The paradox of our work is that it presents us with an amazing canvas for the practice of mindfulness while at the same time is such a challenging environment in which to be fully aware and present.

For most of us, and more importantly, for most teams and organizations, the work environment is enmeshed in a wide range of stories–some useful, and and most, not. In fact, in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores at depth, the special human capability of creating, believing in, and propagating what he terms “collective fictions.” Harari, himself a serious meditation practitioner, points out that as a species, we have been able to survive and thrive by working together–which requires the ability to hold a collective story in our minds.

Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.
– Yuval Noah Harari

In the workplace of the 21st century, storytelling is most often connect with, and sometimes synonymous with, culture. Different workplace cultures can be described as agile, high performing, toxic, patriarchal, racist, plodding, competitive, collaborative, and so on. In most cases, the best cultures are intentionally curated by their leaders, sustained by collective stories told by most people in the organization, and reinforced by connecting relevant activities and milestones in the life of the organization to the dominant story.

However, in the majority of workplaces, the making and sustaining of culture is far less intentional; the result of the lack of quality attention to what is happening, individually and collectively.

A workplace of any size is comprised of people lost in their own thoughts, emotions, reactions, dramas, and personal stories about what the work is, why we are doing it, who should be doing it, how it should be done, etc.–and this is if their mind is on the work at all. We can be more distracted than ever at work. We are easily pulled away into the many other dimensions of our lives by the various devices, message streams, and jumbled mental states that surround us.

As leaders, we may also not even be aware of the stories we are telling ourselves, let alone others, as we move through the days, weeks, and months of our team’s work. What we do experience is the frustration of not achieving the outcomes we imagined in our mind. We wrestle with the challenges of “lack of alignment” in our team around what we thought were common agreements, core values, or agreed goals. We may even suddenly discover, upon achieving our intended outcome, that it was not what our manager had in mind, or that other teams don’t value the outcomes of our work, or our customers, however broadly we define them, are uninterested.

Before we can fix these problems with our team, we have to bring more attention to our own experience at work. By staying present with our own activities, we can explore the implicit thoughts, reactions, emotions, and doubt that are contributing to our own story at work–and therefore contributing to our team’s story.

There is valuable guidance for how to undertake this work of paying attention, Dogen’s Instructions for the Head Cook (the Tenzo), written almost 800 years ago.

(N.B. My references in this post below will be based on a the translation by Leighton and Okumura.)

Dogen, a monk, is credited with being the founder of Soto Zen after bringing the teachings from China to Japan. He wrote the Instructions for the Head Cook in 1237 at a time when many Zen temples were led by a team of monks, each with their own management role, one of whom is the Tenzo, the Head Cook. Dogen’s Instructions is an amazing piece of work because it is not only a useful guide to meditation practice, but is also an immensely practical guide for those of us seeking to be more effective in our leadership work. Below, I explore several lessons, based on quotes excerpted from the essay, and their relevance to bringing more attention to our work–contributing to a more generous and productive culture in our teams.

“If you do not have the mind of the Way, then all of this hard work is meaningless and not beneficial.”

Our starting point for work that matters is to simply bring attention to it. Without bringing mindful attention to our day by day, minute by minute experience at work, we will be consumed by the inevitable dramas, stories, and circumstances that impinge on us from within our own mind, circulating in our organization and erupting from the external environment. I take his guidance as an admonition to not get lost in seeking “meaning” for my work in the ramblings of my mind, or in the minds of others, but rather to stay centered and observe each activity in order to derive the meaning. When I am feeling overwhelmed or lost, I try to bring myself right into my seat–what sensations can I feel? what sounds do I hear? What is my mind doing? Is my breathing shallow or deep? Is my heart racing or at ease? If I am out of sync with the direct effect of the work on my mind and body, I am more likely to absentmindedly work in a way that creates confusion for others, misses targets, and leads to personal exhaustion.

