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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Michael Carroll: Mindful Leadership
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge.. Today my guest is Michael Carroll. Michael Carroll is the COO of Global Coaching Alliance, and a former executive with Simon & Schuster and Disney. He’s consulted with many large companies including Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, and Google.
Michael began practicing meditation in 1976 and is an authorized teacher in the Kagyu Nyingma and Shambhala lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. He has also lectured all over the world on the topic of bringing mindful awareness into the workplace. He’s authored several books including Awake at Work, The Mindful Leader, and Fearless at Work. With Sounds True, Michael Carroll has published a new audio series called Mindful Leadership Training.
Today Michael and I spoke about the relationship between sitting meditation and being able to be unbiased, courageous, and confident at work. We talked about inspiring the best in others through our openness, which Michael describes as a type of complete generosity. We also talked about creating fearless cultures at work, and what this requires both of a leader and of an organization. Finally, Michael shared with us a description of a classic mindful leader and the qualities that this person embodies. Here’s my conversation on mindful leadership with Michael Carroll:
In the last few years, Michael, we’re hearing more and more about mindfulness at work. I’m happy to talk to you, one of the pioneers, you could say, in this movement to bring mindfulness meditation to the workplace. You wrote Awake at Work approximately 15 years ago, and I’m curious to know what you think of this current surge of interest in bringing mindfulness meditation to the workplace. The good, the bad, the ugly—as you see it.
Michael Carroll: Well, I think the first thing is I have to pinch myself often at the development. Back when I was on Wall Street as a meditator in the 80s, you would never mention this to anyone because it was woo-woo. “Do you have crystals too, to your head?” That kind of stuff. It has really developed now into—I think—a very serious kind of understanding that one of the main—if not the main—resources that we bring to our livelihood, our careers, our work, is our hearts and our minds, and that it is not something to be taken for granted. It’s a wonderful conversation. I’m actually going to a mindful leadership summit in Delhi, India in a few months. So, it’s actually going global. I was in Korea about the topic as well, [and] Sao Paolo. I’m very enthused about it.
I think the two sides of the coin—one is clearly there’s very authentic and genuine interest in training the mind with mindfulness awareness meditation for a variety of benefits including heightened social intelligence and emotional intelligence, the ability to listen more effectively, and develop an agility, as well as a whole range of leadership talents, which is what our product that we did together is about.
I think the warning that I often bring to the conversation is that we have a tendency in the West to misunderstand the practice, which is genuine—no blame there at all. Often people want to do mindfulness awareness meditation to [become] what I call a better version of themselves. Someone is a better leader, more successful, more effective, a better listener, more compassionate—which I think is all well-intentioned, but it actually misses the mark as to what the practice is about.
TS: So, say more about that Michael, because I think most people would say, “Wait, aren’t you contradicting yourself? I thought you said I was going to become a better listener and more emotionally intelligent, et cetera.”
MC: Yes. It’s kind of like a koan—a Zen koan, in a sense—in that the practice is not about becoming a better version of who we are; it’s actually becoming familiar with who we are already. That is a subtle element of difference. It’s a subtle difference in effort. If we’re trying to become a better version of ourselves, we’re overlooking the natural talents that we’re already expressing. Mindful leadership is about becoming familiar with our natural leadership talents, not about developing some new version of who we are. It’s about unleashing rather than developing something new.
That’s why the practice is tricky. In many respects, when you do mindfulness awareness meditation, all you’re really doing is just sitting there. But, in order to sit there, it takes a tremendous amount of courage and genuineness as a human being.
That’s kind of my answer. The good news is that there’s a very vibrant conversation in organizational settings about why we want to train our minds this way. It’s exciting; I pinch myself every day that so many organizations are interested in it, and I’m happy that that’s the case. The area where I do have some concerns is misunderstanding the practice as a way to become more efficient, so to speak, rather than becoming familiar with who we are.
TS: I think this is a really important point, and one of the unique features about how you go about bringing mindfulness to the workplace and teaching people about the practice of mindful awareness. This idea that we’re coming into touch with who we already are. I can imagine a lot of people would have the response, “Look, who I already am is someone who is deficient in this way, slovenly in this way, not such a great human being in all these ways. I don’t want to just become in touch with who I am; I want to be better. I want to be better. That’s why I’m meditating.” But that’s not your approach. So, help me understand that.
MC: I think the ambition to want to become better at something is beautiful. So, you take a young woman who goes to university and works really, really hard, graduates, becomes a physician with an MD, and is able to help others. That’s beautiful. She wanted to better herself, and she did. There’s no question about that effort; that effort is a beautiful thing. All I’m saying is mindfulness is about a different form of effort. It’s not the effort of trying to achieve something or accomplish something. It’s the effort of being able to relax into who we are, and in the process of doing that, discovering that we’ve overlooked something.
