Excessive Virtue Can Be A Vice
In a world in which disruptive change in all domains is a near constant, all assumptions about what traits are beneficial must be regularly re-examined. Self-confidence, resilience, and fearlessness produce bold leaders who perform well on the job. But the very same virtues are also just a few degrees from antisocial behaviors with decidedly negative consequences. Lack awareness of your own fears and limitations and it is easy to become reckless, impulsive, and callous, ignoring other people’s fears and limitations as well. Some traits may be like a double-edged sword. Fearless dominance may contribute to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis, or to reckless criminality and violence.
The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside. In the newest view of personality, our traits are no longer seen as binary; you are either conscientious or you are not, but as dimensional, existing on a continuum. Not only does each characteristic fall on a spectrum, each holds the grain of its own destruction. Organized becomes obsessive. Daring escalates to risky. Modest slips to insecure. Confident turns to arrogant. Cautious turns to anxiousness. Persuasive becomes domineering and friendly to ingratiating. The seven deadly sins might very well have started out as ambition, relaxation, and awareness of one’s good work, righteous anger, a healthy sexuality, and enjoying a good meal. It is all a matter of degree.
We have seen confidence to the point of hubris and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We have seen vision drift into aimless dreaming and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show any strength and there we can show an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career. Human nature, social norms, and the culture of the workplace generally pull us toward virtues. But virtues are not always what they seem. Not only can they conceal vices, they are not invariably virtuous. In a world where rapid change is the one constant, all received wisdom, including what is virtuous, must be regularly re-examined. Nothing is a blanket prescription in a highly dynamic universe. Change requires, above all, adaptability, the ability to stretch beyond the status quo, get beyond what you were taught or see beyond what has worked in the past.
Even when, on the surface, they seem to be one of the best things about an individual or organization, deeply held, unquestioned strengths can be destructive. Commonly accepted values such as personal involvement, high standards, and meticulous preparation can all backfire. Involving yourself personally in every project and every decision can lead to micromanaging, burnout, and resentment from those under the all-too-constant supervision, whether you’re a corporate vice president or a hovering mom.
Demanding excellence across the board can shut down creativity and risk-taking and indicate a lack of priorities—everything doesn’t have to be done perfectly; some things just need to get done. Too much preparation, especially if done in isolation and without feedback, can delay the final outcome or product without actually improving it. This is not a call to immediately give up your best qualities and firmly held values. It is likely the virtues you hold most closely are there for deep and personal reasons. The goal is to stay true to our self while avoiding the ways our unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviors can backfire. Even most engaging traits can be overused, or trotted out at the wrong time, or go too far in degree.
How do we know when a virtue is wearing out its welcome? Only self-awareness can keep core values in check. Taking personal inventory can lead to a realization of which virtues are constructive and beneficial in your life, and when, and which are actually holding you back, making you miserable, or sabotaging work and relationships. Never assume that a virtue that served you well in the past will always continue to do so.
Striving for excellence has its payoffs—good marks, approval, awards, and a sense of a job well done. But pursuing excellence across the board reflects rigidity and can lead to perfectionism, an inflexible devotion to high standards, and an inability to set priorities. There really is a fine line between striving for excellence and striving excessively for perfection. Perfectionism doesn’t just impact work performance. It takes a toll on health as well. Perfectionists exhibit high levels of chronic illnesses.
The most destructive part of pursuing excellence at all costs is that it can destroy creativity, risk taking, and experimentation. Innovation demands occasional failure. The evolution of any organism is more a branching out to see what happens than a streamlined, linear path toward perfection. The pursuit of excellence is one of those sacred cows that need to be carefully re-examined. Excellence in all matters overlooks the fact that life is often messy. Excellence fails to discriminate between what is important and what is not. What is more, there is a need to distinguish between process excellence and outcome excellence. It is much more necessary to seek excellence of outcome than excellence of process. Mistakes and their corrections are often the best teachers, and a push for excellence in all things obscures their contribution to success, especially in a world demanding innovation.
Disruptive innovation is not restricted to the business world, where flexible start-ups encroach on established firms. It has value in private life, too. Disruption in parenting has raised a generation of children who don’t have the courage to deal with difficult issues. If children are never allowed to cope with failure, when they reach adulthood and see daunting tasks, they just choose not to address them. When children are allowed to overcome obstacles, experience failure, and persevere, they develop determination. Instead of giving up after a try or two, they will search for ways to succeed with the resources available to them; finding workable if not perfect solutions. It is impossible to guarantee children’s success or safety, but they can be allowed to discover the traits of resourcefulness and tenacity; values that trump a drive for excellence in many real-world pursuits.
