We all want to be trusted, to be seen as helpful, to be effective leaders and to create ethical relationships. But the problem is, most of us want all this on our own terms — powered by our own definitions of trust, helpfulness, effectiveness and ethics. When we’re so focused on ourselves and our personal definitions of leadership, we set ourselves up for failure. Leadership is based on relationships, and not self-centeredness. The Dalai Lama, in his book The Leader’s Way: The Art of Making the Right Decisions in our Careers, Our Companies and the World at Large, reminds us that the habit of self-centeredness can and must be changed in order to ensure happiness for individuals, businesses and society.
He writes: “At first glance, you might expect a large difference between business and Buddhism, but their common denominator is the importance they place on happiness. A company that does not have happy employees, customers, and shareholders will ultimately fail. Buddha considered the main purpose of his investigations and teachings to find out why people were unhappy and what could be done to reduce suffering. His conclusion was that the root cause of suffering was self-centeredness.
“Self-centeredness is also the cause of negative thoughts and actions, which can get in the way of a calm and collected mind. Cheating, lying, hiding, bad intentions, aggression, anger, arrogance, jealousy, malice, and resentment all qualify as negative thoughts or emotions. When you succeed in reducing the occurrence of such negativity, you will notice that your relationships with other people quickly improve. It is simple! People would rather deal with a person who is interested in their well-being than with someone who is interested only in him- or herself….”
But how do we learn to release these thoughts? How do we lose the all too human habit of self-centeredness that hobbles our leadership? How do we get to the detachment from ego-based leadership that creates happiness? Here are two practices his Holiness recommends in the book:
1.” A useful step is in controlling negative thoughts is to install an “early warning system,” an inner voice that says, “You are getting into a state of mind that falls into the negative category. Bee careful: make sure that you do not lose control of your thought processes and emotions.”
2. Most important, you want to tell yourself, “Remember, if the negative thought process is very strong, do not make any significant or irreversible decisions at this moment.”
(All quotes — Kindle version, loc. 100-178)
I like thinking about this leadership quality — whether we call it mindfulness, presence, or control over self-centeredness — as a step towards happiness. Unfortunately, I sometimes associate happiness with Pollyanna denial, with self-centered comfort, a privilege more than a way of being. But what he writes is true — my favorite bosses, my best mentors all brought a deep sense of happiness and purpose into the workplace. Holistic problem-solving, profit, organizational transformation, and clarity of vision, all came as a result of empowered relationships, rooted in happiness.
The urgency I feel personally comes from a feeling that we are at a very important tipping point culturally and environmentally, and yet it seems I have been caught up in negative thoughts. The grim future I want to prevent is as much in my mind as the hopeful future I want to help create. Considering happiness as the goal of my leadership and followership changes that picture, if only by making concrete action feel more doable.
This idea of happiness as a result of controlling negative thoughts and self-centeredness — it’s pretty powerful. The Dalai Lama brings more holistic idea of the effects of ethical leadership into the picture by sharing a vision of mindful happiness. If that is the goal, then leaders can measure success not only in “bottom line” results, but also in the amount of happiness those results bring to their employees, stakeholders and society. Joy, connection, a sense of purpose — these are the experiences that motivate and empower us.
Is it going too far to reimagine leadership as a combination of profound self-discipline and a sense of play? Can we take a holiday from negativity and find greater creativity?