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Competition or Collaboration: Choosing Conscious Leadership

Reconsidering “healthy” competition in an increasingly splintered and complex world

Many disciplines teach that abundance and true impact can only blossom when we let go of fear — that someone else will have the edge, that another organization will “beat” the one we lead. The Buddha teaches us that lighting a lamp for others illuminates our own path. Tao instructs that the energy we hold against things causes them to be magnified, endowing the perceived threat with greater power, and diminishing our own. Hinduism establishes friendship toward all as the antidote to jealousy. How can we foster relationships among leaders that more closely reflect these truths? Can we think of everyone as a friend, considering their success and prosperity as successes that amplify our own?

These were the thoughts occupying my mind on a recent cross-country flight to California — to meet my peers, the organizational leaders of the Esalen Institute, 1440 Multiversity, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I was excited by my greatest aspirations for this trip – to co-create an environment of collaboration so that we might actualize the core of our respective missions, and together help to create a more compassionate and connected world. My anticipation was tempered by concerns, borne of decades as an academic leader, that the potential jealousies of those we perceive as competitors can feed what is often a bottomless appetite for “healthy” competition.

Nearly three years ago, I became the CEO of Kripalu, North America’s premier center for yoga and health. After decades in higher education, a world that has been painfully slow to innovate and collaborate across institutions, I was eager to enter the world of yoga and health. I soon found that in this ideologically mindful and spiritually generous space, leaders are intensely focused on the business of promoting their individual missions. We do not readily, habitually, or deeply share information or practices that could help us collectively achieve the goal of a changed world. It is time to intentionally shift that model and our day-to-day practices, to embody, in a polarized and divided world, the union to which we all aspire.

My shorthand for this mindframe: Conscious Leadership.

Big Sur’s powerful charms notwithstanding, we still live in the real world, which (in the West, at least), means competition as an expression and function of capitalism. Is healthy competition possible? Or is there another way to consider other organizations and other leaders that resists casting them as threats?

I believe there is, and I believe, as conscious leaders, we must embody and practice a new way of “competing” that honors distinction without fear – that celebrates the achievements of others without an underlying threat. My desire is enhanced by the current political and social climate, as the world we share is increasingly splintered into like-minded factions. We have been taught, in school and in life, that competition is essential to our survival. But I wonder, can we find ways to embody the wisdom teachings of our traditions to challenge this paradigm, and evolve beyond competition to collaboration – becoming more conscious, and generating change that improves our community and the world we share.

Collaboration doesn’t mean conformity. My organization, Kripalu, is utterly distinct from 1440 Multiversity, Esalen, and Spirit Rock. But as leaders, would we find common ground? Or would we retreat to the default – and compete with each other, when we had a chance to learn so much?

I really struggled. On one hand, I reasoned that our organizations shared some common goals – including supporting the health and financial integrity of our missions. On the other, would we be threatened by other organizations’ strengths? Would our very similarities give rise to toxic competition?

My worries and fears were, thankfully, unrealized. Our shared commitment to our organizations’ missions – and the profound value we each offer to this complex, dynamic, and occasionally confusing world – neutered the competitive impulse and created an environment of congenial collaboration. Open and frank conversations led to connections and to clearer understandings of our shared challenges, our differences, and of how our respective strengths might shore up gaps in other organizations. For example, one group identified a gap in marketing expertise; I offered to connect them with our marketing director to brainstorm how they might grow their marketing strength, sharing our priority on diversity, equity, inclusion, and valuing the thoughts of others, especially those outside traditional leadership. Kripalu has experienced challenges in software systems that help us serve our guests; another group with greater expertise offered to help us with our tech challenges. Another leader expressed the desire for stronger faculty engagement; Kripalu can help, and we are glad to do so.

These first, baby steps into nuanced collaboration require trust and commitment in order to inspire a bigger vision, perhaps of shared infrastructure across organizations, which would allow us – as respectful peers and exemplary leaders – to coordinate an annual calendar and create shared marketing materials, cross-promoting different institutions, for example, rather than fostering competition. This possibility is at least as invigorating as the ocean waves crashing into California’s rocky coast.

I took a powerful vision away from my time in California. As leaders, our very real differences were surpassed by common beliefs, challenges, and opportunities: As inhabitants of a highly competitive world (and an increasingly competitive market sector), it’s easy to be distracted from the practices and traditions that anchor our missions by the “noise” of the mindfulness space. I realized that by working together, we could forge a new way forward, mapping a collaborative landscape. We could be both distinct and aligned.

On the flight home, I felt relief and hope. Rather than feeling like a cog in the grinding gears of the “retreat industry,” I felt held by the threads that connected all of us – the commitments we hold dear, the challenges we face, and the willingness to begin to share the highs and lows with others, rather than hoard or hide.

We have more in common than in conflict. Despite our differences – in content, geography, leadership, and clientele – the heartbeat that powers us all is the mission to create a better world. We leaders can be the virtual village that models collaboration across difference, and from our example, real change will flow. We are stronger aligned than fractured; we can become stronger still by sharing, learning and working together to serve the ideals and values to which we have dedicated our lives.

I believe that conscious leaders in the mindfulness space can undo the competitive reflex and live courageously, without fear of threats against our institution and our leadership. With the support and encouragement of our peer organizations, we can truly rethink how we see each other – how we define these relationships – and support each other in our strengths, encouraging growth without jealousy or competition. I believe we can do this – and we must. I look forward to this continued engagement.

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