How Zen Can Provide Leadership in a Post-Truth Trump World

Ginny Whitelaw Article, Free, Integral Post, Leadership, Perspectives, World Affairs 0 Comments

What a wacky month. I’ve tried several times to write this post and every time have gotten sidetracked by the latest unfoldings in our real-life episode of The Apprentice in which James Comey gets fired and comes back to testify. On the one hand, with our national attention riveted on Trump, it’s hard to write about anything else. On the other hand, with nonstop talking about it in every media channel available, it’s not like another voice is really needed. But I just finished reading Ken Wilber’s wonderful Trump and a Post-Truth World, and am feeling positively uplifted, refreshed in the reframe of Trump, not as the Founder of alternative facts and “truth-is-what-I-say-it-is”, but as an evolutionary correction to a derailment of postmodernism that lost track of truth some time ago.

First, if you haven’t read Ken’s latest, do so. I won’t attempt to capture the whole work here; I just want to pull on a couple points that have implications for leadership in our age and Zen leadership in particular (I’ll come back to what that means in a moment). Ken reminds us of the two great evolutionary forces of differentiation and integration, and how they wax and wane through our stages of development. At the egocentric stage, we differentiate into autonomous selves. The ethnocentric stage finds us integrating into our local social systems. We break free and differentiate again as we enter the worldcentric stage, first as modern, self-authoring individuals (orange) and then as postmodern pluralists (green), honoring multiple cultures and perspectives.

But this pluralistic green stage is particularly messy, and where Ken aims most of his criticism. For it can morph from a healthy recognition of multiple right perspectives — a core competency for any successful leader in a global or matrixed organization — to not recognizing any perspective as right or privileged, where everything is relative: your truth is true for you, my truth is true for me. And if I get to control the narrative — as Trump and every political hack attempts to do — truth is what I say it is.

This stage is also messy in organizations and leadership. It’s a stage where decision-making slows down, where chains of command give way to sloppy consensus-driven processes, where power shifts from country managers (who sub-optimize products) to global brand managers (who ignore some countries), reporting lines go off in confusing directions, and diversity is encouraged or enforced in teams whose members are largely ethnocentric, with no clue that differences can be transcended in included. This is the world I’ve coached and taught in leadership programs for the past 23 years, equipping leaders in both their inner dimensions and outward skills to bring to this mess what it desperately needs: a higher level of integration that can lead it in a purposeful way.

Because the larger truth of postmodern pluralism is that all views are not created equal. Some views are more partial (e.g., a bottom-line objective to maximize profits), some more whole (e.g., a triple-bottom-line objective to optimize profits, environmental and social impact). Some truths are based in local conventions (e.g., the right way to greet a business client), but others are universal, co-constructed with intrinsic features of the world (e.g., respecting gravity in building design). Leading purposefully is including and transcending differences toward higher level truths. It is to lead an organization or culture toward, in Ken’s terms, greater truth, beauty or goodness. In the older terms of Lao Tzu, it is to lead according to the Way: sensitive to conditions, but not bound by them, with the winds of Eros — the evolutionary drive — at our back.

To lead in such an integrated, purposeful way requires inner work as much as outer skills — indeed, at its best it manifests an inner-to-outer match that we recognize as authenticity. Authentic leadership is valued and developed in even conventional leadership programs. But Zen training, which cultivates a condition of connectedness, one-withness, or non-duality, kicks leadership to another level. Zen leadership can be cultivated by Integral practices other than Zen, but from my experience, the line of Zen I’ve trained in is grounded in a fairly universal way to increasingly experience universal truths, and that is: the discipline of mind-and-body-as-one.

Now maybe we think that mind and body are always functioning together, and in some ways they are. But just as differentiation and integration run through stages of development, so they also run through us. At an ethnocentric stage, even as we’re integrating on the outside to fit in, we’re separating (differentiating) mind from body on the inside to control our emotions and impulses or hide our fears. At the stage of rationality, mind differentiates in a big way to go off on a wild learning journey through such abstractions as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and calculus, while the body is pretty much sitting in a chair. Descartes’ famous dictum of this stage, “I think therefore I am,” is most assuredly not a mind and body functioning as one. It’s someone living in their head. Which is what a lot of us continue to do. Mind you, there’s huge creative benefit to letting our minds go off in imaginative leaps, connect the dots of learning, of past and future, and master abstractions that we can’t count on our fingers. Now that we’re so very smart as to create technologies smarter than us, human experience is becoming even more virtual, digital, and abstract. But this also leads to dissociation from those “intrinsic features” of the world that ground us in universal truths. This dissociation has increased over the last 100 years, according to Sapien’s author, Yuval Harari, as fewer of us work with our bodies. Conversely, as he says, “If we’re at home in the body, we feel more at home in the world.”

For it’s in the body that the intrinsic features of the world are not just abstract concepts, but felt experiences. Take matter and gravity for instance. Gravity works on all matter, including our body, and the more we physically relax, the more we can sense and work with it. Even now, let out a sigh of relief — Ah-h-h-h — and you’ll feel that with even one breath of relaxation, parts of the body drop down in gravity. As we relax further, we start to feel when our head is aligned in gravity, as opposed to jutted out in front of our spine and having to be carried by overworked muscles. We can feel the difference between the clumsiness of tripping over a stone and the grace of walking one-with the earth.

Or consider energy and resonance. Energy moves through all matter, including us, and the more we relax, open our senses, and slow down our exhale, the more its movement through us becomes a felt sense, providing actionable data, and purposeful movement. Breath is a handy indicator of how energy is moving through your body right now. If you hold your breath, or make it short and tight in your chest, you can feel a sense of constriction. If you now let out a long, slow exhale, and allow your breath to deepen into your lower abdomen, you’ll experience a sense of flow through your body. If you find that you can’t breathe all the way to your abdomen, well that’s evidence of a constriction along the way — a place where separation has occurred and a part has been cut off from functioning with the whole. Training with mind-and-body-as-one is the progressive re-integration of all those parts, something you can experience further in the ILP Module on the 1st flip of Zen Leadership. For this integrating mind-and-body-as-one isn’t just good for us, but brings a more integrated leader into the world. The more we tune into the energy around us through our senses, the more we catch subtle signals and resonate with them, the more our actions and creations resonate with others and with larger forces at work, and the more our social circuitry (e.g., mirror neurons) creates resonance in other people. Functioning with mind-and-body-as-one, the compassionate leader is not merely thinking compassionate thoughts or saying compassionate words, but physically generating a resonant feeling of one-withness and safety in other people. What we call truth, goodness, beauty or according the Way is none other than striking a resonant chord with the universe.

Gravity and matter. Energy and resonance. These are not cultural relativisms or open to alternative facts. They are intrinsic features of the universe, of the human being and the evolutionary currents of which we’re made. And hence they show the way to the kind of inside-out-integration that will lead us out of the post-truth mess that the excesses of postmodernism have gotten us into. As Ken puts it, the failure of the green leading edge is that it hasn’t been leading. It’s time for leadership — on an evolutionary scale.

Ginny Whitelaw

About Ginny Whitelaw

Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is both a leadership expert and roshi (Zen master) in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the author of The Zen Leader, and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership. She is also the President of Focus Leadership, and has taught and coached in global leadership programs for nearly 20 years. Formerly deputy manager for integrating NASA’s Space Station Program, she has a PhD in biophysics as well as a fifth degree black belt in Aikido.