Immersion, Leadership

Integral Immersion to Make a Better Future (FREE)

by Ginny Whitelaw

I just returned from two days in the future. As part of my leadership work with a health care client, I joined them in visiting innovative disrupters in Silicon Valley, venture capital firms focused on the future in health care, as well as the remarkably accurate forecasting firm: Institute for the Future. Breathtaking. Mind boggling. And timely, as we start a new year, perhaps with resolve to realize a goal or bring about a desired future. My biggest takeaway from these days is that the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is intensifying and virtually everything is becoming either impossible or possible, depending on the leader.

The impossibility is felt everywhere. A publishing executive, for example, shared with us a classic, strategy analysis of what’s going on in his industry. Between digital publishing, self-publishing, the Amazon giant, new entrants, people reading all they want off the Internet for free, one could conclude it’s completely hopeless. Or a hospital administrator shared that they’re being reimbursed (less all the time) for episodic sickness, as they’re being asked to move to ensuring the wellness of a population, for which no reimbursement is yet in place. So not only do they have to do more with less, but invest in ways that put the only business they’re being paid for out of business. In case after case, industry after industry, it’s easy to get in an impossible loop where you can’t get there from here.

Yet the possibility is also felt everywhere. The very same publishing executive who showed us the seemingly hopeless strategy analysis went on to say, “This is the most exciting time to be in publishing since the invention of the printing press!” A leader in health care innovation said, “We’re really catching an important technology and social wave right now; it’s a great time to be in health care!” And all of us listening could feel their enthusiasm was genuine, their vision was clear, their plans were agile and sound: These were leaders creating the future, not waiting for it to happen to them.

In his excellent book, Leaders Make the Future, Bob Johansen, distinguished Fellow with the Institute for the Future, forecasts the dominant trends over the next 10 years and the leadership skills needed to thrive in it. He aptly points out that traditional leadership skills will not be up to the task of taking advantage of VUCA forces. Rather, the leaders who make the future will have to be able to do things like flip dilemmas, organize social mobs, and constructively depolarize debates. They need to be Integral leaders who can transcend personal interest, empathize with others, and with nature itself. They need to be clear in their vision and agile on how to get there. Johansen further points out that “something more is needed than traditional approaches to leadership development and executive training” for leaders to learn and act like this. Rather they will need much richer immersion experiences to embody these skills, as well as low-risk opportunities to practice them. Even these two days of in-market immersion (impeccably organized by The Immersion Lab) showed how much more powerfully direct experience lands its learnings than would a lecture on the same topic.

But even direct experience has its limits if we filter its learnings through misconceptions, false assumptions, and the blind spots of fear. The Center for Creative Leadership concluded in one of their studies that around half of the leaders, in fact, do not learn from their experience because they do not reflect upon it with a learning orientation. If we are caught up in ambition or needing to prove ourselves right, evidence to the contrary gets filtered out, and even small failures are treated as disasters to be disguised. Embodying skills of the sort Johansen prescribes is not a surface act, but rather deep work. It requires what I refer to in The Zen Leader as flips in consciousness – starting with the primal flip of leadership: from coping to transforming.

Zen supports this journey as a profound immersion experience in its own right. Zen is sometimes described as pointing directly to the truth: the truth of oneness in differentiation, of differentiation in oneness, the truth of our own nature. As a child who grew up on “Think and Do” books and learned to practice both verbs with fervor, I found wading into Zen anti-intellectual and frustrating; everything I was good at became useless. I preferred the books about Zen and koan-ic phrases like “the truth of oneness in differentiation” to the physical pain of actually sitting still in Zazen, or the psychic boredom of reigning in my runaway mind (count the breath, one to ten…). But through this work, I came to see how I was using thought to separate myself from reality, rather than experiencing it raw through my senses. You might notice this for yourself if you’ve ever been watching a movie where you started to feel yourself swept away by emotion, and “talked yourself down” with thoughts that returned you to a more rational state, “Hey it’s just a movie!” I don’t say this is a bad practice, but it’s bad to buffer our experience through thought and not know we’re doing it. It makes us certain of things that are not so. It makes us mistake our thoughts about reality as reality itself.

Someone once said we see things, not as they are, but as we are. If we want to see things clearly, we need to be clear. And that is the patient work of a Zen practice. Through sitting meditation (Zazen) and its companion forms of training (e.g., yoga, martial arts, bodywork), over time, we clear the pain from the body and boredom from the mind. We come to an acceptance of what life throws our way, and a creative willingness to work with what is. We’re open to a VUCA world.

Now what future will we create as leaders in that world? Here is where Zen guides leadership still further in taking immersion to its ultimate state of Samadhi. This condition cannot be willed, but the conditions for it arising are cultivated through Zen training. In the full immersion of Samadhi, there is no stand-apart self with its play-by-play commentary on the moment. There is only the moment. There is no calculating intelligence figuring how it will utilize the situation. There is only oneness with the situation. There is no striving nor worry, nor self to strive or be worried. We might call this Integral immersion, where the boundaries of all quadrants disappear and only Now remains. And in this immersion into Now, where I and my team are not separate, where I and the needs of the world are not separate, where I and the future are not separate, every so often, insight arises. We translate it into thought, but it is not ordinary thought. It is the thought of no-thought. In some traditions we would call it inspiration from God, or the working of Spirit. In Zen, where we’ve learned a healthy distrust for our thoughts and words around such things, we may call it nothing at all. But suddenly, an idea with a good deal of energy behind it is flowing through us. Now what do we do!?

The specifics will vary from idea to idea, from leader to leader. But we are where this idea will either take root or not. We are both the transforming agent and the agent transformed. To get a feel for the profundity of being the transforming agent in Now, you can download this exercise from The Zen Leader. As you immerse yourself in Now, you may start to see how events move through you, transformed by how you interact with them. If you have resolved to realize some goal or future this year, you might picture yourself some time in the future with this idea fully manifest and imagine what you are doing, how you are spending your time, and with whom you are interacting. To the extent that any of those images differ from now, they represent paths of transformation from here to there. When you exactly match the you of that future state (which may change along the way), that future will be exactly Now. From a Zen perspective, this is how leaders bring the future into the present. And while you’ll need many kinds of immersion experiences to make a better world, with every VUCA force on the rise, you’d be wise to go in disarmed to the teeth with a Zen practice.

About the author: Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is a leadership expert and Zen master in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the author of The Zen Leader, President of Focus Leadership, and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership.