A fistful of Morals
Dominic Houlder, Dean of a prestigious programme at London Business School, fixes you with a penetrating gaze. His conversation brims with energy. He is evidently bright and dynamic, honed by an expensive British education and a successful career as a business strategist and consultant. But Dominic Houlder is also Mahaprabha, a member of the Western Buddhist Order. He is a warm, ethical and generous man with a strong feeling for spiritual life. While many Buddhists associate the world of big business with ambition and avarice, Mahaprabha believes in engaging with it, and in his recent book, Mindfulness and Money (co-authored with Kulananda), he suggests that our economic and our spiritual lives can be brought together. Worldly success and practising Buddhism are not mutually exclusive. Vishvapani visited the palatial London Business School and asked Mahaprabha how this was possible
'The worlds of business and Buddhism have never been polar opposites in my life. I started to become a Buddhist in the mid-1980s when I was a business school student at Stanford in California, and my first experience of meditation came through the 'Creativity in Business' course led by a remarkable man called Mike Ray. What he meant by creativity was not pondering business case studies, but developing awareness, imagination and appreciating suffering. One assignment he set us was to spend a day observing water. He gave us precepts to live by for a week, and one that made a great impression on me was the precept 'pay attention'. Something about the course made me see what an extraordinary thing life could be.
I came back to England having taken a job with the Boston Consulting Group, but the creativity course had had a huge impact and Ray told me, 'Don't lose hold of that'. That impetus led me to the West London Buddhist Centre. But even when I was working in the consulting sector and industry - while also training for ordination - I felt I would like to give back what I had received. So 10 years later I found myself making my way to the London Business School as a newly ordained Buddhist.
My current role is Dean of the Sloan Fellowship Programme, and my students are typically in their late-30s. The course is for high fliers, not people whose careers have run into a wall or are looking for lbs to give them a job: at this stage in life you either have or don't have what it takes to be effective in business. But often the students' reason for taking a year to study at this stage in their careers is that they are experiencing some degree of dissatisfaction. I build on that. If you are successful, people around you expect more and more of the same, and you can find that life becomes an express train. Eventually some people discover they need space to regain the initiative.
After graduating, many friends took jobs that would impress their parents; later you might take jobs that will impress your friends; but a point comes where you ask, 'Just who am I trying to impress?'. If you have already been successful you no longer need to do that, and you look for the skills that will help to express who you are.
That's what the course I run is about. It was started by Charles Handy, the well known 'business guru' who has sought to work from his own Christian values. Handy emphasises the importance of people taking command of their lives and not being buffeted by circumstances, and that idea underlies the Sloan Fellows programme. Regaining control has been a theme in my life and I resonated strongly with the ethos of the course.
At the start I teach a programme called 'Under-standing Top Management'. It is about the channels of influence in an organisation, but that is connected with how we manage ourselves. The message of the course is: if you can't take charge of yourself, you are probably unfit to take charge of an organisation and influence other people's lives. I play a video of Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) railing against business schools, saying they teach people only to think, not to feel or care about the products they sell. That joins the issue. Many people who find themselves in positions of influence in large companies are carried along by things that were set in motion before they arrived. The ones who can resist that momentum are those who really want to do something, and have some understanding of how to achieve it. Usually the motivation has to be considerably more than just making money.
In the first assignment I ask students to describe their qualifications to do their dream job, as seen through the eyes of a headhunter shortly after finishing the course. These usually have pretty worthy content. The second assignment is to advance the clock to when they have died, and write a funeral eulogy for themselves as given by a friend. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard says the tragedy for humanity is that 'life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards'; this exercise tries to reverse that. The values in the obituary are usually to do with kindness, generosity, and reaching a degree of wisdom or understanding of what life is about. But they also express a sense that the person had an impact on the world, particularly through business.
Then the students exchange these two documents with a classmate and I ask them which is the more enjoyable and interesting to read and why, what the connection is, and if there is none what that means. It would be sad if the two were identical - if there was no desire to develop more qualities than those already possessed. But if there is no connection at all I would say the writer needs to be careful not to spend too much time at work, because they will need other arenas to express the values that will lead to that eulogy. However, people who come to the London Business School have probably decided they will be putting a lot of energy into work and it would be to their advantage to find a way to link the two assignments. What you are ultimately doing in transforming an organisation is transforming the lives of the people within it, and also transforming yourself. There needs to be a link between what you could do as an influential individual and what you care about.
