Through the course of my fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme, I have come to understand that good leadership is not simply a series of principles and examples of best practice to be applied only to working life. Instead, it can be looked as an integral way of being that has the potential to permeate all aspects of life, both personal and professional.
As the year has progressed I have been struck by the parallels that exist between leadership and Buddhist philosophy. In particular, the concepts of ‘Three thousand realms in a single moment of life’, ‘Oneness of self and environment’, ‘Buddhahood’ and ‘Practicing for oneself and others’, shed light on how leadership cannot be reduced to a mechanical skillset that only certain people need to apply in certain situations. Rather, it is about the potential of all people in all situations. In short, it is the ambition to move towards perfecting the conduct of human life.
THREE THOUSAND REALMS
‘Three thousand realms in a single moment of life’ is the principle that each person’s life contains infinite potential. We tend to impose limits on those possibilities, however, in the form of limiting beliefs about situations, others or ourselves. For example, “I’ll never fit into a group” or “The funding environment is so competitive now we will not be able to obtain the amount we need to go on,” can restrict our actions and predetermine negative outcomes. In this way, potential can go unrealised.
Choices that would have yielded the most value are not made, as they remain obscured by a sense of passive resignation to these limiting beliefs. There are many instances where we are surrounded by choices but blind to all but one of them: the one that our habitual mindset leads us to.
The ability to identify and challenge our own limiting beliefs and those of people around us is therefore an important aspect of leadership. It ensures that the potential to do things differently and better does not lie dormant and that we remain ever alert to all the choices before us in each moment of life.
ONENESS OF SELF AND ENVIRONMENT
The Buddhist concept of ‘Oneness of self and environment’ asserts that at the most fundamental level of life itself, there is no separation between ourselves and the environment. According to this perspective, everything around us, including work and relationships, is the reflection of our inner lives. Everything is perceived through the self and alters according to the individual’s inner state of life.
Consequently, if we change ourselves, our circumstances will inevitably change also. As esoteric as this might sound, it is a perspective that has practical applications. Challenging the concept of separation enriches leadership. It is an antidote to egotistical action. It invites us to anticipate the repercussions of our decisions on those that we lead, and to look beyond our own personal gratification and gain. It enables us to connect with those we work with in a more meaningful way, and truly inculcate the sense within the organisation or team that ‘we are all in this together.’
The environmental, economic and social crises that now loom so large can only be challenged by increasing our awareness of the interconnected nature of our lives and the systems they exist within. At this time, cultural leaders need the perspective and broadness of vision that a belief in the ‘Oneness of self and environment’ bestows.
The term ‘Buddhahood’ describes the combined qualities of vitality, courage, wisdom and compassion. Acknowledging that these qualities have a dynamic relationship with one another and brings further insight to the requirements of robust leadership.
To lead well, we need to be able to generate vitality and tap into the creative life force that allows us to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into a task and stick with it to its conclusion. This takes energy, the sort of energy that is brought to bear by taking consistent action, especially through challenging times. Lethargy and inertia can be viewed as the enemies of strong leadership, so leaders need to know the means by which they can tap into and generate vitality.
Most importantly, this includes knowing when to rest. Many of the leadership experiences people have shared with me over the course of the Clore Leadership Programme, are marked by periods of burn-out and avoidable ill-health; a sort of energy-martyrdom. Commitment to leading is sometimes mistakenly measured by the willingness of a leaders to neglect and abuse their health and vitality levels in order to get things done.
Applying reason and intelligence alone will never be sufficient to lead. Knowledge and ideas have to be animated, and only vitality, vitality that is cultivated and respected, can bring them to life.
Courage is an important leadership quality because it takes courage to take risks and move into new territory. This is one of the biggest distinctions between the role of manager and the role of leader. A leader must not be afraid to disrupt thinking and systems and to depart from norms. To try and achieve anything that has not been done before makes us vulnerable to failure. Beginning something in spite of this awareness takes courage.
