Recycling “Asian Wisdom” to Hong Kong’s Bosses

Unlikely as it seems, corporate Hong Kong is being offered the ancient Buddhist and Yogic practice of meditation, shrink-wrapped into “mindful leadership” from Harvard. Management buzzwords and fads bubble up from the US of course, where the quick fix is hard-wired into society. If there is a pill to pop for organizational health, it would be US-patented.

On Aug. 30, the Asia Society Hong Kong Center hosted Rasmus Hougaard, co-author with Jacqueline Carter of “The Mind of the Leader,” published by the Harvard Business Press. Hougaard is the founder and managing director of Potential Project, which the website says has trained 100,000 executives from 500 companies across the globe.

Hong Kong’s “time is money” ethos is not the most obvious space for corporate introspection. But a trainer claimed over cocktails that “thousands” of local executives are being processed in eight-week cycles, from banks, public-listed corporations, and multinationals, with follow-up monitoring. That is astonishing.

Mindful meditation merchants are expected to rev-up US$1.15 billion in 2018 just within the United States, per IBISWorld’s Alternative Healthcare industry report. Potential Project is on top of this trend with offices across North America, Europe and Asia. Hougaard flies a punishing business schedule to all points, like a Buddha on wheels.

Employees revolt

Global corporations face a new defiance: widespread employee “disengagement” despite the bait-and-switch of performance-bonus systems, from an earlier era of company witch doctors. Digital natives, better informed, less awed, and with no care for company loyalty or career slavery, say BOO. That unhinges command-and-control apparatchiks. HR matrons fret and bosses scurry to re-tool failing control prods.

Today’s corporate-shaman spin is “mindful” leadership to transform the culture of organizations with a pop-capitalism of awareness and meditation, to engage staff, raise productivity, boost morale, increase profits, and – what relief – stop bosses cheating. The promise to vexed CEOs and their flock is they can all reboot with mindfulness.

The mindfulness industry is acquiring cult status as CEOs grasp it to cope with their own insecurities as they get terminated briskly, in shorter cycles. More CEOs contract “life-coaches” who nudge them to unmask their vulnerabilities for “authenticity.” Bosses embrace the mindfulness crusade to arrest institutional alienation and staff desertions.

Honesty is in fashion for corporate leadership in the 21st Century. Managers, instinctively distrusted before, now downshift as regular humans, to be less resented. Bosses are advised to stop faking wisdom they do not possess, to survive google-check subordinates. The message to management is to facilitate, not manipulate.

Boss delusions

The two-year global survey of 35,000 executives for Hougaard’s book, yielded the most unflattering feedback for corporations: 65 percent of employees would forego a pay rise to see their boss fired. 88 percent think their leaders fail to engage but 77 percent of bosses think they do. The delusions of the boss is the crisis the mindfulness engineers aim to fix. Leaders are to be rewired to be fully “present” in the moment – listening – more than bossing.

The study also showed that 47 percent of the time, managers and staff are distracted from their tasks. A distracted leader loses himself and his team. One who allows phone interruptions at scheduled meetings, is highly disruptive. If the leader is not fully “present,” his staff will be absent too, even if sitting around him. Focus is vital for leaders and followers alike, to use time productively.

Leader lessons

From the survey analysis, Hougaard and Carter distilled three pillars of leadership: mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion. They formulate these as the key levers for leaders to engage subordinates, win respect, and tackle corporate goals together. Hougaard explained what the authors meant by each of these qualities.

Egocentricity is a trait that leaders have to unlearn fast. Nothing is more detested by employees than a boss who steals credit and finger-points when things go wrong. Nurturing a shared vision and using executive power to remove obstacles blocking staff performance, is the true mission of leaders, says Hougaard.

Compassion is defined as kindness, and where necessary intervention, beyond mere expressions of concern or sympathy. A boss has power over policy, people, material, and money. That can, and should, be judiciously used to ease situations in practical ways. Basic kindness and timely interventions earn huge loyalty.

Physical fitness

In addition to the polling, 200 senior executives were interviewed across Silicon Valley as well as top global financial and professional services firms. Hougaard was struck by the commitment of the CEOs to sufficient sleep (6-8 hours per night), regular exercise, and a healthy diet. They looked after themselves fanatically to sustain their energy for corporate stewardship. They are clear-minded, disciplined, and focused.

Greek-American socialite Arianna Huffington (founder of Huffington Post) popularized the executive wellness creed on talk shows and TV interviews for a decade. Her Thrive Global venture clues companies into the link between wellness and business metrics. She has been a public voice for shutting off mobile phones and getting settled sleep so managers do not burn-out prematurely.

Consistent physical discipline to Hougaard is a template for corporate leaders. A healthy body, adequate sleep, and prudent eating habits, all go against the caricature of corporate executives as fat cats boozing over long lunches on expense accounts. There is still some of that sloshing at five-star hotels and private clubs.

Meditate to wealth?

Zen and Yoga masters meditate to detach themselves from desire for wealth and worldly pleasures. They withdraw from the insanity of daily life to gain peace and attain higher levels of consciousness. The commodification of meditation techniques to render employees compliant, is something quite foul in intent. It demeans ancient wisdom.

Hougaard was credible enough onstage, pointing to PowerPoint charts and graphs of managerial research. He cited the case of Bill Marriott Jr. who resisted laying off hotel staff in the 2009 travel slump. “We look after our employees. Our employees look after our customers. Business takes care of itself.” (Marriott has since been laying off staff, the latest after Hurricane Irma hit Florida in Oct. 2017. Employees excoriated the company for heartlessness, as if the devastation wasn’t grief enough).

The one cringeworthy moment came when the thin, tall, gaunt suit exhorted the audience to close their eyes, breathe, and meditate for three minutes. Hougaard mimicked a monk pose too, which was as incongruent. He would be wise to skip that conceit at roadshows.

Cyril Pereira has done his time in management. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel