11 Reasons Business Executives Must Reinvent Themselves as Fierce Leaders

Over the last few decades there has been an accelerating growth in self-centred, exploitative management and dehumanisation in the corporate workplace. Recently there has been a silent revolt against this unprecedented epidemic as evidenced by the astronomically high levels of corporate disengagement, particularly amongst the newer generations entering the workforce. How can leaders reinvent themselves and adopt a more humanistic management ethos to counter this epidemic? It requires nothing short of becoming a fierce leader: creating an embodied practice of management that includes qualities such as respect, empowering leaders to influence for better rather than worse and ultimately this will create a magnetic attractor for top talent who reject outright working in degrading environments.

What does it mean to be fierce as a leader?
We know it when we see it in action: when I stood on the Grand Parade in Cape Town as Nelson Mandela gave his presidential inauguration speech in 1994 my eyes filled with tears. He embodied fierce leadership in every fibre of his being; his presence and poise in the face of decades of dehumanising behavior was unforgettable. But we also know it when we see it in the mannerisms of a board member or the attitude of an executive running a team meeting: they are fully in the moment.

The four critical elements to being a fierce leader
Fierce leadership requires us to train our minds.  This training creates a formidable practice so that we can deal with modern day business and our susceptibility to the following situation: as a result of being constantly subjected to the 24 seven pressures of work and despite our best intentions, our resilience can break down even in noncritical situations and we can revert to bad-management-autopilot.

However, there are four critical elements to building a fierce leadership practice that help prevent this type of autopilot from kicking in. We do need to constantly tend to our practice by nurturing and supporting these elements.  We should see these elements as both aspirational and practical and use our best efforts to work on being stronger at each one individually as well as together.

1. Altruism and humanity –
Seeing beyond our current office and role and being aware that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and our organisations gives us a capacity for much deeper understanding. It also increases our capability to take a serving stance through which we treat others as human beings rather than exploiting them as objectified resources.

2. Lucid clarity –
Dealing with what is showing up in the moment, what is here now as opposed to what happened in the past (“this is the way we’ve always done things around here”) or what is projected to happen (“if we can close this deal we will sell our products and more parts of the world”).

3. Imaginative openness –
Considering all angles and holding diametrically opposed points of view in our heads as we work through the implications of the choices we make is crucial. This requires both a highly developed imagination and ensuring there is sufficient spaciousness in our minds within which to explore, over and above all the clutter of a busy daily executive life.

4. Core focus –
Determining what we want to focus our attention on and maintaining that focus despite a myriad things trying to take us off task.

The benefits of a fierce leadership practice
As our practice grows we find ourselves:
* influencing more often for better than worse in not only the big impactful decisions we make, but also every minute of every day;
* becoming more focused and this lucidity of thought gives us the opening to deal innovatively with situations based on our efforts to deeply understand what they mean for us and others and compassionately realising the consequences impact of our choices;
* shifting our stance to lead by inspiration rather than expectation;
* finding ourselves considering others in their positions with more openness and respect
* becoming aware very quickly when thoughts aren’t true to ourselves and having the ability to redirect before we react
* more often exuding qualities that engaged people look for such as kindness and humour, and being more highly communicative – as fierce leaders we do this despite these qualities not necessarily being reflected in our organisational KPIs;
* finding ourselves getting more stuff done because we are more confident, have increased emotional intelligence, are more collaborative and have a greater ability to influence others;
* rejecting the negative narrative we may form around not being on 24 seven and being able to control when we communicate to only those times when we can be more actionable, considered and effective – this in turn frees us up to be more present in our daily non-work related activities such as exercise and family time and also frees up our people from following the bad precedent we were setting by, for example, emailing them at 11h30pm and expecting an immediate response;
* more able to be resilient and pause in any situation, no matter high pressured, and check in with ourselves how we are feeling about that situation before reacting – are we subject to any biases, is our response going to have unintended consequences, are we being mindful of all the variables at play;
* and at times of uncertainty when it feels like taking any action would be like stepping off a cliff, we are able to comfortably take that first step because we are capable of listening to our inner wisdom and trusting more completely in the unfolding without needing to always control or force what will happen.

