The Buddha’s Leadership Style

One thing that I learned from the ELLTA conference in Penang last February was that there is a lively academic debate on leadership. This will be old news if one is from the management field, but this was new to me. What was interesting to me was that the people at the conference were interested in seeing relationships between religion and leadership styles. So this got me started thinking about the Buddha’s leadership style.

So what kind of a leader was Buddha? Those who know the Buddha’s life and work would know that the Buddha led not by asserting authority and putting a firm grip on his followers, but on modeling himself as an example for his followers to emulate. In India around the Buddha’s time there were quite a number of groups of “truth seekers” who wanted to know the truth and find the ultimate meaning. The Buddha was a leader of one group among these many groups, and we found many places in the Canon where these different groups were mentioned. We can imagine that the situation then was, surprisingly, not too different from ours today. Our situation today (in Thailand at least) is that there are many religious groups and the people are free to get in and out of a group as they pleased. A person can decide for himself or herself how much he or she would like to get involved with a group. If one enters the Buddhist group wants to get serious, then one becomes a monk or a nun, but if one still has ties with the lay life then he or she can become a lay follower instead.

What is interesting is that the Buddha did not lay down any hard and fast rules for disciplining the conduct of monks or nuns at first. It was only when something happened which led to potential conflict or harm to the order that he laid down rules forbidding his followers from doing this again. So the order was kind of ad hoc. If no incidents had occurred, then it was conceivable that no disciplinary rules would have been laid down at all. In the end the Buddha laid down around 227 rules for the monks and a little bit more for the nuns. All these rules were results of contingent matters that had happened when the Buddha led his ordained followers. None of them originated necessarily out of the content of the teaching itself.

There was one particular incident which showed quite clearly the Buddha’s leadership style. There was one time when the monks argued strongly against one another. They divided into factions and hurled abuses and accusations at each other. The Buddha was so tired of this that he left the monks to argue as they pleased and then he took refuge in a forest. This was the origin of a famous scene in the Buddha’s life where an elephant and a monkey offered him food when he was staying in the forest. Meanwhile the monks continued to their bickering and divisiveness. However, when the Buddha was away there was no one to guide and teach them, and soon afterwards the lay people who supported the monks felt that the monks were too noisy in their arguing against each other. So they grew tired of it too and stopped giving them food. Then the monks realized their mistakes. They stopped bickering and arguing and went to see the Buddha in the forest to ask him to return. After that the monks behaved themselves very well.

So what kind of leadership style is this? One can say “leadership by absence.” But that does not mean that the Buddha leads by not leading, or by disappearing, or things like that. I don’t know if this style can be practiced by today’s managers. When problems arise, just leave them and go away into the forest. Perhaps we should look at the differing contexts to see why the Buddha was in the end effective in managing his bickering monks while the modern manager may get things much worse by going to the forest and leaving the problems unattended.

However, perhaps we can learn from the Buddha that there can be times when the leader does not have to be present at all times for the problems to get solved. In the Buddha’s case this was possible because the monks were not his staff or subordinates in an organization. The Buddha’s was a loose groups of truth seekers each of whom had their own minds and ideas. When they realized that the problems were more than they could handle, then they asked the leader to return. Perhaps the modern manage can learn from this and learn how to “unmanage” the problem, seeing what happens when things are left on their own. Maybe some positive results can occur. Nonetheless, what was important was that the Buddha was never too far away from his bickering followers, so the modern manager must always still keep an eye on the problems while he is leaving them to take care of themselves, always ready to come back.

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