• John Patrick Starling

Buddhism for Business Leaders - a leadership philosophy (part 3)

Buddhism for Business Leaders - Part 3

The Eight Fold Path to Enlightened Leadership

Until attaining enlightenment, Buddha struggled mightily through his life.

As a young prince, his conscience couldn't bear the suffering and injustice he saw in the world in juxtaposition to the life of privilege he enjoyed. Inside of him there was compassion for his people, and for all people, so he put down his crown, and took up the robes of a common monk, and began the search of enlightenment, finally finding it right where he began his spiritual journey - in compassion. But, at a much deeper, more profound level. He attained enlightenment when he found total, and complete compassion, and in that level of compassion he found the meaning of life.

And though we might all want to be more compassionate, and would certainly all benefit from being more compassionate leaders, that level of commitment isn't for everyone. After all, you're leading a company, or division thereof, a non profit or NGO, a start-up, or a little league team - not a spiritual movement. Right?

Try as we might to be more compassionate leaders, more "enlightened leaders", for the vast, vast majority of us spinning through infinity on this thing we call Earth, we struggle to make the leap from compassion for our own immediate beloved family, to our neighbors; from our employees to our competitors, to our market; from our bottom line to the planet's; from "our kind" to "theirs"; from "us" to "them".

Heck, the truth is that for many people, we can't even find compassion for our own kin, more or less humankind. "Mankind" is sort of an oxymoron that way.

And worse, (and likely at the root of it all) is that many of us don't even have compassion for our Self. We're dragging so much suffering from our past into our present that we're not present to tending to our own need for compassion - compassion for our own self. And we're so anxious about the future, and making it better than our past that we're not present to the gift that is now.

Enlightened leaders live and lead through compassion, for themselves and for others, knowing that if there is this thing called "enlightenment", it's actually a journey - not a destination. See, Buddha had to choose compassion in every moment, even after his enlightenment - especially after his enlightenment. As the saying goes, "once you've seen the Dharma, you can't not see the Dharma".

Buddha was a teacher (which is why people bow to him - not because he was a God. He was not, and never claimed to be), and as a teacher he was well aware that, though many monks and laypeople would seek enlightenment, or simply a more enlightened life, not everyone was going to get what he got meditating under the Bodhi tree that day.

For many, simply staying consciously on the path to enlightenment would be a struggle. He well understood that for most, even accepting that life is suffering; that I suffer because of my attachments; that it doesn't have to be this way; and that the answer to a life in the absence of suffering is compassion is not going to be knowledge enough for most of us to somehow magically become an enlightened being.

For some… for most… it just never clicks. And if it does… it doesn't stick.

So, for all of the rest of us he laid out the "Eight Fold Path", as a guide for good living - a sort of HR manual on being more enlightened, and in the context of this conversation, a more enlightened leader.

I believe that The Eight Fold Path was offered by Buddha for everyone who wants enlightenment (or even just more enlightenment), but for whatever reason, struggles with it. It's a list of "Dos" towards enlightenment, which is a matter of "Being". It is a set of practices that may or may not help you achieve enlightenment, but it will certainly make you a better person, and more enlightened leader.

The Eightfold Path, and its Connotations for Enlightened Leadership

Right Understanding (or Right View) - seeing the world, and everything we experience in it as it really is, not how we want it to be.

A practical business leadership example of which is seeing a member of your team for who he or she is, not who you want them to be. You may have need of a sales person, and that person may have certain characteristics that would lead you to put him or her in that role overlooking other characteristics that send a clear signal that it's not a good fit.

A good question here is "What is so?" with this person, this situation, etc.

Being able to pull back from our attachment to the person, situation, or proposed solution to get a "Right View" of things for how they are is a powerful level of understanding, and a compassionate one, as it can save everyone from the repercussions of a bad fit.

Right Intent - is a matter of the heart. Is our intent in integrity with our true heart of compassion.

As leaders, it informs us up front, as to whether or not it feels right, and will sit right with us after we've taken action. Coming from the context of compassion it gives us the opportunity to measure our intent against an ideal: what is the most compassionate decision I can make given these circumstances. What is my intent? And is it good?

Right Speech - our words are the manifestation of our thoughts, and Right Speech encourages us to be thoughtful in how we choose our words, and express ourselves - always seeking to speak from compassion.

Speaking from our position as leaders carries with it a lot of innate power, and Right Speech encourages us to take the path of the greatest compassion in how we deliver the sometimes hard to hear messages that we must communicate.

Right Action - even more so than our words, our actions are the determinant of our record during this time on Earth.

We may be unclear of our intent, and fail in our intent to communicate from compassion, but in the end our actions have the final say.

Taking Right Action as a leader matters, because the people we lead are always watching to see how we behave in a given situation. They take their cues from us, consciously or unconsciously, and allow it to inform their behavior. Plus, it just feels better to take Right Action!

Right Livelihood - most everyone in this world earns a living, and though the dollar we earn is of the same value to that of another earner's, the way in which we go about earning that dollar should be earned from Right Livelihood.

Right Livelihood means that it is earned in such a way that causes as little suffering (to the body, the soul and the environment which we all share) as possible.

We're faced everyday with leadership decisions regarding what products or services we will or won't bring to market, and in what ways. Do our products represent our values? Are our services offered with integrity? Would we want to be downstream of that chemical plant? Is that a weapon that we would want used against the people of our town? We should make our livings in such a way that allows us to look in the mirror, and like what we see.

Right Effort - how we go about our work, and our attitude towards it says more about ourselves than it does about the work itself. This is Right Effort - going at the task at hand, with a positive attitude. And that's a lot easier when the above criteria have been met.

Work hard - play hard, is ingrained in our vocabulary as business leaders, but consider the separation between the two might be in our own minds. The adage goes that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life.

People who are applying Right Effort aren't "working" they are playing: playing engineer; doctor; mechanic, programmer, teacher, policeman, gardener, architect, scientist… and those people are a pleasure to work with - and a pleasure to work for when they're in leadership roles.

Right Mindfulness - asks us to be aware of where our mind is (drifting maybe?) in any given moment - and to make the conscious choice to be only in this moment.

A common trait among the more enlightened leaders that I've met over the years is that when you speak to them you feel like you are the only person in the world - that you're not competing with anyone, or anything for their attention. Why? Because you're not.

They are bringing Right Mindfulness to the moment that you're sharing, and the result is that you feel heard in such a way that you seldom do, and in that space you're free to really express yourself from likewise Right Mindfulness, and this is the basis of clear, authentic communication.

Right Concentration - gives us the ability to take our Right Mindfulness, and apply it in a given direction for substantial length of time.

Leadership brings with it a thousand little details to balance, millions of nuances to have access to, and trillions of synaptic firings to help us make the right decisions, from the right intent, in the right words… over and over again - every day.

Right Concentration empowers us with the ability to be with the person, the situation, the set of challenges all the way through to Right Action, and whatever the Universe brings us after we've taken that action.

The Eight Fold Path begins with, ends with, and is paved with compassion, and all roads lead to a better you, a better, them, and a better us.

Thank you.

John Starling