Ethical leadership in the eyes of an English monk

Ethical leadership in the eyes of an English monk

Ethics is one of the most talked-about subjects these days. I also consider ethics a priority for our society, especially in business circles. My belief was reinforced recently when I heard an inspiring talk by one of the world's great speakers, Ajarn Brahm.

The abbot of the Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Western Australia, Ajarn Brahm is a British-born Buddhist monk and Cambridge University graduate in theoretical physics. He speaks regularly at Buddhist forums, but he is also in demand as a speaker at events in fields including human resources, information technology and logistics. He has spoken to audiences at Google and Facebook, and last October he addressed the World Computer Congress.

In the speech I heard recently, Ajarn Brahm began with a reference to ethics, recalling a talk he attended 10 years ago in Auckland. A British economics professor gave a talk on "Buddhist ethics in business", in which "transaction cost" was a core idea. He used the illustration of a company that does not deliver an item to a customer as promised, which results in a "transaction cost" at the other end.

The message was that if everyone in the supply chain performs as agreed, the transaction cost will be low. As well, the practice of ethics and integrity will lead to trust among all parties. This will enhance profit for everyone along the value chain.

Three types of ring: Ajarn Brahm's storytelling expertise is second to none, especially his use of simple metaphors. One story that he likes to tell his audiences begins this way: "Do you know there are always three rings of marriage?" He then provides the answer -- engagement ring, wedding ring and ... suffering.

He continues the marriage story by sharing what he once told a bride and a groom. Since both of them expected a blessing from a Buddhist monk, he told the bride that from this moment on she was not a single woman. She was a married woman, and so she should not think about herself. He then told the same thing to the groom. Both of them wondered what he really meant. Ajarn Brahm then said to them, "You both have to think about 'us'. Because of 'us', you will work on a number of things and build a family together. Thinking about 'us' requires a lot of respect, and for each party to listen to the other more and more."

Thinking this way, he concluded, is the best way to avoid the third ring -- suffering.

He told another story about a man who caught fish every day and said he was practising the five Buddhist precepts (do not kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, make false speech or take intoxicants). The man said, "I don't kill the fish. I only take it out of the water and let it die by itself." This demonstrates the excuses people make when they do not really believe or practise as they say they do. In fact, it should be the practice not to harm other beings including ourselves.

The same challenges exist in business. People are in it together. That is why it is called a company. It is about us, which makes ethics easier to understand. Ethical conduct in business is about not harming creditors, customers, society, the natural environment and people who depend on the company. Thinking and behaving this way can help one clearly understand what is meant by "us".

Seeing is believing: Ajarn Brahm tells another story about a longtime friend from his university days at Cambridge. A student of the great Stephen Hawking, today he is a physics professor. He told Ajarn Brahm about an experiment he conducted at Imperial College in London, where he placed a flower pot in front of leading scientists in a lecture theatre. With his skilful persuasion, he asked his audience to support him by chanting "Om" -- the traditional Hindu chant. The flower pot appeared to levitate. After the experiment, he asked the audience members what they thought. A number of scientists did not believe what they had seen.

As it turned out, the flower pot did rise, and the scientists were given an explanation they could understand. The resonance of their chanting caused a reaction in a powerful magnet hidden beneath the table, which stirred the pot. Ajarn Brahm's friend made sure to provide video evidence for any remaining sceptics.

What does this have to do with ethical leadership? Put it this way: If people do not see something for themselves, they will not believe it. If people do not see the value of practising ethical conduct, they will not accept and pursue it.

Since leadership is mainly about inspiring and motivating people, it is the job of the CEO and top executives to ensure that people in the company can see the benefit of ethical leadership and work together on this path. Therefore, they themselves must lead by example, and behaving ethically must be something they already want to do themselves.

Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is the Principal and Executive Coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership (SEAL) and lectures at Mahidol University's College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at

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