The Archer: A Zen Parable About the Most Critical Leadership Skill

After winning several archery contests, a rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer.

The champion demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull’s eye on his first try, and then split the arrow with his second shot.

“There,” he said to the Zen master, “see if you can match that!”

Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the champion to follow him up the mountain.

Curious about the master’s intentions, the champion followed him high up into the mountains until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy log.

Calmly stepping out into the middle of the perilous bridge, the master picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit.

“Now it is your turn,” he said, as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground.

Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless abyss, the champion could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at the target.

“You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.” 

This little parable explains why I focus on helping leaders learn how to handle difficult situations better than I’ve ever been able to do so.

We all face countless challenges in the workplace every single day. People rub us the wrong way, workloads become overwhelming, stumbling blocks and delays test our patience… to name but a few.

The emotional brain records everything. When leaders handle difficult situations poorly, people remember and respond accordingly.

So let me ask you… when challenges arise in your workplace, how ready, willing, and able are you to calmly step into the middle of that perilous bridge and focus your mind so that you can make the shot?

This is the only way you’ll reach your goal of cultivating a high performing team with healthy interpersonal relationships… or whatever your particular end goal may be.

It takes discipline and practice to reach this level of self-mastery.

And that practice needs to happen when everything seems to be falling apart, not when things are easy.

So the next time that life at work goes haywire, ask yourself, “What is this situation providing me the opportunity to practice?”

And then practice that.

Because every fiber of my being believes that we all have a Zen master hidden within us… just waiting for the opportunity to emerge and light the way for others.