Recently, I took lay ordination at the Monastic Academy (MAPLE) under the head teacher Soryu Forall and Shinzen Young. We took the vows in an evening ceremony lasting a little over an hour with six others taking ordination as well. Shinzen video conferenced in from his home out in Arizona.
Lay ordination means to take certain percepts as a life-guiding principle. Typically in a public ceremony within a tradition.
Beforehand, I had been asked if there was anything about the name I wanted. I said I would like a name starting with the letter “X” to fit my middle initial. However, it’s impossible to find “X” in Sanskrit or Japanese.
They gave me the name Xūramitra. Xura == hero and Mitra == friend. In Sanskrit, it’s really Sūramitra. But, they said in Chinese, the “X” is pronounced the same as the Sanskrit “S”.
One interpretation would mean “heroic friend”, I prefer “friend of heroes”.
In the past, Shinzen gives out names with the character “Shin” as the second character. In this way, it’s possible to trace lineages back countless generations as students take on the first character of their teacher’s name as their second character. So, here, many of the lay ordained have names like Tasshin, Joshin, Kaishin. But, we also have the option to get international dharma names which usually means Sanskrit names.
Everyone around here just calls me Mitra to make it simple.
My friend sent me this nice poem Mitta (Pali for Mitra):
Full of trust you left home,
and soon learned to walk the Path —
making yourself a friend to everyone
and making everyone a friend.
When the whole world is your friend,
fear will find no place to call home.
And when you make the mind your friend,
you’ll know what trust
I have followed this Path of friend to
And I can say with absolute certainty —
it will lead you home.
Lay ordination essentially means taking on the Five Percepts and the 4 Great Vows. At the end of our ceremony, we chanted both with Shinzen leading the five percepts to not take life, not take what is not freely given, to have right relationships (no sexual misconduct), no lying, and free from intoxicants.
Personally, I felt I’ve already committed myself to these but this was a very public way to do it. Living up to my name, it was primarily one of my fellow monastic friends, Renshin, who recently said she wanted to take lay ordination with me and then told Soryu she was interested recently as well. So, if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I would have seriously gone through with this ceremony this year.
The new name felt auspicious as I’ve been studying a lot of leadership material especially military material like Navy Seals training and most recently Major Winters autobiography of the famed WWII Band of Brothers. The Stephen Ambrose book and film ends: “In one of his last newsletters, Mike Ranney wrote: “In thinking back on the days of Easy Company, I’m treasuring my remark to a grandson who asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ ” ‘No,’ I answered, ‘but I served in a company of heroes.’ “
That seems perfect. I don’t know if I would self-identify as a hero. But I’ve spent almost my entire adult life wondering about this question of how to be a good friend and how to do the right thing. More than anything, I’ve wanted to develop a company of heroes here and it feels like, with this last lay ordination, it just might be starting.
So, we continue our series on Leadership.
In the first post, we defined Leadership as the skill of power to bring individuals together towards a vision. We defined different forms of leadership and argued that the best leadership power involves earning the respect of your followers rather than only relying on delegated power derived from an organizational position.
In the second post, we differentiated leadership from management. Both involve power over a group of people. We used Kotter’s distinction that managers deal with complexity, on organization and optimization. Leaders, on the other hand, deal with change.
In this third post, we will explore the question, why is leadership so hard? Why don’t we have more ethical leaders?
Talking about my experience at the Monastic Academy, a lot of people who would be attracted to hundreds of hours of silent meditation practice in rural Vermont, do not want to take full responsibility for power. To many of us, we have seen too many people of power who are unwise, uncaring. It almost seems like power equals harm.
If we start with the premise that humans are innately selfish creatures then too much power must lead to harm and abuse of power. Therefore, there has been a movement towards decentralization, distributing power all the way back to communism and beyond. We say, “everyone is equal. We don’t need leaders.” We want to disempower traditional leaders and systems to more fairly and equally distribute power. Taken to the extreme, it is to remove the question of power altogether. We do not want to cause harm. So, it seems the best way to achieve this end would be for no one to have power over anyone else.
But, the truth is there is always power dynamic. Pretending otherwise is only to push power into the shadows.
While this aim to distribute and empower everyone is a noble goal and aim, the way to get there requires leadership. Thereby requires power.
We need to acknowledge development is real, development exists. People are at different developmental maturations. I hold the Metamodern idea that those who are more trustworthy ought to take on power in order to help less trustworthy people to become more trustworthy and thereby more empowered.