We’ve actually sped past our lives rather than actually living them. We’ve actually tried to become someone else rather than actually recognizing who we are. And [with] this ability to recognize and acknowledge and become familiar with who we are, we actually can discover a form of confidence and ease and presence that by definition begins to express a whole set of talents that frankly we permitted to grow a little flabby—the sense of openness to one another. There’s many of them. I’m not going to go through them all there, but the ability to just even be self-aware—many of us—I can speak for myself—most of my life, I actually thought that who I was was my thoughts. [Laughs.] It was only after many years of meditation that I realized I’m not the voice inside my head. Those are just thoughts. Even just making that distinction, just becoming familiar with that fact of life, has enormous impact on how we conduct ourselves in life and in organizational settings.
TS: Talk more about how the discoveries that happen in meditation on the cushion translate, in your experience, to the workplace. How does that translation happen?
MC: This is almost, I’d say, the magic, frankly, which I think is beautiful. There are many elements to it, but I’ll bring more attention to one, which I think is really vital. For those listening here who are familiar with mindfulness and awareness meditation, there are very subtle contemplative moves you make and then practice, one of which is escorting your attention from a thought to an object. It’s very boring; you do it over and over probably several million times in your life if you do this your entire life. It’s just escorting your attention from thinking to breath or an object.
This escorting of the attention back from the thought to an object on the surface is very boring. You do it for long periods of time. However, when you get up off the cushion and you live your life—be it at a work setting or just ordinary life, so to speak—you begin to notice that you increasingly are not trapped by fixed mindsets [and] that you have an agility of perspective.
So, if you’re a CFO and there’s a tendency to see things as a number—which is beautiful, frankly, but if you can’t distinguish [and] you can’t let go of that mindset and move to another mindset—like a customer, take the view of a customer, take the view of a salesperson. This ability to move among mindsets—this agility of resonance; resonating with other people; being able to see their views—is a natural outcome of the practice because you have developed this ability not to be frozen by your own opinions, your own views, your own priorities. You can squint and look and be unconditionally unbiased—you can de-bias your curiosity. That de-biased curiosity is very, very powerful when it’s permitted to have its own momentum, so to speak.
TS: It’s interesting, because one of the traditional qualities of a good leader would be something like decisiveness. I’m curious: this de-biasing ourselves and decisiveness—how [do] you see them paradoxically being able to coexist successfully in a mindful leader?
MC: That’s a good point. It’s a very good question. The mindful leader can move with the same level of urgency as any leader, and any human being, because this is about being human. Having a sense of urgency and decisiveness and clarity of purpose, even ambition, is not a problem. In fact, from a certain point [of view], it’s a beautiful part of who we are as human beings.
The difference is that a mindful leader also is astutely aware of the space around all of that. When we make a decision, it’s not trapped necessarily by a preconceived notion—you actually can see what’s around it, the conditions around it. This sense of spaciousness, it’s like a logical spaciousness. It’s less likely that we’re going to miss important bits of information, insights, as we make our decision.
Too often we’re blinded in our decisiveness. We’re blinded by our priorities. We’re blinded by the goals we’re seeking to achieve. Whereas a mindful leader can have a goal, but not be blinded by it, and therefore make a decision that is taking into account a much richer social setting, business setting, a much richer set of insights in making decisions.
TS: OK. So the sitting practice of meditation trains us in this de-biasing and being more attentive to the space that’s around us. You also talk about how qualities such as courage and confidence become manifest in someone’s life from the practice of sitting meditation. So, talk a little bit about that. How does a leader, or anyone, become more courageous and confident as a result of sitting meditation?
MC: Well, confidence and courageousness obviously have overlap. In the practice, they are distinctive qualities of the mind. I cover each one a little differently.
The courage—what happens with the courage issue is when you—again, we go back to the discipline of letting go of the thought. If you do this consistently for a long time, you’ll notice that when you let go of a thought, there is a gap there. The gap has a kind of a quivery quality to it, or an uneasiness, maybe. But essentially, what we’re doing when we let go there is we’re letting go of “me”—I’ll put “me” in big quotation marks. We’re letting go of keeping track of my agenda, my life, my priorities, what’s going to happen to me next, am I going to be OK—this internal storyline of trying to get purchase on our experience in order to give ourselves some little assurance about our experiences. For a moment, we’ve dropped that agenda.
Doing that—that’s why the practice is very challenging, because psychologically, that’s a very brave thing to do. It’s almost the essence of bravery—that you wouldn’t put yourself first. This ability to drop the “me” and attend to my world, bring my attention out here, is a fundamentally brave act—courageous act—because I’m not putting myself first.
