Mohan Khatiwada, PhD

Leadership in Management: A Dialectical Concept of Buddhism

Research Details

AuthorMohan Khatiwada, PhD
Research TypePh.D Thesis
KeywordsOrientation, Crisis, and conflict, Endowed, Authoritarian, Bureaucratic.


There is a tradition of interpreting Buddhism with the lenses of modern philosophies. In this process, Buddhism has been presented so diversely that sometimes their positioning are confusing and ambivalent- e.g. ‘ethical idealism’, ‘atheism’, ’empiricism’, etc. This paper, as an attempt to resolve the contradictory positions, engages conceptual analysis of ontology and axiology and come to portray as ‘ethical pragmatism’. The article at first describes the cardinal principles of pragmatism: multiple truths, verification of truths, changeability of truth; and then presents how these principles are embedded in the teaching of Buddha. It also claims that Buddha’s efforts on developing a new doctrine, constituting a Sangha, practicing sainthood, and defending against rival doctrines and organizations were just strategies of social reform via cultivating ethics rather than the objectives in themselves. As textual source, the original nikayas translated in English by PTS and the interfaces of the Eastern and Western scholars have been used as far as possible.


Leadership, a quality to drive people towards common goals, applies differently in management. Very often, managerial leadership has been the focal point in academic discourse in general and has got a decent place in functional division of organization in particular. Modern management literatures focus on the essence of leadership in management whatsoever it is called just as manager or executive officer. But the crucial aspect is the effectiveness of the leadership on the behavioral change in the followers, yet it draws little concern in the mercurial situation to be faced ahead.  That is, modern management theory delves into the scope of leadership in organizational goals getting it confined within the functional achievement. In other words, management has delimited the concept of leadership for organizational benefit at the cost of society, some prefer saying at the service of society, just merely accenting social responsibility in pretext. Unless and otherwise the managerial leadership is not driven towards greater humanity, it becomes starkly a source of contentions and sows the seed of conflict.

In this respect, managerial leadership is just a problem-solving measure having contextual importance but it lacks mindfulness to serve maximum betterment of humanity. The reason is crystal clear since the beginning of its concept in the late fifties as it has been made situational that is why it is ever changing. By contrast, Buddhist approach to leadership, the basics the modern management theory has adapted, is a product of 500 BC society. Buddhism asserts that leadership is for humanity and for all sentient beings. Thus, leadership in Buddhism deserves the quality of universal application and the managerial leadership, under the given condition, is target-hyped that emphasizes on the multiplication of desires   (never being satiated), the pathway to suffering.

Managerial leadership challenges of 21st century, thus, need to be addressed through the endowment of the Buddhist perspectives so that what the management faces as its shortcomings can be overcome for accelerating the organizational performance. Basically the leadership orientation goes forward to achieve goals while managerial efficacy is task oriented. Combination of both the goal and the task orientations results in the tangible outcome. More succinctly, managerial leadership and Buddhist leadership differ in terms of value and virtue. That is why, Buddhist virtue in leadership develops immunity to fight against any unfavourable and vicious trends in organization.

Managers, Leaders, Leadership

Management is a process that is used to accomplish organizational goals; it is a process that is used to achieve what an organization wants to achieve. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish managers and leaders. If managers play the role of a leader, they do things differently. ‘Managers are the people to whom this management task is assigned, and it is generally thought that they achieve the desired goals through the key functions of planning and budgeting, organizing and staffing, problem solving and controlling. Leaders on the other hand set a direction, align people, motivate and inspire. (Kotter, 2001, 17-21). However, but to this connotation, what is more important is the goal for the satisfaction of a particular section of the people but not the people in society at large. Manager itself is confined within the definite areas of activities and a leader shoulders the responsibility to look forward with the potential opportunities to benefit all.

