Much has been written about what it takes to become a successful leader. There is no shortage of books, courses, and columns like this that purport to share the secrets of success. If the concept of leadership has been so closely analyzed, scrutinized, and proselytized, why then are good leaders so incredibly rare? I believe the answer can be found in our inability to look inwards.

Zen leadership may sound like a cliché, but I believe it's the key to success. Too often, CEOs and other leaders try to project power outwards, forcing change and imposing their will on those they lead. Instead, I believe that successful leaders are the ones who can focus their attention inwards, finding a sense of calm and peace that draws others to them.

I've learned this the hard way, of course. I was 26 when I started my company, BodeTree. To say that I was a bit headstrong would, of course, be an understatement. Fortunately, over the years, I've found my way and have emerged a much better leader. Here are the three key principles I've learned that have helped me to become a better CEO.

1. Be humble

No one likes dealing with egomaniacs. There are few things as off-putting as people who view themselves as being better than others or above the rules. I should know, I've been guilty of this myself.

In my early twenties, I had a fair bit of success in my career and was pretty proud of myself. Fortunately, my father (a successful businessman in his own right) took me aside and encouraged me to remain humble. "Everybody falls down at some point," he told me, "stay humble so that the people around you want to help you up, not knock you back down."

My father's words stuck with me and continue to ring true. Embracing humility helps ensure that people are inclined to build you up when you fail, not revel in your misfortune.

2. Be self-aware

The most important aspect of Zen leadership is self-awareness. When people fail to recognize and be open about the things that cause stress, anxiety, and negativity in their lives, problems arise.

In fact, I believe that the majority of conflicts inside of organizations arise from a lack of self-awareness. Leaders have to learn to accept the possibility that they're just plain wrong sometimes.

Self-awareness is a journey and something that requires a conscious effort each and every day.  The lessons that teach it are subtle and easily missed, but extremely powerful.  It's not an easy thing to learn, but I cherish the experiences that have brought me to where I am today. It's the precursor to self-improvement, and should be something that every leader, regardless of age or experience, should strive to achieve.

3. Be empathetic

Finally, always treat people the way you want to be treated. I know, it sounds simplistic and trite, but you can never go wrong with the Golden Rule. I believe there is a tremendous empathy deficit in our modern society, and its impact is far-reaching.

Embracing empathy in thought, word, and deed doesn't mean that you have to be a bleeding heart in business. However, it does mean that you never display the sociopathic behaviors that are both damaging and off-putting. Lack of empathy is the underlying driver of greed, dishonesty, and aggression.

Empathy is central to building healthy relationships with team members, clients, and partners. I believe that when you rarely go wrong when you put others first. The payoff might not be immediate, but it is worthwhile.

Self-awareness, humility, and empathy are things that are in short supply these days, and that is truly tragic. Leadership is not something that is projected outward. Rather, it starts internally and draws people close.

Zen leadership is just another term for authentic leadership. CEOs who value self-awareness and act with humility and empathy will still make mistakes, but when those mistakes occur their teams will pull together and move forward towards success.

Published on: Mar 16, 2016