Zen and the Art of Executive Leadership

Oftentimes, knowledge comes from unexpected sources! Discovery of those nuggets depends on one’s ability to associate and read between the lines. This requires a curious and alert mind. Because it is not unusual to find all kind of solutions, participants, and choice opportunities when we’re not experiencing any problems to which they can be attached, we store those finds in a mental garbage can.

But, when confronted with a problem, we allow those solutions, participants, and choice opportunities to flow in and out of that garbage can, and which solution gets attached to any of our problems is largely due to chance. That’s the Garbage-Can Theory (Cohen, March, and Olsen 1972).

In writing CEO ADVENTURE, I used the Garbage-Can Theory for finding many of my metaphors to explain business system complexity and dysfunctional behavior in executive decision making. Let me give you an example.

Time and again, I see leaders decide to blindly follow instructions, or implement popular methods and practices, and failing to obtain the intended results―they do the wrong things for the right reasons. Think of this as dousing an oil fire with water. My problem was to explain the break down in executive decision making. The solution from my mental garbage can originated from the epic book ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig.

Pirsig writes about his time as a university professor teaching creative writing. The text book dealt with and analysis of specific aspects that contribute to writing creatively. These aspects then became a prescription for WHAT to do in your writing. As a result, these rules, techniques, or gimmicks were reduced to a mere checklist, which destroys one’s personal creativity. The problem with running such checklists, is a strict reliance on someone else’s definition of creativity.

Instead of learning rules, techniques, or gimmicks, you need to understand and appreciate WHY certain aspects of style enhance a story’s unity, vividness, authority, flow, suspense, proportion; its hanging-togetherness. You need to define WHY a story’s characteristics such as unity, vividness, authority, flow, suspense, proportion are important to you; what is the purpose for which you intent to use those characteristics.

These characteristics are aspects of quality, and Pirsig defined quality as The continual stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. If we want to enhance a business’ creativity, we must define that business’ purpose.

Pirsig points out that anyone can tell the difference between good quality and bad quality―we just know and don’t need anyone else to tell us. Hence, once the purpose is known, those rules, techniques, or gimmicks have meaning; they make sense and become purposeful. In addition, you might discover ones of your own using the Garbage-Can Theory. Now you are creative!

Note that employees are more engaged and creative when their work is in pursuit of good quality such as becoming a target audience’s obvious choice supplier. Employees easily disengage when they are expected to pursue whatever measure that increases shareholder value―often at the expense of their own job security, work satisfaction, and compensation. Which is the driving force you experience in creating the world in which we live?

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