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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.

The Just King does delve into kingly topics of governance like the justice system (fairly progressive considering the times) or taxes (“on a sliding scale that depends on people’s wealth” and “If the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes they may be taken through force.”) but unsurprisingly for a Buddhist text there is a heavy focus on ethical conduct. For example Mipham ranks kings into 3 groups (pp. 48-49):

  1. High: thinks of righteousness and the welfare of his people
  2. Middling: thinks of extending his sphere of influence, taking care of his clan/lineage and legacy
  3. Low: thinks only of money [this kind of king is toppled quickly!]

The personal conduct of the leader, righteous and virtuous, is one of the keys to the success of king and country. Serving as a model to his retinue and people, just as the Buddha did in his time, Mipham’s advice to leaders is somewhat similar to Grecian virtue ethics, and results in a sort of “trickle-down theory of the just state.” This kind of thinking is anathema to our modern age of professional and eminently corruptible politicians restrained by organizational and procedural binds to ensure just outcomes, but it does not make it invalid. Especially if you are leader in a smaller group, say of a startup or team inside of a larger organization. Recall the leaders I asked you think of before. Is what made them great leaders merely the system that they were bound by? Or did they rise above that?

Cultivating good character is certainly one aspect of good leadership, but that is only one side of the equation. One of the classic Indian texts on statecraft that Mipham quotes says “inform yourself regarding other people’s character.” Chapter 5 of The Just King focuses on the king’s retinue and basically advises to not hire evil people, and celebrate your people’s successes. Mipham likens evil people to sieves (“they lose everything”) and good people to magnets who attract others (pp 138). Wisdom is probably the characteristic that is held highest in this book, but even then, Mipham counsels that as a leader you should not do anything alone:

Even if you have the kind of mind that can analyze the details, your work should be accomplished through consultation. (pp 169)

When I think of how (corporate) leadership has changed over the past few decades from an industrial top-down model to a more consultative, procedurally just approach, this advice rings true. But be sure to critically examine the advice of collaborators:

People speak various words due to their various ideas. Most of what they say, though well-intentioned, is nonsense due to their lack of mental clarity. (pp 37)

Watch your own speech too:

If you do not know when to speak and when to remain silent, speech becomes frivolous and many faults ensue. (pp 31)

There are whole chapters dedicated to the important of wisdom and learning. I cannot summarize how important this characteristic is to Mipham, but one thing that I really love is how a leader’s goals are dependent on perspective:

Those who are attached to small goals do not attain the highest happiness. So expand your perspective as much as you can and set your sights on the very best quality. (pp 101)

The Just King has transcendent advice like this, but there is a lot of very practical day-to-day advice (like dressing appropriately!). Chapter 13 is full of pithy nuggets such as:

Old grudges, lingering debts, and a burning fire:
dispose of these while they are still small (pp 142)

You do not know who is capable of really helping you or injuring you. So be helpful to everyone without looking down upon anyone, and you will flourish. (pp 138)

And reminiscent of the proverbial Typewriter Monkeys I give you the Tibetan Literate Termite:

Someone is not a sage simply because he accidentally accomplishes a goal. By sheer chance a termite can leave a letter shape on wood. (pp 138)

Although from a scholarly perspective this book is a masterpiece, if you are reading it from the perspective of a corporate leader, you probably won’t find anything too revolutionary. The important thing is putting in the effort, and taking time to reflect. This book serves as an excellent jumping off point for that exercise, especially as it comes from a different philosophical tradition than you may be used to and can stimulate thought from a new perspective. One advantage this book does have over some contemporary leadership literature is that Mipham’s work is very authoritative, and written in a brave conciliatory voice. It is not the typical “self-help book for privileged tech entrepreneurs” or merely a “human manual for sociopaths” like so many of the pamphlets of modern-day, self-appointed gurus of leadership.

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