All the Best Leaders Practice Emptiness

Kathryn Maloney M.A. ABS

A consulting advisor and organisation designer to leaders, founders, and teams for 25 years, Kathryn weaves systems change vision and initiatives into strategy, priorities, and operating from outcomes. From her wheelhouse, she taps into how you communicate, relate, operate, work, lead, and group think; infuses presence, power, and self-awareness onto broad, prioritised organisation strategy; and designs tangible change to elevate your system's potential and expand its human value.

more about Kathryn
, New York City

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.

Change, Not Stability is the Constant

To empty we have to give up. We have to unpack, let go, and dispose of what we no longer need, is not 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.

Attachment and Accumulation Are Avoidance

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? The unknown. Confronting and relating demand different parts of our brains and hearts  —  and immediate gratification isn’t always the reward. 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 feeling afraid, past memories, relating, or having to change.

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.

The Many Levels of this Work

  • As organisational change practitioners, we find ourselves nurturing, advising, and coaching clients tacitly or overtly through the tension of emptying and adding.

  • As clients, you 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 organisations, we are ideally striving for the mean to become a place of emptiness to which we can continually return to create, evolve, and discover.

  • As humans, we are continually learning to become our higher selves in the dance with others.

Emptiness when we allow it becomes our wellspring for innovation, change, and creation. Attachment and accumulation our opposition.

Fear, Not Resistance Is Your Achilles Heal

When we look at it from the perspective of going about any type and level of change process, you must confront and embrace emptiness as an intimate part. 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 readiness is a useful condition for change (if you are fortunate to prepare) is exactly this. Consciously preparing for and being cognizant of what you are letting go of is a part of the emptiness process. Alternatively, the romanticised looping, stuckness, shell games, and resistance  —  all covers for fear and control  —  keep you in place.

  • Why do organisations 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 organisations 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?

Because you are avoiding the death of what you know, the comfort of that knowing, and the discomfort of the unknown.

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

My meditation teacher would frame it as the ever repeating known is dangerous. Any action that binds itself within a limited range prohibits expansion. To be in a state of expansion, you must continually be in a process of breaking boundaries. To break boundaries, you must do emptiness and give up, shed, lose. You are generally doing that in relationship with and to others. And, that often feels frightening.

How do you exercise your way through?

  • Stop doing what you’ve always done, and instead push yourself to do something different 10x until you’ve shifted and learned a new habit.
  • Any place you find yourself, go to the other place as a matter of practice.
  • Mind the mindset you are in that keeps you stuck in this place.
  • Attend to your feelings of fear, frustration, and control by becoming 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 power exerting itself as 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 you learn to compassionately remind yourself, emptiness is the wellspring from which we create.

When we learn to invert this equation of emptiness over accumulation, we realise the immense power and dynamism of emptiness . In building this muscle, we become proficient in allowing rather than controlling, engaging rather than fearing, creating rather than gollum-like operating.

Unlearning, Not Piling On is Key

To build a fortified global community, become high performing teams, innovate alternative solutions and products, flip business models, brave a new type of relating, step into the truth of your leadership, and shift to a modern way of running teams and organisations, you must face and do emptiness as a practice. You must craft muscle in heart mind and the disciplines of starting anew as a rhythm of your working ways.

You will need to let go  —  of mindsets and habits, narratives and storylines, old and outdated ways of being and doing  —  in order to create the space to become the next version of yourselves, your team, and your organisation.

What you know to be true today will not be true tomorrow. You want to get good at these practices rather than fear them to lead from a ready state.

Break the boundaries of your worldview.

Resist trying to be all tidy about it. It is not a linear, sanitised, 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 will unfold by a different set of phenomenom to keep you and your ego structure continually unattached — and in the emptying practice.

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 worlds you play in, and believe in your own capacity to grow and become, you’ll quickly realise that messy is quite a good place to practice emptiness and evolve.

You’ve got this. x

by Kathryn Maloney M.A. ABS
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