Just as non-conformity leads to conflict and disruption of the prevailing order today, so it did in the era of Gautama Buddha, 2,700 years ago. For Siddhartha, who would attain enlightenment when he was 36 years old and continue teaching till his death at the age of 80—a career spanning four-and-a-half decades—the path was, by no means, an easy one. His path was no smoother in his later years as he entered the next phase of his life as a teacher, mentor and guide. The content of his teachings and their appeal to the multitudes who came to hear him would bring him into direct conflict with the prevailing Brahmanical faith and its practitioners. Also, the venom of Devaduta’s enmity remained a source of constant danger for him and the Sangha, for there was no level to which his former disciple, along with his ally, Ajatshatru, would not stoop to exact revenge.
Given these circumstances, even the Enlightened One’s immediate environment was far from tranquil and free of strife.
What never fails to awe me is the Buddha’s composure and his clarity of purpose in the face of bitter opposition. Every reported incident of his life as a teacher and mentor highlights these very qualities—the ability to maintain a balance and lie in serenity, regardless of the challenges to be met and the problems to be resolved. While remaining focused on achieving the desired goal. The first lesson to be learnt from the Shakyamuni’s life is as follows: In the pursuit of a higher goal, a departure from established norms and a shift from your comfort zone may be called for. And the first clear lesson on leadership is that you don’t have to follow the beaten track.
Chalk out your own path. If you have a goal or a dream, follow it, even if this involves doing things differently from others and challenging the established order. Courage and initiative stem from setting a goal and remaining focused on it through various pulls, pressures and environmental distractions.
Having set himself a clear goal to work towards, Siddhartha would adopt different methods to achieve his ends and test their efficacy as he went along. If some failed to yield the desired results, he had no qualms about discarding them. He was so firm in his self-belief that if a method he had implemented turned out to be ineffective, he would rightly conclude that while the method had failed, he himself had not. In his quest for Enlightenment, Siddhartha would study yoga, especially the art of meditation, under the guidance of two teachers, and eventually master the techniques of both.
The practice of austerities or tapas and self-denial, almost to the point of torture, could only have been the result of intense focus, single-minded purpose and rigorous self-discipline, but in Siddhartha’s case, it did not harden into rigidity. When this method did not lead him to his goal, he had the openness and flexibility to change course, moving from extreme austerity and the rigorous practice of tapas to a more balanced approach. And this, despite the scorn and the misunderstanding that accompanied this giving up of the extreme austerities. The same fellow seekers who praised and honoured him for his extreme austerity, turned their backs once Siddhartha left the path of extreme austerity. The second lesson in leadership is, therefore, about being as fluid and flexible as water in reaching your goal. Water finds its way across, around, over or under all obstacles it encounters.
It does not get deflected from its course. Similarly, the Buddha’s example inspires you to be open to trying different methods and diverse approaches to reach your goal. At times, this may mean listening to your intuition, heeding your gut instincts. At others, it may entail considering new options in order to get where you want to or adopting lessons from the experiences of others.
Siddhartha had flouted tradition when he accepted a bowl of kheer—milk and rice pudding—from Sujata, a village girl.He was accused of lacking the self-discipline necessary to fulfil a mission of such magnitude. Evidently,his own focus was so clear that the negative voices clamouring in protest around him could neither influence nor deflect him from the pursuit of his goal.The third leadership trait,which was evident throughout his life is, therefore, to remain calm and undeterred in the face of negative or contrary public opinion.
Siddhartha would never discriminate between one caste and another, irrespective of their caste and station in life,as well as food and drink from those disdained by society—the poor and the outcasts. His followers, too, came from every walk of life and all existing castes, including, on the one hand, prosperous higher castes such as royalty, or warriors and, on the other, those perceived to be the lowest of the low—the so-called untouchables.
Inclusion and acceptance of the diverse, is therefore, the fourth lesson to be gleaned from the Buddha’s life. It is important to recognise the talents of other people and abide by your own commitment to them. It is just as important to promote equality in your team as it is to refrain from dismissing a human being for their apparent lack of looks, social standing or their seemingly limited capabilities. You must learn to be objective about, and fair to, each of your team members and arrive at an understanding of their unique talent. Just as the Buddha was appreciative of his disciples’ diverse skills and capabilities, encouraging them to develop them to the utmost, you too must be the same with each one of your team members.
(Excerpted with permission of Hachette India from Buddha at Work: Finding Balance, Purpose and Happiness at Your Workplace by Geetanjali Pandit. Click to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.)