The Buddha’s concept of leadership



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By Prof. Chandima Wijebandara


Vesak is celebrated as the beginning of a new era in human civilization. It is the day the world’s first human founder of a religion – the Buddha - was born. Before the Buddha, and even after him, almost every religion was founded by either a prophet or an inspired teacher. The Buddha, on the contrary, was purely human and claimed no divine authority. Yet he managed to provide an unsurpassingly great leadership to millions of followers simply on human leadership qualities. And he left to his followers an example and a conceptual frame for exemplary leadership that could be seen as remarkably progressive even in the twenty first century.


According to John Quincy Adams, a leader is one whose actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more. Leaders normally get others inspired to follow a certain course of action to achieve a goal or goals. The influence he can have on followers mostly depends on the charisma and personality of the leader.


A leader needs to have knowledge, rather be more aware than the rest of the people; he could keep followers cool in adverse situations, and care for the welfare of his followers. A group of college students were recently asked to make a list of qualities they would expect from a leader. The list they made consisted of Integrity, Vision, Strategy, Effective Communication, Persuasion, Adaptability, Generosity, Motivation, Teamwork, Sense of Humour, Decision Making, Creativity, Flexibility, Sympathy, Dedication and Amenability to Reason as the most vital for a leader. Leadership is indeed a challenging responsibility.


A leader should have a vision and a mission, the most essential ingredient in leadership, according to modern leadership thinkers. A vision is a clear picture of the future. It defines what one wants to become or achieve as a goal. The Buddha’s vision was very clearly stated from the time he was just a Bodhi-aspirant. As implied in is aspiration made at the feet of the Buddha Dipankara, he wanted to become himself enlightened, get free from life-death continuum and make others also enlightened and free. He made it a reality after a long and arduous journey through Samsara. Despite much hardships and setbacks the Buddha never veered from his course but persevered until he achieved his goal, the Enlightenment. Guided by his vision he made an inclusive mission of helping everyone in the universe to live a happier life. His mission was stated to Mara, the evil one, when he responded to his invitation to an early parinibbana. He stated that he wanted to create a four-fold following, comprising of laymen, laywomen, monks and nuns, who, having learned the Dhamma and vinaya well, practice it, teach it and respond critically to any distortion of the message. It was a mission based on universal love and wisdom.


The Buddhist concept of leadership as it is exemplified in the life of the Buddha has many unique features in addition to the usual leadership qualities that social-psychologists enlist today. The most important was that the Buddha never gave the impression to his followers that he was imposing leadership on them. He wanted maintain that there was the possibility to his followers to attain the same heights and become his equals. The role he wanted to play was that of a kind teacher who showed the way for excellence which was not an impossible goal for the followers.


The Buddha wanted the leadership to be felt in a subtle and non-inflicting manner. This is underscored in the Buddha’s respond to Ananda’s request on ‘saying something’ on (the future of) the Sangha. The Buddha, having understood that the request of Ananda meant an appointment of a future leader, said: "Ananda, it never occurred to me that the monks are dependent on me or I am governing the Sangha. Whatever teachings I have given them and the rules of discipline I have instituted may become their leader." This should not be taken as an excuse made to avoid a leadership struggle since the Buddha had made this stand even prior to this. When he addressed the first sixty Arahants before sending them to the world at large he said: "I am freed from all shackles, human and divine; you also have freed yourself from all shackles, human and divine." This shows that the Buddha wanted to treat the followers who had attained the goal as his equals. Where the difference wanted to be shown he chose the narrowest, stating that he was maggakkhayi (the one who gave road directions) while the followers were magganuga (who trod the path). Thus he instils confidence in the follower convincing that he has respectable recognition from the master. This, in effect, helps to develop appreciation and love towards the master in the minds of the followers.


On the other hand, this shows another leadership quality that the Buddha exemplifies; humility. It is, according to modern social thinkers, an effective leadership quality. Modest and humble leader can address the followers in friendlier way. Friendliness is considered a great quality in the Buddhist ethics and there were times that the Buddha called himself as a sympathetic and friendly teacher (anukampakena hitesina). The monks could approach the Buddha any time it was convenient for both parties and discuss their problems or experiences.


