I have written about koans before. The most famous koan simply goes:
“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
How would you answer this koan? I have seen people answer by tapping their leg with one hand. Or closing their hand so it makes a sound. Most people, when trying to come up with an answer, will engage with it from a rational perspective. They are getting almost academic or scientific about it. But the purpose of koans; the purpose of Zen is never about academic exercises. Koans are not parables. None of them is. Koans ask you to engage with them on a very personal level. This koan is asking you to become the hand.
In the Zen tradition, if you work with a teacher on “solving” a koan, there is an actual “answer”. Interestingly enough, pretty much any beginner will convey the answer through words. Explaining what it is. But the teacher will be quick to ask the student not to use words, but “show” the answer without using words. Words lie. We are really good at explaining things with words that we haven’t actually understood. But acting out the answer requires you to get intimate with the koan. You have to find yourself in the koan.
You might wonder what all of this has to do with leadership. Well, leadership, just like koans, is not about an academic exercise. It’s about you. It’s about your employees. In order to be a good leader, you have to put yourself into the situation and react to it authentically. Make it personal. Experience it.
I challenge you to think about that the next time you are in a tough situation. Connect with it. Embrace it. Don’t push it away and don’t try to solve the situation through some “academic” approach.