At MAPLE, we have a hierarchical system of power. New apprentices just starting out are in terms of explicit power at the bottom of the hierarchy. They hold little sway in organizational decision making such as who should we accept for residency? How will we change the schedule? What amount of time will we devote to a workshop, if any at all?
But as apprentices near the end of their terms, we give them increasingly more responsibilities and thereby more power in their roles. Furthermore, residents have increasing roles and responsibilities and thereby more power in shaping the community culture and structures.
To us, this is how it ought to be. As a person matures in their wisdom and virtue, in their understanding and capacity to deal with challenges, they are given increasing complex roles of power. With that increased power, their edge in wisdom and virtue is pushed even more. And so the cycle continues. Eventually, a resident may become a Director, a Teacher and be ultimately responsible without anyone else to fallback on.
I would argue that this queasy feeling with power means that those who don’t have these fears and worries end up taking all the power. And those with love and wisdom end up powerless. Because leadership and power are skills, practicable skills one can get better at. To step away from power and always hope that simply believing or saying nice things is enough for others with the real power to change is a delusion, is to disempower one’s self.
Thus, we come to one answer of why we do not have more ethical leaders.
Partly, it is because the zeitgeist among many spiritual folks is against the idea of leadership and power in the first place. But, why is there this aversion to leadership and power?
Because, to be a leader means to not have anyone else to fall back on. It is to develop into an adult. Particularly if you are trying to be an ethical, good leader. A leader who does right by your followers and yourself and the world.
To be a leader with power means to sit at the crossroads of the unknown where important decisions must be made. Even indecision is still a decision with consequences. Leadership is to bear that responsibility of consequences and impact on others, on potential harm, of possibly unfulfilled good. When no one knows what is correct, when every direction has benefits and costs. Yet, as the leader, a direction must be made even if it is choosing no direction. That terrible burden of command must be accepted, embraced. For every moment is another leader movement, is another opportunity.
We don’t have more ethical leaders because many of us training to be ethical are more afraid of being perceived as harmful than we care about doing good. Because communities are unwilling or unable to support developing leaders to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. All of us seek out this unicorn perfect leader who makes no mistakes and thereby causes no harm. Due to this standard, many of us would rather avoid the burden of leadership, burden of power.
Consider, Major Winters again talking about his leadership role:
Combat had made me tense, particularly since my decisions now meant life or death to the members of my command. Commanding soldiers in combat requires a personal detachment from the men themselves. In a sense, command is the loneliest job in the world.Beyond Band of Brothers
What sane person wants to feel the burden of juggling the lives of others? Fellow brothers in arms that we are deep friends with? Knowing to make a decision is going to involve the potential death of the people you are responsible for?
There are only three options then. Either you (A) stop trying to care, become numb (this is most of the unethical leadership in the world today) (B) disempower yourself and do not be a leader, or (C) as Winters did, embrace the burden of caring and fulfilling the mission.
Let’s look to Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the need for power and why we shy from it:
…Now another basic challenge is to discover how to organize our strength in to economic and political power. Now no one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power. Indeed, one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness (That’s true) and powerlessness. (So true) Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. Now the problem of transforming the ghetto, therefore, is a problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo. Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, “Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”
Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly.
You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.
Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. (Yes) Power at its best [applause], power at its best is love (Yes) implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. (Speak) And this is what we must see as we move on.
Now what has happened is that we’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power, and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience. It is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times…https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here
There’s a lack of wise, virtuous leaders. Too often we find wise, loving activists in the world devoid of power. They may have good ideas and good intentions, but ultimately, they achieve very little. Meanwhile, we find those with the most power often uncaring about the concerns of the wider world and other people. If these powerful people have to choose their personal profit versus protecting a rain forest, they will go for profit.
To bring about the changes needed to bring peace and life, we need to bridge this gap. This is one of the great jobs of MAPLE in bringing leadership training integrating these three pieces of wisdom, love, and power. As MLK Jr. said, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
This is a continuing series on Leadership Development
In my previous post, I defined what is a leader. I said a leader is someone who uses the skill of power over others towards a vision. The key pieces here being that leadership is a skill that one can get better at. And that leadership involves power with others. We also explored how the Dao De Jing states different forms of leadership or governance and that leadership.
This is important in my job as a leader. At the Monastic Academy (MAPLE), our training aims to develop trustworthy leaders through the integration of Wisdom, Love (Virtue), and Power. As the Executive Director, I hold the pole of Power in the organization leadership most strongly.
