Economic truths

By Angel Cabrera, Financial Times, October 5 2009

London, UK -- Soon after I arrived at the Thunderbird School of Global Management five years ago, a group of faculty members, students and alumni were asked to identify two personalities who best represented the core values of the school.

Their choice of Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, seemed logical, but the other name came as a surprise: the Dalai Lama.

The billionaire, yes, but the Buddhist monk? What could the Dalai Lama have to say about business and management? A few months later, when the man himself paid us a visit, I finally understood.

Speaking to us, the Dalai Lama stressed the importance of individual responsibility in an interconnected world and his belief that many of today’s problems are man-made.

He explained: “Our minds still think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’, but in reality, there is no such thing. The world is one body. We must recognise that the ‘others’ are also part of humanity, and that my future depends on your future. We may find some comfort in the notion of independence, but in reality we are all interdependent.”

If correct, how should this interpretation affect the way we should act towards each other? With compassion, says the Dalai Lama.

Genuine compassion is the recognition that others have the same rights, even those who are different and hold conflicting views, he told us.

“Love and compassion should extend beyond a person’s small circle of friends and relatives to include others who may think, look or act differently to us,” he explained.

His words chimed with a quote from the philosopher Socrates, inscribed on the gate of the Arizona campus at Thunderbird: “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”

The Dalai Lama may not be the first name to come to mind as a management guru, yet his teachings could not be more meaningful in trying to understand the responsibilities of business leaders in the global economy.

In his speech, he described two basic principles of Buddhism: the first, a philosophical outlook that recognises the interdependence of all things; the second, a value system based around the notion of compassion, the requirement to cause no harm to others.

These two ideas are interconnected. If I believe my wellbeing depends on yours, then your pain becomes mine, and it becomes my self-interest to care about yours.

Such a philosophy can also be used to define global citizenship in a business context: an outlook that recognises the prosperity of one individual, company or nation depends on the prosperity of others.

A global citizen will work to create value for all parties involved in a business transaction, rather than seeking to exploit one party for short-term gain. For example, he or she cannot accept harmful labour practices in one country for the reason that it benefits customers or shareholders in another.

The notion of “sustainability”, meanwhile – financial, social and environmental – is a recognition that one’s success is tied to that of others, and that one’s business strategy must respond to the interests of multiple stakeholders.

Successful business leaders understand that treating others with dignity and helping them succeed is imperative if they themselves want to succeed over the long term. They do not win by playing one supplier off against another, or by selling products that are harmful to their clients.

They win by innovating, serving and creating. They treat employees, customers, suppliers and investors as partners, not enemies. They change the world by creating products, jobs and returns for investors. They give back to their communities. In the process, they find financial security for themselves and the satisfaction of having made a meaningful contribution.

During his visit, the Dalai Lama shared the story of a prominent Indian businessman who asked for his blessing. “Your blessing is not here,” the Dalai Lama told him. “Go back and invest in your community — create a school to bring about opportunities to all those who have been left behind. That will be your life’s blessing.”

Angel Cabrera is president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management