So, this fundamental courage off the cushion in our everyday life begins to blossom in this ability to not put myself first, not put my—I’m not always trying to get what I need first; I’m actually becoming increasingly—which is very narrow, right? It really narrows possibilities, because there are so many other possibilities besides me. But, it takes courage to drop “me,” so to speak. That’s part of what happens in the practice—we increasingly develop this courage of not putting “me” first.
When it comes to confidence, the confidence is actually deeper than the courage. The confidence is this fundamental discovery that the experience that we’re having is fundamentally confident with or without our permission.
Now, what do I mean by that? For any of us—the audience listening now and you and me, Tami—if we just take a moment to notice, ninety-nine and nine-tenths’ percent of who we are now, sitting wherever we are, is fine. Our eyebrows aren’t arguing with [themselves], our earlobes are earlobes, our feet are our feet, our shoulders are shoulders, our hair isn’t arguing with itself. In fact, if we just scan our experience, there’s a fundamental confidence to our presence that isn’t arguing with itself.
The part that is arguing with itself is very tricky. It’s actually a thought. The confidence of the mindful leader is getting in touch with this very primordial confidence—[it’s] unconditional. It’s a confidence that has to do with presence. It has an ease to it. [It’s] very somatic—what I refer to as “synchronized.”
So, this confidence may become increasingly familiar, which is natural, by the way—you don’t have to make this up, it’s just our natural state of mind. It’s a relief. “Oh, you mean all I’m doing is sitting here?” Yes, that’s all you’re doing. That’s all you’ve ever been doing. That sense of relief and ease begins to really create a sense of poise for a mindful leader. That’s a natural outcome of the practice.
TS: You use this interesting word: “synchronized.” Synchronized with what? What’s synchronized with what?
MC: Right. I should say that that phrase came from my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. What Rinpoche was trying to describe was: for many of us, when we sit meditation, it seems to be an unruly project. Our mind’s all over the place, our emotions are really intense or meandering, our body is not comfortable, we’re in a room that might be unfamiliar, and the whole thing seems like a project that just is not coordinated. That, in many ways characterizes our life; we’re trying to make our life behave itself. We have this mind that’s all over the place, we have a body that won’t behave itself—it gets athlete’s foot—cars won’t start, kids won’t obey us, and it’s like—oh my gosh. It’s just this whole project, we’re trying to get it to behave itself.
But what happens on the cushion at some point is we notice that our emotions, our body, our thoughts, this phenomenal world that we’re in [are] not an uncoordinated set of circumstances. It is actually a synchronized, undifferentiated fabric of presence. There’s only one thing happening. We discover that we’re synchronized by nature. That sense of synchronized presence is the ground of mindful leadership. That [word] “synchronized” comes from my teacher, but I think it’s an apt description of the awareness that comes out of meditation.
TS: Let’s talk about that for a moment, though—especially in the context of the workplace. There’s all these things that have to get done, and I don’t feel synchronized with my environment. My natural feeling at the moment is to lie down and take a nap, but I’m on a deadline. So instead of dropping into the synchrony of the space and lying down, I go against this natural somatic call to be synchronized with the moment. I go have a cup of coffee, and I cut it out. Isn’t that the workplace?
MC: [Laughs.] I like, “cut it out.” The issue isn’t like we’re trying to reach some perfected state of like, “I’m continually synchronized in work, and the non-synchronized experience I reject.” That’s not what we’re saying. Noticing that you’re not synchronized is actually quite interesting. That’s fine. Sometimes you’re in situations where it’s like, “Oh my God.” As I was saying to you earlier, a tree fell on my house. [Laughs.] Synchronizing with that is really quite—everything’s turned upside down! It’s intense.
But noticing that we’re maybe not as synchronized with our circumstances at the time is also part of the practice. And often what happens with practitioners is when they do that, you take a breath. Just take a moment. Notice the melody of circumstance, the practice comes forward, and you hear, and then you engage. These simple moves of “stop”—“Be, See, Do” is the one that I use. “Be”—stop, be—see the situation, and then do. Be, See, Do.
These little moves to re-orient ourselves, to re-synchronize, to notice that we are in fact synchronized naturally is how we conduct ourselves as mindful leaders. It’s not like a permanent state of synchronizing. If you do find yourself permanently synchronized, if you would call me, I would very much appreciate it. I would like to take notes about your experience!