Fairness to everyone isn’t fair to anyone. Who doesn’t desire a fair shot, an equal opportunity, and equitable treatment? We are scorekeepers by instinct. So deep is the need for fairness that when we feel we have been treated unfairly, primitive instincts can compel us to bring others down to the same level! We want to be treated fairly, and we want to work for people and places that treat others fairly. Employees seem to have a universal concern for fairness that transcends the self. When they witness their employer treating others unfairly, employees file complaints, warn others, look for alternative employment, and engage in counterproductive work behaviors. Fairness of process is far more important than fairness of outcome, where every child gets the same treatment. Pursuing fairness of outcome easily creates a nightmare of competing demands. It is a leader’s job to make sure everyone, including herself, has a fair chance. Exceptional workers should be treated exceptionally; it’s only fair. Otherwise motivation is extinguished.
Attempting to create fairness of outcome not only fosters a culture of obsessive scorekeeping, it is actually filled with an array of psychological traps. It assumes that everybody values all rewards the same. In reality, some want higher salaries; others want more vacation time; still others want verbal praise or acknowledgment. Fairness is more than treating children or friends exactly the same; it means taking into consideration individual needs and personal motivations. When, as in a family, treatment is more customized to the needs of individual children, everyone feels special and happy. Yes, fairness is still an admirable quality. You just have to make sure you are keeping your eye on the right scoreboard.
Passionate people are mesmerizing. They embody purpose and meaning in life and work, and often the two merge seamlessly into their life’s work. The more elusive the boundaries between your work and life, the more successful you probably are in both and will find work-life fusion. It feels good to be passionate about things. It boosts energy, stamina and drive. It means you care deeply about something beyond yourself to the point of full immersion, which is likely the only way vaccines are invented, symphonies are written, or middle schools acquire good teachers. But passion can also crowd out other things of equal importance, place emotion above logic, and lead to burnout. At its darkest, it can turn into obsession, a pursuit that dominates all else and occupies the mind to an alarming degree.
Just contrast healthy passion or harmonious passion with obsessive passion. Individuals with harmonious passion, engage in an activity because they want to. Those with obsessive passion engage in an activity because they feel they must—say, to prove themselves to an overly critical parent. While harmonious passions coexist with other aspects of life, obsessive passion is a compulsion that blinds individuals to risks, produces tunnel vision, and ignores the needs of others or even one self. Researchers studying professional dancers found that those who are obsessively passionate about dancing are most likely to suffer chronic injuries. They push themselves too hard, losing track of their own health and stability and probably passing on their destructive brand of obsessive passion when they became teachers. Harmonious passion is not about lowering standards or wimping out; it is about finding a level of passion that is sustainable.
Agreeable people, in the nomenclature of personality psychology, are softhearted, trusting, and helpful. They tend to be modest and altruistic, willing to compromise, generous in spirit. Happiness and optimism come easily to them, even when circumstances are rough. They don’t make waves very often and therein lies the problem. There are times when everyone would be better off if they did.
Conflict is inevitable in work and life. There will be honest disagreements and actions taken that do not please everyone, hard decisions to be defended, and territorial claims to be held. Assertiveness is a necessary trait, and it is often lacking in people who are overly accommodating, making them easy prey for those who would take advantage of another’s trust or generosity. If you cannot say no, offer constructive criticism, or stand firm in your decisions, you won’t be an effective worker, supervisor, partner, or parent.
Being a nice guy at work can actually diminish paycheck and decrease odds of promotion. Being agreeable has a particularly strong impact on men’s salaries. Agreeable people are less likely to push themselves forward for recognition or advancement. They tend to do more selfless things at work. Despite the stigma, nice guys also do pretty well in love. The niceness and physical attractiveness are both positive factors in women’s choices and the desirability ratings they assign to men as potential dating partners. Niceness is most important when a woman is considering a serious, long-term relationship, while attractiveness is more important when considering a casual, sexual relationship.
Once a relationship is established, however, the emotional power dynamic becomes more complex. Being nice, agreeable, and quick to compromise may be alluring at first but can lead to dependent or clingy behaviors that become a burden to a partner, who must do more decision making. Also, the agreeable partner may be suppressing negative emotions that manifest in passive-aggressive behavior, affairs (virtual or otherwise), or bottled-up resentments that eventually end the relationship. Expressing genuine emotions and standing one’s ground are valuable skills in love. Both can coexist within the virtue of being an agreeable personality.
