Leadership and Personal Integrity

by Kooi F Lim, Petaling Jaya, 16 September 2022

Being involved with life-long Dharma learning brings some particularly interesting benefits. Apart from having direct access to teachings of wisdom and encounters with wise teachers, one has the opportunity to discover gems of hidden truth in all sorts of manner.

The other day, as I was going through a mini spring cleaning in my house, I came across a book which I have not read for quite some time. Titled “Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership” (Thomas Cleary, Shambala, 1989), the book offered plenty to think about. It presented an invaluable guide on the art of Buddhist inspired leadership, and handed plenty of lessons on issues such as integrity, personal responsibility and the influence of one’s conduct on the community.

As I cleaned away the dusts on the front cover, and casually browsed through the book, a saying by Master Bian on personal responsibility appeared, which read as follows:

“Personal responsibility is…the purification of oneself in dealing with the community, utmost honesty and sincerity in executing affairs and care not to divide one’s mind by choosing between gain and loss.”
– Master Bian, Chanlin Baoxun (Zen lessons, Song Dynasty)

Looking back at the many years involved with some Buddhist organizations at various levels, it has come to my mind that indeed, I realize many leaders miss such basic teachings as espoused by Master Bian. We forget that when we serve, we are in fact exercising our personal responsibility towards our community. By doing that, we have an invaluable opportunity to purify ourselves, in accordance to the moral precepts and other spiritual practices.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the truth is far from this maxim. Instead of executing affairs with “sincerity” and “utmost honesty”, we find some of these “volunteer leaders” embroiled in actions divided against choices between gain and loss, choices which they happily embark based on personal motivations.

Buddhist activities and organizational positions are seen as stepping stones to something more beneficial in worldly terms, such as access to political and business networks.  It is not uncommon to say that the sonum bonum of such leader’s motivation is to have their photographs emblazoned as major headlines in the press. Not forgetting, of course the prime shot of having themselves standing side by side with prominent figures.

There is someone whom I know who would object vehemently to having the names of donors printed on Buddhist books published for free distribution, saying that one should give in the “free spirit of dana”. But when one visits him at his home, one never fails to notice the many blown-up photographs of him standing side by side with political leaders displayed openly in his living room, with details such as name and position of the dignitary (or dignitaries), the date and time when the photograph was taken.

Or that of another case where a particular leader seemed to think money could buy influence. A prominent businessman himself, he charmed his way to winning a key position in a major Buddhist organization only to discover that what worked for him in the corporate world failed miserably behind temple walls. Whereas in business suits and corporate meetings, he could cajole his underlings to meet his needs using a carrot and stick mentality, he found that in a system where volunteerism is the bedrock of a Buddhist concern, threats and “rewards” did not really matter at all. As he shouted and delegated his “mistakes” onto others, people just shied away. Soon after, he found that he had to execute his duties all by himself, thereby exposing his folly in the eyes of the community even further.

These two examples serve as stark reminders that when leaders assume key positions in an organization with selfish motivations, sooner or later their true colours will be uncovered. This brings us to another saying found in the book mentioned above:

“Those who do not cultivate virtues, with few integrity; time and again they bribe and curry favour, wagging their tails seeking sympathy, pursuing fame and fortune at the doors of temporal power. One day their karma will be fulfilled and their luck will be dissipated – gods and humans will be sick of them.”
- Zen Master Ying Shaowu, Lingyuan’s remnant

Abraham Lincoln was partly right when he said that one could fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time. The Buddha went further by saying that even though one could fool all the people all the time, one could never fool his or her karma. Some day, perhaps in this life or the next, the results of their actions will bring much inconvenience toward themselves, excruciating pain even. And then they ask: Why me?

This is one reason why so many “leaders” fail to live up to their potential, quickly fading away like shooting stars just as they brightly entered the scene. When they measure their contribution in terms of how “community should respond to their needs” instead of the other way around, they find that the very people whom they serve can be most unforgiving.

Instead of having people knocking on their doors or pedestals seeking their blessings, such leaders find their support gradually wilting away when one group after another seeks to distance away from them. A key sign of wavering support is when a leader discovers that the so called “exclusive information” he/she has with regards to a certain development within the community is actually stale news.

They forget that the type of leadership demanded by Buddhist communities anywhere is based on “a marathon of sincere service”. By this it means that when one chooses to serve for a community, they must well be ready to commit in the long haul. And to be able to survive the long haul, it means that one needs to have the stamina to face the good as well as the bad.

As long as the “marathon” is established along the lines of moral integrity, personal responsibility and honesty, the race will eventually lead to a satisfying completion. This is in basis, what is meant by Master Bian when he taught about the “purification of oneself in dealing with the community”.

A leader’s speech, thought and action are not captured in a single moment or a point of time. It is measured across a continuum from the point that he or she begins to serve. Within this time frame, members of the community will be able to gauge significant milestones of achievements and the relevant turning points.

More significantly, such a continuum allows for the analysis of consistent attitude and behaviour. When there is consistency and constancy in the mannerism, attitudes and behaviour of the leader concerned, then it is highly likely that he or she will be readily acceptable to the community in the long run. Not only that, such characters will be so endeared by the community that their ideas and motivations will out live their physical lifespan.

Great leaders are able to achieve such immortality because they intimately understand their personal limit, of what they can or cannot achieve based on their strengths and weaknesses. They know when to retreat and when to push forward, when the situation demands it. They understand how to muster the best from their limited resources.

They do not cajole by fear, rather they motivate by educating others about themselves. Most importantly, they do not overreach their capabilities. Unlike worldly situations, “surrender” is never a bad word in the Buddhist context, as long as the act of surrendering adheres to the principles of moral precepts and other spiritual goals.

Leaders fail because they overreach themselves. This is a sad fact that many do not see, or choose not to see, as Lingyuan says:

“Those who overreach themselves in positions of leadership rarely finish anything successfully. It seems that their virtuous qualities are superficial and their measure is narrow, and their learning from experience is low. Also they cannot follow the good and strive for righteousness and use that to expand themselves and achieve realization.”
- Chanlin Baoxun (Zen lessons, Song Dynasty)

The folly of exposed leaders brings about many debilitating results for Buddhist development, such as failed or stalled projects, or having narrow mindedness and pettiness rule over common good for the community. The Buddhist community cannot afford to be let down by people who delights or angers themselves, who lavishly waste in indulging themselves, going along with their own desires. These are not what a leader should do, for such actions are a protraction of selfish indulgence, the source of the ills of excess.

As people brought up and guided by principles of what is deemed as the “gentlest religion” on earth, Buddhist leaders should therefore live up to such ideals as well. But more importantly, they should embrace such qualities and make it work for the community in the long run.

They must realize that leadership and personal integrity are one and the same, not otherwise. If one could serve with honesty, sincerity and without intentions for gain and fame, one will be rewarded by the community in ways and quantum that he or she would never imagine.

Buddhism and Buddhists deserve better leaders, because its greatest leader of all, the Enlightened Buddha, espouses all that is good and pure. May we ever strive to be somewhat like Him, even for just a tiny measure, for when one strives for oneself, one strives for all.