The view in East Asian Buddhism and Daoism is that one indicator for a trustworthy person to have power is that they are the ones who least want it. Power is a resource, is a skill, is a means to achieve particular ends. But, when power becomes its own end then we have a lot of problems. Just as money, fame, or health as its own ends can become unhealthy so can power. A healthy integration is possible. We can use money, power, fame as a conditional means to achieve a higher aim such as wisdom and compassion for all beings.
So far, we have established a leader is one who holds power over people. They direct a group of people towards a vision, they provide direction. At MAPLE, we train trustworthy leaders who can wield power responsibly with wisdom and virtue such that power never becomes its own end but rather a means to greater good.
However, I did not address that there are different forms of power over others. Leadership is one specific form. But what about a teacher with students? What about a manager?
Reading this article in the Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, What Leaders Really Do, they differentiate between a manager and a leader. Both hold power. Both work with groups. Both are needed to run effective organizations and causes. But, there is a difference. As John P. Kotter writes:
LEADERSHIP IS DIFFERENT FROM MANAGEMENT, but not for the reasons most people think. Leadership isn’t mystical and mysterious. It has nothing to do with having “charisma” or other exotic personality traits. It is not the province of a chosen few. Nor is leadership necessarily better than management or a replacement for it. Rather, leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment….
…Management is about coping with complexity. Its practices and procedures are largely a response to one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century: the emergence of large organizations. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence. Good management brings a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions like the quality and profitability of products. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change. Part of the reason it has become so important in recent years is that the business world has become more competitive and more volatile…The net result is that doing what was done yesterday, or doing it 5% better, is no longer a formula for success. Major changes are more and more necessary to survive and compete effectively in this new environment. More change always demands more leadership….
…Since change is the function of leadership, being able to generate highly energized behavior is important for coping with the inevitable barriers to change. Just as direction setting identifies an appropriate path for movement and just as effective alignment gets people moving down that path, successful motivation ensures that they will have the energy to overcome obstacles. According to the logic of management, control mechanisms compare system behavior with the plan and take action when a deviation is detected. In a well-managed factory, for example, this means the planning process establishes sensible quality targets, the organizing process builds an organization that can achieve those targets, and a control process makes sure that quality lapses are spotted immediately, not in 30 or 60 days, and corrected. For some of the same reasons that control is so central to management, highly motivated or inspired behavior is almost irrelevant. Managerial processes must be as close as possible to fail-safe and risk-free. That means they cannot be dependent on the unusual or hard to obtain. The whole purpose of systems and structures is to help normal people who behave in normal ways to complete routine jobs successfully, day after day. It’s not exciting or glamorous…Leadership is different. Achieving grand visions always requires a burst of energy. Motivation and inspiration energize people, not by pushing them in the right direction as control mechanisms do but by satisfying basic human needs for achievement, a sense of belonging, recognition, self-esteem, a feeling of control over one’s life, and the ability to live up to one’s ideals.Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership
(bolding is mine)
Thus, a leader deals even more in the uncertainty of change and newness. A leader is precisely the leader because that’s the person everyone turns to when it’s not clear what to do anymore.
A manager “manages”. They make sure everything is on schedule, on track with plans.
A leader “leads”. They are the ones who set the direction, who set the vision of where the group is going in the first place before any plans are made. A leader is the one who clarifies what and why we are doing anything.
Both managers and leaders deal with power in a group. While there are many managers out there, there are less true leaders.
If I reflect on my own life, I would say I had a lot of self-leadership and was a manager in previous jobs, but it’s only at MAPLE that I truly started growing to become a leader of a group. As long as we are not the ones setting the vision, setting the direction, as long as we’re operating within pre-existing norms and systems then we are not a leader but rather a manager. To be sure, being a good manager is very difficult and needed in groups too. But, these days, and Kotter would agree, most organizations are “over-managed and underled”.
While Kotter is talking about the business and corporate world, leadership is important for everyone’s life. Especially in society today as the rate of global change accelerates. It is more important than ever to cultivate leadership qualities and not depend on the collapsing systems of what has worked before. As we face more uncertainty with each growing year, the necessity for strong, good leaders grows as well.
In future posts, given the need for leaders and the countless “leadership development” programs out there, we will explore why don’t we have more good leaders? What are the blocks?
For a series of posts, I am exploring the topic of leadership. What is it? Why is leadership important? Why do we have such a hard time with leadership development? How do you train leadership?
