The Foundation of Communication and Leadership

By Ernest Chi-Hin Ng
Buddhistdoor Global | 2019-07-25 |

Thich Nhat Hanh leads a walking meditation session at Plum Village in France in 2014.
From plumvillage.org

In this VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, we need leadership more than ever to guide and lead us out of pain and suffering. Yet many of these problems and challenges are in fact the results of poor judgment by the very leaders we rely on, causing further desperation and helplessness. A 2016 study by radical innovation expert Sunnie Giles surveyed 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations, revealing that the top theme of leadership competencies is strong ethics and the ability to develop a safe and trusting environment. This leadership quality is “a commitment to fairness, instilling confidence that both they and their employees will honor the rules of the game.” It is reported that providing a safe environment for employees can nurture stronger overall performance.

Modern leadership and management research has ample coverage of the technical aspects of leadership, such as communication and persuasion skills, marketing and mobilization skills, and the organizational and reporting structures required to lead. There is even more research on various selection mechanisms for leaders, yet why do the leaders so selected still seem to be so far removed from our wishes and expectations?

If the level of wisdom and compassion of our leaders could reflect the wisdom and compassion of those responsible for selecting or electing them, how would we make the right leadership choice? Historically, many leaders have been chosen based on traits such as physical strength, their ability to manage human and natural resources, intellectual capabilities, and so on. Modern leaders tend to be chosen based on their charisma, eloquence, or access to capital or data. Very often, leaders are chosen if their views and actions are popular. In the era of artificial intelligence, however, many of these traditional leadership qualities are arguably commodified and replaceable. It is no longer sufficient to select leaders based on technical skills alone.

From the Buddhist perspective, true leaders must also embody moral leadership. Moral values are not far-fetched, unrealistic ideals but concrete living disciplines applicable to everyone concerning the way we act, communicate, and think. These principles are founded on the practical wisdom that we should behave so that we can live in a community harmoniously. The rights and wrongs, or the dos and don’ts, do not mean simply obeying orders from higher authorities, customs, popular views, or the rule of law; they are fundamental guidelines that can contribute to our well-being. Our well-being is ultimately governed by the quality of our mind: our behaviors are skillful if they are consistent with the practice of generosity, compassion, wisdom; they are not skillful if our mind is defiled by greed, hatred, and ignorance. The threefold training of moral discipline, mental concentration, and wisdom corresponds to the training for our body and mind: in the way we behave through Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood in the Noble Eightfold Path; in the way we perceive and conceive through Right Effort, Right Concentration, and Right Mindfulness; and ultimately in the way our consciousness operates through Right Understanding and Right Thought. 

Even though our verbal and bodily actions are manifestations of our mental activities, our minds and thoughts are difficult to detect or monitor. Once our thoughts are expressed outwardly into speech or writing, they can be observed. While both can cause damage, harmful speech is comparatively less destructive than bodily action because physical damage is somewhat irreversible, and the associated sensory experience can leave a long-lasting imprint on our mind. Often our experiences can drive an upward spiral propelling further actions and reactions back to our conceptions and perceptions. Since physical actions are easier to monitor and control than mental activity, they are considered the frontier of moral discipline. 

We must realize that our mind cannot be truly free if our actions, perceptions, and mental activities are not under our control but are enslaved and entangled by our greed, hatred, and ignorance. Our suffering will never cease if we are bound by illusionary understandings of ourselves, others, and the world. If we do not cultivate a true understanding of ourselves, how can we understand others? If we do not understand others, how can we hope to understand the complexities of this world?

Ben Ferencz became the chief prosecutor of 22 Einsatzgruppen commanders at Nuremberg.
From cbsnews.com

One of the most extreme forms of bodily action against humanity is the act of war. While both sides of any confrontation will claim moral authority and justice, both sides suffer tremendous irreversible consequences. It is therefore particularly intriguing to reflect on the comments of Ben Ferencz, a prosecutor and investigator of the holocaust, the biggest murder trial ever held in the courtroom of Nuremberg. Instead of accusing those war criminals, he said, “Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars and all decent people.”

And in the choice between peace and war, even for someone like Ben Ferencz, who witnessed and suffered so much injustice and violence, he would rather choose peace: “Well, if it’s naive to want peace instead of war, let ’em make sure they say I’m naive. Because I want peace instead of war. If they tell me they want war instead of peace, I don’t say they’re naive, I say they’re stupid. Stupid to an incredible degree to send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who never did anybody any harm, never harmed them. That is the current system. I am naive? That’s insane.”

How could any decent person take the view that they should hate their enemy so badly that even war crimes are justifiable? Perhaps, as Thich Nhat Hanh reiterates, “The fear, the anger, and the despair are born on the ground of wrong perception. We have wrong perceptions concerning ourselves and the other person . . . and that is the foundation of conflict and war and violence . . .” 

It is impossible to develop the right understanding and right perspective on ourselves and others without good communication in the form of loving speech and deep listening; it is impossible to cultivate loving speech and deep listening without moral values as the foundation: for if there is no trust, there is no basis for mutual understanding. It is with moral values that we can develop the foundation of communication, cultivate the compassion and wisdom necessary to build mutual understanding, develop the wisdom to appreciate each others’ circumstances. Most importantly, we may begin to appreciate that both sides of any conflict are interdependent—we are together on the same ship. If there is no interdependence, there is no basis for either conflict or harmony. We mistakenly adopt the view that others’ happiness has no bearing on our own happiness, or others’ suffering has no influence on our own suffering. If we can truly appreciate our interdependence, we should be able to see that the well-being of each of us is neither the same nor independent. We are different but we are also interconnected. We are responsible for our own individual happiness as well as that of the community. 

The path of peace and reconciliation is never an easy one. It takes persistence, perseverance, compassion, and wisdom. Ferencz reminded us: “People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.”


Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html 

Giles, Sunnie. 2016. The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World. 15 March 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/03/the-most-important-leadership-competencies-according-to-leaders-around-the-world

See more

What the Last Nuremberg Prosecutor Alive Wants the World to Know (CBS News)

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