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  • Fabrice Desmarescaux

Contemplative Leadership: Oxymoron or Obligation?

I was recently invited by Father Laurence Freeman to address the Bonnevaux Abbey meditation group. I chose to reflect on contemplative leadership. I have edited the text for clarity.

You may agree that Contemplative Leadership is somewhat of an oxymoron, just like “random order” or “clearly confused”. Both words are rarely found in the same sentence, just like both individuals are rarely to be found in the same room.

Leaders are people of action. They personify the Doing (with a capital D). As leaders, we act in the world, most often in the pursuit of an explicit goal, frequently short-term, which usually has a primary monetary translation, such as market share, EBITDA, or IRR.

As leaders, we are also generally suspicious of contemplatives, and when we are offered to slow down and take a moment to look inside, we may agree it is a good idea, but there is usually something more important to do at that time. As spiritual teacher Janet Drey puts it, “who has time for introspection when I am barely keeping my head above water”.

On the other hand, the contemplatives exemplify the Being (with a capital B). They live in a world that, at least from the outside, appears still and silent. They spend time in solitude. They live in inspiring places like monasteries and ashrams. They listen to the call of the soul. No EBITDA, no market share, no IRR, no KPIs for our contemplative brothers and sisters. Only the quest to become more acquainted with our soul, whether individual or collective.

Of course, connecting with the soul cannot happen in a noisy world. As the Quaker educator Parker Palmer puts it, “the soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye, we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”

Herein lies the impossible contradiction. Leadership is about control. Contemplation is about letting go.

So, can we reconcile the two, and for what purpose? And in today’s world, more than an oxymoron, isn’t contemplative leadership an obligation?

Let me share my own experience.

I grew up in Paris and trained as a mathematician and a civil engineer, and later got a business degree and a job in strategy consulting.

My education and career left little room for contemplation. Even though I was raised as a catholic, I believed mostly in science, free markets, meritocracy, and minimal government intervention. As you can imagine, France was not my ideal playground, so I left at the age of 24 and headed for Madrid, London, and finally Singapore.

I enjoyed my years at McKinsey. I ended up leading our financial services practice in Southeast Asia and later, I joined a large investment company and ran the consumer banking business of a large bank that we owned in Indonesia. Life was good—or at least it was supposed to be. I could become a bank CEO, my dream since I joined McKinsey. I had all the perks. My former partners at McKinsey were impressed.

Inside, though, I was feeling at a complete loss. I had just turned 40. I had recently separated. I was finding my work meaningless. I was having all the signs of the proverbial midlife crisis – except for the red convertible, which is not very useful in the traffic jams of Jakarta. I knew that I had to do something else; I just had absolutely no clue what.

My spiritual practice helped me a lot in these challenging times. Let me rewind. I had stumbled upon yoga when I moved to Asia and immediately got hooked, not because of my interest for gymnastics – I couldn’t touch my toes – but for its meditation and breathing practices as a gateway to stillness or Samadhi. Yoga, as it is practiced in the modern world, has little to do with its original spiritual roots. From the moment I started yoga, I knew that one day I would teach.

A few years later, I discovered Buddhism and studied in the Theravada tradition in a Singapore monastery and later with the Tibetans and the foundation for the preservation of the Mahayana tradition.

Yoga and Buddhism gave me balance and meaning. When a global executive search firm approached me, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I had always enjoyed reading about psychology and psychotherapy and human performance. I loved recruiting and mentoring the junior consultants and being faculty on McKinsey’s internal training programs. Developing individuals, not restructuring plans, was what I really enjoyed. Why on earth did it take me so long to figure this out, I have no idea.

After more than seven years with that firm, it was clear that I had dreams that could not be fulfilled while working a large global organization. I left and built my own business, applying the principles of leadership that I had learnt at McKinsey and offering the same advice to our clients. The business grew, we merged with another firm, and here we are today with 100 people in 8 cities.

Of course, my personal practice has continued to evolve as I find out what resonates with me. These days, I work mostly as an executive coach for individuals and teams, and lead retreats for them.

The individuals usually come to me at a critical juncture in their lives, not because they want to become better leaders—they are excellent already—but to reconnect with a sense of purpose. They want to give meaning to their leadership.

I take my clients on retreats to nice places like Ubud or Borobudur, and in communion with nature, we spend time in silence. We meditate, we practice yoga, we reflect on life, leadership, purpose and meaning, and we never forget to have a good meal and a nice glass of French wine.

What triggers my clients’ desire to find meaning? Well, life, it seems, has this funny way of reminding us that the question is never what we intend to do with it, but more what it intends to do with us. For some of us, it happens when we lose our job, when we retire, or sell our business. For others, it is a divorce or a loss that triggers the realization that time is finite and the opportunities to waste it plentiful. Discernment is needed, and a guide to walk the journey can be helpful.

This, of course, echoes my own journey…

I am comforted that more leaders are open to this inner inquiry. The challenges in front of us are enormous. The model that has underpinned the economic growth of the world in the last 300 years doesn’t seem to work anymore. We just cannot continue doing anything to grow and succeed, even at the cost of destroying the very world in which we operate. The assumption that animals, forests, clean air and ocean, and the earth resources, are infinite and should be available for free, doesn’t hold anymore. Nor can we be led by the technology and its advocates, when they ask us to throw away devices after one year, and whose ultimate objective is to render most of the human population unemployed and unemployable.

Clearly, we need more leaders who contemplate.

I firmly believe that we can only approach the crucial challenges of leadership when we have clear, balanced, and purposeful minds, hearts, and souls. Topics such as complexity, relationships, wisdom, purpose, and death, all critical to be a good leader, require that we explore them in silence and solitude.

How do I personally combine leadership and contemplation? I have no pretension to be a role model but just to illustrate one path albeit a modest one.

I meditate every morning when I wake up, and occasionally once more during the day, rarely in the evening as I tend to fall asleep. The practice helps me not only to develop stillness and lessen my reactivity, but also to pay attention to my felt sense. When I exhaust my capacity to think with my head, I turn to other centers of intelligence, including how I physically sense various situations.

I also take longer solo retreats in a small village in the Spanish mountains. I love the calm, the nature, the icy-cold rivers, and of course the weather and the food. I have done some of my best thinking and writing there.

Finally, in our business, my partners and I are very clear that we must balance financial metrics with creating a true community and a sense of purpose. Unlike many of our competitors, we favored reducing salaries over cutting staff. We simply accepted that everyone would earn less, and we have not had a single employee who seemed not to understand and value our approach.

In conclusion, I am very hopeful that over time, more and more corporations will wake up. After all, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin used to say: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

So, I will leave you with a passage from the Upanishads, probably written 3000 years ago.

In dark night live those for whom

The world without, alone is real; in night

Darker still, for whom the world within

Alone is real. The first leads to a life

Of action, the second to a life of meditation.

But those who combine action with meditation

Cross the sea of death through action

And enter into immortality

Through the practice of meditation.

So have we heard from the wise.

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