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What I Learned About Leadership from the Dalai Lama

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This month, the Dalai Lama is in Washington for a couple of weeks to lead a multi-day series of Buddhist teachings called a Kalachakra. This past Saturday morning, he came out to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to talk about world peace with about 20,000 people. I was one of them.

You can read a nice account and see some pictures of the talk in a blog by Matteo Pistono for the Washington Post. Here are a few leadership impressions that landed with me from being there.

First, it's amazing how polite and considerate 20,000 people can be when they're showing up for a talk on world peace. Everyone was really conscious of everyone else's space. There was a lot of unprovoked smiling and people engaging in conversation with people they didn't know. Obviously, there was a lot of self-selection in the crowd that showed up but I thought the event was a good example of the power of declaration and suggestion. If you tell people that the talk is about world peace, they act peaceful.

Second, the Dalai Lama seems to really enjoy his job. He smiles a lot. He laughs a lot. He loves to talk. (He went about 15 minutes long in the Q&A segment and his MC, Whoopi Goldberg, had to gently wrap him up.) The Dalai Lama waves a lot, too -- and people wave back at him. Towards the end of the event, I moved close to the area where he was going to leave. You could tell he was coming before you could see him because the hands of the people in the crowd started going up in a wave. That was true for the tourists who just happened to be on the other side of the security perimeter at the right time. The Dalai Lama likes to wave back. And bow too. It seems to make him happy. It definitely makes the people around him happy.

Finally, the Dalai Lama's approach to leadership and peace starts with an emphasis on individual action and relationship building. Here are a few (highly paraphrased) ideas he shared in his talk:

  • The biggest mistake people make is looking externally for happiness. Happiness starts with a calm and peaceful mind.
  • Too much formality creates barriers to communicating on a person to person basis. We should practice heart to heart interaction instead.
  • Warm heartedness leads to self confidence. Humans are social animals. We need to interact. Self-centeredness is counter to true human nature.

It seems to me that if more leaders consciously followed some of these ideas, we'd have a lot less toxicity in many organizations.

What do you think? Have you heard or read anything from the Dalai Lama or other spiritual leaders that you think is relevant to leaders? If you have, please share it with the rest of us in the comments.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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