We can help define courage by looking at what it is not. Courage is not recklessness. It is not necessarily about bold gestures and heroic action in times of danger. Courage can be quiet. It can be sticking to your guns when people around you are voicing doubt. It can be ongoing, mundane exertion to keep moving in the right direction even when there are no indications of success.
In leadership especially, courage is related to conviction. Being values-driven and having a strong enough vision to cut through insecurity and setbacks keeps courage alive. Most importantly, courage inspires courage. The test of great leadership is whether a leader can inspire people to look beyond their own fears towards something bigger that motivates them to keep going in spite of those fears.
A good analogy that describes the role of wisdom in leadership is likening the relationship between knowledge and wisdom to that of a pump and water. A pump that does not bring forth water, i.e. knowledge without wisdom is of little use.
Knowledge is clearly important in leadership but in many ways it is a neutral asset. It can do good but equally it can do harm. The role of wisdom is to guide knowledge towards creating value. It does this by lending a sense of perspective that releases us from the habitual, narrowly focused ways of looking at things that can leave us stuck inside situations.
Being able to impartially evaluate a situation by taking into account as much objective information as possible increases our ability to get to the heart of any given issue and bring forth wisdom. A leader needs the wisdom to realise that they do not always have all the answers, and the wisdom to acknowledge that there is insight to be gained from listening to those with more experience. Leadership requires mentorship, and a wise leader knows this.
Compassion is a counterbalance to the thing that undermines good leadership perhaps more than anything else. One of the strongest desires we seem to have as humans is to have power over other people and have them comply with our will. Psychoanalytic theory identifies this basic quality as ego, and the unchecked ego has a tendency to regard other people as merely there to serve its own needs. Contrast this with the principle of ‘Oneness of self and environment’, and we can see that the ego has a very isolated conception of self.
Compassion, on the other hand, stems from a sense of fellowship and solidarity with others and a genuine desire for mutual benefit and fulfilment. Unlike condescending pity, compassion views other people as peers and engenders a sense of shared suffering and shared joy. It speaks of respect for others and recognises the dignity and value of each person’s life. It acknowledges the unique contribution each person can make.
It is critical that a cultural leader has an eye for the strengths and potential of of the people that they serve and a commitment to invest in them. If a leader promotes the confidence and autonomy of the individuals that they serve, they can avoid inadvertently promoting dependence in their efforts to support their team. For example, over-advising and resolving a difficult situation on someone else’s behalf can actually weaken them, leaving them less self-reliant and confident than before. Facilitative leadership i.e. a leader with the the time and ability to coach people rather than jump in with all the answers, is a practical application of compassion in the work place.
Compassion can be used as a tool to empower another to bring forth vitality, wisdom, courage and compassion from within their own life in order to surmount difficulty and keep growing. Compassion is not a soft or relenting quality but a hardened belief in the worth and ability of both ourselves and other people.
PRACTICING FOR YOURSELF AND OTHERS
‘Practice’ is about being strongly committed to one’s own personal growth and fulfilment while at the same time seeking to promote the growth of others. Viewing self-development as life’s ongoing and vital work while avoiding the pitfalls of self-absorption may seem like a difficult balance to strike. However, it is the cultural leader’s very action of staying engaged with the lives and needs of other people that creates the arena in which their own personal development takes place. Viewed this way, distinctions begin to break down and the picture becomes more integrated. Serving others serves ourselves and leading ourselves leads others. A way of life
The relationship between these aspects of Buddhist philosophy and leadership illustrate how leadership can be viewed as a spiritual practice, or, if you prefer, a ‘way of life’. It can serve as a guide to anyone at any time, in any situation. Who we are as leaders at work should mirror who we are as leaders in our families, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and within ourselves. All the areas of our lives are inextricably linked and leadership is a quality that when bought forth can flow freely through them all and elevate us.