Why do I work in a business school rather than a Buddhist centre? I am inspired by the idea of taking the 'spiritual values' I care about deeply, but which are potentially rather ineffable, and engaging them with the mess of the world. Business is concerned with bringing pattern and meaning to that mess and I believe that can be a vital spiritual practice: the struggles that arise when you attempt that, the conflicts between your values and what you find yourself doing, the compromises you have to make. As a teacher I have chosen to step out of the real business world - the world of the companies I advise and the students I teach. But I have a healthy respect for people who are willing to grapple with the mess and put themselves to the test of whether they are making good use of the resources they have, as measured by their financial performance.
Various Buddhist friends regard business as the domain of greed, because it is driven by profits. However, the question of greed arises in relation to remuneration, which is separate from the question of profit. In our Anglo-Saxon capitalism the owners of companies aren't fat-cat millionaires with top hats, but millions of ordinary people whose pensions and savings are tied up with the future of those businesses and the profits they generate. One of the problems with capitalism is that the people running businesses often don't work in the interests of those shareholders, but in some other interest, such as lining their pockets. The profit measure is simply telling you how well you did with the resources at your disposal. Was more brought out in the harvest than you planted in the spring? You can also ask, where did the profit come from and what did you do with it? Did you get the profit from creating value in new and innovative ways, or by capturing value from others?
I don't believe you can characterise the world as being split between progressives, who are wholly altruistic and others, the regressives, who work selfishly in the service of capitalism. My observation is that motives are mixed, especially if you try to influence the world, in which case your motives are often pulling in different directions. I recently worked with the partners of a large City accounting firm, and one of the senior partners who had looked up my Google entry and seen the great splattering of Buddhist-related entries said, 'I would much rather hear what you have to say about meaning'.
But my own motives in doing that work might be to make money to provide a 'secure' future for myself, or to have some stories to tell my friends about working with prestigious people. There are the times when I absolutely do not want to see this student, or I am concerned about the evaluation I will get for the course. There are times when I am generous with the administrative team and times when I want to shut the door, ignore emails and not answer the telephone.
However, I am aware that my craving is closely associated with fear. The motivations that I would like to have are born of an existential confidence, and those I'd rather not experience are born of fear. If I look around my faculty colleagues and the world of business, it is the more confident ones who act from the motives they admire. As a Buddhist I ask, what are the conditions that need to be in place so that there are more of one and less of the other?
This applies to my students, too. What we crave may be money, it may also be some notion of success, security or prestige. I don't give students a sermon about renunciation, but I do speak about confidence. In the contemporary corporate world, many people base their self-estimation on the esteem in which others hold them. This has been institutionalised through performance appraisals, 360-degree feedback, promotions and so on. All those things say that we are only worth something if people 'out there' say we are. But on what basis do you value yourself?
I believe the more confidence people have, and the more their estimation of themselves comes from within rather than outside, the less those external measures will matter. That isn't to say that people shouldn't have prestige, security or success, but craving after them is a different matter. The more obviously renunciant Buddhists whom I most admire - perhaps those who are living a hermit's life - are very confident people who don't particularly care what others think of them.
My confidence grew immeasurably stronger when I was looking after my mother during her terminal illness because I developed a deeper understanding of death. In a number of areas of my life I had been plagued by doubt, which led to behaving unskilfully, but the confidence I derived from being close to death and seeing it through had an extraordinary effect. When we understand what impermanence means we lose our fear because we respond with love rather than horror, and we can become more confident.
On the Sloan Fellows course I ask my students to look for the basis of confidence that enables them not to be driven by the craving for security, and might allow them to pursue what is most meaningful to them. I suggest that if they are privileged enough to be studying at a place like LBS they probably have a better chance than most to make a difference. The question is whether or not to try: the choice is theirs. They may find that it leads to messy compromises, or missing out on financial security. But if they never give it a try, they'll never know.'
Mindfulness and Money, The Buddhist Path to Abundance
by Dominic Houlder (Mahaprabha) and Kulananda,
Broadway Books 2002, $12.95 p/b