Magazine Article | August 1, 2019

What Living In A Zen Buddhist Monastery For 5 Months Taught Me About Being A Better Business Leader

Source: Software Executive magazine

By Gabriel Fairman

Over the past 15 years, I have made countless leadership mistakes in growing our business. I can attribute several of these mistakes to gross misconceptions around what the very essence of leadership was about.

LESSON 1: GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD

It was painful to realize that my own perceptions were worthless. The only thing that matters when managing is how others are perceiving things. It does not matter if I think I am fair, good, and delivering if our clients and team members think otherwise. It takes practice, humility, and an odd ability to take crap to digest the fact that, more often than not, despite my very best efforts, others could and would have lowly perceptions of my behavior.

LESSON 2: STOP TRYING TO MANIPULATE OUTCOMES

Once you realize and appreciate how other people perceive things, your natural instinct will be to try to control this. The sooner you give up on that instinct, the better. In the short term, sure, you may achieve uncanny results by learning how to manipulate how people perceive certain situations. In the long run, you are dead as a leader if you do so. In trying to manipulate outcomes you will lose sight of your authenticity, of your values, and of your integrity. You cannot be good to everyone, so you must be true to yourself.

LESSON 3: LEAN INTO THE NEGATIVE

Who does not want to be loved and appreciated? As a leader, the sooner you toss that desire, the sooner you will be at peace with the fact that the leader is an avatar that receives all of the negative perceptions around the ecosystem they lead. There is no way around this. Human nature will be always dissatisfied. Benchmarks always adapt and no amount of goodness will satisfy human appetite. Raise salaries all you want, provide perks, be kind with feedback, and be the best possible boss. It won’t be enough, and you will waste so much energy trying to do so. I am not saying you should be a complete jerk. I am saying that you should be comfortable with the idea that part of being a good leader means people will be having coffee and talking crap about how awful you are. In fact, if people don’t do this, it is likely that you are not leading.

LESSON 4: FOCUS ON THE RIGHT THINGS

A business is a universe onto itself. You can focus on the numbers, on the people, on sales, on product, on your own experience, or on any number of these things. If you focus on too many things at once, you will not be effective. If you focus on less relevant fronts, your business may face perils. For instance, if it’s a moment where you need to focus on selling but you are focusing on product, your product may turn out great, but you may not have the revenues to keep the business alive. Choosing the right fronts to tackle and delving deeply into each of them ensures that the business goes in the right direction.

The main lesson is that running a business is not a prescriptive activity. You may have best practices and proven methodologies, but each business is different and the temporal context of each business is different every single day. The only way to account for such specificity is to be on your toes and to listen carefully to what the business asks of you. Let go of preconceptions and prepackaged ideas and allow yourself to be immersed by your business as its own universe.

GABRIEL FAIRMAN is the CEO of Bureau Works, a platform for orchestrating content delivery globally. He lived in a Zen Buddhist monastery in southern Taiwan for five months, and then launched his own company at age 25. He enjoys tennis, playing the guitar, cooking, and spending time with his wife and kids even more. He believes his quest is about finding a profound emotional center and that everything else just flows from that.