Sander Tideman: how Buddhist thinking can bring new balance to business

The leadership guru and practising Buddhist talks to Oliver Balch about empowered leadership and translating mindful thinking into business practice

Nepal, Kathmandu, Buddhist masks

Business leaders don’t do ‘spiritual’ but Buddhist thinking can help find new balance in business practice. Photograph: John Warburton-Lee Photography/Alamy

Business leaders, as a rule, don’t do ‘spiritual’. Getting in touch with your inner-self is all well and good, just not in the boardroom. In the sacred c-suite, it’s facts and figures that count, not feelings.

But they couldn’t be more wrong, argues Dutch leadership guru and practising Buddhist, Sander Tideman. A former banker and lawyer, he believes modern capitalism is askew. «Matter and money» rule the roost, he says, while «more intangible phenomena» don’t get a look in.

«Basically, we’ve taken one aspect of reality – that is, the material worldview – to the extreme … Yet there is another part of reality that we’ve excluded from our measurement and management models, which is the mind,» he explains.

For Tideman, author, managing director of the Global Leaders Academyand assistant professor of sustainable governance and leadership atNyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, it’s this lack of balance that explains why global capitalism is out of touch. The evidence of this misalignment is there in widespread wealth disparities and socio-economic injustices: «We have this incredible machine called global capitalism that was supposed to create wealth for everybody. It has delivered that for some, but [it’s delivered] a lot of suffering for others as well.»

The same distorted dynamic plays out at an individual level too, Tideman says. Millions of workers face stress, burn-out and depression, rather than the happiness that material success was supposed to deliver. Conventional MBA-style education compounds the problem, he maintains. «The training being offered to young leaders isn’t really giving people the tools and skills to develop happiness within a business context.»

Changing your mindset

Buddhism speaks clearly of the need for a new balance, Tideman insists. What’s required is a fundamental shift of perception, moving from a worldview based on «partial reality» to one that encompasses «full reality». That process begins with the individual, in what Buddhists call mindfulness and what Tideman also refers to as «consciousness».

«The mind is more than just a rationale, analytical, cognitive function,» he argues. «It also has an emotional, physical and spiritual part and that uses intuition, feeling, sensing, thinking to perceive … This part is driven by the needs like happiness, relatedness and achieve wellbeing.

Tapping into the full aspects of the mind and achieving such consciousness is, in conventional Buddhist teaching, the door to an individual’s genuine happiness. Fair enough, but what has this to do with business? An awful lot, argues Tideman. People perform better when they are happy. They co-operate more. They are more creative. The net result is better performing businesses.

With individual consciousness come larger societal impacts too, continues Tideman. Individuals, businesses, the world at large: they are all interdependent and interrelated. Developing the mind helps individuals to see reality objectively and to then connect with others to transform it for the better. «Once you have a changed mindset, you’ll change your awareness, which will lead to new attitudes and new behaviour, which will impact your colleagues, others around you and ultimately the world,» he explains.

Therein lies the «flow» that leads to macro-change, he says. So first there’s consciousness, which leads to connectedness, which links to continuity and gives rise to collectiveness that ultimately generates creativity. The end result? «The development of new strategies and solutions that have a sustainable and meaningful performance and impact.»

To become effective, Tideman adds, these subsequent conclusions must be grounded in practice. So it’s no good leaving it to academics – interesting though these ideas may be. «They need to be translated into leadership models and practices so that leaders can actually access them and implement them in organisation,» he says. «That’s where the real leverage point is for sustainable transformation, with business leaders.»

Empowered Leadership

It’s no coincidence that all the links in the above chain begin with C. Like all leadership gurus worth their salt, Tideman has developed a six-point framework that he’s christened the empowered leadership model.

Alongside the «six Cs» of mindful leadership run six related abilities: stability, clarity, empathy, openness, wisdom and perseverance. These, in turn, facilitate six leadership competencies: recognising interdependency, long-term horizons, developing consciousness, serving needs of all stakeholders, sustainable solutions and creating shared value.

The good news is that the ‘empowered’ mind and its related attributes are open to all. «You don’t have to go to the Himalayas or sit in an ashram to achieve these,» Tideman states. «It has nothing to do with religion per se. It’s a doorway that’s open to every human being.» That said, «certain mindful practices», such as meditation, definitely help in initially training the mind.

Nor is the business world starting from scratch. Companies now have access to considerable research and internal understanding about what sustainable processes look like and involve. Plus they boast a growing expertise in culture change and personal development. «The thing is [that] these two things are rarely connected,» Tideman notes. Why not? He returns to his original point: «Because full consciousness isn’t something that our business worldview yet acknowledges.»

Tideman repeatedly returns to the importance of a shift in mindset for one simple reason: it’s the mind, and modes of thinking, that frame the world we live in. «And this world we’ve created is not sustainable, which basically explains why we need to review the way we think,» he argues.

Just as business leaders don’t (yet) do spiritual, Buddhists like Tideman don’t do pessimism. He takes heart from the shift in viewpoints that happen among employees in companies that champion sustainability. «For example, it makes a real difference if you go to your office in the morning thinking, ‘wow, I’m helping provide hygiene for kids in India’, to arriving at your office and thinking ‘I sell soap.'» Get millions to see their world that way and systemic change cannot but follow, he says.

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 Date / Fecha: 19/02/13

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