The Koan of Leadership

No one I know has penetrated the koan of leadership. A koan is a riddle, the solution to which can only be found by going completely beyond all conditioning and thought. The solution originates from a place utterly free from image, belief, and concept. The mind that answers a koan is no mind at all; it is empty of all representation. Wrestling with the koan of leadership requires keen reflection and persistent inquiry. We must refine our awareness to have a chance of discovering what might be buried, as a treasure, beneath the layers of conceptual thinking. An idea of leadership will always miss the mark; it is too slow and cumbersome; ideas cannot respond quickly enough to reality. This is why leadership is a koan. Any definition or formulation of leadership will miss the mark. Contemplate leadership as a means to become liberated from conditioning and thought. Then you will be qualified to be a leader.

The steady practice of reflection and inquiry develops clarity of mind. Clarity, the state of being free from the impediments of image and idea, allows us to see things simply as they are, not wrapped in our various imaginings. Simple awareness-of ourselves, of others, and of the world around us-is the gift of reflection and inquiry. We cannot be didactic about awareness as we can about leadership. Awareness can’t be taught. We have to discover it for ourselves. If we have an interest in awareness, we can only unwrap ourselves from ideas, concepts, opinions, and judgments until awareness itself remains. Awareness itself supplants answers and solutions because it is more real and more useful.

Leaders are people to whom we turn to solve our problems, or to inspire us in some way, so that our lives will be better-freer from suffering, conflict, and difficulty. To solve our problems, we must first understand our problems, clearly and simply, without excess. Lao Tzu wrote that a wise person’s greatest achievement is that he finds no problem difficult. I think he means that when we truly see the cause of the problem we want to solve, the problem ceases to be a problem. No solution is necessary. What is necessary is simple, spontaneous action that flows from awareness itself. “The most basic precept of all is to be aware of what we do, what we are, each minute,” says the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. This precept is the key to leadership.

A hundred books about leadership will not make any difference, because leadership is not the problem. Knowledge of leadership theories does not help us to see what is actually happening right now. What is happening right now is too real for any idea to grasp. Awareness, clarity of mind, is the appropriate tool to understand what is happening in reality. Leadership principles must give way to awareness, refined through reflection and inquiry. This is something we must each do for ourselves. We should not depend on others who may have power or authority in organizations or institutions. They cannot help. Insight will not come from specialized knowledge. Solutions will not come from experts. Skillful action will not come from pretense. Insight will come from silence. Solutions will come from awareness. Skillful action will come, spontaneously, from clarity.

Self-awareness reveals our true nature to be different from the collage of impressions and beliefs that often fills our minds, creating a huge traffic jam of honking thoughts. Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian mystic who died a few years ago, said, “When more people come to know their real nature, their influence, however subtle, will prevail and the world’s emotional atmosphere will sweeten up. When among the leaders appear some great in heart and mind and absolutely free from self-seeking, their impact will be enough to make the crudities and crimes of the present age impossible.” Knowing one’s true Self is the first task of a leader.

May everyone be at peace, in love, and know their most perfect Self.

Robert Rabbin is an author, speaker, and advisor. He can be reached via e-mail at, or by writing: 2629 Manhattan Ave., Ste. 192, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254. His new book, The Sacred Hub (The Crossing Press, ISBN: 0-89594-837-0), is available in bookstores or from the publisher at (800) 777-1048.

“Echoes in Silence” is a bi-weekly column by Robert Rabbin–author, speaker, and advisor–who has spend thirty years using self-inquiry as a means to explore the true nature of self, mind, reality, and consciousness.

His new book, The Sacred Hub (The Crossing Press, ISBN: 0-89594-837-0), is available through the bookstores nationwide.

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Written by Robert Rabbin

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