Leadership is a quality endowed with human characters that not all deserve it. This is the most common statement that everyone perceives. Yet it bears the non-human characters in the form of principle and policy that has directed the society till now. Religions, traditions and beliefs are so ferociously rooted in the human lives that affects in one or other forms. Nonetheless, the intrinsic value of leadership, as it is perceived today, is to assist people to gain happiness (satisfaction) through productivity (efficient action). Mahayana Buddhism suggests leadership to be endowed with ten perfections (Paramitas) regarded as virtues namely, Generosity (Dana), Norality (Sila), Patience (Kshanti), Energy/Vitality (Virya), Concentration/Meditation (Dhyana), Wisdom (Prajna), Skillful (Upaya), Aspiration (Pranidhana), Spiritual Strength (Bala) and Knowledge (Jnana). However, the old text contains only the six perfections: giving, morality, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom (Simon and Klandermans,2001, 319-30). These were the qualities developed in Buddhism even before the concept of leadership was conceived in management. In pursuit of leadership characters, the modern management accredits to enthusiasm, values and integrity, exemplary role, trust on followers, organizational representation, aware of individual needs etc. as the requisites of effective leadership (Thomas, 2004, 144). That is, emphasis has been laid more precisely on the behavioural pattern of a leader. However, the modern management seems to have remained in the state of oblivion regarding energizing factor that makes leadership effective.

Over the decades, leadership in management has been getting consideration as the power driven force set up for the accomplishment of goals. Sometimes, organizational leadership and managerial leadership may be comprehended as independent variables, easily separable. However, the literature of management does not agree on the disputes. Irrespective of the nature and size of organization, this sort of categorization lies just on the structural hierarchy with the set of goals. That is why Mark Gerzon rightly remarks that “everyone is a leader”.

Effective Leadership

The construct of effective leadership is primarily blended with both task-goal and output-satisfaction matrix. It is to influence the workforce or the followers to get them involved willingly for the accomplishment of such goals. Effectiveness, here, implies the leadership caliber that stimulates the human resource to accomplish the desired goals at minimum time, labour, cost and wastes. But the magnitude of accomplishment is first measured by the degree of positive change in behaviour of the workforce and the followers (Khatiwada,2016, 2). It is because the change in behavior will have relative impact on the goals and the volume of output.  Buddhism with regard to effective leadership maintains beliefs that nothing is permanent and recognizes that change is constant in the environment. Effective leadership requires adapting to its change while remaining steadfast in the principles. The leadership is required to maintain values and self-management by developing abilities. The Buddha cited example of a solid rock that is indifferent to the wind and rain, so the wise are indifferent to criticism and praise. Thus, the Buddhist leadership is invincible that is not easily swayed by the challenges and social pressure. Buddhism itself bears the qualities of leadership and hence, bears the responsibility to govern the corporate business with its values and virtues. The Buddha was an incomparable trainer and teacher of humans (Diggha Nikaya, 2006, 204).  So Buddhism in today’s world would be the governance model in corporate business.

Further, effective leadership does not refer to as charismatic leadership that more often relies upon the personification of an individual. Rather, it possesses the potentiality of influencing the subordinates or the followers for common cause. In Buddhism, Critical analysis of past, developing vision of the future, destruction of defilements and comprehending the things as they are, are the vehicles to the effective leadership for the attainment of goals as enlightenment in Buddhism. Leadership is like a raft in water. It does not eliminate the problems but suggests the measures to overcome them. The fellow beings would have the options to follow. It is an energizer (motivator) not energy in itself. Buddhism maintains leadership as a simile of a raft to reach the shore across the river, which is safe and free from danger (Bodhi, 2000, 1237). Thus, leadership is not a savior but a pathfinder. It replaces control with compassion and is endowed with knowledge and wisdom eliminating ignorance.

Leadership Paradigm

Management literatures seem to be mere rhetoric as regards the style of leadership making it situational. That is why the management theorists have recommended leadership on the basis of functional categorization such as contingency leadership, behavioral leadership, transactional leadership, transformational leadership etc. These are the existent of circumstances as management defines it.

