Co-Founder & Managing Partner
Marketing Karma: a Buddhist Lens on Business
I’ve studied Buddhism for years and have always been preoccupied with one of its core principles: equanimity. Equanimity’s text-book definition is a state of mental and emotional composure, especially in situations that stoke one’s emotions.
Equanimity allows people to face what life dishes with a sense of inner peace, without being swayed by external circumstances. It involves maintaining an even-tempered and balanced mindset, free from excessive emotional reactions, such as anger, anxiety, or excitement. Not something we learn in B-school or management training programs though….
More broadly, as I’ve always tried to remember, every experience and emotion in life has a pattern: they all rise and then fall away, just as every marketing campaign does. All moments, like emotions, have a beginning, a middle and an end. Similarly, knowing that every marketing motion has phases lets us make better decisions because we can separate them from our emotional response to the data we're seeing in the moment. Every emotion we have ever felt — happiness, stress, envy, awe, rage, jealousy, tranquility, frustration, pride, confusion, clarity, et al, comes like a wave and falls away.
This wouldn’t be so bad except humans have a tendency to cling to things, experiences and emotions alike. We hold on to what we feel in the moment, we wallow in the painful emotions, and we exalt at the positive emotions and experiences, wanting them never to end. Rarely do we simply embrace them all and let them run their course. I’ve always advised my kids (and try to remind myself as well) to embrace what is, to be present in every moment, rather than cling to what was, or what may be — or what may not ever be — in the future.
Equanimity is a critical key to reducing emotional suffering, something Buddhists have mastered over many centuries of lifelong practice, while mortals like me have found it very elusive to realize, much less even remember when in the heat of a moment. Regardless of its difficulty to master, can equanimity also be a key to greater success in business?
Applying equanimity in business and marketing
If you learn to step back from your emotions in the moment you can free yourself to pursue the goals of a meeting, project or relationship without the emotional baggage that can send you off course. Ever preside over a meeting and feel with all the confidence you’ve ever possessed that you know the right answer and can’t wait to share it? Or the opposite: you are sure you’ve got it all wrong; this will be a disaster, I’m gonna get fired, and we should abandon this path? Or, in the face of building your business plans, or calibrating your competitors, or brainstorming new innovations, you cling to some past idea of success that’s worked before, or some future notion of a business vision that is just so damn sexy and novel and in the news that you must chase it at all costs? We are all often blinded by our strongly held emotions and memories of the past and visions of the future. And we are all in need of some equanimity, and with it the ability to practice non-attachment to preconceived notions of various outcomes, good or bad.
In the frenetic world of marketing, where change is the only constant, competition is relentless and criticism is withering, equanimity can be a potent force for fostering creativity, nurturing nascent programs, and uncovering hidden opportunities.
Battle Royale: Bombast vs Buddha
One prominent example of equanimity in action (and equanimity’s opposite) comes to mind: Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, versus his predecessor, Steve Ballmer. Having worked for both while at Microsoft, I had a close-up view. Steve Ballmer was all emotion. He was known to be a screamer, letting loose both his unchecked exhilaration at one idea, and his utter disdain for another in the rawest demonstration of passion I’ve ever seen in business. Steve chased all sorts of new business strategies with the passion of the possessed. Most failed, some stuck. Through all of it he remained unapologetic, tunnel-visioned, and rarely able to manage his emotions. As a result, he left Microsoft’s culture in shambles, its stock price stuck in neutral, and squandered huge amounts of industry leadership capital (and financial capital), while leading Microsoft in what many consider to be a lost decade of stagnation.
Then enter Satya Nadella, a study in Ballmer’s opposite. Satya was all equanimity all the time. He listened, he was present and open-minded in meetings, he was balanced, and he did not cling to past glories or future visions. Lieutenants mirror the behavior of their leaders, and soon enough, Satya’s leaders across the business began adopting a different approach themselves, moving Microsoft from a confrontational culture to one of greater collaboration.
Under Nadella's leadership, Microsoft transitioned from an enterprise software monopolist that everyone loved to hate, to a cloud-first, AI-driven tech darling. Its culture has rebounded, along with its stock price and Microsoft has enjoyed a renaissance in both industry leadership and valuation. Nadella's equanimous approach allowed him to steer Microsoft through this transformative journey by remaining open to new ideas, even in the face of skepticism from within and without. This mindset shift has led to breakthroughs like Azure, Microsoft's cloud computing platform, which has become a pillar of the company's success.
Equanimity Opens Us to New Strategies
In the realm of marketing, embracing equanimity can also lead to remarkable insights. Consider the case of Airbnb. The company's founders displayed immense equanimity when confronted with the challenges typical of entrepreneurs inventing new markets — withering criticism and disbelief by the establishment. They transitioned the experience of renting out air mattresses in their apartment into a global platform for vacation rentals, all while withstanding the disdain and disbelief from a global hospitality and hotel industry that stood to lose big, and investors that didn’t see nor understand the emergence of a new kind of economy. Their non-reactive mindset allowed them to envision a new sharing economy and seize an opportunity that was previously unseen.
The Three Ps
In Buddhism, there is a principle called the Three Marks of Existence (or 3 Ps): it's not all Perfect, It's never Permanent, and try not to take it Personally. The other way to say it is: “Shit happens, it never lasts, and don't take it personally.” Entrepreneurs and innovators that know how to weather emotional storms from within or without are more likely to succeed.
The Buddha Behind Amazon
Many other examples, big and small, of equanimity in action are all over the business landscape: Jeff Bezos started an online bookstore when the idea of selling anything online was considered silly and unworkable. He expanded into many other industries over time, and throughout, he was willing to be misunderstood and maligned, and resisted emotional reactions and clinging to old ideas, or current practices that were not working. Every day, in countless business meetings and planning sessions, people are practicing the kind of quiet leadership synonymous with equanimity. They are present, they are actively listening rather than waiting to speak, they are open to inspiration, and they recognize that whatever they are feeling in that moment, will rise and then fall away, and what’s best is to sit back and embrace it, examine it, seek to understand it, and do the same with whatever comes next.
Modern practices of equanimity in business, as derived from thousands of years of Buddhist tradition, equip marketers with the mental fortitude to foster creativity, stay focused on the prize, and uncover hidden opportunities.
By incorporating equanimity into their decision-making, marketers can navigate uncertainty, think differently, and remain agile and unstuck from emotional obstacles. In short, we can challenge ourselves to experience what is, while embracing what’s next.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T Your Brand
by Cindy Cook
by Allen Adamson