Exploring Root Causes of Suffering
Wisdom Teachings for Organizational Change
All programming in the School of Leadership studies—whether in MA Global Leadership, the MA Leadership, the Health Leadership specialization, or the Executive Leadership specialization—includes the teaching that how one leads oneself has a direct impact on how one leads teams, organizations, and potentially, system transformation.
Leading Self in Systems
As a secular post-secondary institution, we primarily draw upon leadership scholars who explore ideas such as personal mastery (Senge, 2006) and bringing mindfulness to work (Goldman Schuyler, Taylor, & Wolberger, 2018). As a further example, Otto Scharmer (2016) suggested that “what counts is not only what leaders do and how they do it but their ‘interior condition,’ the inner place from which they operate or the source from which all of their actions originate” (Introduction, p. 7). Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea (2010) likewise referred to “an inner core of preparation” (p. 40) that can enable us to become more present.
In addition, scholars such as Joanna Macy (2007) have also woven wisdom teachings from sacred texts into the scholarship of leadership. (see also Etmanski et al., 2014). Along these lines, in my personal and professional life, I have deeply benefitted from the practice of yoga. In an effort to practice teachings from another culture responsibly and to move beyond asana (physical postures) as a fitness regime, I have endeavoured to respectfully learn about some of the history, philosophy, and spiritual teachings embedded in the practice of yoga. One wisdom teaching on the root causes of suffering as been particularly helpful to my own practice of leadership (see, e.g., Clark, 2007; Swami Shankarananda, 2002).
Wisdom Teachings on the Root Causes of Suffering
The image above represents a teaching about five Kleshas or root causes of suffering, derived from Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as Buddhist teachings. I often return to this teaching as a framework for deepening insight when I am observing or experiencing suffering in organizational life. When I can name for myself any Kleshas that may be present as an internal condition this can help me to see from a new perspective and sometimes release the grip this suffering may have in a given situation.
Attachment refers to clinging, grasping, or holding tightly to something we experience as pleasant. Since everything is impermanent, suffering emerges when that experience inevitably comes to an end, especially when that ending is outside of our control.
Conversely, aversion is avoiding or resisting that which we find unpleasant. Again, we don’t normally have control over when these difficult circumstances emerge. Let me be clear that this teaching is not at all to condone racism, bullying, harassment and other forms of violence. There are circumstances where we genuinely need to protect ourselves from harm and avoidance is the best immediate way to cope with trauma. This teaching simply suggests that we can notice when aversion is present, especially in its more subtle everyday forms, and notice how avoiding or even mentally resisting can add another layer of suffering to an already difficult situation.
Likewise, noticing the presence of ego or pride is not about obliterating healthy self esteem. It is the shadow side, or an over-identification with an idea, object, or expectations of our own mind and body. We see ego manifest frequently in organizations (for example, my idea! My project! My team!) and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t happen to me. Nevertheless, when I can notice for myself and name that an over-identification with ego is present, it can loosen the feeling of suffering ever so slightly.
Ignorance can be about not seeing the bigger picture, larger whole, and systems interconnections. For some, it might be about ignorance of our purpose or ways to bring forth our best selves. I put forgetfulness next to ignorance because sometimes we need to learn these essential life lessons many times over and ignorance can be a temporary form of forgetting. One of my teachers says it’s in our nature to forget and wisdom practices can help us to remember.
Finally, fear. This is one we’ve seen amplified throughout the pandemic and manifesting in so many harmful and polarizing ways. We see fear in individuals and it can become inherent to the way organizations operate too. Sometimes the root of this Klesha is understood as the ultimate fear of death and, in this way, we can see how it’s closely related to ego.
Noticing When the Kleshas are Present in Organizational Life
The five Kleshas are often present during change, and we know that change is a constant in organizations and in life.
I share this wisdom teaching as it’s been helpful for me in my leadership practice. Bringing awareness to these root causes of suffering has helped me to reframe painful elements of organizational life. When I can remember and tune into it, this teaching has helped me to stop the cycle of harm that can easily be reproduced in organizations when leaders are not mindful. At its best, understanding and acknowledging how and when Kleshas operate can help to transform difficult messages into opportunities for greater hope, joy, connection, and innovation.
1. As a settler on Turtle Island in this land now known as Canada, I acknowledge that there are many wisdom teachings inherent to the Lkwungen, Xwsepsum, and surrounding communities on whose land I am a visitor. I humbly offer my current and ever-growing understanding of the Kleshas here with gratitude and respect for the teachers who have passed this wisdom down from India over thousands of years.
2. I offered an earlier version of these ideas in a panel at the 2022 International Leadership Conference. See Rowe et al. (2022) below for more information.
3. For a related post, please see: Transforming Toxicity in the Workplace.
Baldwin, C. & Linnea, A. (2010). The circle way: A leader in every chair. Berrett-Koehler.
Clark, B. (2007). Yinsights. ISBN 978-0-9687665-1-4
Etmanski, C., Fulton, M., Nasmyth, G., & Page, M. B. (2014). The dance of joyful leadership. In K. Goldman Schuyler, J. E. Baugher, K. Jironet, and L. Lid-Falkman (Eds.), Leading with spirit, presence, and authenticity (pp. 91–108). Jossey-Bass
Goldman Schuyler, K., Taylor, M. O., & Wolberger, O. M. (2018). Bringing mindfulness and joy to work.In J. Neal (Ed.)., Handbook of personal and organizational transformation (pp. ). Springer.https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-29587-9_27-3
Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self: Courage for global justice and ecological renewal. Parallax Press.
Rowe, W., Agger-Gupta, N., Bishop, K., Etmanski, C., Krause, W., & Pozzobon, T. (2022, October 6). Forces advancing leadership wisdom: A call for courage, values and vision. Virtual panel presentation at the 24th Annual Virtual Global Conference of the International Leadership Association. (Online), October 6–16, 2022.
Scharmer, C. O. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler. https://www.dropbox.com/s/1qdgjgr5rghloep/TU2_Intro_0%20%281%29.pdf?dl=0
Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline (2nd ed.). Currency/Doubleday.
Swami Shankarananda. (2002). Consciousness is everything: The yoga of Kashmir Shaivism. Shaktipat Press.