Buddhism deals with leadership and states its growth model.  The Sangha structure in monastic order, for instance, is sufficient to understand the real-time practices of leadership in classic Buddhism, especially early practices of Buddhism in Indian subcontinent. Buddhism has proposed, as it is conceived through Buddhist literatures, two categories of leadership models tantamount to leadership styles in management:

Conventional Leadership

Conventional leadership is situational in nature. Largely the style of leadership differs on the basis of organizational objectives and scopes. Although the leadership models seem to be distinct and are deemed to be applicable differently, these are simultaneously adaptable or with the interval of time in the same organization or beyond separately. It is to jeopardize the categorical views on leadership giving undue importance to the specific one ignoring the benefits of others in different situations.

Critics may argue that conventional leadership has lost its significance due to worsening performances caused by instability and intensity of existential threats. However, its relevance in different situations becomes always imperative because human needs are now multiplying tremendously than before. Consequently, leadership gets into trouble focusing more on need-based priority of the subordinates or followers and less in organizational advancement. That is, why, the conventional model of leadership is more or less influenced by the need-pyramid that is relatively accredited to Maslow’s need hierarchy.

Executive (Monastic, Authoritarian, Bureaucratic) Leadership

The monastic management in early India was a clear manifestation of managerial leadership. The responsibilities were divided among all the member monks in the Sangha. The Mahayana scripture in Ratnarasi Sutra narrates about how the job responsibilities are divided among the monks on the basis of their status and superiority in the Sangha. Even the eligibility and responsibility of an administrative monk (Vaiyaprtyakara Bhikshu) were fixed whereby the monk endowed with the knowledge of the Buddha teachings, the Dharma and the Vinaya, was to look after the wellbeing of monastic community. Regarding the eligibility, the Adhyasayasamchodana Sutra recounts the Tathagata’s announcement to Maitreya that those who have no yoga, no meditative concentration, no strong effort, no study, no quest for learning are not bodhisattvas ordained in his instructions. In Buddhist tradition, the woman follower can also assist the community in various ways. The Aadanasataka, the nun Supriya, a daughter of the wealthy patron Anathapindaka is asked by the Buddha during a time of famine to provide for all of the necessities of the fourfold monastic community for three months. In some other text, mainly the Vinaya Uttaragrantha, the Vaiyaprtyakara Bhikshu has been portrayed as treasurer i.e., the financial manager, who is entitled the authority to hold and manage cash or borrowings for the community. At different times complying with the situational requirements, the responsibility may be assigned either to the lay followers whether be the Upasakas or Upasikas, or the monks or the Arahants. It seems that there was a complete organizational structure by which the authority and responsibility were assigned to the monks, nuns and the followers. The Manobhumi of the Yogacharabhumi contains a list of sixty-four types of managerial positions to furnish a complete structure of organization. These are for example, monk, nun, nun probationer, novice, female novice, layman, laywoman, meditator, reciter, administrator, visiting monk, manager etc., (Silk, 2008, 27-49). If it is thought to be conventional, what about the modern management system that adopts similar managerial practices in organizations?

It is simply the managerial euphoria that boasts of its newly coined bureaucratic or authoritarian leadership as if nothing had happed before as regards the leadership style. Buddhist texts are the testimony that such a type of leadership was in practice even during the Buddha’s period. According to Buddhist scriptures, there were eighty foremost and great disciples (Anguttara Nikaya,2002, 14) of the Buddha who had all attained arahantaship and they had distinguished knowledge of mundane, supra mundane and celestial events.

Monastic leadership already exemplified how the Sangha policy was implemented literally through monastic managers, the monks. Adherence to the Dharma and the Vinaya was mandatory. Besides the monks were responsible for the assigned duty to look after the senior monks and monastic properties. Executive leadership outweighs the subordinates because of power dominance and naivety of the followers. That is, if the role of leadership demands for advance and specific knowledge to handle the situation or programs or job centres, this style of leadership is most favoured. At this backdrop, the leadership is allegedly turned out to be authoritarian or autocratic. Yet it does not hold true all the time. In Buddhist tradition, the Vinaya rules, for example, are the unavoidable disciplinary codes, no single monk is allowed to be deviated from them, and the monk-managers are responsible to lay down the rules for all.

