Equanimity, along with compassion, is one of the most revered virtues in every spiritual and philosophical tradition. Yet it’s almost entirely absent from our corporate leadership lexicon. That says a lot about who and what and where we are. It’s also why equanimity is a word for our time.
IF YOU learn to observe your own mind, as mindfulness teaches you to do, you’ll notice two particular things about your thoughts. Firstly, you’ll notice that your thoughts are always—literally, always*—about the future and the past. So you’re always thinking about what’s coming up next. Are you going to make that deadline? What’s your strategy for the next year? What’s on this weekend? Often, that will cause you to reflect on things that have happened in the past—usually so that you can make sure that what happened last time won’t happen again.
* By definition, thought does not exist in the present. When you’re present, then presence—or present awareness—replaces thought.
There’s another equally important thing that happens when your mind goes into the future and the past. It assesses—we could say it judges—what it finds there as either good (desirable) or bad (undesirable). So you think about that deadline and it becomes extremely desirable that you meet it, and therefore that everybody supporting you meets theirs. That would be good. If not, it would be bad. In some cases, very bad.
You judge every single future possibility in this way, as potentially good or bad. You do it with any and all information that comes in. Is it something I like, or don’t like? Is it something I want, or don’t want? That thing I overhead about the deal I’m working on, is it good or is it bad? We’re getting a new manager, is that good or is it bad? You’ve told me this now, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Judging future possibilities as good or bad is the main activity of your mind
Despite all your mental capacities as a human being, this is the main activity of your mind. It goes on twenty-four-seven, three-six-five. It jumps nonstop between past and future, constantly assessing whether it likes or doesn’t like what it finds there, whether it should be happy, and leave things be, or unhappy and do something about it.
As an aside, if you pay attention, you’ll also notice that your mind always assesses that future possibility according to its proximity and its perceived impact on me, my or mine. So, if it’s somebody else who gets a new boss, well, you’re probably not so worried about that, but if it’s my colleague, my friend, my child, it might impact me more. Then, if it’s me who’s getting the lousy boss, well now it really matters!
You’re not always the best judge of what’s good or bad
Now admit it, you’re not always the best judge of what’s good or bad for you, are you? Nor am I. Nor is anybody. For example, you leave for a meeting and, halfway down the road, you realise you’ve forgotten something, so you go back to fetch it. Now you’re panicking. It’s an important business meeting or interview and you’re going to be late! This is bad!
Then, a few minutes later, back on the road, you see there was an accident and if you hadn’t gone back to fetch that thing you might have been right in that position. So going back to fetch it saved you from having an accident. Or not getting a particular deal, or job, made you work harder, and that’s how you got that really big deal, or job, a few months later. What’s more, you got it despite your fuming at the time about losing that other one. You got it despite all the worrying and analysing and ear bending you did. All that time, you could say, something else was in the offing.
Equanimity is about considering the possibility that, actually, maybe, nothing’s wrong here. The situation just is the way it is.
Or, you didn’t get the job and, if you could step back from it being all about me, my or mine for a minute, you might admit that the person who got it was the right person for the job, or for the company as a whole. If you could do that, you might see that there’s something else at play here. There’s a bigger picture, and it’s not all about you.
A real-life example from the world of sport
Here’s a real-life example from the world of sport. Warren Whitely is a former South African rugby player. He was chosen as captain for the Springboks, but got injured before he could ever lead them onto the field. When that situation dragged on, they had to choose another captain, and they chose Siya Kolisi. Siya became the first black African to captain South Africa. His presence united the country at a time when it really needed that. His story became an inspiration when it was shared around the world during the subsequent Rugby World Cup tournament. I don’t know how Warren Whitely responded, although I believe he was magnanimous. He saw the bigger picture. He didn’t make it all about me, although he might have, as many of us do.
After a supposed setback, you’ll sometimes hear people say, “I wouldn’t wish [that event] on my worst enemy and yet it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned so much from it. It made me who I am today.”
You always get that in retrospect, don’t you? It can even take a few years. Well, here’s the thing: equanimity is about recognising that as a possibility, even while the situation is happening. It’s about adding that possibility to the mix—the possibility that, actually, maybe, nothing’s wrong here. It is the way it is. There is no good and bad. It’s just a situation, let’s look at the bigger picture, let’s see how it unfolds. Equanimity is also about looking into those future possibilities with the same level of, well, equanimity. You don’t prejudge a situation as good or bad. It just is, and when it arrives, you respond.
Equanimity doesn’t mean you can’t have goals
Now that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, or have goals, or act to steer things in a particular direction. It speaks more to how you go about that, and what happens when, despite your best efforts, things don’t go your way.
Let’s approach the subject from one more angle. Consider what happens when you try to steer things towards what you want (good) and away from what you don’t want (bad). You think you’re in control of that, don’t you? Well, if you’re as rational as you claim to be, then you’d better check: do you have as much control over life as you think you do?
Consider this. If you had to beat your own heart, breathe your own lungs, work your spleen, et cetera, what would happen? You’d probably be dead in a few minutes because you’d be too busy on your phone, or too worried about what might happen with that new boss! Fortunately, your autonomic nervous system takes care of all those things for you, without needing your attention.
Yet, despite the fact that you can’t control your own body, you somehow believe that you are able to control events outside of yourself. For instance, you seriously believe that when you send that angry email to somebody, you know exactly how they’ll respond. Why, they’ll come back and say, “Oh yes, you’re right, of course, I’m sorry.” That never happens, does it?
A lot of stuff happens that you’re not in control of
Or you send out the proposal that you absolutely perfected and you really believe that this little tweak or that tweak is going to make the difference to landing the deal. The deal doesn’t come through. Then, on another day, you quickly throw a presentation together to meet the deadline; it’s a bit of a rushed job and, surprisingly, you get the deal.
So a lot of stuff happens that you’re not really in control of, and yet you don’t gather that evidence very accurately. You continue to believe that you’re in charge, that you’re in control of a lot more than you really are. The psychologist Carl Jung commented on this phenomenon. He said, “All modern people assume that there is nothing that exists that they have not made up. We think that we have invented everything physical, that nothing would happen if we did not do it. That is our basic idea and it is an extraordinary assumption.”
You don’t prejudge a situation as good or bad. It just is, and when it arrives, you respond.
So, how is this going to help you? Well, firstly, how much of your stress is caused by you believing that you know what’s going to work out and not work out and by you trying to control situations, or by you worrying about situations?
Secondly, it’s just not realistic. It’s not true that you control all of those things. So you’re out of touch with reality if you’re trying to control everything. You’re not in touch with how life really is and therefore you’re seeing things through your own lens, you’re not gathering accurate data, you’re not making the most intelligent decisions based on what’s real and what matters in any situation.
Without equanimity, there’s a lot of wasted energy and unnecessary stress
In fact, you’re most likely overreacting too often, and putting effort and attention on things that you don’t need to. Or you’re panicking about stuff, and trying to control stuff, that you ultimately can’t. So there’s a huge amount of wasted energy and unnecessary stress. And what is one of our biggest problems at the moment (even including the economic impact of the coronavirus)? The shortage of time and the amount of pressure everyone is under to perform and produce a perfect result!
This brings us to something that happens a lot in business and in corporate life. When something goes wrong, then you start to look around for who’s to blame. The questions get asked, “Why did this happen?” “How could it have happened?” “Why didn’t you catch it earlier?” Up to a point, that’s valuable and sometimes even necessary. You do need to go and look to see whether somebody was asleep on the job or if something is missing in the process.
However, we often drive to find a solution that actually isn’t there. If a problem came up, well, good, it came up. Of course it came up. Everybody was present enough, paying attention enough, committed enough, and so it rose to the surface. Great. You could be glad that you caught it, and move on. It doesn’t have to matter how you caught it, as long as you did. But most often, we don’t see it like that. There has to be an inquiry. We have to be seen to be doing something. We have to try to control future outcomes, to steer them away from “bad” and towards “good” outcomes, using our own power of concentration. Yes, that same power that couldn’t keep you alive for two minutes if it had to.
Most corporates are afraid to let things be
If you really look at it, you can almost never have enough system or procedure to catch absolutely everything. There’s always something. Most corporates are afraid of that. You have to show that you’re doing something. You have to jump onto everything and try to control everything. Yet many situations are in that grey zone and you can trust that as long as everybody remains present enough and committed enough, stuff will come up. It will get noticed, and dealt with. And some things won’t. Guess what? It won’t be the end of the world.
Of course things matter, and while you can do something about a situation, you act all you can. When you can’t do anything about it, you let it be. Notice, that phrase is not “let it go”, it’s “let it be”. It is what it is. What are you going to do next? You have to be like the sportsman on the field who gets tackled. How quickly are you going to get up again? You have to trust the game plan, and keep trying. Sometimes, and only sometimes, things will work out. Think about it like this: players in football and rugby, for example, spend close to two hours on the field. For every second of that time, they’re trying to score. The actual time they spend scoring amounts to a few seconds. Boo-hoo. Life is so unfair.
