, ask them for more information. Choose to learn during these moments, rather than deflect. You might be surprised by how good it feels.

Sarah BisceglieComment