Several years back, I volunteered to host a reception prior to the launch of iMeditate NY at Lincoln Center, where CEOs, investors, and other business leaders could interact with revered meditation teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (an advisor of mine) before he spoke to thousands in the audience about the secret of meditation. I recall one of the CEOs engaging him around a question that really struck me: “If I could cultivate any quality in life,” she asked, “what should it be?” Sri Sri paused for a moment. Then he looked at the CEO and said “Viveka,” the Sanskrit word for discernment. Perplexed by the answer, the CEO asked a second question: “What do you mean by discernment? Why discernment?” And with a warm smile, Sri Sri said, “Because it is most vital that we separate that which is important from that which isn’t in life.”
Years later, as I reflect back on that conversation, I think about the endless stream of information and data that executives and investors sift through, prioritize and make meaning of. When we fail to discern what is truly important, we can put our energy into things that are either unimportant or counterproductive. We are often not in the driver’s seat but are being hijacked by whatever is in front of us. When, however, we have the ability to discern what is most important in our lives — at home, at work, in our relationships — our energy and attention become focused. We can respond rather than react, making choices with clarity and intentionality towards the projects and people that matter most to us. What we put a value on determines what we pursue, and what we pursue becomes the journey of our lives as leaders.
So, what matters most? What matters most to you? I am going to propose a radical idea. Love is what matters most as business leaders. What do we think of when we think of love? We think of time with family, time with friends, time with work colleagues and customers, time with the people we deeply care about. Love is infused in those special moments of presence that we share with others, and it puts life (and work) in context.
Let’s think about this in a work context. What is disengagement but a lack of love for what you’re doing? What are disconnected teams but a lack of caring and belonging among the people within them? What is employee well-being but a leader’s deep caring and concern for the men and women that they are charged with leading? And what is good business other than caring for your customers and offering them your love through products and services you offer them? Really loving them and understanding their needs, their wants, and their desires. And when things go badly in organizations today — when employees are disengaged, stressed out, and emotionally disconnected from their work — I believe it’s because we, as leaders, aren’t taking the time to see the human behind the job. We’re not taking time to see them as partners instead of just costs and “necessary evils” to our business.
As leaders, we have a choice. We can keep squeezing ourselves, our employees, our margins, and hope that somehow, we can get more out. In order for that approach to work, however, we have to keep the pressure building from the outside — by continually increasing external motivators such as bonuses, raises, perks and promotions for employees or by instilling fear in our teams through up-and-out cultures, threats of layoffs and aggressive management practices. These approaches can only take us so far, and while we can become more efficient, we may not become more impactful or effective. At what point do we reach diminishing returns? Perhaps we can try something more radical. We can try love.