Bringing Eastern Philosophy to a Business World Rife With Uncertainty
Economic shocks and uncertainty have long impacted the global world of business. As a result, leaders must continually look for ways to strategically reposition and pivot the enterprises they oversee in order to ensure their sustainability.
Back in the 80s and 90s, I was part of two leadership teams with hospitals in Central Indiana and Chicago. At the time healthcare was being buffeted by a torrent of industry changes promising to impact how care was delivered. In my role as human resource executive, ensuring the recruitment and retention of top talent was a critical element in our response to these shifting winds.
Looking back, I’ve always attributed my ability to remain calm and measured during these times to a deep interest in Eastern philosophy. So it’s no wonder that I found myself intrigued by the book “The Tao of Strategy: How Seven Eastern Philosophies Help Solve 21st Century Business Challenges” upon encountering it at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in the Denver area.
As I noted in a “Great Books, Great Minds” feature story I wrote back in May of this year…..
“…… this well-crafted book offers a fascinating look at the Great philosophers of the Eastern world and how their lessons intersect with those of modern-day business leaders. Readers gain an innovative set of approaches for fueling strategic thinking and problem solving on both a macro and micro organizational level.”
As the authors L. J. Bourgeois III, Serge Eygenson, and Kanokrat Namasondhi noted:
“This book is for leaders facing tough strategic challenges. We would like to offer another approach for business strategists, decision-makers, and general readers – all who make plans and live in this volatile and chaotic world – to perceive and effectively handle the unpredictability with less stress, more happiness, and a higher chance of success by leveraging on Eastern philosophy – the topic, although ancient, is increasingly relevant in modern, fast-paced, and materialized world, as it will arm you to manage the unpredictability which happens more severely and more frequently in this century.”
The authors believe that in contrast to western norms of planning and controlling, eastern philosophy is about being agile and nimble, providing a call for action or even inaction. They point to the last section of their book on “Lessons for Strategists” as being particularly relevant for all leaders during these turbulent times.
When I asked the three authors to share some ways in which an Eastern philosophical approach to strategy and leadership can be used to improve decision-making processes during these times of economic and business uncertainty, here’s what they offered
First, take a step back and assess yourself and your organization across 4 principles:
Build a Foundation: How strong is your foundation? What assets and capabilities do you have to navigate these challenging times and the demands and needs of the 21st Century? Do you have sufficient funding/liquidity? Do you have new-age tech capabilities? Are you up to date to date on sustainability, such as net zero commitment?
Prepare the Mind: How well do you know your recent or current feelings or levels of stress? Are you too obsessed with your job or overwhelmed by the sense of lack of time to finish everything on your plate? Are you aware of the possibility that you choose to have these feelings? Are you driven by external pressures that you cannot control?
Adjust the Lens: What is the state of your mind? Full of frustration as the glory years of stock markets and world trade has slowed down with the rise of inflation globally? Fear of inability to control or to make the next ‘right’ or ‘sound’ decision?
Take Actions: Are you acting for the sake of taking actions to survive on a day-to-day basis? Do you choose the right timing to act? Are you going extreme instead of balanced?
Second, close the gaps with lessons learned from Eastern Philosophy at the strategic level by:
Strengthening where your foundation is weak, e.g., increase the level of liquidity, build new capabilities organically or inorganically
Revisiting your mind and adjusting your mindset – the key of Eastern philosophy is the “non-controlling” mindset – that impermanence and uncertainty are the reality of life and nature.
“The state of everything, including economic, business, political and cultural landscapes, will change and move in circularity. In other words, not monotonically up or down, but in fluctuating periods of time of unclear durations. The acceptance of this reality along with relinquishing the obsession with control is the starting position for being present. The key here is to objectively analyze and understand the current context, which itself may be drastically or slightly different from the past.”
Their third piece of advice is for leaders to select Eastern philosophy lessons that will tactically ensure that the above occurs.
“For example, find your sounding board as Arjuna found Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita to give you a wake-up call when you need and to test your idea; do not over analyze, be mindful and remain present with Buddhist mindfulness; be like water in Taoism – which adapts to the terrain, flows around obstacles, and is soft but can dissolve the hard.”
I then proceed to ask the authors how the strategic behavior of those of an Eastern philosophical mindset differs from that of a more Western orientation. They remarked that…
“…. The Western orientation tends to be more linear and analytic – both necessary foundations for strategic thought. It also has a bias to act and act now. Moreover, it may consider changes as problems, for which it will then identify root causes and find new solutions to solve challenges (thus taking the situation under control). This Western way of thinking and living has made our life much more convenient and full of predictability and control.”
Continuing, they had this to say:
“For example, when you feel hot, you can turn on the A/C. When you visit a new place, you can open Google Maps. When you visit a new restaurant, you can read customer reviews to determine whether you would visit that restaurant and/or which menu you would pick. Everyone loves these innovations. We love them too.”
“……However, ancient Eastern philosophy is grounded more toward nature. Although eastern executives and consumers appreciate how innovation has improved the world, the fundamental realities of nature, in terms of impermanence, uncertainty, circularity, and inability to control outcomes still hold true, especially as the world experiences climate changes, more frequent and more volatile business and economic fronts, and the pandemic caused by infectious diseases.”
The authors say that they share the belief that Eastern philosophy will give immunity to practitioners’ states of mind toward such changes.
“As humans, we would still experience panic, frustration, and stress. However, the level of stress would reduce; the period of being trapped in the turbulence of thoughts would shorten, and the perspective to understand situations and complications and make decisions would be more objective and crystal clear.”
“In the end, a combination of the western strategic mindset with ancient Eastern philosophies allows us to handle the changing times with rationality, objectivity, and the patience to act or not to act at the right moment.”
More on The Tao of Strategy: 12 Principles and 4 Action Directives (University of Virginia Darden: Ideas to Action)
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