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Enlightened Leadership Part 4: The Compassionate Leader

Enlightenment is often envisioned as ascending a mountain. As one climbs higher, they leave attachment and suffering behind – however, in this vision, they also leave others and the suffering of others behind. The warrior-bodhisattva does not climb the mountain up, but rather down –moving toward the turbulence and doubt, exploring the unpredictability of insecurity and pain – not pushing it away.” -Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty

In the past few weeks we have explored practices and perspectives that allow leaders (“warriors” in the Buddhist vernacular) to more clearly see the filters, projections, and interpretations which frame their interpretation of the world. These are important for clearly seeing truth in a complex world so that one can act from a place of real wisdom. However, there is another aspect of enlightened leadership that is important to explore – Leadership is not just about seeing the most appropriate path in a chaotic ever-changing world, it is also about connecting with those you are leading and motivating them to follow that path. This latter aspect of leadership is the focus of today’s post – specifically we’ll explore three perspectives: connection, basic goodness, and renunciation.


In order to lead others, a leader needs to be in touch with their people’s reality. In recent years, people often mistake this for looking for a leader that “they can have a beer with” that they could see themselves hanging out with – someone just like them. In my opinion, this is a huge mistake – our leaders should be examples for us to strive toward, aspirational figures, however, they do need to understand and have compassion for the plight of others. This is what makes them leaders – they are grounded in the reality of the masses, but with a clear vision of the greater potential so that they can take the rest of us on that transformational journey.

There is a Buddhist practice called Tonglen that applies to courageous, enlightened leaderhsip. Pema Chodron describes Tonglen as the following: 1) Breath in what is difficult (so that you can feel compassion and connectedness with every thing else that suffers), and 2) breath out what is inspiring, delightful, relaxing, invigorating - so that it can be shared – it is not your delight or inspiration, but rather the worlds and it just happens to touch you at that moment). This is not as “new-agey” as it sounds – in fact it is the opposite. Whereas “new age” teachers often will invite their students to “breath in the good and let go of what is difficult,” Tonglen suggests the opposite. When a leader finds out that their organization is significantly below their earnings predictions, rather than trying to distract, “sugar coat”, or move on from it as quickly as possible, they “breathing in what is difficult”. This means looking the problem directly in the eye, diving deep into what is really going on, but most of all taking it as one’s personal responsibility to absorb the difficult situation for the organization. In doing so, a leader will protect and inspire the organization, learn and gain tremendous insight, and may even find some inspirational goal for the organization that comes from the midst of such difficulty. In the case where there is great news, leaders breathe it out and share it with their people, acknowledging their great work, being grateful for such a blessing and not take it for granted. By understanding and taking on difficulty and sharing good fortune, enlightened leaders assume a nobler purpose but they also gain much greater connection to the hearts and minds of their people.

Basic Goodness

There is a basic underlying belief in Buddhist philosophy that basic goodness exists in every person. However, through our own life experiences, it may get twisted, turned around, distorted, etc. so that it manifests itself as something that might appear quite different.

To create high performance teams, we use the Gallup StrengthFinders assessments with our teams. Each of the 34 strenghts in their taxonomy has a way that others may interpret it positively or negatively – it depends on whether they can see the intended basic goodness behind the observable action. One example is a strength called “deliberative” which is notorious for being that person that always finds the problems with something. This is a difficult and frustrating person for some to interact with, but if you realize that they are ultimately interested in the success of an idea and that is why they are trying to find all the issues that could potentially undermine it – then the deliberative strength becomes very valuable (especially when engaged at the right time in the development of an idea).

Another more complex example comes from a situation that we all occasionally encounter. In a collaborative team, there may be an individual who never seems to deliver on their commitments – while frustrating to the team, it may actually be the best situation because that person may not have the knowledge to really deliver value and what they would have contributed might have been wrong and compromised the whole effort. From a basic goodness perspective, the “delinquent individual” may have intended well years ago as they studied their profession, but due to insecurity they avoided the knowledge areas that they were weak in and never asked any questions about the things they didn’t understand. Now they find themselves even more insecure and poorly equipped, but the stakes are much higher so not they craft more elaborate strategies to hide their lack of knowledge – attacking others, hiding behind ambiguous statements, shirking responsibility, etc. The enlightened leader would see this and find a way to tactfully support that individual in a way that they could start to fill those knowledge gaps, move them into an area of focus for which they are better equipped, or find ways to begin to dismantle the insecurity/defensiveness shields that are destructive to the broader team. An enlightened leader can see the basic goodness in each person and find a way to make it shine more directly.


According to Chogyam Trumpa “A warrior renounces anything in his experience that is a barrier between himself and others. In other words, renunciation is making yourself more available, more gentle and open to others.” Enlightened leaders need to be sensitive and aware to everything going on around them. This is the opposite of ignoring, dismissing, hardening, or distancing. This means walking the halls, this means being curious, having conversations, asking questions. Our COO at Balfour Beatty, John Tarpey, is well-known for this. He would spend much of his day walking around the office asking people what they were working on, genuinely taking an interest in their ideas and passions, encouraging them. I know many people (including myself) that would say he is the major reason that they joined the company. This openness and availability is rare for leadership in general, but quite common with great leadership.

By becoming more available, more gentle and open, enlightened leaders not only better connect and effectively motivate their people, but they also have the opportunity to really understand the subtleties of what is happening throughout the organization: Are people cautious? Curious? Are there any early signs of disengagement? Are messages from leadership resonating deeply or just on the surface? What are the needs/desires of the organization and how can leadership weave those into the overall strategy? After all, strategy is intended to point to an ideal future state and outline the trajectory to that state, but it also needs to be solidly supported by the reality of the present – otherwise it will fall apart before it every takes off.


Enlightened leadership is not just something that executives and C-Suite individuals are responsible for; these skills, this type of self-created leadership is something that is applicable to any person anywhere in the organizational chain of command. Subordinates can practice this type of leadership with their managers, peers with their peers, any individuals in a temporary collaborative setting regardless of formal role. Leadership is not a title or a defined role, it is a set of behaviors and characteristics that can be developed by anyone and any point in their career.

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