Leaders must look out: For their companies, for their teams, for themselves. For trouble on the horizon and the light at the end of the tunnel. For all the challenges and the opportunities.
But what’s become only clearer to me throughout my career is that the most effective leaders also look in. They turn the lens around to work on themselves; to learn more, always; to exercise and stay in good shape; and to go a bit deeper than that too.
Spirituality, however one defines it, whether with an explicit religious practice, or by simply embracing the beauty of a sunset–or sunrise, since most of the business leaders I know are up well before it–can help inspire the greatest leadership.
Pausing for a moment, for 10 minutes or half an hour to get some meditative quiet amid all the noise of our frenetic lives generates more of the clarity, creativity, insight, decisiveness, and energy that can motivate a team and drive a strategy.
That’s not what most of us learn early in our careers–or ever, for that matter. Most of us are taught the opposite. That to stop, even for just a little while, is to fall behind. But that’s just not true.
I think most of us know, for example, because we’ve experienced it, that the best ideas have a way of coming unexpectedly, in a visceral flash. Not from intellectual analysis, working the data, however important that may be, but from some other resource within us.
The most important business insights and decisions certainly involve thinking, but that “Eureka!” moment, that out-of-the-box insight that truly distinguishes a leader, never just turns up on a calculator. The tactics and game plans that somehow put two and two together to come up with a brilliant, game changing five tend to come from someplace else. From the right brain, not the left: that creative, intuitive part of us that you can’t plot on a graph.
I once attended a seminar with a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He asked us to come up with a hundred things to do with a shoe besides put it on. At first, it seemed like a ridiculous exercise. If the shoe fits, after all, just wear it. But we business people found ourselves drawn deeper and deeper into the challenge.
You could, for example, with a bit of cleaning up anyway, drink out of it. Gradually, we came up with more and more uses for the shoe–yes, approaching 100. Stringing up the shoe as a musical instrument became the consensus favorite. We were in India, so we called it, I’m afraid, a shoe-tar. No, it didn’t exactly emit the lustrous sound of a real sitar, but we actually did make the thing, and you could actually play it.
Most importantly, we had reached beyond the initial resistance of our logical, rational minds. We had seen around the corner that every great leader must not be limited. Things are not always what they seem. When you see more, you can help others see more too. That’s leadership.
Our minds expand when we calm them down. Personally, every day, I try to set aside 20 or 30 minutes to sit quietly. Ten minutes can be enough. Just to let all the thinking slow down, even fall away. Watch your breath rise and fall. Or count your breaths, 1 to 10 and then back down again. Either way, or any way you settle down your mind, a more open space will be created. Something new can arise. Greater clarity replaces the clutter.
It is a good feeling, but as importantly, this seemingly almost crazy or even rebellious act that runs so counter to all of our workaholism is in fact enormously practical. A clear mind is critical to decision making. It makes room for new connections and fresh insights. And it arouses empathy.
As someone who manages many people, I know that authority, rigor, and discipline matter. But I also appreciate the importance of sympathy. A human touch is not about just being “nice”–it is effective management. It motivates.
When I can touch my own humanity in a period of meditation, a richer connection to the people around me awakens. I can lead with greater decisiveness and originality–and with the conviction that unites teams to work their hardest and to do their best.
The ins and outs of leadership involve so many ups and downs. But that’s why finding balance is so important. As leaders, each of us must look out for the companies we work for and for the employees we manage. To do that, I believe we need to make time to look in.
When you do, sure, sometimes a shoe will still just be a shoe. But at other times you’ll discover a whole new perspective. And that’s leadership–seeing the big picture, conducting the orchestra with a grasp of every instrument and its potential–and a deeper understanding of your own.
—Raja Rajamannar is the chief marketing officer of MasterCard. In this role, he has global responsibility for advertising, sponsorships, promotions, research, insights, and digital and consumer marketing initiatives, and he leads the evolution of MasterCard’s iconic Priceless brand.