TS: Michael, we’re talking about applying the discoveries and about how naturally sitting meditation spills into, if you will, the qualities of mindful leadership. I’m curious: how much sitting meditation is required? I’ll tell you why I’m bringing this question up, because I think a lot of times in the contemporary environment, when people are being introduced to mindfulness and mindfulness at work, it’s like, “OK, here’s your new app. You can do this for five minutes a day and bring mindfulness into the workplace,” and have the discoveries potentially that you’re describing here. I wonder if you think that’s possible. I mean, I’m familiar enough with your training, I think, as a Tibetan Buddhist meditator, to know that you’ve probably spent long hours on the cushion in your life.
MC: I have. There’s an article I read [the other day], I forget where it was—the New York Times—about the fact that some researchers had finally been able to conduct a rigorous social study of mindfulness, or an experimental study of mindfulness using proper control groups, which is very difficult to do apparently. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve read enough about it that much of the mindfulness research, while encouraging and insightful, does not adhere to the most rigorous of standards for scientific studies.
This particular scientist had been able to create control groups and blind studies, and finally had come [up] with some results, and they were very excited about the fact that they were able to master these scientific techniques for study. He was going through it in control groups and blind studies, and at the very end, this scientist said, “Now the challenge is dosage.” [Laughs.] Which he was meaning: how little amount of meditation do you need to do in order to get the results?
I can pretty much guarantee that that approach to mindfulness will probably cause further confusion than anything illuminating or wakeful. Trying to get a return on the investment of the practice is a further expression of the very strategizing that has created some of the mess we’re trying to clean up.
But with that said, just putting that aside, the issue of engaging the practice is very human, and it’s very intimate., and it’s very personal. There is no formula. If you do the practice, you will notice that you’re going to need to make friends with yourself. That is not something that—making friends with oneself or anyone, for that matter—is not something that we try to calculate how much [it costs], or how much time do [you] have to put in to making friends with your neighbor, your lover, your mother, or your child. It’s a very real and deep human experience, a very powerful human experience.
It is really up to each of us to decide, “How far do you want to go?” How deep do you want to go? How willing are you to actually get to know who you are? I suggest to people who are new to the practice: don’t practice so much! Just do 10 minutes a day. But do it every day. Take a shower each day, in a sense. Get to know this quality of just being—simply being still here with yourself. By doing that, there’s a certain natural quality of the mind that begins to unfold that is quite inspiring.
You’re going to want to do this more. Trust that. Trust that inspiration, and see where it leads you. For myself, as you were just saying, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years now, and I do a lot of solitary retreats. And I think for the first couple, maybe dozen or so that I did, it was just hell, frankly. It was scary and tough. But now, I can’t wait. It’s so much fun. [Laughs.] For all of us, it unfolds in a very human way, a very personal way, a very intimate way. I think trying to get some return on the investment in terms of dosage—that’s not what this practice is about.
TS: I want to circle back to something that you said, Michael, which I thought was so interesting, and it sounded [like] it was very important for you. It was accompanied when you said it with a certain kind of deep chuckle that I’m starting to associate with you. You said there was a moment when you discovered that you weren’t your thoughts, that you didn’t believe your thoughts, you didn’t invest in your thoughts in the same way, and what a big change that was in how you approached your life. I’m curious to know what that discovery process was—did this dawn at a certain moment in time? Was it a gradual kind of dawning? Now that you don’t believe your thoughts, how do you relate to your thoughts?
MC: Yes. You know, it’s interesting. I think my relationship with this internal landscape, this internal thinking process—it unfolded over years, obviously. But there were certain points, sort of defining moments [or] tipping points, where I could let go in a much deeper way. I could tell the stories, but they’d be too long.
One was when I was on a 30-day retreat. Many of the people who do long sitting practices are familiar with this—there’s a point where you’re exhausted; you just can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here and continue this tape, this rerun movie. I just can’t. It’s a waste. I can’t. It’s too much. And you let it go. You let it go. And then gently laying down the burden. That is an act of friendship toward ourselves. It could be, “My butt’s too big, I never liked myself for that,” or, “Why did Mary leave me?” or, “No one likes me.” Whatever it seems to be—how we hit ourselves with rubber hoses—spiritual rubber hoses. At some point, we gently lay those down. Again, it’s very personal. For me, it happened probably three or four times; I think the last, I was in my forties. I just finally gave up. [Laughs.] What am I supposed to do? I’ve got to give up.
In terms of how I relate with thought now, I mean—I think like everybody. But, my orientation is far more about this. Throughout my life, I was oriented toward trying to think my way through my life rather than actually have a life. So now, I look around and there’s a tree out there, my cat walks in, and I’m on the phone, and I’m petting my cat. I think it’s true for meditators generally that our orientation increasingly grounds itself in the immediacy of our own world, versus rehearsing our lives. But this is a natural outcome. It’s a natural outcome of the practice.