Individual fierce leadership can also rapidly activate a culture of being fierce across an organisation which creates a strong magnetic attractor for top talent.

In subsequent posts I will go into more detail on how to build a fierce leadership practice and realise its benefits.

How to Find Universal Truth through Emptiness

This is a spiritual contemplation on rebooting the ultimate universal program. Find a quiet space to read through it slowly, breathing deeply and slowly and let a feeling of deep peace come over you.

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The challenge many of us face is that we know too much to see the universal truth: the transcendent, fundamental and spiritual reality.

In order to be able to receive this reality we need to clear out our systems; we need to empty our minds. Using the analogy of a room, our windows have become murky with ego-induced fog and the dusty grime of past knowledge. To see the truth we need to open these windows and let the breeze empty out our memories, presumptions and thoughts; in modern technology terms we need to clear our cache and wipe our entire operating system before rebooting ourselves with the ultimate universal program. Only once truly clear can that same breeze gently carry the truth into us.

For many of us, our logic states that knowledge is truth: absolute knowledge is absolute truth. However, when we observe how we acquire knowledge we start to see the flaw in this logic: knowledge requires us to firstly observe something; secondly we need to understand what we are observing; and thirdly we commit that observation and understanding to memory and classify that as knowledge.

What we are then able to recall from our memories on any given topic is what constitutes our knowledge of that topic.

The challenge with this logic is that a memory by its very nature is from the past. Knowledge stored in memory is a recollection, it cannot be of the present. We start to see the fatal flaw in this logic when we realise that there can be no memory in the present, yet the truth cannot exist in the past. The truth exists only in the present; the truth flows and pulses continuously; the truth cannot be grasped and converted into knowledge.

Our minds are unable to comprehend this universal truth until we empty them of all structural layers; until we deconstruct the self-created constraints and societal barriers; until we cease our incessant striving to acquire more or to be something or not be something.

When our minds become empty, the silence creates the space for the universal truth to be revealed: the truth becomes comfortable within us when we are not trying to hold onto it and convert it into knowledge; by letting the truth be and allowing it to achieve equilibrium it becomes as comfortable within us as it is without. We become one with the universe.

To contemplate further on the delicate dance between emptiness and universal truth, I am sharing this beautiful piece by the Tibetan monk Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, as translated by Erik Pema Kunsang:

The Mirror of Essential Points
A Letter in Praise of Emptiness

I pay homage at the lotus feet of Tenpey Nyima,
Who is inseparable from lord Longchen Rabjam
And who perceives the natural state of emptiness
Of the ocean-like infinity of things.

A letter of advice I offer to you, my noble mother Paldzom.
Listen for a while without distraction.
Staying here without discomfort,
I am at ease and free from worries
In a state of joyful mind.
Are you well yourself, my mother?

Here, in a country in the west,
There are many red and white-skinned people.
They have all kinds of magic and sights,
Like flying through the skies
And moving like fish in the water.
Having mastery over the four elements
They compete in displaying miracles
With thousands of beautiful colors.
There are innumerable spectacles
Like designs of rainbow colors.
But like a mere dream when examined
They are but the mistaken perceptions of mind.

All activities are like the games children play.
If started, they can never be finished.
They are only completed once you let them be,
Like castles made of sand.

But that is not the whole story.
All the phenomena of samsara and nirvana,
Although thought to be permanent, do not last.
When examined, they are but empty forms
That appear without existence.
Although unreal they are thought to be real.
But, like an illusion when examined, they are found to be unreal.

Look outward at the perceived objects.
Like water in a mirage
They are more delusive than delusion.
Unreal, like a dream or a magical apparition,
They resemble a rainbow or the reflection of the moon.

Look inward at your own mind!
It seems quite exciting when not examined.
But when examined there is nothing to it.
Appearing without existing it is nothing but empty.
It cannot be identified, you cannot say, “that’s it,”
Because it is evanescent and elusive like mist.

Look at whatever appears
In any of the ten directions.
No matter how it manifests,
The thing in itself, its very nature,
Is the sky-like nature of the mind
Beyond the projection and the dissolution of thought and concept.