Democratic or Participatory Leadership

Participative leadership, also known as democratic leadership, is generally the most effective leadership style. Democratic leaders offer guidance to group members, but they also participate in the group and allow input from other group members. It demonstrates the exemplary roles and gets engaged with the group. By means of two-way communication with the subordinates or the followers, leadership allows the members to achieve the goals collectively. Thus, this form of leadership style is often termed as effective or productive leadership. Regarding democratic leadership, Lewin’s narrative is deemed impressive:

Democracy cannot be imposed on a person; it has to be learned by a process of voluntary and responsible participation. Changing from autocracy to democracy is a process, which takes more time than changing in the opposite direction. The learning of democracy in the case of a change from another pattern contains, therefore, a kind of paradox, which is similar to the problem of leadership in democracy. The democratic leader does not impose his goals on the group as does the autocratic leader: the policy determination in democracy is done by the group as a whole. Still the democratic leader should “lead”. (Lewin,2010, 833).

Leadership by the term is not merely confined within the managerial domain but immensely dominates the political, social, economic sectors, among others. Buddhism has envisaged participatory approach to leadership, in principle. The Buddha once instructed to the Kalamas of the six qualities of a democratic leadership (Anguttara Nikaya,2002, 15):

The Assurance of Free Inquiry

Salvation without a Saviour

The Freedom of Expression

The Autonomy of Moral Judgement

The Right to Dissent

Free will and Responsibility


What the participatory leadership in Buddhism states is the freedom that the followers enjoy making decisions together with their leader. Yet the leader retains power of his conscience for final decisions. This is not to ignore the majority but to recognize their contribution to decision-making process. Leadership in organization and beyond is considered essential where employees or subordinates are equally capable of doing jobs independently. In addition, their expertise is thought to be essential for the accomplishment of planned goals.

The Buddha himself had made decision to ordain the womenfolk in consultation with the ascetic Anand and his associates. Abeysekera puts instances of the Buddha’s collective decision thus, “At the time of the Buddha’s visit to Kapilavatthu to dispense the Dharamapala Jataka to the King Suddhodhana, Prajapati Gotami, the foster mother of the Buddha, they first attained the sainthood,”. “With repetitive request of Mahaprajapati Gautami, and Ananada the foremost ascetic, the Buddha accepted, though hesitant in the beginning, to ordain womenfolk en mass”. Hence the Buddhist philosophy is said to be the science of giving birth to the conceptualization of leadership in management and the outside world.

Laissez-faire (Free-rein) Leadership

Buddhism underscores the importance of freedom among individuals. It does not coerce the followers to accept anything blindfolded. Ultimately the decisive forces are the followers only. The Dharma and the Vinaya are the sources of securing ultimate truth of Nirvana. Attaining Buddhahood is the gateway to the Nirvana.  This is the supreme teaching of Buddhism. Thus is the doctrine of Buddhism that establishes leadership for the continuation of the Dharma. Once the Buddha said:

Come, Kālāmas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, “The ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should engage in them.(Anguttara Nikaya 2002.65)

Leadership endowed with Buddhist virtues never compels anyone to adopt his thoughts unless these are judged harmless, blameless and wholesome. Further, it must be both promising and convincing for the followers that what is being taught and learned is leading towards the righteous happiness, above the material wellbeing. This practice of leadership helps lessen the desires by optimizing satisfaction of followers. This implies that Buddhist laissez fair leadership was in practice during the Buddha’s period.

Also termed as ‘hands off’ style, the leadership does not intervene in what the subordinates have decided and executed for the ­­­­­organizational achievements (Khan,2015, 88-89).  Subordinates are responsible for all policies and programs and leadership undertakes the responsibility of a watchdog.

