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A Year Alone in a Cabin Taught Me Valuable Lessons About Leadership

A Year Alone in a Cabin Taught Me Valuable Lessons About Leadership Credit: Eric Kaufmann

The following piece was contributed as part of Business News Daily's byline series:

I was sitting in the 625 square-foot cabin I built in the mountains, overlooking the white, green, and brown snow-covered valley below. My year-long seclusion was wrapping up and I was ready to head back to family and productivity.

The same powerful inner force that influenced me quit my job and leave my friends was now pulling me back toward reintegration with society.

I recalled the spring morning when I gave my general manager and mentor my two-week notice. He couldn't comprehend why I was giving up the pay and potential of corporate mobility for an uncertain future.

There were three reasons for my decision. First, I wanted an undistracted place to deepen my meditation practice, to which I'd been dedicated for 11 years. Second, I realized that the stand-out leaders I knew all displayed emotional maturity. Emotional maturity is the ability to delay gratification, shine the spotlight on others, and be deliberate rather than reactive. I wanted to be that kind of leader, and figured that an intensive period of disciplined meditation would boost my growth and maturation. Lastly and honestly, the grind of managing a corporate function was stressful and competitive, and I was becoming more bitter than I wanted.

Sitting in the cabin I contemplated on how the year of silent meditation changed me, and it seemed paradoxical that I was feeling more like myself than I ever did. The self-discipline and compassion required to practice meditation for a dozen years changed me from a bundle of unrealized potential to a focused achiever.

I'd like to share four insights from building and living in the cabin, insights that are vital for leaders:

It's easier to break than to build. I demolished an old structure nearby for salvageable building materials. Demolishing required a 10-pound sledge hammer and brute force, and no real plan or vision. Breaking is easier than building. Building took purpose, vision, planning, execution, energy, and consistency.

You are 100 percent responsible for your life. I was shocked when, during meditation, I encountered my demons, complaints and fears, and I impulsively blamed my parents, old girlfriends, foes and anyone I could. It took me a few months to realize nobody was to blame for my current state; I embraced that I am 100 percent responsible for my experience.

There's no such thing as a "self-made man." At some point during construction I realized that my belief that I was a self-made man was nonsense. I didn't forge my tools, weave my clothes or write the manuals I studied to learn how to frame and mud and lay tile. I depended on countless people, known and unknown, present and past.

Your fear defines you. I read enough motivational books in my 20s to become convinced that when I conquered my fear I'd achieve a fully realized and unlimited life. So I pursued fear conquering through diving with sharks, skydiving, walking on fire, fasting for weeks, bungee jumping, lying in sensory deprivation tanks, and confronting my parents. My confidence grew, for sure, but to this day I'm not fearless. Fearlessness is a misguided goal and not the objective of a fully realized life — courage is the objective. Fear is a biological survival imperative so deeply woven into our neural system that it practically defines us. Courage is necessary and requires that you walk toward what you’d rather run away from.

I left the cabin not because I ran out of time, but because I realized that my spiritual evolution was going to be accelerated through community, marriage and children, and professional service. I returned to master the lessons of leadership — being connected, communicative, and collaborative and balancing ambition with wisdom with compassion.

About the author: Eric Kaufmann has coached and consulted hundreds of leaders, including executives and teams at Sony, T-Mobile, Genentech, Alcon Labs, and Sunpower. He is the founder and president of executive development company Sagatica, Inc. and the author of the forthcoming book, The Four Virtues of a Leader: Navigating the Hero’s Journey Through Risk to Results (Sounds True, September 2016).