“Thereafter, all the temple administrators gather in their offices and discuss what combinations of flavors, which vegetables, and what gruel to serve for the next day….After agreeing on the different courses, [the tenzo will]write a menu and post it on the signboards…”

Here, Dogen, is speaking directly to the challenge of aligning teams around goals. He suggests that before we even start our work, we need to discuss and agree the plan with our peers, and/or our own manager (or our board). Visualize the six leaders of an ancient Zen temple, where perhaps dozens or hundreds of monks are living and working, discussing the daily menu and the provision of certain ingredients to be used. Sounds like the monks were holding daily stand-ups. How often do we make assumptions about the detailed inputs and outputs of our work only to find out later that the assumptions were incomplete or just plain wrong? Are we being specific enough? According to Dogen, step one is get agreement and make it very concrete.

But, how present are we when we are making these agreements? Are we actually listening attentively to the contributions of others or are we only listening for when they agree or disagree with what we want to do in our own mind? Are we getting ready to pounce on them with vigorous agreement or disagreement? Try to pay attention in your next meeting and observe what is happening? Try to keep these ancient monk-leaders in your mind as inspiration.

Then once we have agreement–how are we communicating the agreed upon goals? In every place I have worked, one of the most common complaints is either “we don’t know what our priorities are” or “I can’t see how my work aligns with leadership’s objectives.” Here, Dogen, is again being quite specific. As soon as we know what we are going to do, communicate it publicly (“write a menu”) and prominently (“post it on the signboards”) so everyone knows the plan. With such a public sharing of the goals, those who will benefit from, or share in, our work can hold us to account. Our team at Humentum keeps experimenting (not always successfully) with OKRs as our tool for achieving this level of alignment, transparency and accountability. Despite our struggles and misfires, they still provide more promise than almost any other system I have used.

“You should not attend to some things and neglect or be slack with others for even one moment…It has been said that, for the tenzo, rolling up the sleeves is the mind of the Way.”

Here, I combine two different pieces of advice from Dogen into a unified approach. First, once we have agreed our goals, we need to be able to align all of our work to those goals. I often hear, “wait, but what do I do with my day to day work that does not align with my OKRs?”

The truth is, that we can’t separate our daily tasks from our desired goals. If we do, we can end up lost with intangible goals that are disconnected from the day-in/day-out effort that it takes to achieve them–goals as a concept. It was Gordon Hinckley that wrote, “You can’t plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind.” For many leaders, goal setting is exactly that. If the goal is so detached from the work, the leader can lose the feel and the grasp for the actual steps and activities the team needs to take to realize our goals. Frustration and mistrust amongst the team usually follows.

In Dogen’s Instructions, he is quite clear that the tenzo cannot just give orders, (s)he needs to take personal and intimate responsibility for the work when he writes, “In such a manner, lofty ancients of the Way have carefully practiced this job with their own hands…If you made a mistake cleaning rice and sand, correct it by yourself.” You could read this as an encouragement toward micromanagement, Rather, I read it as asking us to bring a keen intimacy to the work–whether your own work or that of your team. Know the details, care about the details, let the details inform the goal and the journey so that the work is meaningful in the moment. This will strengthens your ability to lead others because it is grounded in deep understanding of their challenges and struggles.

An another trap is that we can forget about the goal while we focus exclusively on the habitual transactional tasks. Now we lack the meaning needed to achieve something more beneficial and impactful with our work. How many teams set their annual or quarterly goals and then never look at them again until the end of the period or their performance review? We get lost in the endless stream of either urgent interruptions or the comfort of mindless repetition.

Well-written and communicated goals can be a mindfulness bell each day that helps to clarify the intention behind each thing that we do. They can be an invitation to commit more deeply to the task, to improve how we do it, to increase the value of its accomplishment to others. Dogen’s instruction reminded the tenzo to each day consider all the people (and their work) that was dependent on his success (or failure) at preparing the meal.

Goal setting can also be an invitation to question why we are doing the task at all? Does doing this work help me achieve our goals? Is it benefiting my team? my customers? my community? I often encourage my team members who struggle with aligning their “day to day work” with their OKRs to be rigorous in asking, “if this task does not align with an OKR…why am I doing it?” This can often lead to an opening where work processes can be re-thought, re-imagined, or even eliminated to reduce unnecessary effort.

