Presence and Personal Efficacy


Reflections on Buddhist psychology with implications for Leadership Practice

The presence I have in mind is temporal (now), spatial (here), and it is nongrasping. It is the purest, simplest way of being. It is without purposive striving and judgment. It is first and foremost a silent witness to experience. And insofar as it is as I describe, it is neither practical nor theoretical, neither, conceptual nor technical. So, if you are a manager or leader why would you even care about it?   

The efficacy I have in mind is indeed practical, and it’s consequential. It is charged with emotional energy that fuels purposive strivings. Its temporal orientation leans into the future, and its spatial orientation charts a trajectory from here to an intended there-place-and-state. In many ways, then, presence and efficacy are diametrically opposed, perhaps most obviously in efficacy’s grasping.

But what is meant by qualifying the notion of efficacy with the term “personal”? Is presence not also personal? And what does it mean to couple these terms, presence and efficacy, in this title? Perhaps answering these questions is sufficient as means to making my purpose clear, for my intentions are ultimately practical and concern the coupling of two virtues.

The Two Virtues

Presence as I’ve described it is most distinctive in what it is not. There is virtue in this. For when I am abuzz with thoughts, desires, and anxious attachments to all that I fear losing, I experience a fullness, but it’s not a fullness of being. It’s a fullness that possesses me and impels me to want, to act and react, often without understanding why. There is no virtue in a life controlled by blind appetitive drives.

The art of cultivating presence is an instrumental virtue. It is the enlightenment of seeing, feeling, and knowing what is here now that is the larger virtue, indeed an end in itself, for “minded” creatures like us. It’s through enlightenment that we free ourselves from unconscious drives, a virtue evidenced both in the joy we derive from understanding and the practical capacity it yields for “right action.”

Only from a mindful state of presence does the world reveal itself to us in its ultimate nature. As these revelations emerge, we’re able to discern right and wrong ways of being in the world, ways that lead to health and vitality, ways that relieve suffering and advance us toward realization of virtue.   

Efficacy in its virtuous form is skilled doing, and it relies upon cultivated habits whose value are seen in what they accomplish. It is personal because as persons, especially as minded beings able to reflect upon the life we live and freely choose the actions we take, it is our chain of acts that define us, that constitute our identity. If presence is skilled seeing, then efficacy is skilled doing.

In the Buddha’s teachings, this is the law of Karma. It states that all our actions have consequences. It therefore concludes that “we are the heirs of our actions.”[i] Efficacy is virtuous, then, when it guides our choices and actions such as to produce desired outcomes with excellence: That includes timeliness, efficiency, and sound prudential judgment, but also truthfulness, fairness, and compassion. 

The virtues of presence and efficacy are coupled in this way: Karmic law recognizes that we are mortal beings who grow, learn, thrive, and pass away through taking actions and making choices. As leaders the consequences of our fiduciary roles affect many others, including future generations. Thus, our efficacy could not be a more personal matter. Nor could it be more virtuous than by cultivating presence.

[i] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2002). New York: Harper-Collins.