On a recent trip to Japan, I visited the Zen garden at Ryõan-ji temple in Kyoto. I spent quite a bit of time there, and I soon realized this interesting sight perfectly encapsulated how I think about leadership and what matters most. Hear me out.
This 2,600-square-foot dry garden includes fifteen stones carefully placed in white gravel in groups of two, three, or five. First of all, all the stones of the garden have different sizes, shapes and colors and are placed strategically to showcase their best side. Likewise, in your organization, you need to surround yourself with a diverse team that brings different talents to complement your own. Each individual needs to be in an envrionement where they can shine and leverage their skills and potential. Only then can you move forward individually and as a team.
Secondly, Ryõan-ji garden is a marvel of simplicity. The clean lines, perfectly raked gravel, and plain background make it an ideal place to meditate. When things are clear and straightforward, mindfulness is within reach. Clarity unlocks potential. With a clear goal, you as a leader can lead yourself and your team more efficiently; you have a greater impact on your organization, and you can lead effectively through change. Your success as a leader is contingent on your ability to develop clear goals for yourself and everyone around you.
Last but not least, the particularity of this dry garden is the fact that the fifteen stones have been carefully placed in such a way that the composition can never be seen in its entirety from the viewing platform. Regardless of where you stand, you will be able to account for fourteen of the stones, but never will all fifteen be visible from any given spot. No one knows for sure of the meaning behind the designer’s intent, and many interpretations have been debated throughout the years. I personally believe there is a hidden message in the layout: the blind spot.
Life is full of things we don’t know; things we are not aware of; things we can’t anticipate or prepare for; or things we simply choose to ignore; our blind spot. This makes us vulnerable and prone to errors. It sometimes leads us to irrational decisions or assumptions.
You can only prevent this blind spot with help. At Ryõan-ji, when partners stand on the platform with you, staring at the same garden, you collectively cover the blind spot. As a group, it becomes possible to account for all the stones, much like teamwork allows you to foresee and avoid roadblocks and challenges.
This is why I believe relationships are so important. Your work environment is a reflection of the quality of the relationships you maintain with your team; better yet, relationships are the foundation of your organization’s culture. They pave the way to engagement and commitment. With great relationships, there is trust. Where there is trust, there is empowerment. Where there is empowerment, there is ownership. Where there is ownership, there is motivation. Where there is motivation, there is creativity—and risk-taking, and problem solving, and resilience, and ultimately success. This is what a great culture can do for your kingdom!