“Do not comment on the quantity or make judgments about the quality of the ingredients you obtained from the director just simply prepare them…Definitely avoid emotional disputes about the quantity of the ingredients…People who change their mind according to ingredients, or adjust their speech to [the status of] whoever they are not talking to, are not people of the Way….As for the attitude while preparing food, the essential point is deeply to arouse genuine mind and respectful mind without making judgments…”

In several different paragraphs, Dogen makes reference to our judgments and encourages us to let them go. Why? Aren’t we supposed to aspire to quality in our work?

You’ve heard many of these excuses before. “It’s not my fault, we did not achieve the goal! It’s because, our tech is not up to date or it’s hard-to-use; we don’t have as much capital as our competitors; the donor cut our funding; I didn’t choose this team and we don’t have the right skillsets, (and so on…)” For the tenzo, the ingredients were the quality and quantity of rice, vegetables, mushrooms, etc. For us, the ingredients may look and feel differently, but how often do we use arguments about the inputs to justify our lack of attention to detail and the quality of the outputs.

Yes, talent, tech, money, creative are all useful and helpful ingredients in building a successful product, service or organization. But in THIS moment, we only have the ingredients we have, right NOW. What amazing work can we do in this moment, by aligning our goals with each other, applying well-defined processes, and working mindfully to create a beneficial outcome today. And, nothing destroys a team’s productive culture faster than emotional disputes and arguments on items that are often outside of our direct control in the moment. Even in 1237, Dogen observed that and understood that whether we are “only” complaining in our mind, or we are complaining with or about others, that it corrupts the product of our work.

Dogen goes further and writes, “even when you are making a broth of course greens, don’t arouse an attitude of distaste or dismissal. Even when you are making a high-quality cream soup, do not arouse at attitude of rapture and dancing for joy.”

Today, you might be struggling to make payroll, tomorrow a new funder comes forward. Great! In both cases, we have only the work in front of us today and we can make the best of it without complaint, without boasting. We do this by attending to our own mind as we do the work, by tending to the quality of our relationships with others, and by tending to, and understanding deeply, the needs of our customers or others that we serve.

“As I observed the people who were devoting themselves for a year to their jobs of temple administrators or heads of departments…each of them maintained three essential attitudes…Benefit others, which simultaneously gives benefit to the self…Make the monastery thrive and renew its high standards…Aspire to stand shoulder to shoulder and respectfully follow in the heels of our predecessors.”

Dogen’s Instructions to the Tenzo, was not just his own thinking. He actually traveled around China and Japan and spent time observing the work of other monks, and talking with them about how they approached their jobs. Many of his interviewees provided quite direct feedback, for example, “Oh, good fellow from a foreign country, you have not yet understood wholeheartedly engaging in the Way, and you do not yet know what words and phrases are.” I love this, because, he admits that this work is indeed a practice–we never get it right all the time, and there is much we can learn from the work and insights of others.

And yet, from his travels he was able to distill three three essential attitudes that we can unpack with respect to our work and their impact on culture.

“Benefit others, which simultaneously gives benefit to the self.”

Long before Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term, Dogen was proposing that we embrace the notion of servant leadership, or as Jim Collins called it, “Level 5 Leaders.” Whether making rice gruel, running a global rice distribution company, or inventing a new renewable fuel than is derived from rice, our culture and indeed our success is deeply dependent on our sense of purpose. Dogen argues that purpose comes from keeping the benefit of others (your team, your customers, your community) at the forefront of your mind as your daily work.

Greenleaf biographer, Don Frick, with echoes of Dogen, explained Mr. Greenleaf was not describing a new kind of leader when we coined the term servant-leader:

“Servant is not an adjective. It is a noun. The servant-leader is both servant and leader at the same time.

The servant, without the leader, is focused on providing for others, doing good deeds and making things easier for those they serve. The servant is all about the heart and the soul. Their orientation is to relieve pain and bring solace. So many in our midst feel compelled to volunteer and meet the needs of others. We are blessed to know them and to follow their example of service.

