“If evil be said of thee, and if it be true, correct thyself; if it be a lie, laugh at it.”
Epictetus, a Greek sage and philosopher (AD 55-135)
Have you noticed a traffic cop slapping a penalty on a speeding car? Often the drivers argue that it wasn’t their fault; the stop lights suddenly turned red, or they insist they were simply following the car speeding ahead of them. Amidst the erring drivers’ desperate attempts to get out of paying a huge cost, the officer remains focussed on his ‘job’- exacting a fine. As the driver disputes the levy, the cop is unemotional; he softly, yet assertively repeats the amount he’s charging. People hope to avoid paying, by constant bickering or taking the policeman on an ego trip, yet he doesn’t get distracted from his mission; he tolerates and repeats the charge till the exasperated driver either pays the full amount or negotiates a bribe.
Separate the ‘Ego’ from the ‘Problem’
Keeping the bribery ethics aside, an important lesson to be learnt by the traffic policeman is to separate the people and their egos from the problem. A leader often faces people who get egoistical; they trample your ego by either snide remarks or acting in rebellion and gross violation of your authority. Yet a spiritual leader stays calm. He gets the job done and addresses the erring team members on the merit of the problem; he doesn’t allow what they say or do to his ego to come in the way of efficiently achieving the desired results. Once we slip to settling scores on the ego level, there’s no end to the downslide; issues only get uglier, and we get distracted from our goals. As a wise person remarked, “arguing with a fool only proves there are two.”
The ‘Perception’, ‘Emotion’ and ‘Behaviour’ dynamics
While working with others it’s pertinent to note that we all have human frailties; people allow their perceptions-most often distanced from reality- to influence their emotional states and these in turn affect their social interactions. Knowing this dynamics helps a spiritual leader empathise with the struggles of others while carefully avoiding the same trap. He sensitively handles people causing trouble, and instead of taking their behaviour seriously, he focuses on the issues to be resolved.
When I joined our Mumbai monastery I was pressurized with lot of services. My day began at 4.00 am and ended not before 10.00 pm. Besides my daily tasks to do, I had my spiritual practises to take care of. However the ashram in charge would catch me at the least expected moment and make me run errands. Initially I didn’t object but as the frequency of spontaneous services increased, I got stressed; all my other plans got upset and I began to wonder why he always catches me. Soon I developed negative perceptions that ‘he’s getting on my case’, ‘he wants to humble me’, and ‘he envies me’. These perceptions led to negative emotions- anger and feeling victimized- surfacing in my heart. Eventually these emotions influenced my communication as I began avoiding him, and spoke harshly to him.
Observing the tension in our relationship, a senior member of the ashram intervened and after hearing my plea, approached the in charge. Thanks to his addressing the issue, I later learnt that the in charge always gave me services because he trusted me more than the others, and thought I was enjoying doing these spontaneous tasks. My paradigms changed on learning the reality being different from my perceptions. Consequently the whole relationship dynamics changed and I once again developed good feelings for him, and also communicated to him clearly that I couldn’t take so much stress.
I realized these negative perceptions and emotions had done me only harm; I was distracted from my goals.
Tough with self, sensitive with people
A major distraction in achieving our goals is the ego induced emotional outbursts of people. What sets aside a spiritual leader is his determination to not allow his ego to be threatened by the perceptions of others. He is tough with self, and seeks his self-worth in living by principles, not in proving his point or seeking approval from others.
At the same time, knowing the struggles of fallible humans, he seeks to be sensitive to others; he’s aware that most people behave and see the world from their own vantage point. He doesn’t make the same mistake; he is careful to not fall into the vicious ego cycle where interactions amongst team members is reduced to settling scores, confirming negative perceptions about others, and playing the blame game, all at the cost of achieving practical results that are beneficial for both parties.
Don’t allow others to affect you
I realized my own folly in externally smiling while internally rebelling as our in charge gave me various services. I was desperately seeking his approval while struggling with my own ego. Many fall into this trap of letting a volcano build up in their hearts due to poor communication skills.
To grow as a spiritual leader, we can’t allow people to affect us negatively; we have to take responsibility for our emotional states and be internally anchored on spiritual practises with a strong clarity of purpose. This helps us remain unaffected by others’ behaviours, and also humanly and sensitively communicate with all. Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States put it best, “Who is wise? He that learns from everyone. Who is powerful? He that governs his passions. Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.”
Thus leadership is serious responsibility, a lifetime of endeavour to check our own thoughts and motives. It’s hard work, but is joyful when we realize we have a noble purpose to achieve, a purpose far beyond the petty ego squabbles of this ephemeral world. After all our business in life is not to get ahead of others, but to get ahead of ourselves, and contribute meaningfully to the universe.