At age 30 he had a vision. It was time to leave home, to wander in the wilderness in search of answers to life’s greatest mystery. Why are we here? Is there a God? Why must life end? For many years he wandered trying different spiritual practices until one day he decided he had wandered enough, entering deeply into prayer he resolved to not move until this understanding came. He was tempted by an evil power with beauty, wealth and power but all three he ignored. Finally, he understood and rose from his place to teach and preach this everlasting wisdom to all who would hear.
Anyone want to take a guess as to who this prophet was? Some of you will say Jesus. A few of you, might say the Buddha. Either one would be correct. The parallels between these great leader’s lives are remarkable despite the fact that they are separated by 500 years of time and several thousand miles of distance.
Each left home in early middle age. While we know nothing of Jesus’ life before this time (and some speculate that he traveled to India where he learned Buddhist teachings) we do know that the Buddha, which means awakened one, was born a prince, married and had a young son. His father fearing the prophecy that his son would become a wandering saint, kept him sheltered in the palace, until one day when the Buddha witnessed suffering and death and left all he was to search for life’s meaning. We know that both Jesus and the Buddha wandered around their homeland preaching their newfound truth and gathered a following. While the Buddha lived for 40 years and established a lasting monastic community, Jesus, as this day reminds us, knew fatally that he must march into Jerusalem across the path of palms to face the authorities with his revolutionary message. A message for which he was killed. But even more remarkable than the somewhat parallel lives these two leaders is what they taught. Both taught a greater reality than the one we see. Both taught a radical message of acceptance and access to the divine. Both began, although not intentionally, reform movements in their native religions; for the Buddha transforming Hinduism and freeing his followers from the necessity of following a caste system and for Jesus proclaiming a new kingdom of God on earth, freeing his fellow Jews from the strict adherence to Jewish law. Each taught that the individual, through faith and good works, could actually transcend the misery of the world and rest in heavenly peace.
Each of these prophets were great leaders. Jesus for the short years of his ministry and the Buddha for more than 40 years preaching and teaching his dharma, his message of love and compassion. What was it that inspired both of these men to lead and, most importantly for others to follow? What makes any of us a leader? For those who have taken our leadership empowerment course “Harvest the Power” will know, leadership is a state of readiness, a willingness to stand courageously and a sense of ironically, humility. But those are more like traits. I want to focus today on what habits lead to effective leadership.
Some of you will remember Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. I won’t go into those today but I commend them to you. They have guided me faithfully for many years. Today I actually want to focus on the habits of effective leaders. The first habit is to be compassionate. Leadership entails change, loss and gain. The Buddha and Jesus approached their work with great compassion but had markedly different ways of showing compassion. Each has meaning for us either as leaders or as potential leaders.
On this Palm Sunday we remember the beginning of Jesus’ final journey. The story tells us that Jesus to deliver his radical message of love must travel to heart of his people, Jerusalem at Passover, the highest holy day of the year. Mounting a donkey (as was foretold in Isaiah, that the messiah would come upon a donkey) he rode into town to the hails of those disenfranchised who believed him to be the worldly messiah sent by God to free them from the Roman occupation. They laid palm leaves across the dusty road, a symbol of respect and royalty as Jesus rode past. Jesus stayed for five days in the city preparing for his final message. He had been preaching all week. On the night before he was to be captured by the Romans he broke bread and wine with his disciples urging them to keep his spirit and his message alive. Once in the center of the city at the foot of the great temple, he began to preach his word; repent, give up the law and love one another, the kingdom is all around you and waiting for your faith. This, of course, caused a reaction from the temple authorities and the near riot being watched closely by the Roman legions standing atop the temple walls was quashed instantly. Jesus was the story goes, brought before the Roman governor, Pilate, who condemned him to death as a rabble-rouser. Jesus was crucified and died. His body was laid in cave with a great stone placed over the entrance. On the third day when his women disciples who had been keeping watched had the stone rolled away, Jesus was gone.