The leader, without the servant, is focused on achieving goals, fulfilling the mission he or she has been charged with and growing their sphere of influence. The leader is about the brain and the body. Their orientation is toward action. They bring energy and we want to keep pace. We are motivated by their clarity of vision and unrelenting pursuit of a goal.

The servant-leader is more than the “and” of these two nouns. Servant-leaders humbly accept that they achieve goals when they help their team members achieve their highest aspiration and connect them to a compelling purpose. Their focus is lifting the capacity of others, with no expectation of what they get in return. It is the richest way to live and find meaning.”

Make the monastery thrive and renew its high standards.

We live and work in a complicated time. The enduring nature of our institutions are under threat; internally and externally. On the one hand, we are watching well-established, trusted brands struggle to adapt to evolving customer needs and the demands of new business models, competition and other macro-environmental threats. At the same time, any one of us can start a company, non-profit, or social enterprise today–from our house, on our phone, with nothing more than a credit card and a good idea. Some of these become highly successful companies that are sold for billions of dollars while still employing less than 20 people (see Instagram.)

Because of the fluidity of the institutions that we work for, we are told that our own skills, capabilities, network and reach may be more valuable on their own–not tied to or affiliated with our employer. In many cases, employer loyalty is dead. So, we are also encouraged as individuals to manage our own personal brands. With blog platforms and social media, any employee, regardless of their role or title, has the ability to be an independent voice and influencer today unlike any time in (modern) history.

So what can we learn from this second of Dogen’s observations? His argument is to keep something bigger than ourselves in mind. To work collectively to build something of value in order to experience more rewarding work and long lasting joy than if we focused solely on our own gain, reputation and career needs. He is pointing to what happens in the mind when you reflect on creating something that will outlast and outlive you. It slows us down. It re-orients us to quality over quantity. It reminds us that relationships probably matter more than just getting this task done, which informs our principles and values. This orientation has a profound impact on the culture of an organization.

John Abrams in his book, The Company We Keep, where he chronicles his own team’s journey in building a construction company on Martha’s Vineyard island, writes, “Our view of time is squarely at odds with short-term business thinking. The work of South Mountain Company will not be finished in our life-times, it will continue for generations…We try to think about our work as cathedral builders thought about theirs.”

Would thinking about building a cathedral (or monastery) change how you make a decision today?

“Aspire to stand shoulder to shoulder and respectfully follow in the heels of our predecessors.”

There is a certain hubris that can come in this modern age of leadership. The best ideas are created now. The old ways of doing things don’t work. We must tear stuff down to build stuff up. I have far too often been guilty of this thinking and this way of leading.

And yet, I still believe in and lead from a perspective of a deep respect for continual change. There is no certainty, no stable ground to stand on. Organizations that act as if there is are at risk of becoming irrelevant. Agile and lean approaches to management make a lot of sense in building nimble, sustainable organizations.

And still yet what can be learned from those who came before us? Standing shoulder to shoulder does not mean that we need to blindly adopt the ideas of our founders, or of the prior CEO, or any leader from the past. But it can encourage us to see ourselves as their peer, to connect with their humanity. It challenges us to see and respect that they tried to make the best decision they could with the quantity and quality of ingredients they had at the time. What can we learn from those decisions? mistakes? successes?

It invites us to humbly remember that our work and our decisions will soon be history too. Are we working in a way so that others can follow our lead? What will our successors experience when they put their feet in our shoes? Can we see our calling to be a student as well as a teacher, a follower as much as a leader?

Let’s take this as a reminder that our responsibility is to pay attention, keep practicing, and keep honing our own craft of leadership that builds on the lessons of our mentors and predecessors, but makes it our own. A workplace culture that is attentive to the moment, agile in its responses, and respectful of its history and its future is much more likely to create beneficial impact for everyone it touches.

Note: this post is the first in a series that will focus on honing the quality of attention we bring to our work. It is based loosely on a set of teachings from the Buddhist meditation tradition that I have been practicing this summer as part of an online course with Ven. Dhammadipa. Any gaps in understanding of the Dhamma are all mine.

Photo by Rémi Bertogliati on Unsplash