Buddhist Psychology for Leaders

Lesson One: Stuff Happens (dukkha)

You need not trouble yourself with the Sanskrit or Pāli word, which is commonly translated as suffering. Buddhist psychology begins with the observation that life involves suffering. The human condition is one in which we experience pain, suffering, and impermanence (the first of the Four Noble Truths). But “So what?” you may ask. This is where it gets deceptively simple, interesting, and practical for leaders. 

The second of the Truths posits that when we’re able to let go of our cravings – our fierce attachments (emotional, cognitive, and volitional) – we are able to effect an end to our suffering. In the vernacular of my title, stuff happens. Because it's sometimes “bad” stuff, which prevents us from getting what we want, our immediate reaction is to feel displeased and resist accepting this state of affairs.

Attachment to our goal-directed strivings can be so intense that it energizes resistance at the expense of seeing what the impediment is about. But let’s slow down a bit and break this whole thing down a bit.

Our Needs for Control

Our needs for control and our unease when we lose control are understandable, normal, and natural, and even more so in the West where we prize autonomy and action. Me too, and I relish our regard for free agency. But the intensity of our need for control can actually cause us to lose control. That’s the crux of this lesson in Buddhist psychology. Let me explain.

As agents of productive action (compensated by employers or clients), and as leaders of such agents, we feel accountable for results. We can identify deeply (attachment) with our capacity to generate results. And what Buddhist psychology suggests is a small but important “tweak” in our work ethic. It suggests that our virtue as agents and leaders of agents is most manifest in our response when stuff happens.

Do we resist or deny what we're experiencing and pursue a path of ceaseless striving when our actions are repeatedly frustrated and meet with failure? Or do we treat this failure as a wake-up call, a prompt to reconsider the situation and our action strategies?

Two Kinds of Impediment

We learn, grow, and develop by facing challenges and taking on new or different roles in life. (For more on that see my article Leader Identity Development.) But some issues simply require incremental technical changes in execution (technical problems), while others require more than minor technical adjustments. They are adaptive challenges and require sustained experimentation and learning over time.[1]

It is with the latter impediment – adaptive challenges - that letting go, ending our craving and ceaseless striving, is most important. We can become more attuned to the felt presence of our resistance by adopting practices in mindfulness that position us to notice this emotional energy earlier. That, in turn, can become a cue for letting-go techniques that prompt a reflective pause.[2] 

A Practical Tip – “Third Time's a Charm”

Discriminating technical problems from adaptive challenges will help you minimize fruitless, repetitive trials of conventional practices. Here’s how it works:

  1. Notice and discuss the persisting issue and your growing frustration, “It’s just not working.”
  2. Consider the situation, and make technical adjustments using available knowledge and means.
  3. If it does not work, try a second effort at technical adjustments based on feedback from the first.
  4. If neither works, and if the goal/objective is important enough, invoke a reflective pause.

During the reflective pause: 1) consider who the key stakeholders and key contributors are; 2) assess the urgency and importance of resolution; 3) agree with key stakeholders that something new, different, innovative is needed; 4) convene a working meeting to brainstorm solutions strategies and next-step actions; 5) generate a fresh set of data driven facts and information to inform deliberations and test assumptions; and 6) agree on a course of action that includes active experimentation and learning from feedback.


Practical wisdom emerges in the reflective pause. Doing it as a set of stakeholders with a shared or overlapping set of accountabilities is most powerful and empowering. Tamping down the false urgency that arises from anxiety is important for all, and it’s a vital role for leaders. Notice the need to pause within the work session to take stock, build consensus, and muster the practical energy to try a strategy you believe in. Be ready to learn from what you see rather than from you wish to see.

[1] For more on this see Ronald Heifetz’s Adaptive Leadership (2009), Harvard Business Review Press.

[2] See more about how this “reflective pause” functions in Leader Identity Development, an article in which I use a graphical illustration to describe adaptive development.

