August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

Zen Leadership: The Toughest (Best) Business Decision I Ever Made

He cared deeply, lived carelessly, and couldn’t care less, and he died in the same obscurity into which he was born.Yet he remains the greatest leader and most remarkable man I have ever met. Everything that is best in me I owe largely to him.


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In 1973 I dropped out of college and took a job jockeying a jack hammer in order to study full time under a West Virginia hillbilly, family man, house painter, and Zen Master hovering just above the poverty line in Wheeling, West Virginia. A poster child for the anti-guru, he claimed no lineage, accepted no money, and I was his first student. He cared deeply, lived carelessly, and couldn’t care less, and he died in the same obscurity into which he was born. Yet he remains the greatest leader and most remarkable man I have ever met. Everything that is best in me I owe largely to him.

One day I approached him eager for his secret to success. What was the single most important thing he did in his life?

“It wasn’t what I did,” he replied without hesitation, “it was what I didn’t do.” Then he walked away leaving me baffled and a little miffed at what felt a lot like a rebuff…

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What is the sound of one hand clapping? How can success arise from not doing rather than doing? Riddles like these, called “koans” in Zen Buddhism, have long baffled the Western mind. Steeped for millennia in the Aristotelian logic that insists that the truth is either A or ~ A, Zen has long been dismissed as little more than mystical double talk by western philosophy and science. But recent advances in the science behind creative thinking and problem solving should be changing that misconception.

Only recently have terms like creative destruction, controlled chaos, coopetition, creative destruction, fuzzy logic, breaking the frame, jumping outside the system, disruptive technologies, and thinking outside the box entered the lexicon of business. These terms trickled down from science, and they all try to capture the essentially paradoxical nature of the universe. They suggest that overcoming our scientific, political, and economic challenges will increasingly rely on mastering a whole new mode of thinking: the same paradoxical thinking that Zen mastered 1500 years ago.

Technically, thinking outside the box relies on what psychologists describe as “lateral” or “divergent” thinking, and thinking laterally or divergently is highly correlated with creativity. Rather than converging on a single “back of the book” answer in a linear step by step way, divergent learning teaches people how to ask new and exciting questions: questions that disrupt assumptions and shatter the frame of complacency that produces a “business as usual” mentality.

Until relatively recently things rarely changed. Without the benefit of Moore’s Law, a Roman soldier looked pretty much the same in 400 A.D as he did in 400 B.C. The little change that occurred was gradual, incremental, and evolutionary. Success relied on efficiency rather than creativity, and Aristotelian logic is great at efficiency. But Einstein’s revolution changed all that. Today, change is the only constant and the rate of change keeps changing at an ever increasing rate.

Managing change has meant a value shift away from evolutionary business models aimed at efficiency toward revolutionary models that rely on innovation and creativity. The adage that no man is an island is doubly true for business, and our only choice is to lead change or fall victim to it. And leading change means doing a better job at thinking divergently.

Divergent thinking argues that it is not what we don’t know that is standing in our way, but more insidiously, all those things we are so damn sure we already know. The CEO of a rapidly growing startup put it succinctly, “It is not what I don’t know that keeps me up at night. It’s all the things I don’t know I don’t know because I think I do.” A Zen master couldn’t say it better or design a better koan.

It is axiomatic to leadership that most of our limitations are self-imposed, and that is why the IBM Executive School under my mentor, Louis R. Mobley, was a place where unlearning rather than learning took place.

I migrated to North Carolina in 1985 to join a software start-up founded by a 26-year-old college dropout, and his syrupy southern drawl betrayed his humble “country” upbringing. When he came up with his idea for a company, he jumped on a plane for New York and began cold calling venture capitalists determined to raise money or max out his credit card. He returned to North Carolina two weeks later with several million dollars.

Why did he succeed? It wasn’t what he learned but what he unlearned. It was not what he knew but what he didn’t know. Fortunately, this country bumpkin didn’t know that a bunch of buttoned down New York venture capitalists would never fund a redneck with a back of the envelope business plan. It wasn’t what he did but what he didn’t do: He didn’t listen to the conventional wisdom about what is possible.

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What Mobley imparted to IBM Executives was not knowledge. It was humility. Only the humbled mind questions its core assumptions and most sacred beliefs. As Mobley described the divergent method behind his executive school madness, I kept thinking “Wow, that’s exactly what my Zen teacher was doing!”

And like Zen, Mobley argued that teaching others to think divergently could only be accomplished through a series of epiphanies and Eureka! moments. Not through the same old “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them, and then test them to make sure they got it” convergent approach.

At heart, Zen applies divergent or lateral thinking to metaphysical questions, and that is exactly why Zen is so hard for people steeped in convergent thinking to grasp. The goal of Zen practice is often described as “Solving the Riddle of Life and Death” which maps well onto today’s emergent problem solving techniques based on divergent thinking. For Zen, the universe presents a problem to be solved not a theology to be believed in.

Rather than incremental “learning,” Zen relies on what my teacher called “a series of leaps and shocks” or what Mobley described as “mind blowing experiences” to produce “all at once” epiphanies, revelations, insights, and realizations.

However for Zen the final box that must be left behind is the box of space and time itself. That same box that science argues came into existence with the Big Bang. The same box that Morpheus called “The Matrix.” The ultimate goal of Zen is a final leap into “Satori” or enlightenment: a leap into Eternity itself where the riddle of life and death is finally transcended rather than solved. For as Einstein said, “No important problem is ever solved, it is transcended.” It is transcended because Satori reveals that the problem of life and death is something we create for ourselves through our conceptual limitations and erroneous assumptions. Just like most of our problems in business and our personal lives…

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In the late 80s I promised four North Carolina State students that I would pass on to them the wisdom that my Zen teacher and Mobley had passed on to me.

Two weeks later a close friend called and offered me the job of a lifetime. He was the new CEO of a once famous company emerging from bankruptcy, and he offered me the number two position. But there was one problem. I’d have to move to another city.

Recalling my promise to the college students, I turned the job down even though I was not working at the time. My decision was gut wrenching, and as the word spread that I was “some kind of a religious nut” the phone stopped ringing.

So with the help of few other religious nuts we started our own company with little money and a business plan that one of my partners described as “we’re smart guys we’ll figure out something to do.” Seven years later our company was purchased and we did very well. Meanwhile the company I turned down had long since gone bankrupt yet again, and the CEO of the holding company (not my friend) went to prison for fraud.

Turning down that job was the toughest business decision I ever made. The smart play and safe bet would’ve been to take the job, stay in my career box, and rationalize away my promise to those kids. However the best business decision I ever made was dropping out of school to study Zen. Because what I learned from my Zen teacher and later Lou Mobley is that we all need a higher purpose to live by, and that if we are not willing to make sacrifices for that higher purpose it is meaningless. So despite my fears, I made a decision that divergently took me outside my box and comfort zone: a decision that everyone I knew called “incredibly dumb” at the time.

In the end what we think, feel, or say amounts to little. Only our decisions reveal just exactly who we are and what we stand for. It took many years and the benefit of hindsight to finally learn what my Zen teacher didn’t do that led to his success. No matter how tough it got, he never sold out…

Here’s a Zen koan for you. If you master Zen you’ll be a great leader. But if you study Zen just to become a great leader you’ll never master it.

Want more on Zen Leadership? Here is some further reading.


Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook, or check out my Forbes blog for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.