All these developments with regard to leadership is attributed to Buddhism that initiated the practice of leadership in various instances during 500 BC society. In addition to this, managerial leadership has insisted on the leadership characters, somehow pertaining to the Buddhist Sila (virtue) but overlooked arrogantly the other phenomenal adaptation of concentration and wisdom, the essential and integral phenomena of Noble Eightfold Path. Yet it is not to comprehend that leadership is a pivot and everything goes around it. Rather it is both the art and science of influencing or inspiring the fellow beings towards the shared goals. In such a condition, leadership possesses both inductive and deductive approaches to analysis and synthesis of opportunities and threats on the basis of organizational strengths and weaknesses. Thus so far the management has made leadership a distinct academic discourse though assigning empirical value to each of the categories as transformational, transitional, behavioral leadership, benevolent leadership, etc.

Dialectical Leadership

With the society and institution advancing towards uncertainty due to crowded information system and ever expanded human knowledge, the growing discontents amidst the human interests have made the leadership interface more compatible to the conflict resolution approach rather than goals attainable concepts. In such a condition, dialectical leadership approach is considered inevitable for organizational existence. It deals with the vast range of conflicting nature of human behavior towards end goals.

The term ‘dialectic’ according to Hegelianism, reflects the state of contradictions generated through ideas or thoughts that develops thesis or statement which later comes to the contradictions or negations of the thesis and finally results in the synthesis, a statement through which the differences between the two points are resolved (Wikipedia, 9th May 2019). This concept assumes that conflict arises due to insatiable goals or interests among the group of people. That is why, the institutions too are no longer in existence without conflicts. Therefore, a dialectical leadership is developed through conflicts that builds up relationship between events and outcomes i.e. cause and consequences in Buddhism, as described in pațiccasamuppāda  sutta. Jayaramana argues that “This dialectical account of the objective world, asserts that it is the nature of the world that determines how we come to know it, and that the nature of thought arises from the nature of the objective world” (Jayaraman 2013,14). Dialectical leadership is a doctrinal account of Buddhism. The modern management system is yet to harness the utility of this doctrine to suite leadership style in the advancing organization.

“Dependent on consciousness arises mentality and materiality (Vinnāṇapaccayā nāma-rūpaṃ)” is an understanding of the objective world through mental (thought) consciousness. Thought is created from object as the effects from events (cause). For instance, existence of ‘B’ depends on ‘A’. Here, ‘A’ is the cause and ‘B’ is the consequence. Any resultant factor appears because of events. A dialectic leadership grasp knowledge (wisdom) establishing relationship between inner and outer world exactly the same as meditation in Buddhism. Dialectic concept even in organizational leadership helps ease discomforts the followers/subordinates are facing with through gaining insight into the present and foreseeable as well as uncertain events, which are likely to take place.

The Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada) is one of the most vital concepts of Buddhism. It may be stated as one of the most subtle teachings of Buddha. It is a mode marked by Paticcasamuppada (pratitya-samutpada in Sanskrit) simple condition of happening of a phenomenon its various connotations on the basis of its sole invariable antecedent phenomenon. Generally speaking, the meaning of Paticcasamuppada is ‘arising on the grounds of a preceding cause’. It is the causal chain of causation.

In the condition of labyrinth of interconnected variables and conflicts of interest of many stakeholders in organization, mostly obsessed by the desires and defilements such as hatred and greed, it is only the dialectical leadership that ushers the organization into the new height of conflict mitigation which ultimately rewards all the followers /subordinates equitably. Today’s conflict ridden entities are bearing the brunt of constant and radical interference of society. Without being innovative in thought making process arisen from the reality of objects, the organizational existence can never be marked outstanding. Hence, achievements that depends on multiple events (objects) in an organization can only be ensured by the dialectical approach to leadership due to strategic shift from goal/output to conflict orientation. A dichotomy of cause and effect persists even in the life of an organization. Having been aware of the gravity of the doctrine, the present crises can be overcome. Moreover, the crises emerge from the objective world, not from any other invisible forces, which can be tamed through the human endeavors. Buddhist doctrine of dialectic solution is only the way out to the organizational success. Therefore, a dialectical leadership endowed with the Noble eightfold path (right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right efforts, right mindfulness and right concentration) can persuade willingly the subordinates to the right path of success i.e., the happiness.

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