Zen leadership for adaptable security

by Black Hat Middle East and Africa
Zen leadership for adaptable security

Welcome to the new 100 cyber warriors who joined us last week. 🥳 Each week, we'll be sharing insights from the Black Hat MEA community. Read exclusive interviews with industry experts and key findings from the #BHMEA23 keynote stage.

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This week we’re focused on…📣

Bringing more Zen into cybersecurity leadership.

OK. Why?

We interviewed Lance James (Founder and CEO at Unit 221b). With over 25 years in the industry, he’s a great person to talk to about leadership and the struggles of cybersecurity professionals – and his approach to leadership (as well as his approach to life) is rooted in Zen principles.

Lance said:

“So you may know Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen teacher who brought Zen to the West. He authored a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which primarily focuses on meditation but also offers an outlook on life.

“This book has had such a profound impact on me that I even have the Japanese Kanji for ‘Shoshinsha’ (beginner) tattooed on my left inside arm. The core principle of approaching everything as if it's our first time, even if we've done it a thousand times before, resonates deeply with me. It reminds us to always be fully present, open to new opportunities, and eager to learn.”

Imposter syndrome is big in cyber 🕵

Professionals in all industries experience imposter syndrome. But as Lance pointed out, it’s prevalent in cybersecurity – “individuals feel like frauds or believe they aren’t good enough,” he noted.

That might be because:

  • Cybersecurity is a competitive field. Even in sectors of the industry where there’s a high demand for skilled cyber professionals, there’s still a lot of pressure to be the best – to have the most specialist knowledge, and to outshine your peers.
  • Infosec professionals often compare themselves to others – and feel like they’re not doing as much or achieving as much.
  • These feelings are exacerbated by achievement-based, hierarchical structures in tech companies and hacker communities.

But adopting a ‘beginner’s mind’ can help 🧠

“On the flip side,” Lance said, “the process of immersing oneself in the flow and engaging in hacking (in the sense of tinkering or discovering) creates a state of joy and childlike wonder, as it is a constant journey of learning.”

So there’s plenty of scope to move away from imposter syndrome and enjoy the process – if everyone, including the leaders at the top of their game, adopt the mindset of being a beginner.

You don’t have to call it Zen 💭

If the concept of Zen doesn’t sit comfortably, you can take the principles and apply them without any labels.

Those principles include:

  • Embracing imperfection
  • Looking for the simplest, most minimal solution
  • Being open to the notion of mystery – because things will always change
  • Being ready to let go of old ideas and habits
  • Active calmness – in leadership, this means achieving order not by enforcing authority, but by motivating others

Why should leaders adopt a beginner’s mind? 📢

Apart from making the leader’s job more enjoyable, it’s really good for people earlier on in their careers to see their role models approaching work with the mindset of a beginner. It’s empowering: if you see your bosses and mentors look at cybersecurity challenges with fresh, curious eyes, you’ll feel like you can do the same.

So there’s less pressure to immediately have all the answers; or to be the best expert in the room. Instead, upcoming cybersecurity professionals will recognise that they can be good at their jobs because they don’t know everything.

The pressure lifts. And then instead of wasting energy trying to appear better or more confident than others, cybersecurity professionals can focus their attention on solving problems.

Not just a cliché 🧐

Whether you call it Zen leadership or authentic leadership or something else entirely, the principles at play here are functional, effective, and good for everyone involved. It’s about stripping away the layers of pressure and expectation, and being where you are right now – enabling a collaborative work environment in which everyone feels like they can bring ideas to the table.

Lance added,

“To me, Zen is about mastering oneself, whether in a leadership role or as an individual contributor, as it entails leading one's own life. Great leaders also create more leaders. I embrace Zen for various reasons, but the primary one is that it allows me to see the world as it truly is, to be present in everyday moments, and to live a life filled with compassion.”

“These qualities also happen to be effective for leadership, and I firmly believe that Zen and leadership are inseparable, just like Zen and living.”

Read our full interview with Lance James on the blog.

*Subject to terms and conditions

Do you have an idea for a topic you'd like us to cover? We're eager to hear it! Drop us a message and share your thoughts. Our next newsletter is scheduled for 23 August 2023.

Catch you next week,
Steve Durning
Exhibition Director

P.S. - Mark your calendars for the return of Black Hat MEA from 📅 14 - 16 November 2023. Want to be a part of the action?

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