Everything has the nature of being empty.
When the empty looks at the empty,
Who is there to look at something empty?
As it is illusion looking at illusion
And delusion watching delusion,
What is the use of many classifications
Such as `empty’ and `not empty?’

Whatever you do is all right.
However you rest, you are at ease
In the effortless and sky-like nature of the mind,
The vast expanse of awareness,
The natural state of all things.
This was said by Jetsun Padmasambhava
And the great siddha Saraha.

All conceptual thought constructions
Such as duality or nonduality,
Leave them to be spontaneously dissolved in themselves
Like the waves on a river.

The great demon of ignorant and discursive thought
Causes one to sink into the ocean of samsara.
But when freed from this discursive thought
There is the indescribable state beyond conceptual mind.

Other than mere discursive thoughts
There are not even the words `samsara’ and `nirvana.’
The total subsiding of discursive thought
Is the suchness of dharmadhatu itself.

Not made complex by complex statements
This unfabricated single sphere
Is emptiness, the natural state of mind.
Thus it was said by the Sugata.

The essence of whatever may appear,
When simply left to itself,
Is the unfabricated and uncorrupted view,
The dharmakaya mother of emptiness.

All discursive thoughts are emptiness
And the observer of emptiness is discursive thought.
Emptiness does not destroy discursive thought
And discursive thought does not obstruct emptiness.
The mind nature of fourfold emptiness
Is the ultimate of everything.
Profound and quiescent, free from complexity,
An uncompounded, luminous clarity
Beyond the mind of concepts.
This is the depth of the mind of the victorious ones.

In this there is not an object to be removed
Nor something that needs to be added.
It is merely the natural
Looking naturally into itself.

In short, when the mind has fully severed
The fetters of clinging to something
All the points are condensed into one.
This is the tradition of the supreme being, Tilopa,
And of the great pandita Naropa.

Such a profound and natural state as this,
Among all the different kinds of bliss,
Is the one known as the wisdom of great bliss.
Among all kinds of delights
It is the king of supreme delight.
Among all the tantric sections of the secret mantra
It is the supreme fourth empowerment.
This is the ultimate pointing out instruction.

The view of samsara and nirvana as inseparable,
And that of mahamudra, dzogchen, the middle path and others,
Has many different titles,
But only one essential meaning.
This is the view of Jamgon Mipham.

As an aid to this king of views
One should begin with bodhicitta
And conclude with dedication.

Through skillful means, in order to cut off
The fixation of ego, the root of samsara,
The king of all great methods
Is unsurpassable bodhicitta.

The king of perfect dedication
Is the means of increasing the root of virtue.
This teaching is the specialty of Shakyamuni,
Which is not taught by other teachers.

More than this is not necessary
To accomplish complete enlightenment,
But less than this will be incomplete.
This swift path of the three excellencies
Called the `heart, eye and life force’
Is the approach of Longchen Rabjam.

Emptiness, the wishfulfilling jewel,
Is unattached generosity.
It is uncorrupted discipline.
It is angerless patience.
It is undeluded exertion.
It is undistracted meditation.
This emptiness, the essence of prajna,
Is the meaning of the three vehicles.

Emptiness is the natural state of mind.
It is the nonconceptual refuge
And the absolute bodhicitta.
It is the Vajrasattva who absolves evils.
It is the mandala of perfecting accumulations.
Emptiness is the guru yoga of dharmakaya.

To abide in the natural state of emptiness
Is the `calm abiding,’ shamatha.
To perceive it vividly clear
Is the `clear seeing,’ vipashyana.

The view of the perfect development stage,
And the wisdom of bliss and emptiness in the completion stage,
The nondual great perfection,
And the single sphere of dharmakaya
Are all included within emptiness.

Emptiness purifies the karmas
and dispels the obstructing forces.
Emptiness tames the demons
And accomplishes the deities.

