Buddhahood and the quest for Inclusive Leadership

In the Lotus Sutra, one of the key teachings of Buddhism which is, in fact, considered to have been expounded by Gautam Buddha during the last eight years of his life, every individual possesses within themselves the innate potential to become a Buddha and attain enlightenment in his or her present form.

A Buddha is one who recognizes and understands this truth, but also deeply appreciates that the same potential for Buddhahood exists in every other individual too. A prime condition for such recognition to take place is to minimize one’s own prejudices and doubting another individual’s potential for attaining enlightenment.

Upon closer look, we see that there are many parallels between this approach of Buddhism and Inclusion, an idea which I have introduced in another piece. The condition for effective inclusion also requires individual members to overcome and constantly challenge the biases and stereotypes they hold of diverse groups.

Here, I would like to explore the qualities a leader can cultivate to not just become inclusive, but also find their Buddhahood and operate at one’s own higher potential.

Buddha Quality of Courage:

A Buddha, first and foremost, needs to be courageous. The process of attaining Buddhahood will require one to encounter and overcome their own negative tendencies. This includes any act of behavior that hinders one from operating at a higher potential, such as laziness, arrogance, disbelieving in one’s own self, etc. This list can be quite long!

From the inclusion perspective, an individual should possess the courage to:

  1. a)     To embrace differences- the visible dimensions of diversity (gender, disabilities, age etc.) as well as the invisible dimensions (religion, sexual orientation, diversity in thought etc.)

For example, in case a leader who is very right-brained in her or his approach is publicly challenged by a team member who is left-brained, having courage as a quality will help the leader to bring on board diversity of thoughts. This can happen only if one has the courage to accept and overcome one’s own biases.

  1. b)     To accept vulnerabilities in the self as well as that of others

Examples could be admitting one does not always have all the answers all the time, or accepting that in certain situations, one has also felt discriminated against, or felt out of place in a certain context. Such kind of self-acceptance will enable a leader to accept these as normal qualities in her or his team members as well, making the way for creating trust and a learning environment for all.

Buddha quality of Compassion: 

This, to me, is at the heart of the teachings. The Buddha has immense compassion, which is the ability to accept another individual wholly and completely without judgments, and to deeply believe in the innate potential of every human being. And very importantly, once a person recognizes this, he or she will actively work on helping others learn this truth too. A Buddha is action oriented.

Empathy is much discussed quality in a business leader. Compassion is nothing but action-oriented empathy.

To understand this with an example, suppose a member on the team comes out of the closet. Rather than just accept the individual’s reality, a Buddha leader would also find ways and means to ensure that the right environment is created for the person to be authentic. This means taking active steps to influence policies, and championing the cause of inclusion within the entire organization, and not just in the immediate team.

Buddha quality of Wisdom:

This is the most interesting quality, and probably the most difficult one to practice. The Buddha is deeply aware and is able to perceive the reality of a situation. For example, the Buddha always used various ways and means to accurately present his teachings, depending on the person in front of him. It is all about having the wisdom to accurately see a problem, and find the most appropriate win-win solution.

To cite the same example as above, the Buddha’s wisdom will tell the leader that if one person has come out of the closet, there might be others too, not only in the team but in the organization too. Practicing this kind of wisdom will spur the leader into taking actions that ensure that discriminatory behaviors are kept in check.

Another example could be the case of an individual who is slow to grasp or is overtly shy in the office. An inclusive leader would have the wisdom to know that the slow person may have learning or intellectual disabilities, which are invisible. Such recognition will help the leader to engage in a constructive dialogue with the person, work with him or her by offering appropriate projects, and not simply labelling the slow person as ‘low potential’.

So in order to develop these qualities, does one have to go away to the mountains or the sea to gain the enlightenment?

Not at all. The idea is to become a Buddha in the present form.

Given below are some suggestions for developing these qualities:

  • To develop courage from an inclusion perspective, an individual can consider taking up courses or activities that will help shake off certain fears. For example, the fear of being laughed at. If dancing makes you uncomfortable, enroll for a dancing course. Seeing and experiencing oneself as the minority, of being a non-dancer amongst dancers, will help the person develop appreciation for diverse and minority groups. Or any other activities that pushes one out of the comfort zone. Only if one is able to accept one’s own vulnerabilities, can we accept the same in others too.
  • Compassion can be developed by participating in community work. Volunteering on a sustained and on-going basis for various causes will give the sense of contributing to a larger cause, which will have a spill-over effect at the workplace as well.
  • To cultivate wisdom, a leader should constantly be wearing the self-reflection hat- to consistently recognize the impact their own actions are having on their teams and the individuals they interact with. Taking the long-term view and going beyond the current situation will also help cultivate wisdom.
  • Taking solo-trips can be a very enjoyable activity to take up. This will help bring in centeredness, and the ability to enjoy one’s own company. In order to know that others also possess potential to become Buddhas, it is important for the individual to know that he or she is also a Buddha!

A common counter argument to this approach would be the lack of time to engage in these activities. However, it is critical for one to recognize that when investing in cultivating the Buddha qualities, the first beneficiary is the person himself or herself. The benefit will be two fold- of operating at a higher potential himself or herself, and secondly, encouraging others to do so as well.

So, go ahead and reflect on other ways in which you can work towards becoming a Buddha leader. Would love to hear your thoughts!


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