Some people are natural collaborators. They welcome input from others and aim for consensus on decisions large and small. It is an empowering quality in a supervisor, and on the whole, it increases diversity, fosters relationships, and creates buy in and engagement from all parties. But collaboration can also lead to diffused accountability. Decisions take longer, and are made collectively. Everyone feels the need to weigh in, even in the absence of anything to contribute. If things go wrong, who can really be held responsible? Automatic collaboration leads to underperformance and low productivity for the sake of playing well with others. Extroverts have a special tendency to engage in wasteful collaboration because they draw their energy from others, and they often feel the need to talk through their thoughts with partners. Extroverts can become workplace vampires who suck the productivity out of their coworkers.
Not to mention that there are some people for whom collaboration is totally nonproductive. It devalues those who prefer to work in isolation, or even need a bit of alone time to spend inside their own heads. Even when we think we are working alone these days, we are actually not with our smartphone next to our laptop with easy access to search engines, we are more likely to be compiling a remix rather than producing something new or revolutionary and constant distraction spells the death of creativity. Collaborate only with intention, clear boundaries and expectations, and an understanding of individual responsibilities, and leave plenty of time for unplugged, independent thought. That way lies inspiration.
Whether you are talking with business consultants, parents, or yoga instructors, no virtue seems to rank higher than balance these days; it is an ideal championed by the earliest philosophers and the most modern citizens. Creating balance among all the elements of life—work and home, self and others, self-discipline and enjoyment—seems to be the goal. Balance at once describes a feeling of being in control of multiple responsibilities as well as the sense that several important areas of one’s life aren’t being neglected in favor of only a few. A balanced life, most would agree, feels less stressfully lived than a non-balanced life, which feels overwhelming and unsatisfying. But the pursuit of balance is itself the cause of much imbalance. We are left to achieve it in lives that change, quite literally, moment to moment. Balance operates through a constant stream of choices. Too often it leads to constant compromise and mediocrity in all things.
Work-life balance, today’s preoccupation, is probably the greatest mirage. It is achievable, as in almost all other domains, only in summation, not in the conduct of everyday life, where projects and deadlines demand bouts of concentrated commitment. Balance, then, is more a long-term goal. The danger of achieving perfect balance and sticking to it no matter what? means cloistered overly controlled life. Respect moderation but also accommodate the kind of dynamism seen in the flow of tides and the cycles of the seasons. The ocean is anything but bland, and the four sometimes extreme seasons point to a continuing and complex balance among many natural cycles. Balance, then, is not a static system, but one that requires constant attention and awareness. It is why yoga doesn’t consist of only the tree pose. Finding balance is more an internal matter than a superficial allotment of time. You need to know what is most important to you right now, what you need to build on for the future, which tasks or habits are draining your time and attention, and how much recovery time you need. The most important virtues today may in fact prove to be nimbleness and adaptability.
Achieving balance ultimately rests on having courage. The courage to make difficult choices, to exclude other possibilities in order to choose the one that suits you best, to let go of fearing the disapproval or disappointment of others.
To possess an undefeated mind means not just that we rebound quickly from adversity or face it calmly, even confidently, without being pulled down by depression or anxiety, but also that we get up day after day, week after week, month after month and attack the obstacles in front of us again and again and again until they fall or we do. An undefeated mind isn’t one that never feels discouraged or despairing; it’s one that continues on in spite of it. While the ability to control what happens in life may be limited, we do have the capacity to establish a life that surmounts the suffering that life brings.
Resilience isn’t something that only a fortunate few are born with, but rather something that everybody can take action-steps to develop. Start with the scheme that all problems are solvable. Understand the meaning of victory. Look into the human desire to be happy, how to obtain benefits from adversity and why wisdom can bring an end to suffering.
Identify a personal mission; create a sense of purpose, then commit to that mission. Make a vow: Resolve to soldier on. Identify the obstacles. Overcome the barriers. Avoid distractions. Expect Obstacles. Make use of adversity, negative thoughts and the anxiety of uncertainty.
Accept pain, both physical and emotional. Let Go! Loss can be inevitable. Find the meaning in loss. Exercise self-compassion. Appreciate the good. Find and maintain gratitude even gratitude for obstacles. Encourage others and understand them. Helping others is to help self.
Experience the power of encouragement by mustering your courage against fear, even your fear of death. Resilience is essential for being able to meet life’s challenges. Anyone can increase his or her inner strength. All of us can have indestructible psyche.