TS: OK. I want to read a quote from your book, The Mindful Leader. Here’s the quote: “Opening is the primary and indispensable act of leaders because it requires that we fully understand and appreciate our circumstances first before we act. The Tibetan word for this vulnerable openness is jinpa, which means ‘complete generosity,’ and traditionally cultivating jinpa is considered the basic practice of the mindful leader.”
So, talk some about this idea. It’s a good quote, huh?
TS: Well said, right to the point. Cultivating jinpa—this complete generosity, vulnerable openness. How do I do that?
MC: Yes. Again, I have to say that this comes from the training from my teacher and my lineage. I would never have been able to figure this out—never—without getting some guidance from my teacher and my lineage. So with that said, essentially, when we think of generosity, we think of being a generous person, as in we’re willing to give our possessions, our resources to others, to try to be helpful to our world. That’s a beautiful thing; generous people make life worthwhile for sure.
In this case, the notion of generosity or jinpa is the ultimate act of generosity, which is to give of yourself completely to your world. That means to open—just open yourself completely to whatever is occurring. That requires, as I said earlier, enormous bravery, because you are exposed. That is the ultimate gift of a human being, is this exposure. It takes courage to do that.
Now, by the way, this generosity, this openness, this vulnerability—when we hear those words, we may think of “weak,” or a condition that should be careful. It’s quite to the contrary. From a mindful leader’s point of view, this is a source of power. This is where power comes from—that one can be agile. I’m not inside my mind trying to strategize my way forward. I’m in complete touch with my situation because I have the courage to give of myself completely. There is an enormous freedom there; there’s an enormous freedom and mastery that comes from that kind of gesture over and over and over and over again. It’s a fundamental move.
TS: Now, the subtitle, Michael, of the audio series that you created with Sounds True called Mindful Leadership Training is The Art of Inspiring the Best in Others by Leading from the Inside Out. I think this part about “leading from the inside out,” I feel like we’ve addressed that some, but this idea of inspiring the best in others—I know you’ve studied a lot of leadership training, leadership pedagogy, if you will. What brings out the best in others?
MC: [Laughs.] Well, I think that the issue for mindful leaders is the tradition of mindful leadership points out that we are hardwired to do that. It’s human beings. If you’re a human being, you are hardwired to inspire the best in others. This is a kind of a fundamental proclamation, so to speak.
When we think of inspiring the best—if you’re running a giant corporation, how you inspire tens of thousands of people to bring their best out—yes, personally I think that’s a fun challenge, frankly. But that’s not really where it happens. It happens at the intimacy of the human moment. Understanding how that spark works and truly understanding how that spark works is where the skill comes in. It can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
I tell a story in [the program] about the toll-taker, but children—you know, a child can inspire the best in someone very easily. You see it all the time; a child is playing with a toy and they’re curious about it, and someone looks over and they’re curious with the child too. Or, a child plays hide-and-seek, or peek-a-boo, or whatever, and it brings out a playfulness. A neighbor who’s having a barbecue—we come over, we dress up nicely, we bring a gift. This ability to inspire the best in one another is our nature. And mindful leaders—that’s what they spend their time doing: helping each other inspire the best in one another, and doing it him or herself. It’s actually a lot of fun! [Laughs.]
TS: You mentioned a spark; there’s a spark between us in an interpersonal encounter of some kind, and that’s what allows us to be inspirational, is noticing that spark. So, say more about that.
MC: Yes. This is actually quite profound. My experience—I’ll just speak from my experience—is when we actually drop all of the preconceptions and biases and various barriers that we have in our lives toward our experience, when all the veils are dropped completely and we see our world for what it is—in its naked profoundness—my experience is that to gaze upon a human being is the single most profound experience. Period.
That profoundness—actually, we’re glimpsing it all the time. But, we’re rushing past it. We’re papering over it. We’re inside our heads rehearsing rather than noticing it. But it’s there, and it’s happening all the time, but we miss it. This tenderness, this fundamental goodness of the human being is profound, and to glimpse it is vast, and it’s there all the time.
TS: It seems that one of the big challenges is the speed of our lives—the speed of our workplaces. So when I hear you talk about that spark, I think, “Yes, I could have that with the 100 people I work with, but I actually have to get back to my desk when I go to the bathroom, and not talk to everybody in the hallway and have that ‘spark’ moment.” I’m in a hurry! I have stuff to do.
MC: [Laughs.] There’s a difference between urgency, focus, intensity, drive, and blind speed, hectic-ness, sloppiness, speeding inside our head, rehearsing our lives rather than actually living them. There’s a difference there. I’ve been in business a long time, and I still am—I work in organizational settings that are very intense. I can accomplish a lot. But I’m not saying that we don’t have urgency and we shouldn’t work with a level of intensity.
