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Zen for psychiatric leadership

January 27, 2014
by Steve Moffic
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"Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It's about mastering the art of letting go."

-Phil Jackson


After my last blog, I was pretty sure that I was finished, at least for a time, focusing on various leaders and leadership. As it turns out, that didn't last for long. In writing the drafts for an upcoming book chapter on "Ethical Leadership for Psychiatry," I discovered some other leaders, one of which I'd like to start writing about now. Hope you don't mind. [By the way, if anyone would like to review and comment on the current chapter draft, just let me know and I'll forward it to you.]

It's just my contention that we can learn so much from leaders in other fields, let alone our own. There are underlying generalities that can cross fields, and certainly there have been leaders that have been successful in more than one field.

One such approach is the Zen of the most successful professional basketball coach in history, Phil Jackson. Zen, simply speaking, can be defined as trying to achieve enlightenment by intuitive insights, really not so far afield from the insights that therapists often try to convey to patients.

Zen and basketball, though!? Almost sounds like mixing oil and water, does it not? How, then did they end up mixing so well?

First, full disclosure here: Jackson won those 11 championships for two different teams, under two different owners. One of those was the Chicago Bulls. I'm from Chicago and the Bulls are way up on the list of my favorite teams.

As a child, I went to many Bulls games with my father. The Bulls, at that time, were a new team, so in some ways I felt that we grew up together. And my sign is Taurus the Bull! Coincidentally or not, when the Bulls finally won their championships under Jackson, who is about my age, I was in the heydays of my own leadership experiences. I tried to convey the essence of my leadership challenges in the book The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare (Jossey-Bass, 1997). Much better yet, Jackson wrote several books on his methods, which I'll summarize and try to relate to psychiatry.

Coach Jackson had two great superstars on each of those teams, but his leadership challenge was to get them to be team players, too. And he did, where other coaches had failed under similar, if not better, circumstances. Psychiatric leaders often have to mold and develop staff of varying talents and skills.

One overall strategy was to instill a little love. No, not passionate and sexual love with those most macho athletes. This was what Jackson described as more like agape, the love of caring, concern, and understanding. As I researched my book chapter, this resonated with new research showing that a leader in any field, including healthcare, that can model and show compassionate love, increases job satisfaction and reduces burnout for those who work in the organization.

Besides love, another leadership technique that coach Jackson used was relaxation, another paradoxical opposite to the often frenetic action on the basketball court. He brought in yoga and meditation. In our days of trying to do more in less time, how do we find ways to relax and replenish emotionally?



H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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