3 Leadership Questions from Bhutan

I just spent 12 days in Bhutan. Did the sort of stuff most first-time visitors to Bhutan are wont to do. Hiked up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Visited the massive Punakha Dzong Monastery in Punakha Valley. Marveled at Buddha Dordenna, the largest Buddha statue in the world.

Awe-inspiring. But my richest insights came from my encounters with the Bhutanese people. Insights about Presence. About showing up. Simply being.

My colleagues from the BeLegacy tribe and I were on a mission to learn a little more about how a country that prizes the happiness of its people organizes itself. We met lots of regular folk. School teachers. Children. Service workers. Our intrepid travel guides. We also dined with Lhatu Wangchuk, the country’s former ambassador to the UN. Meditated with Saamdu Chetri, head of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre. Met Ulgyen Pelgen, the founder of the Bhutan Center for Management Studies. Lunched with a member of Bhutan National Assembly. Spent time with his Holiness Khedrupchen Rinpoche

Yup, we spoke with lots of people.

Regardless of their social standing or role, certain personal qualities were evident in absolutely everyone we met. These qualities were, to use American leadership jargon, fully embodied. They transcended our notions of personality. Bhutan is probably the world’s last great Buddhist nation, and these qualities are clearly the fruit of centuries of Buddhist practice. Let me name just a few:

  1. Gentleness

As opposed to tough; abrasive; sharp, caustic, domineering.

No one pushed. No one tried to be the center of attention. Everyone was “just there,” without the extra-notice me, it’s-my-turn-now effort. This includes the political luminaries, the reincarnated monk. The gentleness was devoid of any need to force circumstances or manipulate the flow of events to change. Yes, decisions were made, but I saw no evidence of “big egos,” or egos masked by a veneer of social platitudes. Daily decisions were made with ease, no drama.

Leadership question: What would my business dealings look like if I approached each conversation with a little more gentleness?

  1. Playfulness

As opposed to rigid; tense; stern; inflexible; overly serious.

It’s tempting to equate a spiritual worldview with seriousness. Quite the opposite was true in my Bhutanese encounters. Everyone I met had a delightful sense of humor, not unlike what folks tend to instantly notice when they meet the Dalai Lama. In the spirit of gentleness, the humor was light, whimsical, of the moment, never cutting. It never involved “telling a joke.” No, it was invariably a playful interaction with the present moment.

I attribute this ability to be playful in the moment to the notion of impermanence. Yes, we all kind of know this notion, and yet we are constantly attempting to control the uncontrollable. The idea that everything is impermanent was consistently brought up in my Bhutan conversations. If I remember that everything is indeed impermanent, being playful in the moment becomes a lot easier, isn’t it?

Leadership question: How would my business dealings unfold differently if I were a little more playful in the moment?

  1. Centeredness

As opposed to neurotic; unhinged; manic; frenetic; off-balance.

Yes, consistently rooted. Rooted as opposed to stressed, or if stressed, maintaining a sense of rootedness amid the stress. Rootedness connotes a link to the earth, with roots that are planted deep. They don’t pull out at the first gust of a storm. They stay solid, firm, an anchor in turbulent times. I don’t know if any of my Bhutanese friends were experiencing turbulent times. I experienced them as unwaveringly rooted in their faith, their environment, the moment. This steady centeredness had a reassuring and peaceful effect on me, and all those who were traveling with me.

Leadership Question: How would my business dealings unfold differently if I met each situation fully centered, regardless of the circumstances?

These may be Buddhist qualities. They are also great universal leadership qualities.

To try less hard.

To be more fully present.

To cut the extra effort.

To just BE.

And trust that this will lead to better outcomes.

On my return flights from Delhi to Frankfurt and Miami I binge-watched the HBO series “Big Little Lies.” This show is absolutely sublime. Everything – the acting, the sound score, production design, cinematography, editing were as spot on as it gets. Set in Monterey on the California Coast, many of the characters were civic or business leaders. They reminded me of folks I know from my own life. Their obsessions, their dysfunctions. They were mostly quite endearing. Gentle, playful, centered they were not. No, largely unhinged.

Let’s all have a little helping of Bhutan, please. The leadership questions are a very fine place to begin.

So, begin.