Sudhir Chadalavada

Is Self Mastery in Business an Oxymoron?
When I talk to business leaders, corporate executives and entrepreneurs on the role of self mastery in business execution, I am aware that not all of them are convinced of its importance. Some have a quizzical look on their face suggesting the question, “Is self mastery in business an oxymoron?” Even though none of them has phrased it that way I wonder sometimes if my passion and conviction stops them from asking.

On the other hand, I am frequently asked a more practical question: “Can you give an example of how self mastery would help in business execution and business leadership?” The answer, of course, is yes, and in this post I will offer an example that reveals the relevance of this vital but often overlooked aspect of leadership. To make it even more relevant and current, I will address this example in the context of the Gulf Oil spill and a suggested “right action” from BP’s leadership team. What I shall try to show is that even if the crisis appears to be entirely in the realm of leadership and business, there is a deeply personal component that is central to the crisis and cannot be ignored if we are to achieve the most satisfactory outcome.

How to deal with a business crisis – the personal and leadership components: A six step process.

Step I: Fully accept the situation

Do not try to downplay the enormity of the crisis. Do not be in denial and do not be paralyzed by the thought of past disasters and fearing future worst case doomsday scenarios. Be completely present and take full responsibility and accountability for the situation. Be ready to quit on moral grounds – this is not abdication of duty but a powerful demonstration that you are not attached to the position but only to doing the right thing. This resolve starts with the CEO and the leadership team. It has to be then swiftly communicated to all the employees, stakeholders, the local community and in this case the whole world.

Avoid two common mistakes made in crisis situations: (a) we distance and separate ourselves from the problem and blame someone else or (b) we take on the sole burden and blame ourselves overly. In the former situation we are playing the victim and in the latter we are putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves. The truth is generally somewhere between these extremes.

How can the BP leadership possibly blame itself overly one might ask? Aren’t they solely responsible for this? Isn’t the real problem that they are not taking adequate responsibility? Well, the Gulf Spill is a symptom of a larger systemic problem or problems. Let me list a couple:

  1. Cutting corners on safety to maximize profits: Corporate profit is something all stakeholders want; it is ingrained in our system. We are willing to overlook “minor” infractions till they blowup in to a crisis.
  2. Responding to consumer demand: BP like any other oil company or any company in general is responding to demand. We are collectively unwilling to make the sacrifices and lifestyle changes that are necessary to reduce our over reliance on oil. It is not just the fuel in the automobiles we drive; oil has permeated all aspects of our life style – plastic, asphalt, cosmetics, perfumes, disposable diapers, detergents, soaps, flooring, sports equipment, contact lenses, etc.

The leadership has to forgive, forget, and deal with the situation as it actually is right now. Failure to do so will affect physical health and impairs mental sharpness and judgment, the very things that are necessary to be in peak condition to resolve the crisis.

Step II: Be grateful
Suspend judgment, fear, anger, disappointment and frustration for being in the difficult, seemingly no-win situation. It is natural to experience these feelings but the key is to snap out of it in the shortest possible time. The best way to deal with those feelings is to observe them. Do not judge or critique the feelings, do not be consumed by them, just witness them dispassionately and allow them to melt away.

See the bright side even in the darkest of times. Be grateful for being in a position to solve a critical problem which is symptomatic of serious issues concerning business organizations, governance and economic models that are threatening the harmony and prosperity of our planet. Solving this problem may provide a prototype to resolving similar challenges.

Step III: Be open
Be actively alert to pick up signals and suggestions from everywhere. Let the answers come. When we suspend fear and judgment and still our mind, the universe speaks and intuition kicks in. Declare intention to utilize your gifts and all available resources, and to realize the full potential of the organization. The answers and possible solutions can come from many sources – employees, stakeholders, scientists, environmentalists, researchers, thought leaders, volunteers, non-profit organizations, politicians, etc. Create a powerful crisis management team by picking the best and brightest. A competent leader and leadership team channels the frustrations, criticisms and helplessness of the stakeholders and community in to a highly effective team of problem solvers and solution providers. In this situation guidance comes from the convergence of internal and external intelligence, from the convergence of personal and universal intelligence.

