Trickle-down ethical leadership — a review of The Just King

cover of the book "The Just King"

The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham

Take a moment to think of the good leaders that you have had in your life and/or career. Think of the qualities they possess, the qualities that you admire and might even emulate. I am sure we could come up with a common list of attributes (good communicator, humble, fair, etc). One key attribute I have seen across a number of sources is self-awareness. This not only translates into a mindfulness of how a leader acts around her people (self control, humbleness), but is the basis on which a leader can improve her skills. Even if you have a map to good leadership, if you don’t know where your starting point is…

Self awareness requires self reflection. Taking time to self reflect is one of the valuable tenets of Buddhism, and it is thus why on this year’s meditation retreat I spent time reflecting on what makes a good leader. To facilitate this internal discussion, I thought I would turn to one of the great thinkers in Buddhist philosophy. During my free time between meditation sessions I read The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham.

Mipham was an illustrious polymath of 19th century Tibet who wrote on all sorts of topics, from art to science to religion. The politics of 19th century Tibet are fascinating and turbulent (I highly recommend Tibet by Sam Van Schaik to learn more), and when a new king took the throne in the high pressure region between Tibet and China, Mipham was requested to synthesize all best Buddhist teachings on being a good leader.

The breadth and depth of this book is vast. It covers a couple thousand years of writing on ethics, and puts it into a succinct form. A fairly quick read, it is full of pithy advice for people trying to be better leaders… and better people. At some points I felt that this book could be Mipham flattering his audience. This letter was directed at a king of course, so you cannot deny the power imbalance and potential for that to interfere in this enterprise. Like Machiavelli’s book The Prince, how much of this writing is putting “sweet words” into the mouths of those in power merely for ingratiation? I do not know. Still, there is value in reading The Prince despite its historical purpose. Mipham’s work should certainly not be written off either.

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Learning to lead in a transforming world

This summer I had the privilege of taking an online course. Usually you don’t hear the term “privilege” and “online course” in the same sentence, because online courses have such dismal completion rates. But my experience was so good I felt I should share.

3 charts showing course completion rates for Coursera in 2018: for non-degree consumer completion is 4% for unpaid, 50% for paid. For Enterprise learners 44% completion. For Degree consumers 89% completion.
Coursera course completions can be as low as 4% — from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2019 report

The course was a five week Executive Education program from INSEAD called Leading Organisations in Disruptive Times. I was lucky that my company paid for the experience. I was pretty wary. The course is the first in a 3 course sequence to get online certification for “Leading in a Transforming World.” However, since my experience with the first course was so good, I intend to continue on with the program and obtain the certificate.

I have spent the last 7 years working on change initiatives in various companies, and INSEAD is a world-class business school, so it makes sense to brush up on some of the established frameworks and get better at this thing I do.

Leading Organisations in Disruptive Times was great for introducing tools for leading change. The course focused on the high-level factors involving change, rather than the on-the-ground tools and processes of change management that a program/project manager would employee. It covered decision-making, political challenges, and cultural impacts from a leadership perspective. I will give a bit of a summary of the course content, but first I would like to talk about how they approached the assignments, including the final project.

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Cycles: 2019 Meditation retreat

For a third time I went on retreat to Birken, a Buddhist monastery in the Thai Forest tradition. I try to do retreats like this annually as a way to reset my meditation practice. Going up on Friday, we stayed three nights and enjoyed complete silence, 45m meditation sessions at least twice daily, and lots of time in our rooms for introspection. I spent most of my alone time reading The Just King (review forthcoming). However the first day and a half I actually just spent sleeping! It took time simply to drain all the emotional stress of a busy 2019.

Since it had been nearly two years since my last visit, I was surprised to see so much change. There are newly transformed buildings at Birken, including a new studio and editing room (YouTube channel here) and a brand new state-of-the-art Abbot’s kuti (a meditation hut) with a 40 foot walking meditation path and super-insulated for the cold winters. The Abbot Ajahn Sona has been known for designing and building zero-impact “green monastery” facilities for cold weather climates.

The monastery is completely off the grid and not easy to get to. They added a new battery station and solar panels to the roof of the office building. Apparently the monastery generates more power than they can use in the summer months.

building with solar panels on roof
The office building’s solar-panelled roof provides electricity to all the buildings on the property.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Birken’s wonderful meditation facilities. The main sala, with its cool, reflective black floors, is a wide open space that facilitates the cultivate of a wide open mind.

mural of Buddha with rays of light emanating from him, and reflection on floor

Going down into the lower level to the eating area, my companion exclaimed, “Well! This place is special!” (in an awed whisper of course!). The eating area is adjacent to the walking meditation space, lined with ferns and vines to evoke an image of a walking meditation path in a Thai jungle. Amongst the plants are a number of wooden pillars adorned with beautifully lettered tiles — inspiration for introspection.

A series of concrete paths lined with plants and pillars. The pillars have words on them.
The walking sala

The words on the pillars are the Ten Pāramitā – or 10 Perfections – a list of characteristics that will help you on your way. Although meant for those pursuing a spiritual path, I think they could apply to lots of endeavours in life. Simply, the list is:

  • dāna – generosity
  • sīla – virtue
  • nekkhamma – renunciation
  • paññā – wisdom
  • viriya – energy
  • khanti – patience
  • sacca – truth
  • adhitthāna – resolve
  • mettā – loving-kindness
  • upekkhā – equanimity

These are real basics of Buddhism, but are useful reminders. And that is what retreat is about: periodically disconnecting from the noisy world and spending some time reminding yourself about what is important. You take that back to your daily life and practice at a higher level, until the daily noise gets too overwhelming and you struggle to stay on that straight and narrow path. Then you go on retreat again, and the cycle repeats. It is simple, but a very useful technique for self care, whether your path is Buddhist or not.