Applying Zen Principles to Leadership

We all know that successful leaders delegate effectively, communicate clearly, coach and mentor their staff and think strategically. But leadership is more than these commonly understood principles. It is about thinking creatively, innovatively and managing change successfully. There are 7 aesthetic principles of Zen that, if we apply to our leadership styles, will increase our effectiveness as leaders.

1. Kanso—Simplicity or elimination of clutter

This aesthetic principle relates well to leadership communication and reminds us to express ourselves in a plain, simple, natural manner that is clear and articulate. This means saying what we mean and meaning what we say while at the same time omitting or excluding the non-essential. Leaders that are able to communicate simply and clearly really understand what they are expecting of their employees. Leaders will reap the reward of getting what they expect from others, along with respect.

2. Fukinsei—Asymmetry or irregularity

Asymmetry is a design principle that strives to achieve balance and harmony despite differences in proportion between the parts of a thing. In fact, asymmetry relies on differences to achieve balance and beauty on the principle that, when life is perfect, things get boring. Irregularity keeps us alert and engaged. By its nature, asymmetry is imperfect. In Zen, the “Zen circle” or “enso” is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is a part of existence.

As leaders we live in a world of imperfection. Our goal is to solve problems and create harmony in the workplace—by improving our environment, developing and stretching our resources and “adding value”. Therefore, we can apply the principle of “Fukinsei” by staying positive rather than frustrated when we are dealing with irregularity; reframing the “curve balls” into possible opportunities for creating beauty and achieving order out of disorder.

3. Shibui/Shibumi—Understated beauty/minimalism

This Zen principle creates beauty by being direct and simple, without being flashy. It strives to get to the essence of what is needed, without distraction and over-the-top add-ons. Achieving this principle requires us to adhere to the concept of “less is more” and to enlist every element and detail to service multiple visual and functional purposes.

So how does the principle of minimalism apply to leadership? It takes a confident leader to recognize that the natural tendency to dive in and offer an opinion, to justify our existence by “adding value” with our “leadership” may actually disrupt, confuse, and derail the team, rather than help. While managers may feel these actions and behaviors are valuable, gratifying, and serve the organizational goals, “the managed” may not see it the same way. The message here for leaders is to spend more time guiding and less time directing or micro-managing your people. This means delegating in a way that does not abdicate managerial responsibility.

4. Shizen—Naturalness

Shizen is the absence of pretence or artificiality; full creative intent unforced but with purpose and intention. Leaders that demonstrate a lack of transparency in their decision-making processes can often foster cultures of mistrust. This can severely affect employee morale and productivity.

Effective leaders must garner the trust of their team. Their ability to establish, grow, extend and restore trust is a key managerial competency. In fact, research shows that high-trust environments correlate positively with high degrees of personnel involvement, commitment, and organizational success. Therefore, this concept of naturalness is conducive to trust; when people behave honestly and openly.

5. Yugen—Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation—deep or mysterious

Yugen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”. This Japanese aesthetic principle can provide insight into the development of organizational culture.
Each organization has a unique culture that has evolved from indigenous notions and leadership contributions over time. Changing a culture is challenging; requiring considerable effort and collaboration. But cultures can become counterproductive to the achievement of the organization’s goals. The principle of “yugen” reminds leaders to acknowledge and value the “mysterious sense of beauty” in their distinctive organizational cultures and to tread carefully when managing change; by retaining the best while striving to adapt for the future.

6. Datsuzoku—Freedom from habit or formula

Every organization and every leader strives to be innovative; to transcend the conventional and achieve success. Innovation today is a sought after tool for achieving a competitive edge and leaders must strive to excel with innovation.

7. Seijaku—Tranquility or an energized calm, stillness, solitude

When leaders are most effective, they are able to maintain order and bring a feeling of “active calm” to their workplaces. They achieve harmony, not by asserting formal authority but by motivating others. This means: giving praise when it’s due, delegating to give people responsibility, keeping an open ear by listening and being open to new suggestions, setting goals that stretch their people to grow and develop, and being open about your thinking and decisions to strengthen the team’s sense of belongingness.


These 7 principles will increase your ability to be more creative and innovative with your peers and employees. As well, they will help you to manage change more successfully and enhance your strategic thinking skills. If you apply them as a leader, you will increase your overall effectiveness.

Sally Stanleigh

Sally Stanleigh is a senior partner in Business Improvement Architects and the Chief Operating Officer. Sally manages the operation and develops and implements communications, marketing and promotion programs. She is also responsible for spearheading and managing the company's corporate research projects. Sally has a background in marketing and communications and previously worked as a senior product manager with multi-national corporations such as Colgate-Palmolive and Phillip Morris before founding Business Improvement Architects with her husband and partner, Michael Stanleigh.

On occasion, Sally is asked by clients for help with business planning. She facilitates the planning process as a consultant and helps clients with the development of their marketing plans and programs. She has also presented to professional groups on such topics as: customer feedback systems, employee motivation, development of incentive programs and trends.

You may contact her at