Naropa Magazine Spring 2014
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Kevin Mays

Intersection of Buddhism & Leadership

Understanding the Totem

By Lisa Birman, MFA

Kevin MaysKevin Mays (MA '95) had an eclectic undergraduate education. After studying engineering, geography, political and international relations, economics, philosophy, and language, he felt he had gained a lot of understanding but little wisdom. A motorcycle trip to Florida and a year living on the beach saw him searching for something more. "I had this thought that I was going to move to California and go to a 'mind institute.' I had no idea what that meant." Sitting on the beach reading a book by Ram Dass, he saw Naropa listed in the appendix. "My undergraduate was rigorous," he recalls, "but Naropa was rigorous in a whole new way. The academic and cognitive part was just the tip of the iceberg. It was the deep experiential and emotional piece that was without comparison."

Now a leadership consultant at Farr Associates in North Carolina, Kevin works with organizations to help them achieve optimal performance through enlightened leadership. With an understanding of team dynamics rooted in the group processing he encountered at Naropa, as well as an MA in organizational leadership and EdD in educational leadership, Kevin encourages leaders to be present and self-aware. "I'll help them build some techniques to tame their mind by focusing on their breath. The breath is an eternal anchor to the present moment. With presence, you can begin to develop awareness, and with presence and awareness, two sides of the same coin, you'll be able to lead your life and your self with greater intention."

Using his experience of working with hundreds of leaders and teams, as well as his own dedicated Vipassana meditation practice, Kevin has developed a model called the Totem, which he describes as an interplay of Tibetan Buddhism and group dynamics. Through this model he examines archetypal qualities of the team, helping them harness the positive and step out of unhealthy patterns. His forthcoming book, Totem: Mastering Team Performance, uses a unique form. "I thought, nobody wants to read a model. You've got to create a story. So I wrote the story that really plays the model out." The first half of the book brings together four old college roommates who are now team leaders in different industries. As the friends embark on a whitewater rafting trip, they notice the behavior of animals along the river as well as their own behavior within the team. They reflect on how they can engage in healthier patterns to work together navigating the river, and how those same patterns play out in their work lives. The second half of the book outlines definitions of the four archetypal qualities of the totem, providing self-assessment tools for readers.

As mindfulness continues to move from the fringes of corporate culture and into the boardroom, Kevin sees a continuing need for the holistic education offered at Naropa. Contemplating the 40th anniversary of his alma mater, Kevin says, "My hope is that [Naropa] continues to strengthen, like the foundation of the stupa out at Shambhala Mountain Center. More than anything, I just hope the foundation continually grows so that it is a beacon for generations, for forty years, for four hundred years."

Find out more about Kevin and his work at