What Can an Eighty-Nine Year Old Vietnamese Monk Teach Us About Leadership?

What Can an Eighty-Nine Year Old Vietnamese Monk Teach Us About Leadership?

Zen master and former peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh has spent much of his life traveling the world teaching Buddhist principles of mindfulness, love and compassion as the route to happiness in life. In 2013 he toured the US, spending a day at Google and speaking to more than 20 CEOs of US-based technology companies to offer his advice on living in the present moment. In 2014 he toured Europe, again speaking to large crowds. He is currently recovering from a brain haemorrhage suffered at the end of 2014 and, despite his advancing years, he is making a good recovery. Meanwhile, thousands still go to his centre, Plum Village in Southern France, to meditate in the quiet space there and practice mindful living. His monastic order is the fastest growing order in the world.

Thây, meaning ‘teacher’, as he is known to his followers, became ordained as a monk when he was 16, following an inner calling that he sensed from the age of seven. Thây, though, was not a monk who stayed in a monastery. He was a monk who believed in using his Buddhist teachings to be active in the world through ‘engaged Buddhism’.

After two years at Princeton University in the US studying Comparative Religions, he returned to Vietnam to lead the Buddhist peace movement in the Vietnam War. During the war, Thây spearheaded one of the notable non-violent resistance movements of the twentieth century. He and his followers did all they could to create reconciliation between North and South Vietnam with regular non-violent protests. In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr nominated Thây for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Vietnam. Thây has also written 75 books on Buddhist teachings, prayer and poetry.

In my book Spiritual Intelligence in Leadership: From Manager to Leader in your Own Life, I quote Thây as a leader who demonstrates Spiritually Intelligent leadership. Here are four ideas that I believe we can learn from this exemplary leader of our time:

1.      Live Your Life in Alignment with Your Message 

Thích Nhất Hạnh consistently lives in alignment with his message of mindfulness as the route to happiness and compassion for all sentient beings. In all his activities, he has practiced loving kindness and focused awareness, living every aspect of his teachings.

Many leaders do not live in tandem with the values and message of their organisation. These leaders may have mission statements, a clear vision and an articulated list of values, and yet they do not embrace them as principles for business, and for life. If a leader is not walking his talk both the employees and the customers subtlety pick up the disconnect between the company message and the actual experience. This inevitably leads to a lack of trust and lack of customer loyalty.

There is huge value on being clear on what we stand for professionally. From this clarity, it is essential that we truly live and embrace those principles to the best of our ability.

2.      Take Action For The Greater Good 

Thích Nhất Hạnh, and now his younger monastics, are always working to get his message out to all those who are open to receive it. Many of his worldwide talks are published free on his Twitter page and in the past, Thay has done numerous interviews with global publications. His focus on sharing his message, not for his personal gain, but for the greater good is exemplary.

He has also encouraged the younger members of his monastic order to reach out to people in organisations to help them bring the practice of mindfulness into the workplace. They work too with young people through ‘Wake Up’, a worldwide network of 18 – 30 year olds who come together to practice mindfulness and contribute to building a healthier, more compassionate society.

This ability to work tirelessly for the greater good is something we can all emulate. We all have gifts we can offer, talents we can share and skills that are of value to others. We can bring these into any situation, both professionally and personally. The important thing is that we selflessly share them, working on the principle that what we give, we receive.

We too, all have issues that we feel strongly about that we can take action on. Everyone can do this from promoting a cause, to volunteering for a charity, all the way to aligning one’s organisation behind a worthwhile case, supporting it with time and energy.

 3.      Embrace Thích Nht Hnh’s teaching of mindfulness, concentration and insight

Clear thought, the ability to concentrate fully and Higher insight are essential leadership skills. Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches that with the practice of mindful breathing, meditative sitting and mindful walking we come to live continually in the present moment. The benefits of this focus are many: the ability to concentrate; receptivity to wisdom and intuitive thought, openness to new perceptions, inspiration and creative thought; an ability to find happiness and joy in our current circumstances, and lastly a reduction in tension and stress.

To support our ability to bring our awareness back into the present, The Mindfulness Bell has been set up which we can use on our computers for regular reminders to take three deep breaths, to have a moment of stillness and to return to the calm of the present moment. This allows us to let go of the concerns for the future, the grievances and stresses of the past and become one with the present moment.

You can download The Mindfulness Bell here: http://fungie.info/bell/# 

4.      Practice the Buddhist Principles of Loving Kindness and Compassion 

Thích Nhất Hạnh’s key teaching is that of demonstrating love, kindness and compassion for all. It is a focus on relationships, connection and a sense of brotherhood. Loving kindness is deemed by Thây to be more important than fame, wealth, power and success. Thây advocates that love should be our destination.

To many, the practice of love, kindness and compassion is not appropriate in the driven, competitive and cut-throat world of business. There is no time for that “touchy feely” stuff! However, as leaders, we can see repeatedly the positive responses we get from our employees, our customers, our suppliers and the world at large when we offer them even just small acts of kindness. Often it may come down to one quality: courteousness. If we offer that quality through courteously engaging with others, listening to fully understand, we can create win-win solutions. We become solution finders.

People are drawn to those who have a kind or compassionate manner. It is magnetic, and its effects ripple out into the organisation as a whole. We invariably do not know the effect of one generous action, a loving or supportive thought or our willingness to take the time to listen to someone rather than move on in haste. However, it has a positive effect on our business, our reputation and our ability to attract people to us.

 In conclusion, Thích Nhất Hạnh has been demonstrating for us all the kind of leadership that the 21st century requires of us: less thought-based and more intuitive, less competitive and more inclusive, less hierarchical and more equal, less self-focused and more selfless, less insular and more collaborative. This can be summed up as a willingness to act with kindness and an acknowledgement of the worth within us all.


Who is Sarah Alexander

Sarah is passionate about supporting business professionals and entrepreneurs in undergoing amazing personal transformation whilst achieving results within their career with low stress.

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