The Conscious Manager: Zen for Decision Makers

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

For many of us with Western educated and disciplined minds, Zen is alluring but mysterious. To comprehend Zen requires that the Western mind unlearn much and spend years in dedication to its study and practice. This book is the best I’ve read at helping to understand how Western minds might benefit from Zen. It is aimed at managers, and all you need to do to appreciate the need for “conscious managers” is read the news about the state of business management. But, not only do we need conscious managers, we need conscious people. The US has never faced the complexities of the current environment. And, all the signs say that life and business are just going to get more complex in the future. Despite all our efforts to return to simplicity, I’m afraid our burden is complexity.

Phillips begins his book with a quote from an overwrought manager, “Wear a lot of hats?” complained the over-tasked manager. “I have to wear a lot of faces. And I hate it. I wish I could be the same person at work, at home, and with friends. I want my life to all of one piece, not a lot of fragments working against each other. Isn’t that what integrity means? How can I make choices and decisions without feeling torn.”

In eight chapters, the author covers beginnings, practice, opening, support, test, mission, recipe and perspective. Using his expereince in Aikido (5th degree rank and 25 years as an instructor) and his practice of Zen as a layman, Phillips writes an insightful and sometimes moving explanation of what he has gained from his experience. He also describes accurately some of the problems of being a manager is today’s environment and how Zen can help people and organizations.

“My favorite comment of Zen was given to me by my teacher when I asked him, Sensei…what is Zen? After a long pause, eye contact, and a smile he replied, If I say…it is not Zen.

Yes, any time you freeze reality in black and white words, it’s no longer Zen. Many fine Zen books have been written before this one. Their pages have inspired readers, wrapped sandwiches, and lined kitty litter boxes. May this book serve you well!

Now here is a more serious way to answer your question. The highway sign pointing to Detroit is not itself Detroit. This book is not Zen, but it is a pointer. Like the highway sign, it might help you slow down, and turn in the direction you already want to go.”

So, here’s the difficulty I have as a reviewer. This book is not Zen. It’s pointing to Zen. Using the author’s analogy, I’ve got to write a review about the directions to a place. I’ve never taken the journey and I’ve never experienced the place. Hmm…
I can comment on what’s in the book and excerpt some quotes I think might be valuable. The book contains the characteristics of a conscious manager. It also describes the steps along the Zen path of responsible decision making.

The book is loaded with quotes, all insightful and supportive of the ideas in the writing. It is written in a style that makes the concepts accessible to Western managers who think.

The author explains the connection between what is essentially a pacifist approach and it’s many militaristic applications:

Zen Meditation
Phillips writes an insightful and sometimes moving explanation of what he has gained from his experience. He also describes accurately some of the problems of being a manager is today's environment and how Zen can help people and organizations.

“Buddha’s teaching was in no way war like, and in many ways pacifistic. Yet its connection to martial arts, centuries later, was logical, as its connection to business today. Martial analogies serve the conscious manager well when he* focuses on war’s imperative for strategic action, instantaneous response, and dealing with fear and compassion. However, war is destructive and tragic. Business and politics can involve `creative destruction’ that sweeps aside the old in favor of the new, but business and politics also construct wonderful new products, organizations and institutions. Analogies that focus only on the destructive aspects of war and management fail. In fact, we know that something is seriously wrong when a company’s president (as actually happened in one firm known for indiscriminate downsizing) earns the nickname ‘Chainsaw’. ”

* The author generally alternates the use of he and she.

At the heart of this approach is the concept of non-attachment. According to the author, we are all already enlightened. But our attachments are what prevent us from recognizing our enlightenment. (He warns about becoming attached to the pursuit of enlightenment.) Before you can get rid of our attachments, we must first become aware of what we are attached to. Then we can begin the work of understanding the attachments and ridding ourselves of them.

“How can a manager become aware of attachments? Through meditation, through mindful practice, through the support of other students of conscious management, through challenges and tests, and through instruction from a qualified, compatible teacher” he writes. This book provides guidance and clues as to how to accomplish this.

What is a conscious manager? Phillips provides these characteristics:

  • Attends to detail but looks at context; tries to see the big picture
  • Doesn’t believe everything he or she is told
  • Rejects any labels
  • Constantly hones personal skills
  • Is committed to lifelong learning – for everyone in the organization
  • Exercises respect and compassion, but not indulgence, in all dealings
  • Is flexible but not wishy-washy
  • Spares no effort to match the right people with the right jobs
  • Lets employees put their best foot forward
  • Controls the organization loosely
  • Gives employees the chance to stretch themselves
  • Tries to see the adversary’s point of view
  • Shows a creative imagination
  • Is focused and steadfast in pursuit of a mission
  • Uses every tool at his or her command

The ingredients necessary for becoming a conscious manager are:

  • Hunger
  • An opening experience
  • A practice
  • Support
  • Tests
  • A mission

But enough from me describing the directions pointing the way to Zen. Buy the book and read the directions yourself. It’s a great read!

Fred Phillips is an educator and executive who has taught Zen martial art for more than 25 years. As head of the management department at Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and technology, he has built the Northwest’s most admired management degree program for high technology leaders. He is the author of the textbook Market Oriented Technology Management: Innovating for Profit in Entrepreneurial Times, and Associate Editor of the Journal Technology Forecasting & Social Change. A longtime Texan, Fred now lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife and daughters. He holds fifth-dan rank in akido.

Review written by: Paul A. Schumann Jr. (The Innovation Road Map Magazine)