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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Learning about the Nature of Compassion from the Dalai Lama

Penny and I just returned from Zurich where we spent a remarkable three days with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We were there as part of the Mind and Life Institute meeting of economists, scientists, contemplatives, and concerned citizens trying to make the world a better place.  The subject was a first-ever dialogue on “Compassion and Altruism in Economic Systems.”

The first day we heard some impressive new research that refutes what the classical economists have been telling us for three decades, which is that people only operate in their self-interest. Quite to the contrary, new economic research demonstrates conclusively that most people express empathy and compassion for others, even when they incur a considerable cost. Furthermore, new findings in neuroscience using fMRI technology indicate that actual changes take place in the brain when people express compassion and empathy and that this tends to reduce their destructive emotions.

On the second day we witnessed some remarkable practical applications, from micro-finance, to educating illiterate women, to powering small villages using only solar power. Very inspiring.

On the third day I was given the opportunity to engage the Dalai Lama in a discussion about compassionate authentic leadership and the essential role that leaders must play in bringing a much stronger sense of compassion and altruism to organizations and the economy as a whole. After 15 minutes, I asked him how we could develop more leaders who were both compassionate and authentic and could sustain successful outcomes over an extended period of time.

He stated clearly that people are not born angry or hostile, but develop that way because of their inability to address their destructive emotions that exist due to difficulties they have faced in their lives. To overcome these negative feelings and be genuinely compassionate, leaders need to have a set of practices that they do routinely.  Meditation is the obvious candidate, as I have experienced in my own life, but yoga, tai chi, physical exercise, massage, and other forms of relaxation therapy can achieve the same result.

The notion of contagion – that is, people drawing from the emotional state of others – that we heard about on the first day is relevant here as well. As leaders exude compassion and empathy in leading others, they cause other people to do the same, creating organizations that are more compassionate overall and able to sustain effective results.

The key to doing so is having a common sense of purpose, or mission, and practicing what the Dalai Lama terms “secular ethics.” In using this phrase, he makes it clear that he is not talking about the Buddhist religion, but rather the practices that enable leaders to act in a manner consistent with their values, even under extreme pressure.

For all the challenges we face in the world, I believe there is much that non-Buddhists can learn from Buddhist practices that will enable us to lead more effectively and develop compassionate organizations that can sustain high levels of performance.