This is an important question because the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth (MAPLE) is a mindfulness and leadership development center. I am the Executive Director and Assistant Teacher (as of Sept 2020), so my job is to be the leader here and train other leaders.
In the past, I’ve explored a lot in terms of entrepreneurship, personal development, and strategy. But, I’m discovering that there is a lot to leadership that most people rarely explore.
So, let’s begin with a basic question.
What is a Leader?
Leadership is the skill of power to bring individuals together towards a vision, a direction that they could not have done alone. At least not as effectively.
Leadership specifically seems to connote power over a group. For example, we would not call a solo-entrepreneur a leader. It doesn’t make sense to call a single doctor a leader. When we say leader, we imagine an army captain as the leader of their platoon, a mayor as leader of a city government, a sports captain as a leader of their team, or the CEO as a leader of a corporation
Leadership also specifically addresses the dynamic of power over people.
How to Become a Leader? Types of Leaders & Power
There are of course many forms of power over people. A common stereotype of leadership is the threat of physical violence to coerce people to do the leader’s bidding. This is how most dictatorships or monarchies work. This brute power is historically the most common form of leadership in early human civilizations. This is elementary school power. But, according to the Dao De Jing, this is in the long run, the worst form of power for governing a society:
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise.
To give no trust
is to get no trust.
When the work’s done right,Ursula Le Guinn translation of DDJ Chapter 17
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
“Oh, we did it”.
Normally, leaders who are despised and followed only through terror only last one generation at most. If a leader is despised then people will plot to get rid of you as soon as possible.
Of course, most of us are not living in early civilizations. We encounter leadership more in academia, politics, and business. In these artificial, civilized organizations, power is tied with roles and titles. We consider power as given to you in the form of a position like Manager or VP by a higher powerful entity like a President or Board. In this type of delegated power, people are placing their faith in the organization itself rather than the leader. To advance in a large bureaucracy like this, your reputation matters more than your actual merits. It makes sense to get into good graces of the higher-ups by manipulating people’s perception of you. However, I would say our civilized tendency to conflate leadership power with organizational positions is a problem. Being promoted and having a rank or title doesn’t make you a good leader..
True leadership comes from earning respect from the followers. Major Winters, featured in the incredible TV Mini-series Band of Brothers, talks about this form of leadership based on respect of followers:
The key to successful leadership is to earn respect — not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character. In the military, the president of the United States may nominate you as a commissioned officer, but he cannot command for you the loyalty and confidence of your soldiers. Those you must earn by giving loyalty to your soldiers and providing for their welfare. Properly led and retreated right, your lowest-ranking soldier is capable of extraordinary acts of valor. Ribbons, medals, and accolades, then, are poor substitutes to the ability to look yourself in the mirror every night and know that you did your best. You can see the look of respect in the eyes of the men who have worked for you.Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters
Many people think you get power and leadership by getting a rank, a position, a role. But, a rank (ideally) is only an external signal of the power. True power, true leadership stems from the followers giving away the power. In a company, employees may follow a manager because they value their paycheck more than good leadership. But, without the respect of the follower, the leader will never be as effective.
This respect is earned by being competent, by knowing your team, by making good decisions, by having good character. This high standard of character means remaining humble rather than beloved. We will explore further in future posts on how to become a great leader.
For now, it seems odd that the Dao De Jing however states a higher form of leadership is the leader who is merely known to exist but the followers assign power and achievements to themselves or nature. How is it that the beloved, respected leader is even an inferior form to this barely-known leader?
This barely known leader is the best form of leadership when it promotes leadership up and down the hierarchy. When the conditions are set up such that everyone can take a little self-leadership to do what’s right. Thereby, it seems that no leader was ever involved.
Even with beloved, respected leaders, there is the potential danger of the followers becoming reliant on the leader for everything. Rather than cultivating their self-leadership, they place their full trust and agency onto the leader. While this is good if the leader is virtuous and wise, this reliance on the leader falls short of an organization that can create more empowered leaders.
Thus, at the Monastic Academy, our intention is to create awakened leaders rather than awakened followers.
Now we have established this ideal form of leadership and the necessity of leaders to create more leaders. In future posts, we will cover what are the roadblocks to becoming a leader? I will break down more how do you gain the respect of a team? What are the qualities and sub-skills of Leadership? How do you train more leadership?
And what is the difference between forms of group power such as a manager versus a leader? How does MAPLE train leadership?