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.


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I have learned many lessons about leadership over the years, but among the most powerful came while teaching at an inner-city high school in Flint, Michigan. In mid-year, I took a job teaching woodshop. The previous instructor had found himself locked in a storage cage by his 2nd period class. He got out during 4th period, and immediately quit.

In the 1970s, the boys who were enrolled in woodshop often weren’t cutting it in regular classrooms. The logic of putting disruptive — and sometimes aggressive — students in a classroom with sharp instruments and dangerous power machines escaped me. But somebody had to do it, and I needed the job.

While I wasn’t thinking about leadership at the time, the lessons I learned in that classroom are highly relevant for business leaders today. Going in, I decided to pay attention to four specific things.

First, I had to decide who I was going to “see” in my woodshop classroom. How I saw these boys, and what I believed they were capable of, would frame everything we did together. I had a choice: To see them as troublemakers, losers and rejects — or to see them as young adults trying to make sense of life, just like I was.

Second, I couldn’t make this class a success on my own — the students had to be a part of putting things back in order. It was important that they be fully engaged. We first paid attention to the space. We collaborated on how we would clean up the classroom, figured out where we stood on supplies, and fixed up the tools. Throughout this process, we were not only taking a classroom inventory, we were assessing each other.

Third, we decided together what it was going to mean to be a member of the woodshop class. We could spend a semester with me exerting control and them resisting being controlled, or we could create something meaningful. Together, we had to determine our shared future. We spent some time talking about things such as:

·   What does it mean to be a part of this class?

·   What expectations do you have of me? And me of you?

·   How should we treat each other when problems crop up or things get testy?

·   What is it that we want to do here together?

And finally, I wanted them to quickly begin a creative project using wood. The act of creation gave them a sense of ownership and meaning.

By the end of the semester, we had created a “woodshop” where all of our heads, hearts and hands were honored and engaged.

Although I no longer teach in a high school classroom, the four lessons continue to be relevant. In large organizations where we work, they come into play again and again. Leaders need to become aware of who they “see” at work. They must develop a clear understanding of what it means to be a member of the enterprise. Engagement and collaboration forges a sense of ownership and excitement.

And that sets the stage for the magical act of creation.