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Mr. CEO – Keep Your Cup Empty

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Keep Your Cup Empty

Any military leader would definitely – if very reluctantly – praise the Covid 19 pandemic as an opponent – it has achieved, in military parlance, the GoA – Goal and Objective. To put it in perspective, it has subdued the opponents and virtually rendered them helpless and in totally reactive mode. All the while keeping the opponent – mankind, in this tragic case – totally helpless and scrambling for options and alternatives.

No matter what entrepreneurship lessons you learned from your dad, for leaders across all fields of endeavor – this comes as a very timely lesson. Whether in politics, industry, business, education, society or personal lives – never be complacent and too full of oneself & achievements. Somewhere, there lies a force and set of circumstances that will come like the proverbial whirlwind and sweep away your fundamentals, your world as you know. Leaving you gasping for breath and gazing wildly about for options to survive, cope and react. 

It is for too long that we have appointed ourselves as the leaders of the world – and deeming ourselves as the inheritors of the earth, crowned ourselves as the rightful heirs to it’s riches. Never ever heeding the warnings about climate change, pollution, and the myriad signals nature sends us, we persist in our way of life. Till an invisible, micro-organism called Covid 19 strikes. And till now, all our riches, technology, and knowledge have not been able to form a decisive response or find a cure. Leaders all over the world are trying their best to respond to this massive calamity. Perhaps it is time to re-examine our learnings.

Keeping the Cup empty: There is a Zen story about a young man who prides himself on his skill in the martial arts, till someone tells him of a great Sensei (master) who teaches only students he selects after scrutiny. After long days and nights of travel, the young man reaches the monastery and gains admittance. The Sensei – a frail, slightly built man, invites him in. After hearing his request, the Sensei tells the young man to have some tea, while requesting him to share what he knows and is capable of. While the young man is speaking of his prowess, the master keeps on filling his cup till it overflows and beyond…

The young man interrupts his narrative to stop the pouring of tea by the Sensei. Who smiles. “That, is your 1st lesson!” he says. “Empty your cup – you are so full of yourself that I cannot add anything to you. Remain empty – unlearn, unlearn, and know only that you know nothing. Incidentally, my own cup is yet to be poured into”! The young man is humbled and accepted by the Sensei who tells him, “This is the Way”.

For leaders and Founders everywhere, perhaps it is time to empty their own cups, script their own rulebooks and heed their gut instincts. 

1) Newer playbooks through Participative Management: No one expects leaders to be perfect and have answers all the time, especially in a crisis like this. Even the greatest systems, organizations and processes have failed sometime. This is a time to sit back and examine, re-examine business models, decisions, team-dynamics and relationships – and recalibrate where necessary. Dire circumstances call for strong and team decisions – make the team a partner in your decision and they will go beyond the call of duty to help achieve their goal. Seek information, advice, knowledge, help – and be respected for it. Keep your cup empty.

2)  “I don’t know” is a strength: The organization, till now, has taken it’s lead from you. And gained a lot of knowledge in the process. It is time to redeploy the same in your favor now. A council of war held with everyone participating will undoubtedly yield a lot of ideas – some workable, others not that workable. What matters is that everyone is trying and applying themselves to re4solve the issues at hand. Admitting you need help gives you a tremendous edge – the weight of people’s expectations comes off your shoulders and becomes a collective goal. That in itself energizes, motivates. Keep your cup empty.

3) Get going – even if in a small way: Activity – however slow or minute – often helps to decide a direction and goal. Set routines, attend to organizational tasks that have been postponed till now. Reach out and strengthen relationships vital to business – when the team sees you striving, they will pitch in to help and possibly you may emerge stronger, more resilient and agile from this debacle. From this, slowly but surely, a pattern and routine will emerge and a definitive direction for future goals will emerge. Stay the course, stay active and communicative – and things will sort themselves out. Keep your cup empty.

Learning and unlearning is part of the same cycle – only when you are open to new ideas, participative actions, and communications and have an open mind…will you progress? And take a step towards truly keeping your cup empty.
**Swapan Dholakia

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