Equanimity can be developed as a trait
Equanimity has been held up by all the philosophical, spiritual and religious traditions as being one of the most desirable traits, along with compassion, that human beings can develop. Daniel Goleman (who coined the term Emotional Intelligence) and neuroscience researcher Richard J. Davidson wrote a book called The Science of Meditation, published in 2017. They assessed all the scientific studies ever done on meditation. They wanted to see whether meditation can develop the kinds of “extremely positive” personality traits that those ancient yogis seemed to have acquired after years of practice. Specifically, they looked for equanimity and compassion.
Sure enough, they found some strong evidence that it does. In other words, their analysis of the research supports the notion that we can all develop equanimity—just like those yogis. Meditation is one path, and probably the best—Vipassana meditation in particular. Developing self-awareness through the right personal development program, for example, is another. In this blog article, which repeats some of this content, is a list of how equanimity is expressed in some of the world’s main religions and philosophical traditions.
It doesn’t mean you can’t have goals, or act to steer things in a particular direction. It’s about what happens when, despite your best efforts, things don’t go your way.
The bad—there’s that word again!—news is that it’s almost completely missing from the modern corporate leadership lexicon. In decades of reading and research I’ve only ever found it in two instances. Firstly, there’s the management guru Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. He introduced the notion of personal mastery into the leadership context. A key feature of personal mastery is having increased self-awareness and consciously developing oneself towards a better way of being.
Equanimity’s rare appearances in the leadership lexicon
Senge defined five factors of personal mastery. One of them was what he termed an “acceptance of reality”. He said that “people high in personal mastery treat reality as an ally and not as an enemy”. In other words, they don’t spend their life clinging to their assessments of future possibilities—or even current realities—as good or bad. Of course they take a view, then they wait and see what happens. They deal with each event as it arises. They recognise what they can and can’t control, and they choose to put their attention calmly on what they can control—and on one thing at a time. In other words, they have, and practice, equanimity.
The second reference to the subject of equanimity that I found is in the book Leading Consciously by Indian academic and author Debashis Chatterjee. He actually uses the word equanimity. He writes: “Equanimity gives the mind purity of perception, clarity of vision and effective decision-making capacity.”
In support of practising equanimity, Chatterjee quotes a former CEO of McKinsey, Rajat Gupta, as having said that he “allows some problems to lie undecided because he is conscious that a certain amount of inertia is more useful in solving a problem than is premature and aggressive action. [Gupta] said, ‘I tend to let things sort themselves out. Nine problems out of ten go away if you don’t address them. You have to deal with the tenth. I often don’t address things until I have to.’”
Equanimity arises when you recognise these facts
As you can see, this is not about doing nothing, it’s not about being all shoo-wow like a hippie or saying nothing matters. It’s about recognising the fact—and, yes, I stress the word, fact—that you do not control everything that you think you control. When you recognise the fact that your mind likes to judge things as good and bad, and that it often gets that wrong, when you recognise the fact that things are always changing on their own anyway—that the flower will grow on its own anyway, whether you watch it or not—then you open up to the possibility that very often things occur in your favour, without you having to do anything.
Your job is to identify which element of the situation may need your attention and then to give that your full attention. Then you do what you can. And sometimes, you may decide deliberately, like our man Gupta earlier, to do nothing. That’s sometimes the wisest choice. After all, how many times have you acted and, by acting, caused the very problem you were trying to avoid. You followed up too early on the sales proposal and now you’ve irritated the client. You said to the child who was carrying the cup of hot tea, “Don’t spill,” and they got a fright and spilled it. Either way, whether you act or deliberately don’t act, you trust that everything will evolve in a way that, even if it doesn’t benefit you overtly or directly, you will certainly be able to deal with it.
It’s not about suppressing the judgement of good or bad, or suppressing the desire to influence things. Nor is it about trying to hold yourself back. It’s about actually recognising the reality, the truth, the fact that you do not control as many things as you think you do and that your judgement is not always correct. When you see that as a fact then equanimity arises spontaneously, and whole new possibilities occur. You become more intelligent because you treat the situation as it is. You deal with what’s real, and so you make better decisions, because they’re based on what’s real and what matters.
