True leaders are selfless

Leadership – perspectives from a Tibetan Buddhist

True leaders are selfless
True leaders are selfless

Leadership is one of my favourite topics. So I felt extremely privileged to have the opportunity to discuss it with a prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher who would be seen by many as a leader (but probably not himself): Lama Choedak Rinpoche. Now based in Australia, Lama Choedak Rinpoche grew up in the Tashi Palkhel Tibetan refugee settlement near Pokhara (Nepal), which is also next to Pema Ts’al monastery where I’ve been a volunteer teacher for nearly two weeks.

I had the amazing surprise to find out upon my arrival at the monastery that I would be attending a two-day retreat on calm abiding meditation offered by visiting Lama Choedak Rinpoche in the monastery’s temple (I had been thinking for a while of doing a similar retreat, but little did I know it would be in a temple in Nepal surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist monks and offered by a Lama Rinpoche… Everything happens for a reason, right!?).

I took the opportunity of a mid-morning tea break to go ask Lama Rinpoche’s views on leadership and the reasons why he believes there are only unsatisfactory leaders. Here are his views…

Everyone is a leader. To be a leader, one must help or give to one other person (which I’d say we all do at least occasionally). But leaders must be diligent; they should eat well, sleep well, exercise as well as meditate. Most leaders don’t, blaming a lack of time as their excuse for poor diligence. Without meditation, says the master, our mind isn’t calm enough to develop wisdom and compassion and to practice kindness and forgiveness – selflessly. And selflessness is a must in leadership.

True leaders serve others independently from ‘the self’. They engage in gestures of kindness not for themselves, but to benefit others… at all costs! He states the example of Nelson Mandela as a good leader who experienced pain and prison to selflessly help his people.

But here’s the conundrum: by nature, people who want to be leaders are not selfless.

I believe there’s a lot of sense in this thinking… One cannot ‘choose’ to be a leader. They can only do their duty selflessly and with passion and the people themselves will ‘choose’ them as their leader. Because if someone consciously wants to become a leader, could it be that they see themselves as ‘superior’ or worthy of being followed? Or maybe they want to gain something from a position of leadership like power and recognition? These are not selfless thoughts… So here you’ve got it, stuck in a society filled with agenda-driven and self-acclaimed unsatisfactory leaders!

I don’t want to be completely cynical… There are kind and selfless people out there making their contribution to a better world and we need to acknowledge them. We would definitely benefit from having many more people like that at the head of our companies and countries.

Ironically, I myself have been thinking during this sabbatical that I would like to obtain a position of leadership which would allow me to work with a team towards a common passion and goals that would make a difference in the world… After reflection, I should maybe leave aside the idea of ‘leadership’ and solely focus on my passion for helping others. This, who knows, might coincidentally drive me to becoming a leader in the eyes of others.

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