Leadership Lessons From A Buddhist Monk

by Jan 29, 2022Leadership

Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen Master, prolific writer, and teacher, died on Saturday, January 22, 2022. Known as Thay, meaning teacher, he originated the idea of “engaged Buddhism,” applying the principles of Buddhism to social issues and the tensions of day-to-day life.

Thay knew that helping others requires that we understand their circumstance. Understanding requires being present, which takes a surprising amount of intention and effort. Why is it surprising? Because many of us believe we do this instinctively, without effort, but that is untrue. 

The best leaders I know make an effort to be present. They pay attention and listen calmly. Great leaders know that being what Edwin Friedman called a “non-anxious presence” allows the other person to hear themselves and generate insights that are invisible when we rush from one thing to the next. Leaders who listen well are strategic about with whom they spend time. Still, they maintain an astonishing ability to connect. Even a brief exchange can be powerful when sincere attention is brought to bear.

On the other extreme, some leaders are victims of circumstance. They are frantic and distracted and sometimes proud of it. Over-scheduled leaders wait for time to open up, for things to get settled, decisions to be made, but it never happens. Distracted leaders are often insulated from divergent points of view and, hearing none, mistake silence for affirmation of their brilliance. Fortunately, leaders who fit this description are easily recognizable, even if they fool us early on.

While the whirling dervish leader is difficult and distracting, leaders who practice what I call polite disregard can be worse. These leaders aren’t paying attention but may appear to be. Their minds are occupied with making rapid judgments, which they almost invariably believe are perfect. They avoid deep thinking, divergent views, and wrestling with contradictory evidence. In short, they value politeness and false harmony at the expense of honesty and strong relationships.

Most of us know what it’s like to be distracted, leap to conclusions, avoid different points of view, etc. These are not personality types but characteristics of human behavior that, while usual, can be barriers. The best leaders I’ve worked with are intentional about becoming better. Yet, not even one would say they have, or ever will, arrive.   

What helps great leaders be more present, more often? They remove barriers, internal and external. Here are a few speed bumps that can get in the way:

  1. Inability to say “no.”
  2. Falling for the myth of multi-tasking. 
  3. Assuming their distraction is benign.   
  4. A belief that busyness is a badge of honor.

Being present for others is essential, but not more than being present for ourselves. This is the only way to be aware of what is real and what is, in Thay’s words, “wrong perception and beliefs.”

For things to reveal themselves to us,

we need to be ready to

abandon our views about them.

Thich Nhat Hahn

October 11, 1926 – January 22, 2022