Jesus was and always has been a tragic leader. In part because of his lineage as Jew, often a tragic people and in part because of the Greek world in which his story was told, Jesus, we are led to believe must die. He came, say later Christians, to redeem us of our failings and raise us up to everlasting life. He came and he saw from his perspective that life is suffering and that humanity is burdened with shortcomings and mortality. He came and died so that we might be freed from this. At one point in the gospels, Mary Magdalene’s (herself a tragic figure) brother in law, Lazarus had died because Jesus the healer had not arrived in time. Seeing the dead body, and the sorrow of Martha and Mary we are given the shortest verse in the entire bible, John 11:35 “Jesus Wept”. Perhaps no verse brings the character and approach of Jesus to leadership so poignantly home. Jesus wept. Jesus wept when he saw that life ends in death. Jesus wept when he saw that loss and change brings sorrow. Jesus wept when he saw that in his being late – in his failure – there was sorrow. Despite the fact that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, Jesus wept to know that this world does not last and that only a faith in a greater world can save us from this essential sorrow of living. Every leader needs to feel in order to lead. Gone for me is the style of leadership that is stoic and removed from feeling. President Obama had this habit; after the mass shooting of parishioners in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, the president delivered the eulogy for the minister of the church the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. It was one of the most meaningful eulogies ever delivered on the nature of love, and hate and race. Watch the president, he doesn’t cry openly but you can hear his tears in his voice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfOys6kTRss
This is my first habit of leaders: Feel for your people.
There are times, to be sure, that we, like Jesus must weep. Perhaps more now than ever in these challenging economic times. Grief is a real human emotion. And living through grief helps us to not only heal but to grow more human, stronger in fact for the crying. There is no escaping the fact that at times we need to cry. Or to get angry as we often do when life changes around us. There are times when life hurts so much we must cry and shout. My own experience has taught me that tears can be very good whether they come from losing someone close to us or losing something familiar to us whether it is a relationship, a job or even when our church changes and we no longer recognize it as what it once was.
You feel, you heal. Jesus, this Palm Sunday reminds us to cry when we need to. Cry and be healed. But crying is not the only response to change and sorrow.
The Buddha taught something different from his understanding of Leadership. Like Jesus, he saw the world as painful and temporary. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism tells us that all life is dukkha, which loosely translated means suffering or attachment. This is not as gloomy as it sounds. The Buddha awakened we he realized that what causes us pain is the very fact that we are alive. The Buddha understood that when you expect an outcome to happen, and it doesn’t you are disappointed. When you want something and you don’t get it you are disappointed. Even if you do get it, you aren’t satisfied long. The grass is always greener on the other side, until you get to the other side and realize that the grass needs cutting. Being alive creates in us expectations of outcomes and the failure or even the temporal nature of those outcomes is what causes us sorrow. We buy a nice new car, we feel great until one day, pow! We run into someone. All our images of that new car are crushed, maybe our bodies are as well, in short we suffer. Or even just with the passing of time, the car gets dirty, it starts to need work, we have French fries stuck in the gear box, suffering. This is not to say we don’t have moments of joy and happiness, but what happens when you start to become conscious of that happiness? You lament the end that is coming. You wonder when something bad will happen. You can’t even enjoy the happiness dam it! And it’s gone.
Life is attachment and sorrow precisely because life is impermanent. Such is the wheel of rebirth. Like Jesus, the Buddha would look down upon the dead body of Lazarus and see that life is impermanent. And it results for the survivors in sadness. But unlike Jesus, the Buddha discovered another way to feel and lead. You die, so what? Did you want to live? Really? What if, the Buddha taught, you could finally be released into nothingness; no pain, no sorrow, no being. Like a wave receding into the ocean. The goal of life that the Buddha taught was to reach Nirvana, the blowing out of self, receding into all that ever was. Would you be able to accept that this is not the end of the world? That in fact, there really isn’t any end of the world at all? That you are really no different to the one that is gone and that all you love, this place, our lives will all pass away eventually? And if you could see it that way, why be so sad? It can be, and it has been for many tremendously freeing. If the one I loved is no longer here it does not mean that I will live for eternity without them, soon I too will join that state of nothingness and be free of all this hurt. It makes it almost funny. And this is why the Buddha, unlike Jesus, would laugh. Not to mock our pain but to transcend our pain. Humor is my second habit of highly effective leaders. This moment, the Buddha taught, is the only real moment. This is why it so very healing to invite humor into a memorial service. This is why the Buddhists invented the laughing meditation. This is why the Buddhists despite their belief that all life is suffering are generally such happy people. There is a cartoon which reads in the first box: a haggard bearded man walking down the sidewalk with a placard that read, “repent, Jesus is coming” followed in the second box by a little fat Buddhist monk with a placard that read “be happy, Buddha already here”.