I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste. Don’t think you understand It. On the other hand, don’t think you don’t understand It. It? What is It, a pronoun capitalized this way? What is It, pronounced with the kind of emphasis that communicates great significance? Alternatively, it is called the Great Matter, Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness. These are ways we refer to different aspects of It. When I write these words, what do you think to yourself? You probably think to yourself either that you don’t understand these things, “Wow, I wish I understood those things, maybe I will someday.” Or, perhaps, “I will probably never understand,” or when you hear these words you have a sense that you do understand these things, at least to some degree; the words conjure up for you a memory of an experience, a mind-state, an insight, or you think of images or sensations that you find comforting or inspiring. It is difficult to say which of these – a sense that we don’t understand, or a sense that we do understand – is more detrimental to spiritual practice.
Buddhist understanding – prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom – is completely different from ordinary understanding. It is so different that even though it is here under our noses all the time, we miss It. Even though this Understanding is free and available, we revere Shakyamuni Buddha as a once-in-a-universe amazing person because he came to It without even having a teacher who pointed it out to him. This is the central teaching of Buddhism – that there is a kind of wisdom, a kind of insight, “which removes all suffering, and is true, not false.” The Buddha studied suffering – old age, disease, death, loss, dissatisfactions – and asked whether there was any way out of it. He was not the first to ask this question by any means. Almost every religion and social movement has tried to offer people a remedy, a way out, at least a mitigation of this human experience of suffering.
What the Buddha realized was, in a sense, its all how you relate to it. It’s all how you see it and understand your place in it. However, this is not about adopting some arbitrary positive outlook! Well, you could look at things that way and suffer, but if you adopt this philosophy or view things don’t look so bad…This is about seeing the true nature of reality. What is it that we see? A textbook answer would be something like, “we see that we, and all beings and things, are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature.” But this description is so inadequate to convey what we end up understanding. We could also say “we see that things-just-as-they-are, without the filter of our self-concern, are precious.” Or we could say “we see that there is only this moment, and this moment is free from suffering.”
Intellectual understanding of these descriptions or faithful belief in these descriptions, do not convey the release from suffering that the Buddha found. They must be personally and directly experienced for that to occur and once they are personally and directly experienced we are forever changed, but no experience in the past conveys lasting release from suffering either. Perhaps when you hear It – the Great Matter, Prajna Paramita (Transcendental Wisdom), Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness – you recall the spacious, unself-conscious feeling you experience in the wilderness. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of the “zone” you get into while doing a body practice or artistic activity. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how vast space is, or how we are made up mostly of space, between our tiny atomic particles. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how everything changes, so you can’t really draw a boundary around who you are. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how it is impossible to trace all the causes and conditions and beings that brought you the meal you eat, and how dependent you are on all these different aspects of the universe. That’s not It.
Now, it would be good for all of us, myself included, if I left you with that message and shut up. But in the West, especially in Soto Zen, they explain things. It is the gentle way. It is so easy to be satisfied with just an intellectual understanding. It is so easy to fool ourselves that ours is not just an intellectual understanding – after all, if it is associated with emotions, it’s not just intellectual, right? It is so easy to allow what was once a real experience to devolve into a mere memory, a mere view. Most of us walk around with a largely intellectual understanding of It. As Dogen would say, we are “playing in the entrance way.” This is why Zen Masters through the ages have pulled out all the stops and done all kinds of strange things to try and wake their students up from their dreams. They yanked their students’ noses, offered riddles, put slippers on their heads. What is that about? Some kind of ridiculous code? A contest to see who was least inhibited? No. It says Right Here, Right Now, Do You See? In a sense it doesn’t matter what is said or done to express it; if both people can experience It, the arrows have met in mid-air. This is extremely important. There is no god in Buddhism that is going to condemn us or even be disappointed in us because we just play in the entrance way. But what a shame.
But thinking you do not understand is just as bad. When I think like that, I am here, and understanding is over there – in that [other person’s] head, or in the past, or in the future. This can be one of the most painful beliefs. It can also be one of the biggest obstacles. We are intimate with It every moment of every day. It is never anywhere else. We experience the perfection of wisdom when we stop looking anywhere else. When the Zen Master comes and challenges us, we answer her in kind. Perhaps we say, “Yes! Buddha caught the pillow!” Perhaps we throw the pillow back. Perhaps we laugh. But the challenge does not send us off in our minds to abstractions or memories, concepts, images, metaphors or teachings. We know the Buddha is nowhere else, and have dropped the self-concern that wonders how “I” relate to Buddha.
Being at home with oneself like that is an immense relief from suffering. We must struggle to understand, unfortunately there are no shortcuts. But what we do in that struggle is exhaust all of our dreams until finally there is no place left to go. Then we see It is something we have understood all along. We just didn’t know what kind of understanding to look for. And a final note – having answered the Zen master’s challenge one day does not mean we will be able to do so the next. This is not an understanding that is of any use to us in the past.
