The Conscious Manager: An Interview With Fred Phillips

The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers the book's title points to the need to be aware, both of what's going on around us and what's going on inside us. We need this awareness in order to find a mission that makes our life "all one piece.

Fred Phillips has just published a book called The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers. The book aims to help readers make more effective and fulfilling decisions. In an interview with Jill Kelly, Dr. Phillips talked about his new book.

Fred Phillips
Fred Phillips, author of "The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers"

JK: What do you mean by the phrase “Conscious Manager”?
FP: The book’s subtitle is Zen for Decision Makers. Zen practice, of course, stems from Buddhism, and the word or title “Buddha” means “the one who woke up.” Thus, the book’s title points to the need to be aware, both of what’s going on around us and what’s going on inside us. We need this awareness in order to find a mission that makes our life “all one piece.”
I advocate a meditative practice for developing this awareness. I prefer zazen (Zen meditation) myself, though other types are fine too. The Conscious Manager also presents other exercises, for example, ones that help readers not to overreact to things that happen every day, things that are not worth getting twisted up about. Both kinds of exercises help us find out what really matters to us, so we can pursue that effectively and without distraction. The book features vignettes in business settings that illustrate the value of this approach for managers.

JK: The Conscious Manager also draws on your martial arts experience.
FP: Yes. I have trained in aikido for nearly 30 years and been a teacher for most of that time. As you know, Professor Scott Prahl and I lead the OGI Aikido Club. Other people have written about how to use martial art principles to gain advantage in business. So I wanted to tackle the harder question, which is how always to act from core values when we are surrounded by hype and pressure for profit.

JK: What attracts you to aikido?
FP: In one sense, just the mix of healthy exercise, self-defense skills, and a sensible approach to handling conflict. In a deeper way, aikido forces one to act from core values. In business, we can waffle and cover screw-ups. In a physically violent situation, if you act without focus and integrity, you end up injured or dead. No room for denial. So I appreciate-and try to convey to others-the way martial art values may be applied in everyday life.
These days, many business situations do involve the risk of physical confrontation. Airlines and family planning clinics are certainly aware of this! A human resources manager here in Portland told me recently that she dreads Fridays because she can always count on at least one fistfight between employees. Without martial art or similar training, it is difficult to manage such situations without excessive fear or costly hesitancy.
I’m sure that from the outside, my aikido practice looks like a middle-aged guy’s pitiful attempt at machismo. The funny thing, though, is that I’m really good at it, and I get frequent invitations to teach aikido seminars throughout the U.S.

JK: What is your business experience outside academe?
FP: I worked for an old, established New York market research company for more than 12 years, becoming vice-president and taking a division of the company to Texas. I also worked for General Motors for a short time, and I have done a lot of business consulting. So three threads-aikido Zen, and management-are woven into The Conscious Manager. This is key, because we all play many roles in life-as we should! But regardless of the seemingly conflicting forces we experience as employees, bosses, aikido students, parents, spouses, and so on, we can integrate everything and lead “one life.”

The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers
the book's title points to the need to be aware, both of what's going on around us and what's going on inside us. We need this awareness in order to find a mission that makes our life "all one piece.

JK: So what’s the answer? How do we live a unified, satisfying life in a high-speed world?
FP: Each person will have to find his or her own answer, but the book explains how the Zen principle of non-attachment can be the most helpful frame for finding your personal answer. The Conscious Manager shows how non-attachment, when applied to everyday decisions, can make you and the people who work for you happier and more productive. Non-attachment leads to a clearer understanding of thorny issues and difficult people-and to better decisions. The Conscious Manager is about making decisions with greater speed, less anxiety, and fewer regrets.

JK: You devote a chapter to courtesy and respect. Most people know these qualities are emphasized in martial arts. Why are they important in management?
FP: Because courtesy is ritualized, it keeps us from being distracted by the trivial processes of everyday life. We can then devote our concentration to our mission and our important decisions. This is good economics-and good management! Courtesy is also a check on anger. It helps keep us focused on issues rather than personal frictions. Courtesy is both a cause and an effect of non-attachment. However, courtesy is a superficial quality, and it realizes its main value when it leads to respect toward others and knowledge of others.

JK: Why did you write this book?
FP: As a teacher, my most gratifying moments happen when I’ve helped a student overcome an imbalance in his or her life. If I may share an example: One person of about my own age trained with me for a year. He wanted to write and speak about his parents’ experiences as concentration camp survivors, but he was afraid of being attacked by holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, or whomever. I say “whomever” not to belittle his fears but to stress that his fear was nebulous and ill-defined. At the end of the year, this man told me, “I’m obviously not an aikido expert now, but I do have an idea of the form attacks can take and a framework for dealing with them. I’m now more comfortable about embarking on this new career.”
I hope very much that The Conscious Manager will help people in similar ways.
Coincidentally, there is now a lot being written about spirituality in business and also a lot of academic attention on intuitive decision-making. In both instances, the worst of it is too narrowly dogmatic or too New-Agey, and the best is just anecdotal. I wanted to show that spirit and intuition in decision-making have a firm basis in Zen psychology. Rationality is great, I’m all for it, but intuition balances the equation and needs to be seen as having a philosophical basis; otherwise, it will be just a passing fad in America. But The Conscious Manager is also a practical book. It shows how you can use intuition to complement, but not replace, rationality.

JK: Who is your intended audience?
FP: Everybody makes decisions-for self, family, company, civic life, and so on-and wants to make them with integrity, responsibility, and good humor. Readers don’t have to be executives or managers to enjoy the book. The book is for anyone who wants to take responsibility and act effectively in private life, business life, or political life. I think it will be good for all ages, but it’s not an elementary book; it will speak loudest to readers who have already begun to seek a path of integrity.

The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers
The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers

JK: How can I get the book?
FP: Order it online at or email the publisher, General Informatics, at