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Lions Roar : November 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 35 THE KIND OF LEADERSHIP we usually encounter in business, in government, and even in our spiritual communities assumes a top-down perspective. At the top are the leaders, who are en- gaged, ambitious, and effective. At the bottom are life’s voyeurs, uninvolved, hesitant, and resigned. In between is everyone else. Neither visionaries nor bystanders, most of us go about our lives and are expected to fit in and do our best to contribute. To a great degree we take this top-down perspective for granted. The Buddhist approach, however, does not encourage us to wait for someone else to take the lead when it comes to contrib- uting to our world. For Buddhists, taking the lead in creating a decent world is at the heart of the Mahayana or bodhisattva ideal. This approach to leadership reveals that the top-down outlook is seriously lacking, for it overlooks a most fundamental human reality: that all human beings instinctively desire to inspire oth- ers, and this can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime. The instinct to inspire the best in others is completely natu- ral and is at the heart of being a leader. Whether we are a child charming a parent, a neighbor hosting a spring barbecue, or a world leader planning for the future, all of us offer a part of ourselves in order to inspire others. Leadership begins with this simple human gesture to inspire. Instead of the top-down model, the best leadership first oc- curs from the inside out—offering to others a part of ourselves that inspires them. From this perspective, top-down leadership alone is inadequate, because it overlooks the fact that each and every one of us, by our sheer humanity, is capable of leading from the inside out. Typically, when we think of leading, we think of guiding and directing others, pointing the way, setting direction. And surely these are things that leaders do. Yet there is a fundamental hu- man gesture that must take place first, before any leader can guide, direct, or point the way. Leaders must first open. They must step beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and routine and directly touch the people and environment they want to in- spire. Leading others requires that we first open ourselves to the world around us. Many business leaders would find such an approach peculiar. It’s hard to imagine overhearing leaders in the boardroom saying to one another, “Hey, why don’t we all try to open up to one anoth- er?” Such a view of leadership would appear soft or weak. Flow- ers and windows open, not leaders. But from the Buddhist point of view, opening is fundamental to leadership because it is how we become utterly realistic about our circumstances. It is how we abandon our version of reality for the experience of reality itself. I recall waiting for an appointment in an executive reception area of a Fortune 100 company, and on the wall was an impres- sive photograph of the Atlantic Ocean. A lighthouse beamed its guiding light across the waves, and beneath the photo it read, “Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.” I asked the executive I was visiting what she thought of the saying, and she too had had her doubts. “I wonder how that picture even got up there?” she mused. I couldn’t help running the first part of the saying over and over in my mind: “Vision is not seeing things as they are.” My Buddhist training had taught me the opposite: that not seeing things as they are is blindness, and focusing on the future without first facing reality will lead only to failure. When we are willing to open to our world, we express an in- nate intelligence that is at once sharp but flexible, realistic but not jaundiced, clear-seeing but unassuming. At such moments of openness, we view our workplace without any lenses, undis- tracted by our priorities, our preferences, our vision of the fu- ture. Instead, we grasp directly the full measure of our present circumstances: we recognize the opportunities, appreciate our colleagues’ views, acknowledge the difficulties, and delight in the natural grace and flow of the moment. The Inside-Out Leader Instead of the usual top-down way of leading, says MICHAEL CARROLL, author of Awake at Work, the best leaders work from the inside out, opening themselves to others and sharing what inspires them. ILLUSTRATIONBYLIZAMATTHEWS