Step IV: Focus on Right Action
Focus and direct all action towards fulfilling this guidance. Actions speak louder than words and leadership is better served in helping remove obstacles to creating an environment of excellence. Examples:

Performance inhibitors – Wanting to be right, holding on to preconceived notions and forcing consensus.

Performance enhancers – Transparency, humility, compassion and generosity (especially to victims of oil spill).

We have to constantly work on increasing our capacity for action by maintaining a sound body, mind and spirit. The leadership team has to set an example by making sure action “flows” without rushing or being overly anxious no matter how severe the crisis. Based on individual capacity we have to continue to maintain our exercise routine and personal discipline such as nutritious diet, positive mental attitude and fearless spirit.

Step V: Course correct
As you are implementing and executing, be open to feedback and course correct if necessary. Even though we may be sure of the direction, we have to be flexible for all the details to be worked out. This may seem like a paradox but is a key to superior execution. There is never a prescribed solution or a cookie cutter approach. No two crisis situations are alike. No amount of prior experience could have fully prepared anyone to deal with the 9/11 attack. It took enormous courage under pressure and real-time decision making to successfully deal with the situation.

Step VI: Trust in the solution
Trust in the solution and the ultimate result. Even with a clear vision and goal, we do not know what the exact result will be when our strategy bumps into conditions “on the ground.” Not trusting the outcome weakens the force of our actions. By allowing the quality of action to suffer, we increase the chance that our fears and doubts will manifest rather than our desired results. We have to believe that the solution will emerge and have to be completely self assured in this conviction.

Be confident of your vision and your ability to execute out of the crisis and exhibit humility at the same time. Humility comes from the recognition that the source of greatest confidence is surrendering to or being open to the universal intelligence. Although it may seem contradictory or at least paradoxical to speak of “mastery” and “surrender” in the same breath, I am not speaking of any kind of giving up or weakness, but rather of the ability to set aside personal weaknesses such as attachment and fear, and align one’s thought and action with the intelligence that organizes all of nature in support of life and progress. This is a state of mastery, a state of higher consciousness. This state cannot be intellectually faked nor can it be ripped off or copied. It has to come from within.

We are all in this together
It is not always obvious how we are contributing to or connected to the problem. Political gridlock or environmental degradation, to take two of innumerable possible examples, does not occur just because of “selfish politicians” or “greedy businessmen.” It is too simplistic and incorrect to think that way. We are all in this together. On closer examination we will notice how our personal choices are contributing to these problems, for instance by lack of participation in the political process or irresponsible lifestyle choices. After all the greedy businessman or selfish politician is the reflection of our own lives, our collective consciousness. In an advanced, democratic society like ours, the politician or the businessman who rises to the top is one among us. It is highly unlikely (other than in exceptional circumstances) that their value system is much different from the way we lead our lives. This may be hard to accept but it is the truth. What are we doing personally to reduce the burden of our dependence on oil! A balanced perspective is needed rather than an emotional reaction to find scapegoats. A leader’s job is to demonstrate this perspective. As leaders of our lives we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing on this count?

Self Mastery and Leadership
Most organizations and its leaders do not fully appreciate the human dimension of the execution crisis. Part of being human is having emotions, feelings, desires, fears, disappointments and attachments. We cannot ignore them or will them away. By attempting to do so, we are denying the obvious. For peak performance, the most important work a business or organizational leader has to engage in is in mastering these emotions. There is generally less emotional attachment and drama in business than in our personal lives, but these are by no means absent. Not addressing this human dimension fully and attempting to solve the execution problem with a predominantly intellectual, rational approach has led to the current state of crisis. We have no choice but to be fully human in our business environments if we are to attain full potential of organizational performance and execution.

The leadership task is to maintain composure, tell the truth, see the bigger picture and perspective, gain the confidence and trust of all stakeholders – this is Mastery and wisdom which is the most important leadership requirement. Many of us know this intellectually but have a hard time taking the right action, especially in a crisis, in an environment of fear and uncertainty. It takes Self Mastery to convert the ideas to Right Action, to convert the natural inherent fear to passion for creating excellence.

Now it is my turn to ask: Why is Self Mastery not relevant to business execution? How can we achieve superior execution without Self Mastery? Isn’t it time we say it the way we see it?