what does a 76-year-old Tibetan monk know about organizational leadership?
Plenty, it turns out.
I had the honor of meeting and interacting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama a few weeks ago during his visit to Washington, D.C.
Over the last 50 years, his clarity and persistence in response to his forced exile from Tibet propelled the Dalai Lama into the international limelight. As a result, he has become one of the world’s most visible spiritual teachers.
My close-up experience of his calmness, depth, warmth and humor became a clinic on leadership presence. He’s a fun and interesting individual!
That encounter led me to his book, "The Leader’s Way," published in 2009. I found it brimming with ancient wisdom, yet impressively relevant for today’s business leaders.
Two insights from "The Leader’s Way" stand out.
No automatic answers
The first is that there are no automatic answers to most leadership challenges.
Have you noticed how self-righteous and extreme many so-called experts sound? Leaders at all levels routinely pop out knee-jerk answers to complex questions.
The Dalai Lama suggests a more lucid alternative: Have your opinions, but be willing to make exceptions.
Develop the habit of looking at an issue from many sides. Instead of jumping on bandwagons, realize there are no automatic answers.
A leader’s ability to take clear stands while avoiding rigidity is a tricky dance. His Holiness repeatedly maintains that skillful balance in "The Leader’s Way":
"The greatest treasure a person can have is self-confidence. Yet when leaders start to think that all their successes are due to their own brilliance and decisiveness, they have inflated self-esteem."
"I strongly believe that war is wrong, but that it was justified when the Allies liberated Europe and Asia from German and Japanese occupation."
"I was raised as a vegetarian, but after a serious illness, doctors told me I had to eat some meat, which I have done since."
Notice the clear positions and the well-thought-through exceptions.
Too often, business leaders think they must produce etched-in-stone answers and solutions. But in the zeal to appear decisive, it’s easy to bypass thoughtfulness and wisdom.
The Dalai Lama lives a different model. Listening to and investigating different viewpoints has become a feature of his leadership. When he does take a position, room is created for give and take: "This is my opinion, I’m open to examining it further, and I would like to hear your side of it."
If more leaders adopted that kind of curiosity, they would avoid a know-it-all tone and help their followers think more deeply and broadly.
Societal benefits before profits
A second insight from "The Leader’s Way" is that making money is not the primary purpose of a business. That contradicts the mainstream view taught in most business schools, that the purpose of business is to make a profit for shareholders.
In 1977, management icon Peter Drucker said, "The purpose of a business must lie outside the business itself. In fact it must lie in society."
The Dalai Lama agrees with Drucker: "To say that profit is the role of business makes as much sense as saying that the role of a person is to eat or breathe," says the Dalai Lama. "If a company loses money, it dies, as does a person without food or oxygen. But that does not mean that profit is the business’ sole purpose for being."
Local leader Michael Colyer has wrestled with how to articulate a business mission that expresses passionate societal purpose. Colyer, CEO and president of VWR Education LLC and its Henrietta-based brand, Ward’s Natural Science, found that when he articulated his company’s mission in human terms instead of purely economic terms, the response was dramatic.
"We help science teachers inspire students to explore the world; that’s our mission, and it has proven extremely compelling," Colyer says. "Wherever you go inside our company, people will recite that purpose. They’ve embraced it because it makes perfect sense to them."
Colyer thinks about profits every day, but what also drives him and his employees is a vision that seeks to build a better world.
The Dalai Lama’s balanced focus on profit and societal needs expresses what he calls "responsible capitalism."
"I have come to put my faith in the free-market system," he says. "Of course, I still believe that we should strive for an adequate standard of living for all rather than the ‘survival of the fittest’ position that the free market often follows."
Hearing the Dalai Lama’s views on leadership got my reflective juices flowing. I began imagining how my business relates to societal needs.
Listening to his ideas nudged me to consider how much greater value I provide my clients, children and peers when I don’t have automatic answers.
This thinking came as a welcome surprise. I knew it would be a privilege to meet the Dalai Lama and to hear his views on global issues. What I didn’t expect was his insight about business leadership and how I as a leader might make a bigger difference in the world.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].