The selflessness of leaders
March 30, 2020
In a short article published by Harvard Business Review last February, Dalai Lama talks about three styles of leadership – mindful, selfless and compassionate.
They are not mutually exclusive, of course; in fact, one can easily find common features and discuss their complementarity.
But what I’m interested in is the second route – focused on selflessness, and the apparent contradiction between being selfless and the popular view of a leader who is full of themselves. How do we reconcile the two?
And if we don’t, how are we to understand Dalai Lama’s suggestion that best leaders are selfless ones? Discuss this in the context of Buddhist philosophy.
Many would agree that leadership is a call to serve rather than lord over people. Dalai Lama points out that true leaders ought to be selfless – they have to care about the welfare of those under their leadership more than themselves. He calls for trust and friendship between the leader and the followers – a relationship that is based on honesty and kindheartedness. All too often, leaders, especially those in political positions, use their positions to enrich themselves through corrupt deals. One of the basic teachings of Buddhism calls for respect for honesty (no lying). To get to this point of not condoning lies and selfishness, the public will need to hold the leaders to higher standards and stop relying too much on ideology.
Looking at what is taking place in the world right now, one cannot help but see that selfishness is alive and well. There is currently a push for the coronavirus to be administered to all and sundry after being developed in record time. While some see this as an attempt by pharmaceutical companies to enrich themselves, others are angry that the first people to get it are political leaders. This shows a lack of trust and friendship. Additionally, the US election results show a lot of contempt between leaders and followers and between those who subscribe to different ideologies. To overcome this, leadership positions ought to be given to people who have shown that they are capable of being selfless – those who are willing to take unpopular stands for the benefit of the masses. Those who display selfish attitudes ought to be recalled out voted out of office to serve as an example to future leaders. If people keep voting on ideology, the leaders will be sure that their seats are secure no matter what they do.
It is a political paradox but also a matter of opinion. Even the cruelest and most ill-regarded leaders in history are regarded as selfless leaders by some. By that virtue one could say that Hitler was a selfless leader. He cared deeply about making his country prosperous through any means necessary and wanted to see its people flourish and be happy, in spite of his objective cruelty and merciless expansion policies. Donald Trump could be seen as a good leader, as despite his apparant cruelness in the eyes of many, he always put America first no matter what and managed to drastically improve America’s economy. The term selfless is a subjective term; a label applied to those who people belive are great leaders. Despite what Hitler did for his country his focus was purely on Germany, he didn’t care for any other country or who would be forced out, his only focus was on the expansion of Germany. This is an inherently political discussion by nature. To apply the Dalai Lama’s three leadership policies can’t be applied to something like political leaders as they themsleves must adapt themselves to the given situations and that in turn can cause people to think that these selfless leaders are instead selfish.
I believe this political paradox is one of the main reasons why our modern democracy is crumbling. Can someone adored by many be truly selfless? And is selflessness even a trait we consider when labeling someone as a great leader?
Barack Obama, for example, is one of the greatest leaders of the 21st century. He is charismatic, a great speaker, charming, and acted exactly as how we expected America to behave… but was he selfless or even a good president? Stalin industrialized the soviet union and transformed it into a nuclear superpower in only a few decades, but definitely was not compassionate or selfless.
Maybe Dalai Lama’s three leadership styles should not be applied to politics; maybe it only fits spiritual leadership. Maybe politics, by nature, will always be more Machiavellian than Buddhist, and that’s why Dalai Lama’s rules may not apply to what we consider good leadership.
Sofia, you’re right to highlight the lessons of history – most leaders have proved to be anything but selfless. On the other hand, there are also plenty of examples where leaders act in a selfless way, to protect others. A company director, for instance, who chooses to adopt an environmental friendly strategy (which is more costly than a non-environmental one), or offer more benefits to their employees (thereby reducing the level of profits) makes him/herself unpopular with shareholders (who would much prefer adopt short-term strategies to increase their returns); this way, he/she risks being replaced. I would call this selflessness – the ability to put others’ interests first, before one’s own.
Also, you mention the extremes – Machiavellian and Buddhist. I would say, let’s explore the interval in-between more…
I think it is still possible for leaders to be selfless and confident – described as ‘trailblazer’ leadership in the article, although I think good leaders have to and do adapt the way they present themselves to different situations and audiences. Therefore perhaps not one of these traits is important but the ability to adapt to all 3 and be able to come across in different ways while maintaining their core values.
Perhaps these positive traits may be viewed as ‘weak’ in terms of leadership because western leadership is based more around ‘alpha’ traits such as strength which traditionally does not pair well with selflessness, mindfulness or compassion. However, in the modern day I think leadership traits are swinging more in line with buddhist philosophy and therefore more selfless leaders are becoming more common and successful than in the past.
Cosmo, I think you’re right about two things: the need to adapt (to situations and priorities); and the dominant view of leaders as ‘alpha males’ in Western society. But things are changing, slowly but surely. Look at how much legislation has been introduced in recent years, about the need to have more women representatives at board (or management) level. So it’s important to explore the alternatives to the mainstream view, and their likelihood of success. I would say, try to use examples. They are very effective in lines of argumentation.