What I am saying is a lot of the speed is self-inflicted and a lot of this intensity that’s hectic-ness and distractibility is a puppet show. It’s not real. It’s not what’s happening. It’s inside our heads. So, being able to distinguish those two in terms of urgency, focus, deliberateness versus hectic-ness, speed, distractibility—that’s a key distinction here.
TS: OK. Let me ask you a question, Michael: what aspects of mindful leadership are the most challenging for you—for you personally? It’s one thing to teach it, it’s another thing to live it. Which part’s hard for you on the “living it” side?
MC: Yes. The whole thing, really. I don’t want to avoid the question here.
Fundamentally, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the tradition of a mindful leader, we’re talking about the Mahayana path of the bodhisattva, and the paramitas. For those in the audience who are not familiar with this very traditional Buddhist element of the journey, I think that the essence of it is being afraid. There’s always this little, haunting fear that this isn’t going to work out. It still haunts—I find it more amusing now than potent, but it’s real.
I’m still somewhat afraid of my life. It’s something that I continue to be fascinated with, and still want to taste it, smell it, understand it. I still go on retreats for that very reason. I would say that’s probably it, that I’m still afraid of my life.
TS: I have to say, I love the—I don’t know if I would call them metaphors, but this idea of meditation as befriending ourselves, a deep friendship, and deepening and deepening and deepening that friendship; and then the other side of it, being afraid of that friendship with ourselves. I mean, the fear that has a distance from other people—other people in our life who maybe we’re friends with, but our friendship could get deeper, but we distance in different ways. I love the framework that you’re presenting.
MC: Well, I copied it off of my teachers’ blackboards, so I’m glad to pass it along.
TS: OK. Here’s a curious point that you made in Mindful Leadership Training that I’d love to talk to you about. You say that striving towards harmony isn’t always a good thing at work, and that it actually runs counter to achieving real breakthroughs in productivity and effective communication. It can. Can you say more about this, because I think I have put a lot into wanting to create a harmonious workplace?
MC: Yes. I would say that in my work, this mistake that managers and leaders make about harmony is common, and it’s a common error from my estimation, in the workplace. Essentially, on the surface—first off, in work, there are so many conflicts, so many difficulties. Deadlines, pressures, relationships, budgets, resources, expectations—we could go on and on. It’s filled with tension, conflict, difficulties. And from a certain point of view, our first tendency is to say, “Hey, can we make this a little more harmonious here?” I mean, it makes sense, so I’m not saying that seeking harmony is dumb.
But, it has a real, big blind spot. The blind spot is in trying to seek harmony, there is an unspoken message that says that conflict is kind of the enemy. [That] abrasion is part of the problem, [and] difficulties should not really happen—that they should be sort of avoided. What happens then, when you have a culture that’s really seeking for harmony, you end up having a lot of cheerleading and politeness, but no one wants to ask the tough questions. No one wants to really deal with conflict—because conflict is actually healthy. Abrasion is actually how creativity grows.
So, the issue in how I work in organizational settings and work with leaders is: what we really want is first, fearlessness, and what I call “fearless harmony.” So, if you have a beautiful bottle of wine, for example—just a beautiful bottle of wine; it’s harmonious, beautiful. But, the amount of work that had to go in to getting that wine in that beautiful bottle is intense. You watch somebody play tennis—what a harmonious, beautiful thing. It’s fearless.
So, the issue here is in the pursuit of harmony, we often actually try to cover up conflict, difficulty, abrasion, and we try to create an atmosphere that gives us the false impression that everything is OK. Many cultures who live trying to seek harmony rather than resolve conflict. With all due respect, it tends to create some cowardly corners in their organization that really need to have to be looked at.
TS: Yes. I mean, you’re really talking about artificial harmony or surface-level harmony. I like your phrase “fearless harmony.”
Let’s talk a little bit more about this fearlessness at work. What I’m curious about is: often, I’ve wanted people to speak up more in all different parts of Sounds True and all different parts of the organization. And I’ve found there’s a handful of people who do, but there’s a lot of people who I know have a lot of intelligence and a lot to share that would improve the organization, but they don’t speak up—probably for fear of some kind of punishment, even though we’ve done our best to create a non-punishing culture. I still think this is just this deep-seated fear that if I say what I think, I’m going to lose my job, so I better not speak up.
My question is: how, in any organization, do you generate a culture of fearlessness where people actually do speak up—all kinds of people across the whole organization?
