What if our success as a leader doesn’t actually result from working harder or thinking smarter? Could our lack of spontaneity actually prevent us from attaining what we are striving so hard to achieve?
Chinese thought has a phrase that is paradoxical when translated into English. Wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing” but it isn’t about not trying or not doing. Instead, the concept of wu-wei refers to the actual state of mind of someone who is being very active and optimally effective.
Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia, has written a book that explores this concept. His premise is based on the idea that when we get caught up in our need to try harder, we actually impede our own efforts.
As someone who is slightly obsessed with working harder (okay, maybe mostly obsessed) this paradox of letting the situation tell me what to do, rather than doing what I think will work, is challenging to grasp. The benefits of willpower and self-control seem far more important to me than paying attention to some unspoken, semiautomatic behavior hidden somewhere in my self-conscious.
Perhaps one reason I’m challenged by the idea of wu-wei is my preference to analyze situations while keeping emotions at bay. Early Chinese thinkers had a different goal in mind. They sought to acquire the ability to move through their physical and social worlds in full harmony trying to know how rather than knowing this or that.
Leaders who are in wu-wei possess an innate ability to draw people to them. They are trustworthy because spontaneity can’t be faked or imitated. They don’t have to coerce or bribe people so they will do what they want. They recognize how their shared values and beliefs allow them to spontaneously collaborate with others.
Ironically, spontaneity isn’t something a leader can strive to achieve.
Our technology obsessed and over-achieving culture will be challenged to practice some of these Chinese approaches. Slingerland suggests relaxing and letting a solution “pop out.” That works better than actively trying to solve the problem. We can also take walks, sleep in, meditate, or practice our breathing.
The goal is to create space for our unconscious self to speak. In that spontaneous moment we could get exactly what we are looking for. Might spontaneity be the secret to a leader’s ability to trust and love?
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