January 16, 2012

Leadership + Four Skillful Actions.

Mauro Luna

In the Shambhala Buddhadharma, there are four styles of skillful actions that are helpful to anyone in a leadership position, especially when faced with a difficult or unresolved situation.

1. Pacify

The first action is pacifying, symbolized by the dignity of the tiger, who is meek but who has teeth. Pacifying is about having heightened mindfulness, like the tiger moving through the jungle brush without snapping a twig. The tiger is alert and one-pointed, but like water, flows with and hugs the earth—at least before it springs and pounces!

In the same way, when a leader is confronted with a difficult situation demanding resolution, he must remain steady, mindful of the inherent goodness of everyone involved, and really listen, while attempting to bring calm by establishing open communication.

To do this, he needs the mirror of self-reflection and the unconditional confidence that comes from holding one’s seat in meditation. Sometimes this is all that is required for people to feel relieved, heard and appreciated.

2. Enrich

But if a further step is needed, the next action is enriching, symbolized by the dragon. Having pacified by listening and allowing people to feel safe enough to voice their needs and opinions, a leader can ask questions and entertain possible solutions, creating a culture in which everyone feels empowered to participate and contribute further.

In so doing, a problematic situation can be transformed into mutual learning and creativity which enriches everyone in the process. But it is helpful if the leader does not have a pre-determined solution in mind and is willing to be flexible and open rather than rigid.


This flexibility is symbolized by the dragon of inscrutability because she is capable of abiding in the heavens or in the earth—taking a high as well as a practical point of view.

If a leader is able to entertain and appreciate diverse interests, and is able to go beyond the limits of hierarchy to explore the variety of needs, then she will be able to go beyond the territoriality of fixed interest groups and entrenched self-interest in order to be of the greatest benefit.

This might involve thinking beyond a quick fix to considering how future generations will be affected—and could include not just generations of human beings, but the voiceless generations of animals and their habitats.

During this enriching stage, others may not know what approach the leader will take because she herself is in the process of digesting and processing all the information. This demands not being rushed into hasty decisions. Instead she must hold her seat long enough to bring forth the wisdom that comes from contemplation.

3. Magnetize

The third action is magnetizing, symbolized by the garuda of outrageousness. Having reflected and contemplated the issue from different perspectives, can the leader leap into action? Can the leader initiate and direct?

This usually involves some degree of leaping into the unknown, when the situation is somewhat new or untried. For example, if the issue is sustainability, does the leader have the confidence to propose and insist that alternative sources of energy—solar, wind, or tidal—be used instead of nuclear and fossil fuels?

Such a decision goes against the grain of established interests, so while looking at the immediate benefit of such alternative forms of energy, the leader may well provoke resistance and even defiance from those established interests, or complaints from colleagues about the initial cost. So then the question is, can the leader be fearless in facing those entrenched interests and work to demonstrate to them how the ecological innovations will be of long-term benefit?

Johnny Shoepainter

Perhaps by asking them to invest and be a part of the project, or by getting those individuals to consider the world they are leaving for their grandchildren, they can see that it is indeed in their interest to allow if not to support such an endeavor.

This takes courage because there are so many unknowns in any new venture. That is why the garuda, who is said to emerge from the egg ready to fly, and does so with one beat of its wings, is the perfect symbol for a leader daring to take such an innovative leap. And this leap may well require a period of soaring and hanging out in groundlessness and uncertainty.

But, to continue the example, having contemplated the fact that nuclear and fossil fuels have their expiration dates and lead to deadly pollution, compromised foreign policy, and the elevation of commerce over human rights, the leader knows it is a leap worth taking even if there is always the possibility of failure. What is needed is the magnetizing of support. And it is just this certainty that can magnetize the needed support at this point where the situation becomes so heightened or sometimes so polarized that it is on the brink of chaos.

But Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, “Chaos is extremely good news” because chaos allows the potential for new birth, creativity and fresh inspiration. What he called the “setting sun world” was the materialistic world without vision or delight, without a sense of going forward, a world in which everyone either felt indulgent or starved because they were static, cynical and feeling doomed.

In such a world, it is outrageous to be cheerful, brave,and visionary.

But humanity has survived this far because of these very uplifted qualities, plus ordinary kindness. The nurturing tendency of human beings to be kind doesn’t make the news, but it is the reason why each of us is alive today. The very motivation to lead in order to be of benefit is an expression of this.

4. Destroy

Smithsonian Wild

Ironically, the fourth action, destroying, may sound more like what such a genuine leader is trying not to do. Perhaps cutting might be a better term, for sometimes cutting is the most compassionate thing a leader can do when he has already tried the first three steps and still, people are creating tremendous negativity and obstacles.

For example, if internal interests produce a mud-slinging campaign—it is time, perhaps, to cut. But if this is necessary, it is important to feel compassion for those cut. This involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone to care for all concerned. It helps to realize that much negativity is inspired by fear. And indeed, there is no guarantee of success. But if the leader’s motivation is altruistic and the first three steps have been applied with the aspiration to be of benefit, there is a good chance the result will be of benefit as well.

This action is symbolized by the perky snow lion leaping from mountain meadow land to mountain top. The snow lion traditionally represents virtue that is 24/7. Like the snow lion, the leader needs to be uplifted and fearless, fearless enough to take a risk and be innovative, but also fearless enough to confront negativity when it is too much and to say, “No!”

It is not always necessary to go through all four actions.

Often a situation can simply be resolved by pacifying. A leader needs to have allegiance to wakefulness and this requires the daily practice of meditation. Otherwise he or she can easily become too self-preoccupied.

christen bouffard

In order to cut one’s own speed, cowardice and neediness, meditation is of paramount importance. In this way the four actions and dignities are first applied to oneself. Through meditation, one becomes more peaceful, expansive, and brave—brave enough to see one’s own obscurations and to cut them out!

Through practice and engendering the motivation to be of benefit, we are more likely post-meditation to be kind and helpful to others, whether we are a corporate executive or a bank teller or an active grandmother. For everyone can lead, no matter what one’s role in society.

For although one may not consider oneself in a leadership role, often one falls into the role.

Yesterday I was travelling home on the bus with three bags of groceries. Suddenly an elderly man at the back of the bus let out a shattering shout that was more of a scream. For a full moment all conversations in person and on cell phones stopped. Everyone silently turned to the back of the bus. Even folks with head phones heard the screech with open mouthed shock. It was as if someone had been stabbed!

The bus driver pulled over at an unscheduled stop. It turned out that the man was freaking out only because he had gotten on the wrong bus. The bus driver opened the back door to let him out and he ran around to the front. She got out of her chair, let him re-enter to talk and listened.

Then she said, “Sir, it’s a beautiful sunny day. The #80 runs along Spring Garden like the #1 as far as Robie. I’ll give you another transfer (he’d used a transfer to get onto this bus) and you can catch the #80 at Robie, no problem. It’s just a few blocks ahead”.

The man stood stunned with a demented smile frozen on his face for the remaining blocks. Perhaps he indeed had dementia. His reaction had certainly been out of proportion to the situation. But the lady bus driver had been so skillful in her pacifying and enriching that everyone on the crowded bus including the man was restored to calm mixed with a bit of gentle humor. I thanked the lady as I got off the bus with my bags and she smiled, obviously a little surprised by the recognition, as if to say, “All in a day’s work”.

That’s leadership!



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