MC: Yes. I think this is one of the great—fun, frankly—leadership challenges. How do you cultivate fearless culture? Candor. Openness. Trust. Reliability. Clarity of purpose. This is all part of a fearless culture. Really, it takes time; it isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s how one leads, how one creates an atmosphere. There are a variety of elements in that groove that need to be constantly taken care of in terms of cultivating a fearless culture.
One of them is: how do we promote candor? On the one hand, being candid—candor, when really cultivated well in cultures, requires a certain level of elegance. When you say this—and I’ve been in many cultures; some very tough, rusty-nail cultures; some very refined. That kind of thing. But ultimately, if we’re going to be candid with one another, we have to be skillful. You don’t—“Oh, we’re going to be candid? Well, I’m going to go into the boardroom and tell those guys what I think. I thought this was a candid place!” Well, that’s not very skillful. So, being able to be candid and skillful is really what you want to cultivate in cultures—is a level of skillful conversation.
Why mindfulness is brilliant for this is because in order to be skillful in your candor, you have to listen really, really well. Really, really well. Can you listen with no bias to really what the person is saying? Not just the words, but the tone of the voice, their body language. If you ever listen to an arrogant person, they are very annoying, and I know that firsthand because I’m very arrogant myself. So, I’m a very annoying person. I get that. But if you listen to an arrogant person really, really carefully—without any bias, without any anything—you’ll notice that there’s a fear in there. There’s a lack of confidence. Hmm. Interesting. Well, maybe that’s part of what I need to help with here a little bit.
How do I work with that? How do I listen well? How do I help him or her dismantle that boundary? And you don’t do it right now; maybe it’s over a glass of wine, maybe it’s out when you’re taking a run together or something. This ability to be skillful and candid is a real big challenge in organizations because it requires social and emotional intelligence, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But, there’s a lot of other elements in creating a fearless culture—modeling it for people. I was just on the phone with a leader of a pretty large organization this morning who said to me, “You know, I don’t want to hurt the people. I think my style hurts people, and I can get pretty direct.” And I said, “Well, have you ever told people that?” And he said, “No, I haven’t.” I said, “You know, I think you need to tell people that.” Now, that level of candor—when you’re in a room [and] say, “You know something, I think I may be hurting people’s feelings here, and that’s not my intention,” that models for other people, “Oh, you can be exposed around here. Wow. That’s pretty cool. Maybe I can take a risk.”
So, there are a whole range of things, Tami, that good leaders, mindful leaders, and leaders of organizations that want to create fearless culture—there are a whole range of behaviors, rituals, [and] skills that really foster those kinds of cultures. It takes a lot of work and a lot of good leadership, frankly.
TS: Have you encountered many workplace cultures that you would call fearless?
MC: Yes, I have. Not many—I’ve been surprised, I’ll tell you that. I’ve been surprised. I tend not to name the companies that I go into because of confidentiality and things. But, this is a Fortune 50 company, and I would not have imagined that this culture was that fearless. I was very impressed. One of the reasons why I think—it’s a big firm, as you can imagine. It’s a Fortune 50, and I got to work at the senior-most levels.
One of the reasons why I felt that this organization was so fearless was that everybody—every single person in the company including the CEO—had to go through—I think it was a daylong or half-daylong training on how to respectfully talk to a colleague about a conflict. Everybody had to learn how to do that respectfully.
They had a little ritual. I forget what the ritual was, but if someone came into your office and said, “Tami, do you have a moment for me to actually share a concern?” That’s a signal that we’re going to now have a ritual, and the other person would also have a ritualistic response. They kind of standardized a way of opening to one another, a ritual—everybody had to be trained in it. Every scientist, every researcher, every marketing person, every salesperson had to know the ritual. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t toxicity there and there wasn’t problems and things, but everyone was willing to open to one another. I was very impressed with that.
So, in any case, yes, I do meet cultures that work hard at this fearlessness and have accomplished it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
TS: You know, that was very helpful for me to hear that example, and what it brings up for me is I would love for you to describe one or two mindful leaders. You don’t have to give me their name or any of the details; I’m not so much interested in the specifics as what the qualities are of, in your view, a fabulously successful mindful leader. If you were to put them in their organization for a moment—so not so much in an abstract way, but kind of how they actually interact in their day.
MC: You know, it’s funny, I’m sitting here thinking of all these—we all have aspirations and weaknesses and traits, and I’m trying to think of who—and this person just came into my mind. I’ll just describe this person. Very senior executive—and that’s not typically what a mindful leader [is], you don’t have to be a senior person to be a mindful leader. That’s very important to understand. You can be a truck driver. I’m sure I can come up with [one], but this person came to my mind, so I’ll just describe this person.
