Leave it at the stream

Marshall Goldsmith, business author and thought leader, uses Buddhist teachings to encourage female business leaders to achieve more – he shares some inspiration.

How many hours of productivity are lost in the endless retelling of our coworkers’ blunders? How much internal stress do we generate reliving real or imagined slights? On too many occasions, ‘team building’ feedback degenerates into ‘Let me tell you what you did wrong’ and not ‘Let me ask you what we can do better.’

Learning from Buddhism

A Buddhist parable illustrates the challenge – and value – of letting go of the past. Two monks were strolling by a stream on their way home to the monastery. They were startled by the sound of a young woman in a bridal gown, sitting by the stream, crying softly. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gazed across the water. She needed to cross to get to her wedding, but she was fearful that doing so might ruin her beautiful gown.

In this particular sect, monks were prohibited from touching women. But one monk was filled with compassion for the bride. Ignoring the sanction, he hoisted the woman on his shoulders and carried her across the stream, assisting her journey and saving her gown. She smiled and bowed with gratitude as he noisily splashed his way back across the stream to rejoin his companion.

Carrying it with you

The second monk was livid. “How could you do that?” he scolded. “You know we are forbidden even to touch a woman, much less pick one up and carry her around!”

The offending monk listened in silence to a stern lecture that lasted all the way back to the monastery. His mind wandered as he felt the warm sunshine and listened to the singing birds. After returning to the monastery, he fell asleep for a few hours. He was jostled and awakened in the middle of the night by his fellow monk. “How could you carry that woman?” his agitated friend cried out. “Someone else could have helped her across the stream. You were a bad monk!”

“What woman?” the tired monk inquired groggily.

“Don't you even remember? That woman you carried across the stream,” his colleague snapped.

“Oh, her,” laughed the sleepy monk. “I only carried her across the stream. You carried her all the way back to the monastery.”

Give yourself ten minutes

How does this relate to women in business? In early 2009, I spoke at a women’s leadership conference in India. I politely asked any men in the room to leave. My comments were intended solely for women: “For the next ten minutes, I want you to  only focus on your own happiness and self-acceptance.”

Soon half the women in the room were quietly sobbing or openly crying. I wasn’t surprised by the response. I’ve witnessed the same reaction in other parts of the world. Why did these women cry just because they were spending ten minutes to focus solely on their own needs?

Because they had never given themselves ten minutes – in years.

According to several studies I have read comparing men and women leaders, two trends emerge:

  1. Women are viewed as being as good or better leaders than men in 360 degree feedback.
  2. Women are harder on themselves than men and have more guilt.

In my coaching work, I tend to deliver one message far more to women than to men, “Please stop being so hard on yourself.” In other words, leave it at the stream.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK