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.