“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.” – Sun Tzu
Effective leaders must spend time in the temple.
Too many leaders live moment-to-moment in the battlefield grind: leading employees, triple-checking positions, monitoring logistics, compulsively checking the news or consuming a dizzying feed of blogs, podcasts, and reports. New taskers bombard them hourly. Subordinates line up at the door with problems or questions. The Urgent swamps the Important. We expend 100% of our energy just holding things together. Maybe more. We burn out without moving the needle.
Not Sun Tzu.
Sun Tzu tells us that an effective leader retreats into silence and solitude. He hides himself among the walls of smooth, cool stone. Tree-dappled sunlight pours through high arched windows, into an empty vaulted space that draws his eyes and heart up into the heavens. The general drinks deep draughts of this rich silence in order to replenish his soul.
Sun Tzu’s general knows that he can do more for his army or nation by withdrawing from the relentless daily grind in order to think. In that white space of interior silence, he can assess patterns, consider whether all that expended energy will amount to a victory or something else, plan major course changes that nobody in the ranks has time to even imagine. It is in that quiet sanctum that a general can look up from the tactical and imagine entirely different futures.
In his temple a general also finds the space to heal her own soul, thoughtfully consider the fundamentals that matter most, and lay plans for the future. She emerges revitalized, strong, clear-minded, at peace with herself and the world.
Why you need a temple
If you are an intrapreneur who seeks to lead change you must learn to spend time in the temple, or you will be destroyed. That is because your driving purpose is to work against a machine vastly larger and more powerful than yourself.
Your breakdown not happen immediately.
When things are going swimmingly, you will feel electrified and alive and ready to take on the world. The MVP is coming together nicely. Your leaders and stakeholders are delighted. You are failing fast, failing forward, failing often. You are learning. You are like Captain Kirk in his captain’s chair, passing cool orders to your team, watching them execute, feeling the thrill of leadership and intoxicated with the potential of what your new initiative might become.
But at some point, your fortunes will change. Even if you are succeeding, the sheer number of details demanding your attention will overwhelm you. Your unread email will hit the hundreds or even the thousands. During every phone call you will receive two new voicemails. You will need to make time-critical decisions about hiring, budget, product design, hiring, firing, security policies, external engagement, messaging, growth, strategy. One of these waves will knock you off your feet, and then another will hit while you’re down, and then another.
And that’s just when you are succeeding.
Every bold new initiative sees a constant oscillation between success and failure. When you have setbacks, the stress will skyrocket. You will take heavy blows that send you reeling. Your project will be terminated. Your budget will be halved. You will learn the contract wasn’t written properly and none of your IP protections are in place. A competitor will steal your idea and secure 10x the funding. Your senior champion will unexpectedly move to a new job, and her replacement won’t care less about your project.
Any innovative effort will face what Scott Weiss calls WFIO moments (“we’re fucked, it’s over”)—usually several of them.
Leading a retreat is one of the hardest challenges a battlefield commander can face; a well-executed retreat is the most effective way to save the lives of soldiers but requires iron discipline in the face of terror and collapsing morale. Absent strong leadership, a retreat turns into a rout—with catastrophic consequences.
To survive such moments, a leader must develop the inner poise to respond effectively. You will need to make hard choices, sometimes between terrible alternatives. You must continue leading, inspiring, and pushing your team. You must become the calm at the center of the storm.
That requires spending time in the temple.
Finding your temple
Every leader’s temple looks different. We most commonly associate the word temple with a place to worship deities, but the word ultimately derives from the Latin templum, which simply means “open or consecrated space.” Consecration, in turn, means “dedicated to a sacred purpose.” A temple further connotes transcendence of the mundane, a peaceful harbor from life’s storms, and a place of inner healing and restoration.
That is the key.
Some modern leaders might retreat into a literal house of worship to find solitude, silence, and healing. Others will not. In either case, a leader must have an inner sanctum—devoted to the sacred purpose of her calling—into which she can retreat.
That begins with one’s own soul. The best leaders carry their temple within; they can close their eyes and, in a few moments, find themselves in this consecrated, mindful, healing place.
Even just putting the feet up on the desk behind a closed door.
This requires a level of comfort being alone with ourselves, which is frightening and unfamiliar to many of us. Just remember: if you cannot find your own center, your ability to lead will always be fragile.
Physical artifacts can help transport us into this consecrated space. Churches use lofty architecture, sunlight and shadow, religious imagery, music, incense, and other artifacts to draw the soul into contact with the divine. For you it might be the same, or maybe just a journal, a comfortable chair in the office, or a coffee shop down the street from the office.
The outdoors is a majestic temple, and it is almost always there for the taking. During my most stressful days as a grad student, I found crucial solace in even brief walks around campus. While running my two startups I made frequent weekend getaways into the mountains with my wife and kids. I also spent many mornings outside in my yard with a cup of coffee and journal. On one of my worst days as a leader–when I discovered that my organization had accidentally spent my entire annual budget–I called in sick and spent a full day alone in the mountains with no connectivity. In that silence I was able to process my anger, despair, and the practical decisions ahead.
History is filled with private temples belonging to great men and women. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius communed with himself through writing his Meditations. Abraham Lincoln frequently retreated from the White House into a quiet cottage. Each year, Bill Gates spend two “Think Weeks” alone in the forest. Throughout his life Teddy Roosevelt retreated for months at a time to the Dakota Territory to hunt, write, and ranch. He dreamed of living as a rancher, but in this temple his strength was replenished, and he repeatedly found his way back into politics. As one profile put it, “the Badlands had lit a fire in a darkened soul.”
Find your own temple. If the concept is unfamiliar to you, begin by deliberately cultivating white space in your life, learning to sit still, and learning about reflective solitude. All faith traditions have rich teaching and practices available. If you are not religious (and even if you are), Stoicism is also a great place to start. Meditation is a powerful tool to help, and resources are widespread.
As you get more comfortable in your own mind, experiment with the environment, processes, and tools that can elevate you out of the grind into a thoughtful, reflective place. Construct your temple with the same deliberate intentionality you would approach building a product or team.
I will share more about my own experiences in future posts but recognize that this is a deeply personal journey. You are on a lifelong quest to find your own center, to create a reflective place that nourishes and heals and sustains you. You are also looking for the space to perform the deep thinking–what Sun Tzu calls calculations–needed to survive and thrive in the arena. Your temple should equip you to return into the world to do battle each day. It should be a place where you grow into the truest and best version of yourself.
- The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday – an excellent primer on stoicism
- Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday – a call to slow down
- The Art of War: Spirituality for Conflict – a translation of Sun Tzu with commentary about its relevance to today’s world
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – a call to free up whitespace in our lives
- Deep Work by Cal Newport – More about productivity than reflection, but still a rich book about structuring our lives and workspaces to live rich, full lives
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – a Stoic classic