Leadership Lessons from the Dalai Lama
In September, the Dalai Lama, the 76-year-old exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, released a statement that addressed questions over his "reincarnation"—or succession—plans, and laid out a long-term “strategy” for his holy enterprise.
While the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk, does not often speak about business explicitly, choosing instead to focus on teachings about compassion and peace, he sounded a lot like an aging CEO preparing to pass the reins. Indeed, effective leadership is an underlying theme through his prolific teachings, which he also tweets about on a regular basis.
International managerial consultant Laurens van den Muyzenberg identified the business leadership undercurrent in the 1990s after he was hired to advise the Dalai Lama. Realizing the great potential in combining their respective expertise, van den Muyzenberg and the Dalai Lama co-authored The Leader’s Way, applying Buddhism to business practices.
“Most of my clients do face difficult ethical problems,” says van den Muyzenberg, who consults leaders. “It’s hard to find somebody with the kind of ethical prestige that [the Dalai Lama] has.”
Here we cull the Dalai Lama’s leadership tenets from his teachings, tweets, and The Leader’s Way.
Develop your view
The first part of The Leader’s Way two-part message is this: in order to lead, you must understand the reasons for our actions. As the Dalai Lama says, “The nature of our motivation determines the character of our work.” In business, this means thinking critically about the implications of any overarching objectives as well as the purpose behind daily procedures. It also means remaining aware of not only your own interests but the interests of all those you lead. Company-wide brainstorm sessions and cross-department collaborations are two ways to ensure everyone understands and agrees with the direction you are taking the company.
Establish the right conduct
Setting up widely-accepted business principles, however, is not enough. “I see so many companies with strong principles they fail to apply,” says van den Muyzenberg. In order to ensure your best intentions are consistently applied to your business’s practices, develop a system of regular progress reports and evaluations.
Train your mind
The Dalai Lama describes the untrained mind like a monkey jumping around in a tree, excited, and unable to concentrate. Buddhists counter this cerebral activity by training their minds, or meditating. And while few CEOs are likely to start their mornings at their local Zen Center, the Dalai Lama maintains that a peaceful, well-trained mind is important for increasing quality of thought and decreasing irrational impulses. “The leader has to recognize when negative emotions like frustration, impatience, anger, lack of self-confidence, jealousy, greed start to influence his thought processes,” writes the Dalai Lama and van den Muyzenberg in the The Leader’s Way. “These negative thoughts and emotions not only can lead to wrong decisions but also waste mind energy.” Simple meditation techniques such as deep breaths, relaxing muscles, and controlled emotions might help even the busiest leaders keep composed at all times.
Focus on happiness
What about your company makes you happy? What makes you unhappy? By asking two such simple questions, a manager can discover how best to motivate his employees, persuade his customers, and support its shareholders. According to the Dalai Lama, happiness is the highest universal form of motivation. “We tend to forget that despite the superficial differences between us, people are equal in their basic wish for peace and happiness,” he says, via Twitter in November. Employee, customer, and shareholder satisfaction should take precedent over the bottom line. But, that does not mean sacrificing profits. “Some think happiness is a tradeoff for making money, but it’s not,” says van den Muyzenberg. “A happy company is a successful company. You are more invested in success when you care about where it comes from.”
Buddhists believes in interconnectivity—the idea that people only truly exist in relation with other people. From a Buddhist perspective, business is a network for these connections, a huge spiritual organism that functions only when all these connections are realized. “The interconnected leader sees himself or herself as the generator of impulses into an interconnected system to realize the purpose of the organization,” writes the Dalai Lama and van den Muyzenberg, in The Leader’s Way. When an impulse—anything from a conversation to a presentation to a policy—reaches another individual, it triggers an idea and sets off a chain reaction for creative productivity. It is the leader’s job to manage and reinvigorate impulses among colleagues. But, interconnectedness is not only with relationships within a company but also relationships with clients, the customers, the financial community, and even competitors.
It’s no secret running a business is hard. It’s easy for a small business owner or entrepreneur to worry about what could go wrong and prepare for the worst. But, instead, the Dalai Lama encourages a more optimistic approach to business. “Appreciate how rare and full of potential your situation is in this world, then take joy in it, and use it to your best advantage,” he tweeted last month. Every problem has a solution, and having the right attitude from the beginning may help you find it.
And when the going gets rough, look to the Dalai Lama’s example for inspiration. Van den Muyzenberg recalls: “The Dalai Lama once told me, ‘You could think I shouldn't be happy because I lost my country, I lost everything. But I am a very happy person’.”