Yvon Chouinard, founder and former CEO of Patagonia. (Brandon Aroyan.)

Yvon Chouinard, founder and former CEO of Patagonia. (Brandon Aroyan.)

Patagonia founder and former CEO Yvon Chouinard, who describes himself as “kind of a Zen Buddhist,” is an accidental and reluctant businessman.

Chouinard bought a coal-fired forage from a junkyard in 1957, along with some blacksmithing tools. As an avid mountain climber, he was unhappy with the European-made pitons (spikes used to secure climbing rope) that were manufactured from soft iron. He wanted durable pitons he could use again and again. He made his own, shared with a few friends, and soon friends of friends were clamoring for the new pitons. He started selling them for $1.50 each.

From that humble beginning, Patagonia has become a company that generates nearly $500 million in sales and has expanded to include gear for many of Chouinard's other passions — fly-fishing, kayaking, skiing, and surfing.

After viewing a 2007 interview with Tom Brokaw, I bought and read his book Let My People Go Surfing, where I discovered the company truly is cut from a different corporate cloth. His organizing principles don't come from a by-the-book MBA. It struck me that they could have been taking from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

In the foreword to Yoga Wisdom at Work, lululemon athletica CEO Christine Day makes the point that "yoga is more a philosophy... than just another type of exercise. You do not have to be on a yoga mat to practice yoga." In fact, taking yoga off the mat and into the world offers far more opportunities to practice — something Chouinard does whether he is aware or not.

Chouinard's business philosophies contain many of the yogic precepts we write about in our book. For example:

Lead an examined life — educate yourself first, then act

  • This level of examination can be a "pain in the ass," says Chouinard, because you can never rest. In yoga, the practice of self-study (svadhyaya) is about consciously cultivating self-awareness. The practice asks for a continuous assessment of your beliefs, assumptions, habits and ways of engaging others.
  • Such assessment is aided by the practice of non-lying (satya), which calls for painstaking honesty with yourself and others.
  • Acting on this newly created self awareness requires discipline (tapas) to hang with the discomfort that accompanies growth and change.

Make a great product and do no harm

  • Ahimsa is the yogic practice of non-violence. One of the ways Patagonia tries to honor this precept is to ensure their products are not harming the environment. For example, the company invested four years to find a replacement for petroleum-based neoprene wetsuits, In 2012, Patagonia announced a partnership with Yulex to make wetsuits from a plant found in Arizona, which will smell better, keep the body warmer and dry faster without using petroleum. "Patagonia doesn't plan on making money on this initially, says Patagonia Surf Director Jason McCaffrey. But the company is committed to making business changes to "inspire change to the environmental crisis."
  • McCaffrey's statement illustrates the yogic precept of aparigraha, or non-greed. The company's values statement, authored by Chouinard, includes a statement that states the intention to make a profit — but that is not Patagonia's primary mission. "Growth and expansion are not values basic to this corporation."

Let go of attachment

  • Ishvara-pranidhana is a practice of surrendering yourself to a greater good. It also asks that you give you best efforts toward a goal without being attached to the outcome. In his book, Chouinard uses the Zen archer's lesson to illustrate surrender. The archer does not focus on the target, but instead stays present to the process of shooting the arrow — stance, placement of the arrow on the bow, breathing, etc.
  • Fostering contentment, no matter what the outcomes are, is a practice of santosha. Choice is a powerful component of contentment. No matter how disappointing or frustrating circumstances can be, people have a choice about whether to let those circumstances derail equanimity or to practice santosha and choose for contentment.

"How you climb the mountain is more important than reaching the top," Chouinard says. In my estimation, his philosophies make this accidental businessman and accidental yogi as well.


As part of our exploration of “telling the truth”, and why it’s often seen as a radical act in organizations, we brainstormed a list of why telling the truth could seem like a bad idea.

Here are our  Top 20 Reasons to Avoid Telling the Truth:

1.     Our relationship might change or crumble if we tell each other the truth

2.     It is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing

3.     I don’t think you need, or deserve, to know the truth

4.     You might not like me if I tell the truth

5.     It would force me to admit I am wrong

6.     I’ve learned people don’t really like to hear the truth

7.     It could put my job or career at risk

8.     Avoiding the truth is a social convention that helps us get along better

9.     The truth could put someone in harm’s way

10.  I don’t want to admit to, or live with, a harsh reality

11.  We might not agree on what “the truth” is

12.  Relationships, organizations and institutions don’t really support truth-telling

13.  Telling the truth would compromise a promise to keep someone’s secret

14.  It might mean I won’t get what I want

15.  Feelings could get bruised (mine or yours)

16.  I want to control you by manipulating the truth

17.  Last time I told the truth, it just got me in trouble

18.  Why should I do it when no one else does?

19.  I don’t think you can handle the truth

20.  The truth is unknowable, so what difference does it make?

What did we miss? Are any of these your favorites?

Next time, we’ll share our Top 20 list of Reasons to Tell the Truth


Accountability, business literacy, Distributing organizational power

Football has long been a big part of my life. I played in high school, was a scholarship athlete at Miami University, and coached high school football in my first career as a public school teacher. So I was particularly interested in a recent NPR interview with New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who mentioned a guiding principle we believe has strong benefits for business leaders and managers.

In the interview, and in his new book Play Like You Mean It, Ryan boils down his foundational coaching strategy to one elegant sentence: “Everybody is in the same room, and there is accountability because you all know each others’ jobs.”
NY Jets Coach Rex Ryan

Everyone in the room, at the same time.

As defensive coach at the Baltimore Ravens, for instance, he didn’t meet with groups of defensive players depending on their roles or positions — the entire defense was in the room at the same time, each player learning to understand the roles of his teammates. Ryan carries on this philosophy as the Jets’ head coach.

“It may sound complicated [but] it’s not,” Ryan says. And his simple approach works. Since Ryan took over the struggling Jets in 2009, the team twice has been within one game of the Super Bowl.

He says his philosophy was influenced by seeing some of the mistakes made by his legendary father, Buddy Ryan, who worked as head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals. “He was more strictly isolated on players,” whereas the younger Ryan’s goal is making developing and strengthening the entire organization.

Coach Ryan’s approach is one we long have used in our work — we also consider it foundational. It is another iteration of what we call business literacy. Our experience and others’ has shown that a key element to business success is helping everyone in the organization see and understand the big picture. This means setting up mindful processes and procedures that foster in-depth knowledge of how the business operates, and the environment in which it must thrive. It means everyone acknowledge and strengthen the interdependencies required for the success of the whole. When people are committed to serving each other, their customers and learning together, it not only enhances results, it helps create meaning and purpose at work.

In Rex Ryan’s world, players develop interdependent thinking and understanding through this “whole system” approach. Coaches supply team members with in-depth information, along with a framework and strategy for engagement. This is tested and refined while preparing for games. This environment creates collective wisdom, and the sum becomes greater than its parts.

Leaders would benefit from embracing this simple principle. Make it your personal mission to build a stronger team by distributing business information from top to bottom, side to side. Begin meeting regularly as a whole system/unit. Create a culture of transparency and interdependency. Foster collective wisdom.

It might not get you to the Super Bowl, but it will get you better results.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.