The profound and natural state of emptiness
Dries up the ocean of passion.
It crumbles the mountain of anger
And illuminates the darkness of stupidity.
It calms down the gale of jealousy,
Defeats the illness of the kleshas
And is a friend in sorrow.
It destroys conceit in joy
And conquers in the battle with samsara.
It annihilates the four Maras,
Turns the eight worldly dharmas into same taste
And subdues the demon of ego-fixation.
It turns negative conditions into allies
And turns bad omens into good fortune.
It causes true and complete enlightenment
And gives birth to the buddhas of the three times.
Emptiness is the dharmakaya mother.

There is no teaching higher than emptiness.
There is no teaching swifter than emptiness.
There is no teaching more excellent than emptiness.
There is no teaching more profound than emptiness.

Emptiness is the `knowing of one that frees all.’
Emptiness is the supreme king of medicines.
Emptiness is the nectar of immortality.
Emptiness is spontaneous accomplishment beyond effort.
Emptiness is enlightenment without exertion.

By meditating on emptiness
One feels tremendous compassion
Towards the beings obscured by belief in a self
And bodhicitta arises without effort.

All the qualities of the path and levels
Will appear naturally without any effort,
And towards the law of the unfailing effect of karma
One will feel a heartfelt conviction.

If one has but one moment of certainty
In this kind of emptiness
The tight chains of ego-fixation
Will shatter into pieces.
This was said by Aryadeva.

It is more supreme to meditate on emptiness
Than to offer all the infinite buddhafields,
Filled with the wealth of gods and men,
To the sugatas and their spiritual sons.

If the merit of resting evenly,
Just for an instant in this natural state,
If it would take on concrete form
The element of space could not contain it.

Shakyamuni, the peerless lord of the Munis,
Threw his body into pyres of fire,
Gave away his head and limbs
And performed hundreds of other austerities
For the sake of this profound emptiness.

Although one fills the world with huge mounds
Of gold and jewels as offerings,
This profound teaching on emptiness,
Even when searched for, is hard to find.
This is said in the Hundred Thousand Verses of the Prajnaparamita.

To meet this supreme teaching
Is the splendid power of merit
Of many aeons beyond measure.

In short, by means of emptiness
One is, for the benefit of oneself,
Liberated into the expanse of the unborn dharmakaya,
The true and complete enlightenment
Of the four kayas and the five wisdoms.
Then the unobstructed display of rupakaya
Will ceaselessly manifest to teach whoever is in need,
Stirring the depth of samsara for the benefit of others
Through constant, all-pervading and spontaneous activity.
In all the sutras and tantras this is said
To be the ultimate fruition.

How can someone like me put into words
All the benefits and virtues of this,
When the Victorious One with his vajra tongue
Cannot completely elucidate them all, even if he speaks for an aeon?

The glorious lord, the supreme teacher,
Who gives the teachings on emptiness,
Appears in the form of a human being
Though his mind is truly a buddha.

Without deceit and hypocrisy
Supplicate him from your very heart.
Without needing any other method
You will attain enlightenment in this very life.
This is the manner of the all-embodying jewel
Which is taught in the tantras of the great perfection.
When you have this jewel in the palm of your hand
Do not let it go to waste meaninglessly.

Learning, like the stars in the sky,
Will never come to an end through studies.
What is the use of all the various kinds
Of teachings requested and received?
What is the use of any practice
Which is superior to that of emptiness?

Do not aim at many disciplinary costumes,
Such as carrying a staff, wearing braids and animal skin.
The elephant is already in your house,
Do not go searching for its footprints in the mountains.

Mother, meditate on the essence of mind
As it is taught by the master, the vajra holder.

This is the quintessence of the essence
Of all the eighty-four thousand teachings.
It is the heart substance of a billion
Learned and accomplished ones.
It is the ultimate practice.

This advice from the core of the heart
Of the fallen monk Jamyang Dorje
Is the purest of the purest essence
From the bindu of my life blood.
Therefore keep it in your heart, mother.

These few words of heart advice
Were written in a beautiful countryside,
In the palace of the spacious blue sky
That competes with the splendor of divine realms.

To the devoted Chokyi Nodzom,
My dear and loving mother,
And to all my devoted students
I offer this letter of advice.