They are two sides of the same coin: each necessary to help us deal with the transient nature of life. Everything changes and when it does we may indeed be sad. We perhaps need to feel that sadness. But there is more to our emotional and spiritual repertoire than tears. Laughter too can heal. Two habits of highly effective leaders: feeling the sorrow and laughing at the life.
Beyond that there are five other habits that many leaders have adopted effectively over time. My third habit is from Covey’s work “Go for win/win” In other words, leading whether it is with family, work or friends, is not a zero sum strategy. You can’t win friends and lovers with “More for me, means less for you”, even beyond compromise, solutions that are good for everybody leads. I was recently approached by our preschool downstairs with concerns about safety and whether our BLM sign was dangerous. Should we take it down? I discussed this with the board, our staff and the leadership in the school and instead of digging in and saying we aren’t going to take down the sign, I listened, and shared their worries about their children. I said, “before we go that far let’s look at other alternatives.” We discussed better communication, holding a safety training for both church and school, a guard, video surveillance. And as the days passed we realized that the sign wasn’t the issue, fear was. And we came up with better solutions. That is leadership. It’s built on trust, openness and empathy.
Closely related to this is Covey’s “seek first to understand then be understood”. I see this as the fourth Habit of Effective Leaders. How many of you have started to listen to an opposing viewpoint and instead of listening we are preparing our rejoinder? Can you hear me on this? I know I have. But if we can quiet the monkey mind and listen, reflect back on what they are saying, and ask “tell me more”, we will find ourselves leading through the discomfort. So when someone says “I need a gun to protect my family”, you say “it sounds like you are worried about their safety, tell me more.” The more we can listen, the better we can lead. Listen and be curious. The answer is almost always in the synergy between us not with any of us alone.
My fifth habit is empower others. In his fabulous book “Leaders Eat Last” Simon Sinek wrote:
“Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.”
And people are only willing to follow if they sense you put them before you. Can you hear me? What happens when as a leader you put others before yourself? What happens when you give the power away? What happens when you live by the maxim of Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” (from the Tao Te Ching)? I used to believe I had to be recognized for all I did. A little selfish, a little needy, a little greedy really. Then I started asking others to lead. Gave them credit, applauded their efforts. This is the habit of humility and comes with a willingness to say I am sorry. Nothing disarms like a heartfelt apology. And guess what? When you empower others, then the work you are doing outlasts you.
Finally, my sixth habit is that a leader leads with a vision and a voice that transcends the tumult and the worry of the organization, the family, the country. My vision for us hasn’t changed since I came to you three years ago: To create a community of transformation, transforming fear into love, liberating those of us enslaved by fear, poverty, worry and class into agents of change for our families, our communities and our world. Leading with a vision and voice saves us from lives of struggle and mediocrity, the vision may change but leaders lead best when the vision is voiced over and over again. When change is embraced and live becomes new, in other words when Easter happens to us again and again.
As President Obama eulogized:
“…it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.”
Perhaps this is what the Buddha and Jesus had in mind all long, whether preaching compassion across northern India, or riding a lone donkey to his fate through the dusty streets of Jerusalem, perhaps speaking truth to power, with a vision of liberation is the most effective happen of all for any of us, all of us, who are both called to lead and follow to a new day. Amen.