Robert Thurman blogs for us on ‘Leadership with a human purpose’

Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, blogs for us on the theme for this year’s theatre, ‘Leadership with a human purpose’.

We are at a unique moment in this cycle of human history, where scientific and economic materialism has exploited the coarse elements ? earth, water, fire and air ? to the point that they are crippled in their natural responsiveness to the needs of living beings. We need a new kind of leadership in this moment ? a human leadership ? to rise to the challenge of rediscovering responsibility and accountability for both life and its environment.

First of all, a leader must be able to lead herself or himself and to do that is the entire aim of the Buddhist humanist education. This type of leadership needs each leader to become an athlete of the mind ? which does involve, but is not limited to, meditational training. Truly rewarding, and therefore effective, human leadership requires the ethical, psychological and philosophical exploration of the self and reality. In the Buddhist tradition, physical athletic fitness through more than one kind of yogic training is also important for leadership. The leaders of tomorrow have to be willing to continue their own education and draw from within themselves a deep sense of human interconnectedness.

In terms of their institutional careers, they have to be willing  to take careful risks, standing up for realistic decisions and changes in policies, as Paul Polman did when he stood up to the GS investment manager who demanded he scrap his sustainability project. I believe leaders who achieve such a realistic worldview and are motivated in such a way as I have described, will rise to prominence and will succeed ? though their aims will be altruistic, their success will be personally rewarding as a by-product of their enlightened self-interest. In contrast, leaders who are in denial about the connections that sustain them and others, are unrealistic, reckless and irresponsible, and will inevitably crash against the undeniable realities of the time.

But the great thing about today is that we have collected ? in exponential intensity and quantity ? the general awareness and the database to show anyone who stops to pay attention the realism of an enlightened and humanistic approach to humanity, nature and economy. The trick is to help those who have already reached commanding heights of authority and responsibility to realise the need to take the time and make the effort to change course from an exploitative model of growth, without losing their leverage over the institutions that need to be re-designed.

Importantly, the leader who bit by bit implements these changes in her or himself, and in her or his institution, will emerge as far happier than others, in a quiet and self-confidently content way. I believe such success will be more secure than the superficial kind that comes from exploiting and competing with others, because their example will spread to others around them.

David Thoreau wrote: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”