Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Eightfold Path of practice as the Fourth Noble Truth, as a path of liberation from suffering. Though this occurred more than two millennia ago, these teachings are relevant to leadership in modern times.
NOTE: The word “right” is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word “samma,” but that is a bit rough. The word samma does not have the understanding of right versus wrong. It has the meaning of integral or whole. Some have used the word “sound” as a translation. As in, “that is a sound decision.” This more closely reflects the sense of skillfulness that arises from the Path.
Right View – Our way of being in the world can be a way that increases our suffering, reduces our suffering, or liberates us from suffering. It is our fundamental view of the world, of our experience, that makes the difference. The Buddha taught that the view which would liberate us from suffering, rather than make it worse or mitigate it temporarily, is the view of emptiness. When Buddhists speak of emptiness it simply means empty of inherent existence, empty of the ability to arise completely independently. This makes sense intuitively. All things arise due to causes and conditions. They cannot come into being or cease to be without reliance on causes and conditions. Then, from this standpoint, you can begin to see why the corollary to emptiness is impermanence, the fact that people and things are always changing. The conditions of each instant are shifting and moving, in ways that you can see and in imperceptible ways. The ability to accept change, and understand that it is inevitable and neutral, is the starting point for sound leadership. That is, sound leadership accepts that change will occur. Sound leadership incorporates this fact in planning and makes the most of change.
Example: State governments requiring electric companies to develop wind turbine farms.
Right Intention – Naturally, it is not enough to know how to view the world. You must put it into action, but action stems from intention; it starts with our motivation. A great practitioner once famously said that he wakes up every day and cultivates his motivation. This is because actions and speech reflect intention, even when you don’t want them to. So it is important to establish right intention, which stems from the fundamental acceptance of change and the vow to work in harmony with it. This is not passivity, but rather seeing clearly what actually is, so that you can respond most skillfully. Right intention is based in the ability to respond, rather than react. Sound leadership flows from the motivation not to ignore or resist change, but to respond in a skillful manner.
Example: Establishing Virgin Galactic even while developing Virgin Atlantic.
Right Speech – The extent to which your words express acceptance of what is, and an intentional response, is the extent to which those words express right speech. There is a lot that can be said about right speech, but the Buddha offered five simple guidelines. He said that right speech is timely, truthful, kind, and not spoken from ill will. These aspects of right speech remind you that words are meaningful, and it is important to consider their impact, both on yourself and on those who hear them. Sound leadership knows the impact of speech and uses it skillfully, to express an understanding of impermanence and an intention to harmonize with it. It uses speech to bring clarity to any situation.
Example: “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber
Right Action – Based upon a sound view of emptiness and impermanence, and a sound intention to live in accord with that view, your actions must also be in accord with the Way. As with speech, right action will provide clarity and harmony. Thus, right action is usually associated with ethical action. It involves finding a skillful way to operate in the world, guided by what is most fundamental. It acknowledges ambiguity, and does not use it as an excuse to set aside the necessity to respond. This is why the Buddhist precepts, or moral guidelines, are not commandments but rather vows, expressions of your underlying intention. Sound leadership recognizes ethics as an integral aspect of life. It acts in harmony with life.
Example: After finding a handful of bottles poisoned, Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off the shelves.
Right Livelihood – This teaching is specifically about work. It is based on the understanding that, in emptiness, each instant contains within it the causes and conditions for the next instant. So this is the teaching that the work that you do has consequences, and it is important to consider those consequences and ensure that they create harmony in the world. Sound leadership recognizes that work is not different from other action. Sound leadership takes responsibility for its results.
Example: If you are a fisherman, not fishing a particular species into extinction.
Right Effort – This is the teaching of sustainability. The Buddha practiced asceticism to the point of death, and then realized that this kind of effort would not lead to liberation from suffering. So he taught the Middle Way. This is the way of wholehearted engagement, because anything less than that is not enough. Yet, it is also the way of embracing limitations, because your effort should not damage your capacity. It must be sustainable, or it misses the mark, risking the full rewards due to shortsightedness. Sound leadership knows that effort must be balanced in order to be effective.
Example: Staying home sick, instead of vomiting at a fancy dinner.
Right Mindfulness – While much of the Eightfold path is focused on activity, right mindfulness is about finding the still point in each moment. It is discovering the inherent steadiness of the mind, and the way that can be a foundation for everything else. This teaching is typically associated with meditation, stripping away momentary distractions to encounter the essence of what is already there. It is pausing to gather the mind, living in the present moment. Sound leadership values steadiness and a clear head.
Example: Phil Jackson teaching the Bulls basketball players to gather themselves before a game.
Right Awakening – The teaching of Buddhist wisdom is that this very life can be one of awakening to your innate freedom and the abundance of the world. It is within your capabilities, if you are willing to live in the present moment and respond skillfully, in harmony with the natural function of cause and effect. Wisdom is not something that can be given to you, yet it is manifest in relation to others. In Zen it is sometimes expressed as “not one, not two.” Wisdom is both an individual experience and a group function, and it is based in true discernment. Sound leaders are like great conductors, they help to make a symphony by energizing many individuals.
Example: Cooperative competition all over Silicon Valley.