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Transcendent Near-Death Experiences : Key Learnings for Leadership and Engagement

Imagine for a moment what it would be like working in an organisation that is under huge pressures to grow, to transform itself and to beat the competition; an organisation that is mandated to do more with less and to do more differently rather than following the status quo. For many of us this is a daily reality. We can palpably feel the sense of urgency these pressures create.

Every moment of every day such an organisation is very likely to be under real existential threat: existing competitors are trying to grab our customer base and startups are gunning to make us irrelevant with disruptive solutions. Now imagine that your leaders not only fear organisational irrelevancy and death, but also fear their own professional and actual death:  these leaders are caught between the need to change and charge ahead and the paralysing fear of not existing.

Two main questions arise from this all too common situation: firstly, how can such leaders lead well when they are stuck like deer in existential headlights worrying that they could drop dead at any moment; and secondly, how can a person survive and thrive when they are working in such a company for such fearful leaders; how can people be expected to find purpose and meaning in their work; how can they remain engaged when they are working within such an environment of existential fear?

The short answer to both questions is that they cannot and the workplace surveys reflect this: big time. There is a paucity of purposeful leadership: by purpose I mean a goal that is bigger than our company’s results or share price. There is also a massive breakdown in staff engagement within the corporate universe.

To tackle this problem leaders need to be able to overwrite their fears; alter their reality and reinvent themselves; they need to be happier with greater overall life satisfaction, more in tune with a higher purpose and completely devoid of their previous fear of death.

This is not a trivial problem to solve for and the two overarching questions that emerge are: how can we as business leaders find a solution to this paralysing and very real corporate pandemic; how can we help our executives to deal with their fear?

The answer lies in confronting that which we fear most: no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, we need to stare death in the face. On the face of it this may not seem possible: how can we truly confront death without dying ourselves? Surely that would defeat the purpose?

There is an elegant solution: exploring death through the eyes of people who have been there and come back, exploring death through people who have undergone a near-death experience. Why them? Many NDEers no longer fear death.

In a study published in 2004 on near-death experiences and their impact on the  temporal lobe, Brown University’s Willoughby Britton made a startling discovery: people who had transcendent encounters during life-threatening events scored exceptionally higher on tests of overall life satisfaction than people who hadn’t. She referenced thirty years of research to show that while most people were negatively impacted and traumatised by their near-death experience, a subset who had experienced some form of transcendence had an atypical response: they exhibited off the charts happiness and life satisfaction, including feeling that their lives had meaning and a higher purpose.  By transcendence I refer to some experience that has the quality of being beyond the normal constraints we feel: linear time collapses; the well-defined sense of self dissolves; there is unity between the internal and external senses; there is reconnection back into a larger, collective otherness than the present life experience. Not all NDEers experience this transcendence, but a great many have.

Further research has demonstrated that this is not a one-off feeling that dissipates in the short to mid term. People who have undergone a transcendent NDE have had their brains permanently rewired so that they do not fear death. As long as a decade after such an NDE, those who have experienced it feel the same level of happiness, reverence and lack of existential fear.

Three years after my own transcendent NDE I can personally attest to this: yes, it took me a while to deal with the shock of my sudden cardiac death, there were moments of emotional turmoil along the way; yes, it took me a while to recuperate from my illness as only another major operation 10 months laterremoved the arrhythmia that had caused my cardiac arrest; but yes, I have absolutely overwritten and have no fear of dying whatsoever; and resoundingly yes, I have completely reinvented my life and have off the charts life satisfaction as I pursue a far greater purpose than my own selfish success or that of one organisation.

It would be impractical for organisations to only use transcendent NDE survivors as their leaders, but I would encourage dialogue with people like myself who are open to sharing our experiences and key learnings; people who are focused on improving leadership skills and helping executives to reinvent themselves with many of the traits that transcendent NDEers exhibit such as deeper compassion and wisdom.

There is also greater understanding of how to create an on tap emulation of the effects of a transcendent NDE and I encourage you to follow this growing activity more closely.  It is an area we are exploring at EXOscalr. There will be a lot to gain from having first mover advantage in being able to recreate altered states of consciousness.