Leadership Development Lessons from Vipassana

Published On: May 31, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Father Augustine Thomas has a PhD in ‘Leadership Studies in Organization Development’ and currently serves as the Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar, Kathmandu.

From heroism to leadership

Leadership was traditionally known as a person’s ability to acquire followers. Traits like charisma, chivalry, negotiation, loyalty, and heroism drew the portrait of an effective leader, and the tribal cultures of the early centuries lived by it. In the past, nations believed in the Great Man theory—leaders are born, not made. When the term leadership entered the preserve of organizations, the meaning and traits of a leader grew more wings. The cognitive domain of the leader began to receive due importance. In organizations, the terms leadership and management were interchangeably used, but eventually, leadership scholars identified that a leader was more than a manager. The present leadership theories define leadership by incorporating its various aspects of the leader, namely cognitive, psychological, spiritual, character traits, skills and many more.

Discovering the good core of a leader

Today, leadership is all about empowering the followers and providing psychological safety and professional leverage. If earlier the skills and traits were placed at the center of leadership, today, the person of the leader himself, his innate nature, and consciousness are the center. Therefore, leadership must begin from the core of the person, namely, from the psycho-spiritual layer itself. This is the good core of the leader that makes their function efficient and empowering.

The techniques and the philosophy of Vipassana, an old meditation technique, help a person to unravel the dark layers and get in touch with their good core. Those who have attained this level live and lead differently.

The role of Vipassana in discovering the lost element of behavior

Franz Jalics, a Hungarian Jesuit theologian and spiritual guide, says that our human nature is constituted in such a way that our behavior results from three steps: awareness, thinking, and doing. First, we become aware of the reality through sensory perceptions, such as hearing, touching, tasting, seeing, and smelling. This perception through awareness is followed by thoughts. During the thought process, we integrate what we have perceived through reflection, analysis, reasoning, comparing, planning, choosing, or deciding. Then, in the third phase, we execute what has been decided.

In our hectic day-to-day life, the process has lost its order and balance. The steps of awareness or perception are hurried, and we tend to hop onto the thinking part, which also is overemphasized in this hasty world. Here, the primary foundation of decision-making is omitted, and the decision becomes partially or majorly disconnected from the reality.

Vipassana is based on the three foundations of sīla (moral conduct), samādhi (concentration of mind), and paññā (the wisdom of insight), through which one experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering, and ego. In the rigorous process of this meditation technique, one is led to a deeper silence and is guided to an egoless state through complete awareness. You feel your breath and every inch of your body; you feel the pain and allow it to be there—no reaction to any discomfort or thought. One learns to see, feel, understand, and accept without judgment, which awakens the good core of the person. This awareness sets the right tone for leaders to nurture the conscience, self-regulation, self-motivation, open-mindedness, ultimately making him/her genuine and effective in their leadership style.

The non-neglectable good core

The good core is the genuine, pure and positive core of the person. The ego is the dark layer surrounding the good core. The ego has limitless desires and reacts against even the subtlest pain, both psychological and physical pain. It restricts oneself to the circle of ‘likes’ and rejects what lies outside it. The experience, not merely the intellectual understanding, of awareness helps a person to shed the dark layers and illuminate the good core. Vipassana's tedious but rewarding process sets the right tone for a leader to let go of the ego and embrace the authentic self of the person. When leadership development incorporates the practice of awareness coupled with professional help in processing the experiences, a new sphere of depth can be discovered within the leader. Decisions and actions pitched from the good core of the leader give a unique flavor to their management skills.

Advancing in vigilance

Another underlying lesson from the experience of Vipassana is learning to be self-vigilant. The non-reactional alertness helps us to perceive things clearly. Effective leadership largely depends on vigilance toward the emerging external threats and opportunities unveiled in the professional arena. In Sanskrit, Shwananidra refers to one of the qualities of a good student, one who sleeps like a dog. It alludes to how a dog is always alert and wakes up to the slightest noise, even when deeply asleep. This quality comes handy while being an effective leader. This third eye of a leader naturally has its antenna high up and constantly scans the environment to capture signals for proactive steps. They are aware and mindful of their reaction in crisis situations and regulate the intensity of the flood of thoughts and feelings they experience.

Dealing with reflexivity in decision-making

In the research world, reflexivity means the researcher’s experiences, worldview, preconceived ideas, and perceptions that influence his/her understanding of a scenario. Such reflexivity is a barrier to identifying the truth. Leaders carry their reflexivity too. For a leader, to shed one’s preconceived notion in perceiving the reality, one must be adept at challenging one’s ideas and allowing the divergent reality to surface. The practice of mindfulness prepares a leader to step back, free oneself from reflexivity, and correctly interpret a situation. Regular and consistent practice of perceiving oneself and the context in the workplace, especially in decision-making, leads to efficiency.

Vipassana, a road to Servant Leadership

A much-talked-about leadership style lately is ‘Servant Leadership.’ At first glance, it sounds like a pious approach meant for religious groups or those engaged social service. In fact, researchers have established how profound servant leadership style is and the effectiveness of such leaders. Servant leaders have been able to inspire and transform their coworkers. The leader's authentic-self is manifested in the inspiring leadership behaviors of servant leaders. This requires an inward journey through self-awareness.

McKinsey researchers succinctly conclude the impact of awareness in leadership: “Leaders who look inward and take a journey of genuine self-discovery make profound shifts in themselves and their lives; this means they are better able to benefit their organization. That involves developing “profile awareness” (a combination of a person’s habits of thought, emotions, hopes, and behavior in different circumstances) and “state awareness” (the recognition of what’s driving a person to take action). Combining an individual's inward-looking and working with outward-facing actions can help create lasting change.” The experience of Vipassana sessions and regular practices guides a person through such inward-looking action, which helps them to be transcendent and transparent. 

Relevance of meditative approach today

In this fast-moving world, leaders are thrown into a way of life where silence or meditation isn’t a priority; instead, noisy socializing, skimming through social media or entertainment shows on television takes precedence. A regular attempt to return home to the ‘self’ and give moments to shed the toxins created by thoughts, tensions, and fears is essential to maintain wellness and effectiveness in the profession of leadership. A journey to the good core of a leader not only enhances the work performance but also keeps them grounded in life while nurturing the virtues of humility, compassion, and empathy.

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