Everyone in a responsible position is asked to display leadership qualities. What kind of leader was the Buddha, and what lessons can modern leaders draw from his example?
We’re hearing a lot about leadership: what worked for Alex Ferguson; what didn’t work for Stuart Lancaster, and what might work for the individuals aspiring to be the next UK Prime Minister or US President. But what are those elusive leadership qualities and what can we learn from the great leaders of the past? What about the Buddha, Gautama, who started a movement that eventually grew into a great religious and cultural civilisation?
Many texts, or Discourses, recount Gautama’s conversations with religious seekers, merchants and kings. These were memorised and passed on orally after his death, probably around 400 BC, and written down a few centuries later. However much may have changed in transition, the Buddha of the texts is a vivid character and a remarkable leader.
His most striking quality, for me, is the deep confidence he displays in his understanding of life, and this enables him to teach in varied and flexible ways without departing from his essential vision. Sometimes, in private Gautama speaks passionately – the texts say ‘he roars his lion’s roar’. But in dialogue with others, including other religious teachers, he’s always courteous and concerned to establish rapport. No hair-dryer treatment, then.
He listens to what someone believes in – security or virtue say – and teases out the underlying values. He tells a householder that real security means accepting insecurity, and tells priests that true virtue comes from inner qualities, not external rituals. In other words, the Buddha exemplifies an approach to communication that engages with another person’s way of thinking without accepting their assumptions, and then opens up a wider perspective.
This is leadership as communication, not coercion, and Gautama was similarly open with his own followers, encouraging them to see him as a teacher with authority but no power. He urged the members of his monastic community to live harmoniously within clear collective structures, but refused to appoint a successor to lead the community after his death. Instead he told them to rely on the truth they found in his teachings, not on rites, dogmas or institutions.
The Buddha’s example suggests that while great leaders display many skills, these aren’t just techniques. When a leader’s qualities express his or her being — who they really are and what they really know – they can be open and flexible without losing control. Perhaps the lesson is that offering really compelling leadership means truly learning to be ourselves.