This kind of fine leadership built on trust, love and understanding demands a high degree of personal integrity. Warren Bennis, widely known as a modern leadership guru, has identified integrity as a quality that a credible leader should uphold. Integrity means alignment of words and actions with inner values. A leader with integrity can be trusted and will be admired for adhering to strong values. Credible leaders practice what they teach. They do what they say and say what they do. This was exactly what was meant in his motto ‘Yathavadi- Tathakari, Yathakari-Tathavadi. The Buddha was an ideal role model for monks to emulate. The Buddha did not believe an immoral person without principals could lead others. He said: It is impossible that one who is himself sunk in the mud should pull out another who is sunk in the mire. But it is possible that one not sunk in the mud himself should pull out another who is sunk in the mire." He was so confident in his personal integrity that he lay bear his own personality to be examined by his followers. He taught them an acid test for testing religious leaders and asked his followers to apply the test to his as well. He was very open in relation to his personal life and kept no secrets from the followers. In some of his discourses we note that the Buddha communicates with disciples of his past personal experiences as there was nothing to hide and much to learn from.


The Buddhist concept of leadership could be crystallised from the way the Buddha provided training opportunities for his followers. He believed that the juniors should respect and learn from the seniors. There were eighty senior monks that the Buddha had identified as specialists in various fields. Their personal integrity and attainments were such that he reminded the others that there were much for them to learn from such senior monks. Once, the Buddha extolled Sariputta and Moggallana as the measures of ideal behaviour. This again shows another leadership quality implied in Buddhism. The leaders should train others also for leadership. They must see their talents, appreciate and encourage them and introduce to others too. When enlisting the duties of teachers the Buddha said a good teacher introduce his students to his colleagues. There were occasions that the Buddha deputised capable senior followers to undertake the responsibility of training junior disciples and observed their activities.


Agganna Sutta provides us the leadership qualities the early men are supposed to have expected of their leader. It is reported that they approached ‘physically attractive, pleasant and capable (abhirupataro, pasadikataro, mahesakkataro) person and asked him to accept their leadership. In other words, they looked for a balanced person of commanding and pleasant qualities. Advice given to political leaders also provides more information on the leadership concept of Buddhists. The etymological definition given to the term ‘raja’ i.e., ‘Dhammena janam ranjetiti raja’ meant that the king as the leader of people should make people happy with noble policies. Any leader, for that matter, should keep his group happy with good policies. A leader is not a boss who keeps giving orders and use harsh measures to keep everyone follow his orders. With good communicative techniques he should draw respect from them not by force but by pleasant ways. He should make himself a pleasant person to live with.


In the cakkavatti sihanada sutta the Buddha enumerates five characteristics an ideal ruler shows in his dealings:


1 Atthannu (able discriminate good from bad)


2 Dhammannu (knows righteousness)


3 Mattannu (knows the limit of punishment etc.)


4 Kalannu (Knows suitable time for court work, pleasure and tour)


5 Parisannu (Knows his assembly; as to what type of people are they).


A political leader, according to Buddhism, should have a high degree of moral integrity. It is especially so when a monarchical system is prevailing. The king normally has enormous power centred upon him which an immoral king could abuse. To prevent such abuse, Buddhism proposes that they should train themselves in 10 principles called raja Dhamma.


1. Dana (generosity)


2. Sila (morality)


3. Pariccaga (philanthropy)


4. Ajjava (Uprightness)


5. Maddava (Gentleness)


6. Tapa (Self-control)


7. Akkodha (Absence of anger)


8. Avihimsa (Non-violence)


9. Khanti (patience)


10. Avirodha (Non obstruction)


Leaders should be morally integral, compassionate and must have a clear vision and mission. They should not abuse their leadership for self-glorification or personal gain. They have to be good communicators and be able to represent the group as persons able to talk for the group.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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