Here though ‘he’ is used; leader maps are pertinent to ‘she’ also to succeed in what he or she chooses. Hence, disclaimer for being a male chauvinist pig. Please read on.
Stories don’t just entertain us–they also teach and inspire us. Here’s how to parse your kids’ bedtime stories for modern leadership advice. Once upon a time…Even now, as adults, there’s something in most of us that perks up and starts to listen when we hear those words. We love stories and stories have always served important functions for us. They bring us together and reinforce our sense of community. They engage, amuse, enthrall, and titillate and they teach throughout history, before most people could read and write, stories, told by firesides and in village gatherings, were the mechanism by which we handed down laws and values, religions and taboos, knowledge and wisdom.
Think of stories as the cultural DNA of a pre-literate society. The stories of a group of people provided a map that, if followed, would guide someone to be a successful member of that group, and over the centuries, some of those maps seem to have transcended culture and geography to offer guidance for being successful humans. This seems especially true for one type of story: The hero’s tale. Joseph Campbell explored this theme in religious mythology with brilliance and depth in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I’m indebted to his work. However, in exploring these story maps for clues to the characteristics that define leadership, I looked to more humble sources like folktales and fairy tales of many cultures. Campbell’s work focused on our highest aspirations; what we expect of gods and godlike heroes. I wish to know practicality of how folktales tell us what to look for and accept in those who lead us day-to-day.
Think of folktales as maps of success–how to live as safely and happily as possible, how to avoid making fatal mistakes of belief or action. Until recently in our history, choosing a leader was a life-or-death decision. A good leader could guide you to find food, overcome enemies, and keep peace within the society. A bad leader could lead you into starvation or to death through war or lawlessness, and although the stakes may not be as high today, we’re still wired to accept as leaders only those who line up with our centuries-old map of leadership attributes.
By finding and extracting these leader maps, I could learn not only what people look for in leaders; but the corollary of that, what it takes to be the kind of leader whom others would follow. After reading several of leader stories from all over the world, here’s what I see and accept that a leader is farsighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous, trustworthy.
In leader folktales, the leader-to-be can see beyond his current situation young, poor, despised to his ultimate goal like save his father, win the princess, kill the monster and can express that vision in a compelling and inclusive way, especially to those whose help he needs to achieve it. He can hold to that vision and share it clearly even when others lose sight of it, believe it’s impossible, or ridicule him for trying. He is farsighted.
Moreover, the leader-in-training doesn’t just go through the motions. He is deeply committed to his quest, with his every action is directed toward achieving it. Nothing dissuades him, even the inevitable setbacks and disappointments attendant on any quest. He may not be loud about it, but is relentless. He is passionate.
Throughout the story, he is confronted with difficult situations. He may be afraid and lonely; he may feel like running away, longing for the comfort and safety of home. He often faces situations that are particularly trying for him personally. But he doesn’t turn aside; he doesn’t unlike his brothers or others who attempt the same journey make the safe and easy choices. He doesn’t wimp out and takes the path of least resistance. He is courageous.
He’s not a cardboard action hero, though. His brain is tested, and he must be able to learn from his mistakes. In many versions of the story, he doesn’t initially follow the advice given to him “don’t look back”; “don’t let go”; “don’t touch this or that on your way out” and his mistakes create more complexity and danger. The next time a similar situation arises, though, he behaves differently and succeeds at his task. He doesn’t deny or whine or blame; he improves. He also often comes up with clever solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. Finally, he uses his powers of discrimination to think through difficult choices and arrive at the best and most moral solution, for example, long-term happiness versus current riches; the greater good versus pure self-interest. He is thoughtful, appropriately humble, clear-headed, and curious. He is wise.
Along the way, the future leader meets people or creatures in need, and he helps them or shares with them. He does so even though his own supplies are low; even though helping them takes him out of his way or slows him down. In some versions of the story, he has to sacrifice his life for those he loves or to whom he owes his loyalty and this always turns out okay in the end and later, when he is king, his people are prosperous and happy because he rules with an open hand. The leader is not stingy, miserly or selfish. He is generous.
Finally, and perhaps most important, his word is his bond. If he tells his dying father that he will find the magic potion to cure him, you know that he will. If he tells the princess that he will come back to marry her, she can send out the invitations. When some creature says to him, “If I help you, boy, you must free me,” you know the creature is as good as free. The hero does not equivocate or exaggerate. He is trustworthy.
This tale survives and thrives in almost infinite permutations because it is satisfying; it feels right to us. We are hardwired to expect our chieftains to be farsighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous, and trustworthy. If we don’t see these qualities clearly demonstrated, we won’t follow at all; it is dangerous to do so.