Coaching After Hours

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Not getting the developmental support you want? You’re not alone. That’s why many early-career professionals – and executives – are pursuing developmental coaching independently and after hours. They’re investing in their careers, and they’re doing it virtually.

For more join our video-conference on Tues., Feb. 27th at 2PM ET

During Business Hours

What you do during business hours, whether you’re in sales, operations, finance, or IT, involves tasks and actions directly linked to your role and objectives. The focus is on doing stuff for others, acting for purposes beyond yourself – it’s why you get paid.

If you’re highly productive and make few demands upon management, you’ll be appreciated as “low maintenance.” If you work cooperatively with others and go above and beyond to ensure success of a group effort, you may be prized, labeled as a “high potential” candidate for advancement.

In most organizations, distinguishing yourself in these ways earns you privileges: mentoring from the boss; recognition and bonuses; and opportunities for promotion and development. Companies are more inclined to invest development dollars in this select few, few of whom are early career people.

Are you among the distinguished few? If not, do you know why? Do you know what you need to do to become a member of this group? Do you feel disadvantaged? What do you tell yourself about not being a member of this group? And what if there were a way to change things for the better?

That’s precisely what coaching after hours is intended to help you do. But it’s often not funded by your employer. Rather, it’s an investment you make in yourself. You thereby privilege yourself and increase the likelihood of distinguishing yourself during business hours.

The Upside of This Approach

Most will face some version of this situation early in their career: They observe that some easily and naturally get noticed, thrive, and advance. They puzzle over how to better their own situation. And they may end up feeling frustrated, “dissed,” marginalized. But then what?

You might take this as a wake-up call and call to action. Perhaps beginning from this starting point can be an advantage. Why? Because it causes us to learn more earlier about controlling our own destiny in life and that we need not do it alone, nor need we depend on our employer to do it for us.  

Some of what we’ll need to learn is technical, but much of it is not. The nontechnical learning concerns how we cultivate relationships, interact with others, and hone skills for getting work done by leveraging the resources around us. These adaptive skills that will serve us well in future challenges. 

So, we only harm ourselves if, upon seeing others getting “unfair” advantage, we become discouraged, resentful, jealous, or cynical. Remember: We are supremely adaptive creatures, and most careers are built upon determined effort as much or more than upon raw aptitude or talent.

Getting Help

The best help for those who are motivate comes in the form of a stimulating coaching relationship. It pairs a developing professional with a highly skilled coach, one who is trained in psychologically-based growth and development. Career growth is personal, it’s identity development and adaptive learning.

Learning and growth of this kind requires disarming our defenses. We must set aside social comparisons, quiet self-defeating thought, and voice our questions, fears, and feelings of inadequacy without fear of judgment. This open, honest self-examination readies us for growth.

We then proceed with in an attitude of practical and reflective curiosity. Practical means “pertaining to practice” (i.e., doing, deciding, taking effective action), and curiosity opens our mind.

Trust and emotional safety are necessary. The coach must help his/her client see what they may not usually notice because it resides out of view, in a blind spot. The coach must be a mirror and reveal patterns of thought, behavior, interest, and striving that help and hinder situation-specific adaptive action. When we feel trust and respect, we can also hear constructive challenge (“tough love”).

Yes, it’s a combination of supportive-encouraging presence (not unlike that which we hope to receive from a caring parent or mentor) and a bit of tough love that is required to promote growth. We will seldom get all of this from a spouse, partner, supervisor, or mentor. A psychologist or someone with equivalent training and skills is the best option in my opinion.

Making Help Accessible

Virtual coaching overcomes geographic constraints and eliminates travel costs. Whether you’re in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas, you can work with a world-class coach. The quality of a videoconference connection enables us to closely approximate the feeling of being in the same room.

Being able to meet after hours – just as you may go to the gym after hours to maintain your physical self – allows you to escape the rush of an office environment. It prompts us to experience our interaction as a part of our life as a whole. We’re free to consider how challenges at work and goals for career affect and are affected by our commitments at home and our longer-term personal goals.

