The Dalai Lama’s book on leadership (supplemented by tweets and talks and much thought and blogging) comes out of a life of discipline, struggle, exile and acute observation. His extraordinary life has led to grounded, practical insights about who we are and who we might become.
Using the bio on his website as a guide (there are a lot of biographies, but I often like to go to the source — the Dalai Lama as the Dalai Lama sees his life, so to speak), he grew up ordinary, was chosen to step into an extraordinary role, and kept his feet on that ordinary ground even as he walked a difficult path.
Born into a poor farming family, one of seven surviving children (his mother bore 16), he was one of three brothers recognized as tulku, or reincarnated souls. “He had three elder brothers: Thubten Jigme Norbu – the eldest, who was recognized as the reincarnation of a high lama, Taktser Rinpoche – Gyalo Thondup and Lobsang Samden. The youngest brother, Tenzin Choegyal was also recognized as the reincarnation of another high lama, Ngari Rinpoche.”
“Of course, no one had any idea that I might be anything other than an ordinary baby. It was almost unthinkable that more than one tulku (reincarnation) could be born into the same family and certainly my parents had no idea that I would be proclaimed Dalai Lama”, His Holiness writes. Though the remarkable recovery made by His Holiness’ father from his critical illness at the time of His Holiness’ birth was auspicious, it was not taken to be of great significance. “I myself likewise had no particular intimation of what lay ahead. My earliest memories are very ordinary.”
The international leader now known all over the world went through the constant discipline of training as a monk and future leader, then at the age of 15 took his role as leader of Tibet. Communist China invaded, and he escaped to India, and exile.
“On 10 March 1960 just before leaving for Dharamsala with the eighty or so officials who comprised the Central Tibetan Administration, His Holiness made a statement on the first commemoration anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising. “On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with truth, justice and courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail in regaining freedom for Tibet.”
Although there’s nothing ordinary in that clarity, or in his equanimity in the face of hardship and exile, there is something plainspoken and open in his speech and thought. Freedom is a long-term goal, and revolution comes through hard work, not through quick, violent action.
Leadership scholar Kathryn Goldman Schuyler writes about Buddhist training at a conference, where entrepreneurs were exposed to the Dalai Lama’s approach to leadership, and came out embracing a grounded sense of clear, ordinary and transformative ways to improve their work as leaders. “Many of the participants had been profoundly impacted by their experience of these two lamas, as well as by the entrepreneurial leadership of the Dalai Lama.
I was speaking with entrepreneurs, but they tended not to speak about entrepreneurship itself, but rather about the concrete details of their everyday experiences, which happened to be in entrepreneurial settings. This meant that one emphasized patience, another kindness, another leadership— because these were their foci.” (From her edited volume, Inner Peace—Global Impact: Tibetan Buddhism, Leadership, and Work (Advances in Workplace Spirituality: Theory, Research and Application)
In a way, I’m talking about the possibility of action grounded in the ordinary world, an approach that makes for extraordinary results if a leader is attentive to human needs and compassionate in his/her approach to change, relationships and innovation.
The Dalai Lama’s extraordinary life, and the experiences that turned him into a consummate diplomat, began in a very ordinary place. Or perhaps I should say, common place — from which he rose to a responsibility beyond most leaders’ imagination, and responded with a humility and complexity that ought to be ordinary in a leader.
In his book, The Leader’s Way, he writes: “No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all human beings. We all want happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All human beings want freedom and the right to determine their destiny as individuals and as peoples, and in order to do so, we need the opportunity to rise above abject poverty. It is human nature to want such things, and it is within our power to provide them.”