Equanimity is about acting and allowing at the same time
Another way to say this is that you act one hundred percent, and you also allow one hundred percent. In other words, you do everything that you can within a situation, and you don’t try to do everything that you think you need to. Instead of going hammer and tongs at everything, you rein yourself in and bring some attention to what is needed—what is actually needed—in the situation. Instead of deluding yourself, or trying to be the hero, you limit your perceived level of power and influence. You focus on what you can actually do and at the same time you one hundred percent allow things to unfold as they will, without reacting, without going back into judgements of good or bad.
You focus on what you can actually do and at the same time you one hundred percent allow things to unfold as they will.
As you can see, practising equanimity is about giving up that hundred percent control that you think you have and yet that doesn’t mean flipping to the opposite side, where suddenly you’ve got zero control, and everything is chilled and “out there”. That would be either-or, black-or-white thinking. Instead, it’s about applying both-and thinking. It’s about recognising the possibility of control and of letting things be at the same time. It’s about having that dance between yourself and reality.
Two quotes–and a training-wheels practice
Here are two quotes that sum it all up. The first is by German philosopher Eckhart Tolle. During a weekend workshop that was recorded and published under the title Through the Open Door, he said, “The only true spiritual practice is to renounce the next moment.” Now don’t take offence if you ascribe to a particular religion. Look at it like this: what he means is that ultimately every spiritual and religious tradition point people towards the ability to give up their preference for what should happen next. There are some examples of how this is expressed in each of the major world religions in this article, which was also referenced earlier.
Another quote that sums up the state of equanimity is by Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was known as the “guru’s guru”. He once brought a hush over his audience when he announced, “Do you want to know my secret?” After a pause, he continued: “My secret is that I don’t mind what happens.” Once again, this doesn’t mean you do nothing, or that you don’t act. It’s about what happens when things don’t go your way. Are you rigid, or can you flex? And yes, it requires discernment to decide whether to persist with a goal, or to go with what’s happening. But that’s a topic for another day.
Here’s a training-wheels practice for developing equanimity. When you’re out and about in your day, open your favourite music app on your phone, select the entire library and set it to random play. Your job is to listen through everything. No skipping songs that you don’t like, and no repeating songs that you do like. Just listen to every item with equal awareness and attention, letting go of your preferences and judgements. You may skip a track for safety reasons, like a meditation track while you’re driving, but not based on your likes or dislikes.
Making it through hard times
In my own life as a risk-taking entrepreneur who from early on embraced a rather adventurous lifestyle, I have sometimes found myself in extremely difficult situations. In one particular year during my forties, I lost my business, my relationship ended, my ex-wife emigrated with my teenage son, and my mother passed away. I ended the year having sold almost everything I owned, and I moved in with a friend. On the last day of the year, while playing cricket with his son and some friends, I got hit in the face by a cricket ball and was rushed to the emergency room.
This is what happens when you decide to teach something. You get tested. Life asks you to prove that you can live it. I can honestly say that the conscious, deliberate awareness of the need for equanimity during those dark days, and the commitment to practice it with integrity, is the single most important factor for my having made it through without getting sick or having a breakdown, without becoming hardened or cynical, and without giving up.
The missing word of our time
Right now we’re in the midst of lockdown during the coronavirus crisis, and many people are taking strain. My offering is this. I can say that having developed equanimity, I’ve felt hardly a blip in my mental or emotional state during the time that this crisis has unfolded. That’s despite the economic and social impact, the uncertainty, the business challenges, the lifestyle constraints. Therefore, I say, equanimity is what we need to develop now more than anything.
Not only that, but in these times, even before the coronavirus, and most likely for some time afterwards, we’re seeing higher levels of stress and depression than ever before. Ironically, we have more freedom and more choice than ever before in history. In many ways, a plethora of choice is the antithesis of equanimity—it’s about satisfying every preference without any constraints. When that happens, you don’t get much chance to practice equanimity.
So we have all this going on, and we have equanimity as the one standout word that is significantly missing from our awareness and from our vocabulary. There must be something in that. That’s why I say that developing equanimity and bringing it back into the corporate leadership lexicon might just be one of the most valuable things that you can do for yourself and your people.
Equanimity. Remember it. It’s a word for our time.
FIND OUT MORE
To develop equanimity in yourself, and have that as your primary go-to response to life — in other words, to have it as a stable personality trait — try this 10-lesson self-study masterclass.
Watch a YouTube video related to this blog post:
Webinar Recording | Building Resilience through Equanimity
At the height of the coronavirus lockdown, I was invited by corporate wellness consultants Maureen Kark & Associates to give a lunchtime talk via Zoom to one of their clients. The theme was “Building resilience during lockdown” and I approached it through the lens of developing and practising equanimity. Below is a recording of the full presentation.
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