Finally, virtual coaching reduces costs for the coach. Travel time and expense are eliminated. This makes it possible to price coaching more reasonably, making it feasible for anyone. The developing professional need not depend on his or her employer to sponsor the coaching. Still, if the employer wants to fund the work, and if the client wishes to involve their manager, that too is possible.

 (To Learn more join a brief videoconference, Tues., Feb. 27, 2PM ET.)

On Being an "Imperfect" Buddhist

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I am part of a yearlong interdisciplinary learning group whose focus is on Buddhist psychology and mindfulness meditation practices. We are about half-way through. We meet weekly, most often with esteemed faculty, for discussion of the Dharma and mindfulness practice. In a recent meeting, there was an episode of conflict that became a learning moment. I share reflections on it here. 

We discover our differences as we become more intimate in our purpose, aims, and aspirations – it’s what we call “storming” in the Tuckman Model. It’s due to that general relevance that I share this experience in hopes that it may be instructive to others. [1]

The Experience Upon Reflection

The other day, I expressed my preference for using the term “client” rather than “patient” in reference to the persons I serve in my consulting and clinical practice. My preference was and is something I am rather attached to insofar as it signifies for me important normative qualities that I try to achieve in my relationship with those I serve.

By expressing my opinion, I excited in others their own attachments to their preferred term, “patient.” A conflictive tension arose as we marked our positions and defended our use of our preferred language. I was left, as others may also have been, feeling hurt, angry, and separated. These are the emotions that function as hindrances to the pursuit of wisdom.

If we had noticed this attachment and tension as signifying heartfelt concerns that merit attention, we might have proceeded in curiosity rather than reacting in judgment. The emotions we felt are not without meaning; they are a call to action, reflective action: “Tell me more about what that term means to you and why it is feels so consequential?”

The emotions themselves, therefore, are not inherently bad. Their virtue consists in calling out to us that something of felt importance is at stake. When we hear this call in this way and change our relationship to the conversation, making thematic the emotions that energize us, our emotions become data, judgment is suspended. Curiosity, listening, and joint inquiry becomes possible.

So far, this could be a phenomenological approach to interpersonal tension or conflict. That’s Western. It’s reliant upon attentional focus to the here-and-now events and experiences in the phenomenal field, a field in which what lies in the foreground and background, and what is most salient or figural (e.g. an emotional spike) is constantly shifting.

What the Buddhist approach adds to this is an embodied state of attentional grounding (pause, breathe, notice) that more concretely punctuates a change in relationship to the field: “Let’s pause, I observe a distinctive change in tone, energy, and feeling in our conversation. Let’s return to the breath.” And then we can resume conversation in a more mindful state.

In some respects, we might call this the group dynamics of sangha. It adds something important to our Western traditions, especially important when seeking to rescue ourselves from the hindrance of contentious emotion. It can help us see the silver lining in our aggressive-defensive emotions, how they can serve as a wake-up call, how they can be transformed into data. 

There is respect, compassion, curiosity, and learning that arises from this. We’re then free to examine moral and normative themes that are dear to us and that motivate us consciously and unconsciously. We can respect the essential virtues of normativity without having it devolve into moralism or moralistic judgment of one another. Mindfulness in this way is an act of care.                                                                          

[1] I am aware of the irony of mentioning perfection in the context of the human condition as conceived in Buddhism. 

Moods, Attitudes, & Skillful Action

A brief reminder of our freedom and how to recover it when we don’t feel so free. I include a 2-minute video that you may find inspiring.


Moods befall us. We awaken some days and feel rested and upbeat. On other days, we are awakened by preoccupations that have busied our minds during sleep and leave us anxious or downcast. These states are not chosen. Indeed, they may even feel imposed, an immovable burden we must suffer.

But our moods are states. They may linger and lift our spirits, or they may oppress and elicit a retreat even as the day is just dawning. These states affect and are affected by attitude. Attitudes are a more stable, conditioning aspect of mind. They can be invoked simply by calling into question and noticing the impermanence of our present mood, affect, and attitude. We then notice that mind both suffers and authors its experience.

