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  • John Patrick Starling

Buddhism for Business Leaders - a leadership philosophy



Buddhism for Business Leaders

Part 1: Choosing Compassion



What the Buddha can teach us about leadership


Let's talk about "The Buddha", and how we can become more enlightened leaders...


The one we call "The" Buddha, whose image graces ancient temples, and taxi cab dashboards across Asia; offers its generous belly for good luck rubs at the Chinese restaurant in the strip mall down the street; and peacefully holds votive candles in the half-off aisle of Target retail stores across America wasn't the first Buddha - nor was he the last.


There were many Buddhas prior to the one we call Buddha, and there have been many since. They walk among us today, as they always have, ever since we realized that we are "here", and started asking "why are we here?". Buddhas have answered that question, in a profound manner.


The word Buddha simply means one who is completely awake, or enlightened. And, importantly, Buddhas are just human beings. Not "Gods" . Not God. They're simple human beings, just like you. Just like me. And, as you know by now, some human beings are more enlightened than others. A Buddha is simply a human being that is completely enlightened.

A Buddha is a human "being", while the rest of us are busy merely being human. So, what can we learn about leadership from an enlightened being?


Enlightened Leaders know that Compassion is a Choice


The one we've come to call "Buddha" was born Siddhartha Guatama in 602 B.C., as prince, and heir to the throne of a Kingdom in Northern India.


It is fabled that the stars were auspiciously positioned before his birth, and it was foretold by court astrologers that he would either become a great warrior - or a great man of peace.


His father, being the king, and wanting to ensure continuity in the family business, and an ever-widening kingdom, raised him cloistered inside of the gates of the palace, and trained him to be a great warrior. He forbid him from leaving the sanctity of the city walls, out of fear that seeing the miseries of common living, and the suffering that comes with it could divert his attention toward the priesthood. But, young people being what they are, and doing what they do, Siddhartha ventured outside of the kingdom, against his father's wishes. And what he saw forever changed him - and the world.

He witnessed the sufferings of humanity outside the city walls: disease, pestilence, starvation, depravity, contempt for each other… and for the first time in his life, he felt a deep, unyielding compassion for his fellow human being. He felt love.

Moved to action, and seeking answers to the meaning of life, he renounced his crown, and all of his worldly possessions, and became a wandering ascetic - a monk, begging for his meals, and seeking enlightenment. He spent years wandering, and wondering... "Why are we here?" And, moreover, even if we are able to answer that question, well - "then what?"


We call The Buddha "The" Buddha, because he found the answer to those great questions, years later, while meditating under a tree - and moreover, became a physical manifestation of that answer. The answer was, and is compassion for all beings. And when asked by the other monks with whom he'd been traveling on his existential journey for many years, "how did you do that?" (attain enlightenment) he told them. And they remembered his words, and have passed that information down through the generations.


He outlined what we in the business world would call "the critical path" to enlightenment, "The Four Noble Truths", and the Eight Fold Path, which is like an HR manual for good living. I'll discuss them in subsequent articles.


But, importantly, long before he awoke to the nature of reality, attained enlightenment, became a manifestation of compassion, and divined that information to his fellow monks, he made an important choice that all enlightened leaders must make. He chose compassion. And, as he grew as a person, and as a leader he chose it over, and over, and over again, eventually choosing it in every moment.


The path to enlightened leadership goes through compassion


A question that enlightened leaders ask themselves in any given situation, is "what is the most compassionate stand I can take here?".


That's a good first step, and creates a personal context, a choice of being (choosing how you want to be in a given moment, as opposed to reverting to your default setting) that you carry forward as your contribution to the situation, and conversation. Compassion is a choice, and it's ours to make as leaders trying to become more enlightened.


Why would we? Why should we?


A Buddha might say that we should choose compassion, because it is truly who we are when all fears, and subsequent pretenses are disappeared. I happen to agree, and being a pragmatist, I'd add that it's also the practical thing to do.


Leading people isn't easy.


But, it's a lot easier though when the people you're leading: your employees, partners, customers, clients, family, community… have compassion for you. And if there's one thing I've learned about leadership over the years, it's that people tend to show up to a large degree as a reflection of the type of leadership they are offered.


The high school coach who is an angry blow hard, tends to attract, mould, and field a team that shows similar behavior on and off the field.


A snarky, back-biting manager tends to sow gossip, dissent, smallness, and passive aggressive behavior among the team.


A vice president who rolls his or her sleeves up, and gets the job done on the shop floor when its necessary, despite his or her title, earns the respect of the rank and file employees…


They tend to show up how we show up. We are all a reflection of each other in some way - and leaders cast a big set of reflections.


As leaders, we're always being measured and judged by those that follow (or sometimes resist following) our lead. And compassion doesn't cost you anything. So , practically speaking if acting from compassion changes your culture for the better, and makes your job easier, why not choose to be a more compassionate, more enlightened leader?

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