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Updated: Nov 22, 2021

I can’t possibly go on forever — transmission of leadership to a group seems more plausible.

When I had only just begun to study with Bernie, even before he had formally agreed to be my teacher, I asked him how to infuse my Zen practice into my practice of psychotherapy.

He thought for a moment, suggested a book I might read, but then added, “But really, just do your Zen practice; the Zen practice will take care of it.”

Now, years later as we reflect on leadership in our schools, I realize that without any conscious effort, it’s all Zen.

In some ways, Zen teaching is all about the development of the next generation of teachers, the transmission of the Authority to Teach. So often, over the centuries and even in America today, the status of teachers is measured by the number of their successors — their students who have been fully empowered to carry on the tradition.

What kind of Zen teacher am I if I have no successors?

I have often asked myself this, but no teachers have emerged from our little meditation group. I don’t know why. I love them.

Perhaps I have been so busy with the schools that I haven’t paid enough attention to the Zen group.

But now as we consider leadership at ICS, I realize that my successors are all around me. And it actually doesn’t matter that they don’t consider themselves Zen students.

There was a time in Bernie’s life, just after he first moved back East to Montague, Massachusetts, from California, that he became intrigued with circles as a form of practice. Adapted from the Native American council tradition, circles placed Bernie in different relationships with the people he was teaching and working with than he had ever been in before. He loved it.


I had spent much of my life in groups — trained in social work school as a group worker and later as a group therapist, I have spent hundreds of hours of personal development in group therapy, in encounter groups, and in consciousness raising groups. There was little new in council for me. And when Bernie started to talk about not giving transmission any longer to individuals but only to groups, I was horrified.

I wanted transmission by then. I had been studying first with Bernie and then Jishu and Bernie again after Jishu passed and then ultimately (because I couldn’t see Bernie regularly enough) he sent me to do Koan study with Bob (Kennedy). It was only because Bernie and Jishu felt that I could help advance the Dharma by becoming Jishu’s first successor that I had embarked on this path.

But by then I wanted it. No group transmission for me. So much ego.

As ICS Grows...

Now as ICS grows and evolves, already three schools and a fourth to open in less than two years, we are already at 1,000 students. We will grow to 2,000 and perhaps 3,000 over the next ten years and as we work toward succession in the schools, — I can’t possibly go on forever, — transmission of leadership to a group seems more plausible. Particularly ways we evolve and form a collective leadership.

This crystallized for me very recently. Evelyn and I had dinner recently with two DOE leaders whom we both have the greatest respect for, Tim Gannon and Lou Bruschi. We gathered to brainstorm about leadership training.

As we got down to business, Lou summarized their view of leadership. In his view, great leaders really listen to many voices, but what makes them great leaders is their ability to make the tough decisions guided by a strong moral compass.

I think Tim and Lou thought we would readily agree with this definition and that it would be a starting point for our conversation.

Although I worried that it might seem unfriendly to disagree, I had to say, “No, that’s not our view.”

What is our view?

Great leaders develop their people and prepare the next generation of leaders

The rest of the evening was a fascinating discussion of the difference which we’d discovered. For Evelyn and I, it really helped us become clear about what we are doing; and we have been reflecting on this discussion ever since.

One truth is that I recognized my former, pre-Zen self, in Lou’s words.

In my leadership roles in mental health, I had prided myself on my ability to make the tough decisions. And I had prided myself on my moral compass, a tribute to my parents.

Whatever I might have felt angry at them for about growing into adulthood, they had given me a moral compass. I’m still proud of this. I had found what I thought was a relatively egoless-alternative to righteousness. I often told supervisors who disagreed with me, “You know, you might be right. Your opinion on this may actually be better than mine. But my job is to make tough decisions, and I am not ready to resign yet.”

I had been there. I had accomplished a lot. I was successful.

Some people who worked for me loved my leadership. Many hated it. And I didn’t have any inner peace — the quandary of apparent success which led me to Zen.

I haven’t lost my moral compass. But I use it differently. I share it with our leadership team when we are faced with decisions which turn significantly on ethical questions. I learn more in the discussions with them than when I teach, even if I talk too much.

We have created a cabinet with which I share leadership. I try to include at least one member of the cabinet in everything I do, even copying someone on every email.

In our Zen world, succession is designated by the teacher. An abbot of a Zen community designates his successor in his will. Very hierarchical. Very different from some religious traditions in which a successor spiritual leader is chosen by the congregation.

In our school world, the authority to choose the CEO resides with the trustees. I can believe that our organization would be best served by promotion from within. I can do everything I can to prepare a group of leaders to succeed me. But at the end of the day, it is the trustees who will decide to continue this collective leadership, pick one from the group, or choose someone from the outside.

It is ok. Control is not so important.

I am Very Proud

Perhaps without being aware of it, I have become the Zen teacher that I aspired to be. I am very proud to be surrounded by so many wonderful, young people, a circle much larger than the cabinet.

I am struck by how different my Zen practice is from anything I could have imagined twenty years ago and at the same time how different from Bernie’s practice of his Greyston years, the practice which more than anything has served me as a guiding light.

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