Last week marked the 100-year anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Mandela is celebrated around the world for his leadership style. And at the heart of his leadership, arguably more than any other leader, is the triumph of love over hate and fear.
In the West, love is a poorly understood concept and oftentimes limited to the bounds of familial or romantic relationships. Few leaders in the West openly embrace it as a foundational tenet for their leadership style (Martin Luther King being a rare exception that comes to mind). And yet, the leaders who have embraced it, have enjoyed lasting success.
But what is love, really? A good, but unexpected, place to start is with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Thich Nhat Hanh has dedicated his life to recombining the teachings from Buddhism, Zen and modern-day meditation techniques to form a practical view of what it means to live life from a place of love. According to him, love should feature prominently in our everyday lives.
Thich Nhat Hanh elaborated on what that means in a short but insightful manual, How To Love (Parallax Press, 2015). He opens the book with a provocative statement, “When our hearts are small…..we can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand….We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.” Does love really have the power he claims it to have?
According to him it does, “True love has the power to heal and transform any situation and bring deep meaning to our lives.” To understand this on a practical level, he dives into the four components of true love: loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
Loving-kindness is the first of the four elements for good reason. It is so easy to put into action, but so few of us do. In Western democracies, we are specially wired to focus on what we can get out of interactions than what we can give.
“The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person,” he writes.
Technology has hijacked our ability to practice compassion. While many argue technology has enabled us to be more connected, it has also made us forget about what’s happening right in front of us beyond the bounds of technology. Compassion doesn’t start on Twitter or Instagram, but right here, at home. Many people think they practice compassion by sending out a few tweets in support of civil causes while ignoring to practice it in their own homes with their friends, families, and coworkers.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, compassion is feeling the suffering of others as if it’s your own. “Compassion is the capacity to understand the suffering in oneself and in the other person. If you understand your own suffering, you can help him to understand his suffering. Understanding suffering brings compassion and relief. You can transform your own suffering and help transform the suffering of the other person with the practice of mindfulness and looking deeply.”
Happiness is often defined as a modern-day gimmick. Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “The notions and ideas we have about happiness can entrap us. We forget that they are just notions and ideas. Our idea of happiness may be the very thing that prevents us from being happy. When we’re caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form, we fail to see the opportunities for joy that are right in front of us.”
In our modern world, we’re so focused on how to get happiness rather than give it. But Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us happiness starts with others. “When you know how to generate joy, it nourishes you and nourishes the other person.”
The questions to ask are the following. “Are you able to make the other person smile? Are you able to increase her confidence and enthusiasm? If you’re not able to do these small things for her, how can you say you love her? Sometimes a kind word is enough to help someone blossom like a flower.”
Equanimity in this context takes on its literal definition: we are all of the same mind. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “We can also call it inclusiveness or non-discrimination….[T]here’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering….Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters.”
The concept is not especially intuitive, particularly in the Western world where the spotlight is consistently on the self. With a bit of self-reflection, it is easy to see how we’ve gone wrong in our own lives by not following this principle. We’re so quick to lob judgments onto others without reflecting on our own actions. We’re disproportionately focused on what another person has done to us and we lose sight of what we’ve done to contribute to the situation. Someone may blame you for something without examining what they’ve done to prompt you to do so.
What we might find more intuitive, though, is that the key to offering loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to others is first offering it to yourself. It’s not something without, but something within. This is especially true of leadership. Look at the history books to see that those who governed by fear and hate were those who ultimately hated themselves.
It might be intuitive, but it’s not easy at the start. Practicing true love is a daily practice of focusing on the things the other person has done right rather than the one thing they did wrong. “True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only love the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding and energy to help her transform.” Once set in motion, though, the rewards far outweigh the effort.
True love is an undervalued but priceless tenet both in leadership and in life. And Nelson Mandela understood that. He demonstrated that to love someone truly is to offer them life’s greatest gift. As Mandela’s famous quote goes, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
We don’t have to be Nelson Mandela to practice these principles. We just have to be willing to try.
Follow Stephanie Denning on Twitter: @stephdenning
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