All the Best Leaders Practice Emptiness

“Empty before you begin” is a Zen mantra that reminds us to set the conditions for the vessel. When we intend this, we begin in a repeating ready state from which we can create, learn, and become — individually and organizationally.

But, to empty we have to give up. We have to unpack, let go, and dispose of what we no longer need, isn’t serving us, and is creating drag on our ability to evolve. When we build muscle around doing emptiness well, we learn to succumb to rather than resist the repeating loop of loss that is a part of the journey — in service of gaining.

The reality is that no day begins or ends with us in the same state. We lose parts of ourselves and the structures and processes in which we operate make micro and macro shifts daily. We prefer, however, to tow the line and maintain the status quo for fear of disruption and discomfort.

We add rather than empty for the same reasons.

As a baseline, our culture is one of accumulation and attachment — food, trinkets, houses, partners, land, countries, companies, weapons, debt… Collecting and holding on to “stuff” is deeply ingrained in our DNA and biology. Fox News built a media empire and spun a candidacy on accumulating fear. Tech and big business are prided on their ability to bloat value and swallow competitors. The storage industry is a $30 billion dollar industry with an anticipated 2.9% growth rate by 2020. A television show about hoarding quickly became a cultural phenomenon as did several about multitudes of children and wives. We are fascinated and pathologically stimulated by consumption and accumulation. Why? Because they push the lever of our reptilian brains with tickling delight.

The challenge is that accumulation is merely avoidance. What are we avoiding? We are avoiding loss. We add to avoid empty space like quiet, the unknown, or a sense of lack. We also add to avoid confronting difficult conversations, feeling uncomfortable or afraid, past memories, relating, or having to change. The unknown, confronting, and relating demand different parts of our brains and hearts — and immediate gratification isn’t always the reward. As a result, it feels far less satisfying to sit quietly and reflect than it does to order something online, post about ourselves, or create a meeting to talk about something. Emptiness gets quickly pushed away in favor of a more immediate fix.

As organizational change practitioners, we find ourselves nurturing, advising, and coaching clients tacitly or overtly through the tension of emptying and adding. As clients, we are building muscle to become more mindful in the face of letting go. As colleagues and leaders, we are holding space for the collective to rise by being aware of ourselves and our own emptying and allowing for that of our peers. As organizations, we are ideally striving for the mean to become a place of emptiness to which we can continually return to create, evolve, and discover.

Emptiness becomes our wellspring. Attachment and accumulation our opposition.

Whether we look at it from the perspective of moving through a change process or building high functioning and dynamic teams, we must confront and embrace emptiness as an intimate part of the process. We don’t change and grow without sacrifice so we must build muscle around loss in order to change and grow. One of the reasons we talk about readiness as a condition for change is exactly this. Consciously preparing for and being cognizant of what we are letting go of is a part of the emptiness process. Alternatively, a loop of romanticizing, stuckness, and resistance — all covers for control and fear of failure — keep us in place.

So, why do organizations stay with the same structures and keep doing the same things over and over again even when profits are down, the culture is miserable, and every business book and article lays plain the idea that you will likely not survive into the future without significant change? Why do teams and organizations put up with terrible leaders? Why do individuals spend most of the time projecting their pain and frustration onto anything they can think of rather than doing something about it?

They are avoiding the death of what they know, the comfort of that knowing, and the discomfort of the unknown.

We choose suffering over change because our reptilian brains delight in immediate gratification and fear. Thus, we exist in an epidemic loop of suffering as people and as systems — even when logically we know we need to change because the signals are everywhere.

My meditation teacher would say… the “ever repeating known” is dangerous. Any action that binds itself within a limited range prohibits expansion. To be in a state of expansion, we must continually be in a process of breaking boundaries. To break boundaries, we must do emptiness and give up, shed, lose. And yes, we are generally doing that in relationship with others.

How do we exercise our way through?

  • Any place you find yourself, go to the other place as a matter of practice.
  • Stop doing what you’ve always done and instead bravely do something different ten times until you’ve shifted and learned a new habit.
  • Get out of the mindset you are in that keeps you stuck in this place.
  • Attend to the feelings of fear, frustration, and control by being overwhelmingly curious and reflective inward.
  • Brave the sacrifice of this moment of change to empty and start anew.
  • Have a chat with your reptilian brain and tell it you are unwilling to live in a loop of fear and superficial gratification, topped with a false sense of control.
  • Explore and become proficient in the interactivity of a change of expectations knowing that the interactivity is what builds resilience and adaptivity.
  • Break a boundary, be messy, allow yourself to be seen in a way you’d normally protect.

Thinking that we can control the moments (or the future…) is simply the shell game our egos play to avoid emptiness and the sense of vulnerability that empty brings. But remember, emptiness is the wellspring from which we create. When we learn to change this equation, we realize the immense power and dynamism of emptiness — and how by building this muscle we become proficient in allowing rather than controlling, engaging rather than fearing, creating rather than operating.

To build true community, become high performing teams, shift business models, effectively change from one job or city to another, brave a new relationship, step into the truth of your leadership, or to shift to a new operating system in your organization… you must face and do emptiness as a practice. You will need to let go — of mindsets and habits, narratives and storylines, ways of being and doing — in order to become the next version of yourself, your team, and your organization.

What you know to be true today will not be true tomorrow.

Rather than fight it, lean into it. Break the boundaries of your worldview. Resist trying to be all tidy about it. It is not a linear, sanitized, or neat process. Be gracious with yourself and others to hold the space of emptiness. Be forewarned that every time you think “you’ve arrived” or “figured it out”, you’ll quickly be reminded that the next dynamic situation plays by an entirely different set of rules. Recline into your own humanity and that of the people around you and play in the mud of emptiness — to get to where you are going — over and over again. If you have engaged the right helpers, attracted the right people into whatever world you play in, and believe in your own capacity to grow and become… you’ll quickly realize that messy is quite a good place to practice emptiness and evolve.

Kathryn is a Leader Advisor, Organization Design Consultant, and Systems Coach. She strategizes with organizations large and small to build capacity in designing organizations of the future, evolutionary leadership, prosperous teams, and coherent systems.

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works.