Attitudinal shifts, prompted by awareness of impermanence, arise in acts of reflection, which are attentional acts of mind. We need not even predetermine where our attention will go. We need only raise a question about our current thoughts, feelings, and attitude. Any grasping (stubborn attachments) or hindrances (feelings of fear, desperation, or escapist wishes) will loosen their grip. A non-judging state of equanimity emerges.

If we don’t easily achieve this shift as a learned skill – for the grip can be strong – we might (as the Buddha suggested) enlist the help of our body and breath. Mind does little without the vitalizing impetus of breath. For each mood there is a mode of breath - rapid and shallow for anxiety, slower and deeper when calm. So, if we focus on our breath in an upright posture that opens our chest, and slows and deepens our breathing, our mind can be emptied of preoccupations, untethered from worries.

We were “engineered” to perform this kind of mind-altering act. It is a practice in which we can become skillful. In its barest form it’s simply mindful breathing. Knowing this, you may, even without cultivating a formal meditation practice, start your day with a few moments of mind-shifting breath. Rediscover your mind and body in their barest form. Then start afresh. Doing this once or twice during the day can help too.

But I promised a brief video, didn't I? Watch it and listen. And as you listen, consider what truth it reveals for you: "How is this relevant for me?" Notice how it makes a question of your personal practices, how your practices help or hinder you, how they are skillful or unskillful (increase or decrease your suffering): What is Your Practice? 

Virtual Coaching - It's Your Choice!

Dear Early-Career Professional


It's great if your company has lavished you with mentoring, coaching, and leadership development. But if they do, you are in the minority. It's a minority of companies that invest heavily in early-career development (outside of technical skills training). And those who do spend on this segment of the workforce often do it selectively.

Selectively? Yes, that usually means there is some "strategy" for identifying and spending on those who are seen to be "high potential". Why the quotation marks? Because the strategy is usually not data driven or systematic, and the identification of potential is often influenced as much by bias[1] as by an objective appraisal of talent.

I don’t mean to malign management or HR. Frankly, in most organizations there simply are not the budgets, resources, and procedures to approach talent management in a better way. So, management and HR do the best they can while facing the headwinds of a long to-do list and critical near-term business imperatives.

Your Choices

You could become cynical: “This is unfair. I’m getting the short end of the stick! How can I ever get ahead? It’s all stacked against me.” But that’s not only cynical, it’s false. That’s giving up.

You could start looking for another job: “I’m going to find a place that appreciates me and will invest in my development. There’s got to be a better place to work than this!” Perhaps there is a better job or employer out there for you, but you’re still putting all your eggs in their basket.

A better option: “I’ll get my own coach, an expert whose only allegiance is to me. This coach will be a resource I can use even if I do change jobs. In fact, perhaps this independent coaching will better guide my decisions about career and changes. Perhaps I’ll be able to present my candidacy and evaluate new opportunities more thoughtfully with my longer-term goals in mind.” 

There’s a big bold world out there, and it’s different than the world your parents grew up in. You’ll need to more proactively manage your career. You cannot rely on most employers to provide support for your longer-term development. You’ll need to take care of most of these needs yourself.  

The good news: Becoming more proactive and taking more control over your own career development will get you noticed. It will allow you to overcome the inherent biases and systemic inadequacies that get in the way of early-career professionals. So, don’t resent your current state, acknowledge it and change it.

So Take Action

Whether you go to my firm for virtual coaching or another resource, I would encourage you to explore this option. It won’t cost you as much as you might think, and it will be one of the best investments you ever make in yourself, your long-term career, your life!

[1] False positives and false negatives abound. The first involves concluding on inadequate information that a person has great promise, when they may not – it also involves overlooking gaps (so-called “halo effect”). False negatives are even more problematic, because they involve judgments that rule people out based on inadequate information when the person/s may very well have significant potential which is simply not noticed. This can occur with greater frequency among those who are different (race, gender, nationality, culture, age, etc.).