He was the senior-most physician, chief medical officer, for a very large pharmaceutical company. And if you know pharmaceuticals, it’s just—the clinical side is just chock-full of really bright men and women who are scientists, physicians, statisticians. It’s really amazing. I’m really a fan of the pharmaceutical industry; I’m sorry, I know a lot of people aren’t. This gentleman was in charge of all these folks, and I got to have maybe four or five conversations with him, and I knew his reputation.
Whenever I met with him, he was clearly a highly trained scientist and just a brilliant, brilliant kind of strategist around the clinical development of drugs. We’ll just give him his kudos on the technical side of things. But what really made him—his distinction—was how comfortable he would make me feel whenever I sat down with him. It was almost as if we were old friends. I would remark this to other scientists that I was working with, and they’d go, “Yes! Isn’t it cool? He’s so much fun to be with. Everybody is comfortable with him. He’s such a great guy!” There was just a sense of presence about him that put me at my ease immediately when I would walk into his office.
There was no kind of ritual—and this guy’s a tough guy too, by the way. He had to make tough decisions often. But the way he would make them was authentically. I think the main distinguishing element for me as I remember this gentleman was how at home I felt in his presence. At ease—and not at ease from the point of view of “sloppy,” but, “I can be here, this is good, this is a wholesome place to be.”
It wasn’t just me; it was widely recognized throughout this business. He also had this accent like Brooklyn, so he talks kind of [imitates Brooklyn accents] like you were talking to your uncle. So there was this sense of invitation, presence, ease—his poise made me feel he wore his authority comfortably. His respect—you could feel there was a deep respect of anyone who came into his room. He had nothing to prove. He was authentically curious. So, that would be a description of one person that comes to mind.
TS: Beautiful. That’s helpful. OK Michael, I have one final question for you. This Sounds True podcast is called Insights at the Edge, and I’m often curious to know what someone’s growing edge is in their life. Meaning, for you right now, what would you say is the thing that—besides the fact that you have a tree that fell in the middle of your house 24 hours ago from a storm—what would you say in terms of just your own journey as a person is your current growing edge? In your work?
MC: Yes. I think it’s very clear to me: it’s getting old. You know, I’m 62 years old, and I’m fascinated by this. It’s absolutely fascinating to me what this is like—to get old. I have a lot of physical pain, and I find it fascinating, like oh my goodness. I think of my parents, and I think of all the people who came before me. How did they do this? If you don’t ignore this, if you don’t ignore getting old, if you don’t try to Botox your way through this, it’s just like amazing, getting old.
It’s kind of like a friend of mine said: that at 60, the warranty is up. Prior to 60, like in the 40s, if you got hurt, “Oh, I got my leg back,” or, “I’ll lose a little weight.” You’re always trying to get back to something, or whatever. There’s no getting back to anything anymore. I’m actually—there’s a sadness, a very deep sadness, because I’m getting older. But there’s also this kind of freedom of really not knowing anything is about to happen. It’s a great challenge, and I really have come to a deep respect for all the human beings that came before me who grew old. My mother-in-law is the only kind of parent I have left, and I love talking to Catherine about her life, and seeing how intrepid she is. So, that’s the edge for me right now—is just getting old and I’m kind of loving it, even though it’s painful! [Laughs.]
TS: Well, that in and of itself is a very interesting perspective. A lot of people wouldn’t say that. They wouldn’t say, “Loving it, even though it’s painful.” They would say, “This stinks,” or some sort of version of that. Not the “loving it” part.
MC: Well, I’d encourage them to come on along. Now, I’m also a very fortunate man; I know that people suffer in this world, profoundly. I am very, very fortunate; I’m drinking a cup of coffee right now that has a little bit of cream—just the right amount of cream for me. I work hard to make sure that I’m not entitled, but I’m very fortunate. For every one of me, there’s hundreds of thousands of people who are struggling, and I respect that too.
TS: And one thing about getting old, Michael, is somebody like me, when she introduces you, and now as we close the program, gets to refer to you as a pioneer—an elder, if you will, in bringing mindfulness to the workplace! You get accolades like that. So, that’s pretty cool!
MC: Hey look, I get a credential! Lucky me! [Laughs.]
TS: I’ve been speaking with Michael Carroll, who was one of the early writers on bringing mindfulness into the workplace. [He has] three seminal books, Awake at Work, The Mindful Leader, and a book called Fearless at Work. With Sounds True, Michael has created a new audio teaching series. It’s called Mindful Leadership Training: The Art of Inspiring the Best in Others by Leading from the Inside Out. Thanks, Michael! I could feel the spark between us in this conversation. I’m grateful for that. Thank you so much.
MC: It’s an honor and a joy, Tami. Thank you very much.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for joining us.