Happiness in True Leadership

Find your starting point.

Leaders are at their best when they are balanced, relaxed and happy. It is our fundamental nature to be happy. “Really?” you say, with a skeptical cock of your head. Then why is happiness often so incredibly fleeting and illusive?

We live in a culture that identifies happiness with material and creature comfort, and even though we may intellectually know better, most of us have bought into this paradigm. The truth is, happiness is not reliant on external factors, nor can it be obtained through our five senses. Our basic needs transcend the sensual, a reflection of the complexity of our species. There are people who have unending material comfort, and yet are not content. So, too, there are people that live under material deprivation or physical duress, and yet remain fundamentally content and joyful.

The underlying characteristic of true happiness is inner peace. To cultivate inner peace requires that we shift our tendency towards self-preoccupation to something larger than ourselves. Focusing primarily on our personal well being reinforces a sense of disconnection. As a result, we lose touch with the delightful and interdependent field within which we actually live. Isolation breeds sadness. Connection opens our hearts, expands our minds, and relaxes our grip.

Yet, we are all familiar with people who serve others, and yet are not peaceful or content. Although finding a larger sense of purpose is critical, it is not enough. The cultivation of contentment also requires going inward, working with the negative states that often become a part of our identity.

It is important to notice what we do when negative thought or emotion arises, because where we place our attention actually supports change. For many, there is a tendency to numb out, resist or ignore negativity, thus sending it underground where it can’t be resolved. Others will lock down on a negative state, which actually rigidifies it.

But if we place our attention on arising negativity and on a deeper, spacious state simultaneously — a capacity that we cultivate through meditation — the negativity begins to constellate, loosens, and eventually moves out of our system. This requires presence. Strengthening presence requires developing the muscle of attention. This is how we support change at the level of identity.

After a long stretch of work on self development, a business leader described his experience this way: “I am beginning to reap the bounty of taking full responsibility for my inner life, no longer blaming others for how I feel. I’m less reactive, more present, better able to discern when I need to lead, and when I need to follow, when I need to push, when I need to let go, when I need to listen, when I need to act. I’m less anxious and irritated, and much more relaxed. I am learning to be tough without being harmful. I’m often happy for no apparent reason.”

As we live through a period of unprecedented turmoil, cultivating a sense of inner peace is critical for those who will lead change. The Dalai Lama proposes that the ethical principle which binds all of humanity is the desire for happiness and the wish to avoid suffering. He invites us to use this as a starting point for a universal code of ethics.

With this as a starting point, above all, we should attempt to avoid harming others. Harm to others, without fail, emanates from negative internal states. When we resolve our own discontent we begin to uncover our innately happy nature. This, in turn, helps to alleviate suffering in the world.