Talking Business with the Dalai Lama

On September 16, I had the honour of meeting and speaking with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet at a private audience in Prague, Czech Republic. With a few dozen business leaders and their families in attendance, it was a very rare opportunity to spend a few hours up close and personal with a living legend.

The connection between Buddhism, ‘Changing the World’ and running a business is not obvious. For me, the three came together in perfect harmony as I sat and listened to the kind and powerful words with which the Dalai Lama responded to my question.

In a recent article for a UK business journal, I discussed why running a clean, safe and compliant company is more than just the right thing to do – it’s also good for business. I argued that running an ethically and morally sound business can actually be profitable.

So the timing was almost divine when the Dalai Lama argued the same thesis in his remarks to our little group of entrepreneurs and business owners.

The crowd of executives peppered His Holiness with a range of challenging questions. One business leader asked bluntly: “Is there a contradiction between using ethical business practices and delivering results to owners and shareholders?”

The Dalai Lama made the case that business owners in particular have a huge capacity to do good in the world via their businesses. He argued that if you treat your employees well, the benefits are real and huge. You end up with dedicated, quality-minded employees who work harder, work better, make better products, and make fewer mistakes. If, as a result of their job, they can take good care of their families, have food on the table, and live happier lives, then they will work happier too. It seems obvious doesn’t it?

The discussion was moderated by one of the US’s greatest entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Bobby Sager. Bobby made his fortune years ago, but stays active in business as Chairman of Polaroid, among other board seats. His true passion and purpose in life now is, literally, helping people.

Bobby does amazing things for people all over the world. He helps the Dalai Lama to educate the dwindling cadre of Tibetan Buddhist Monks. And he doesn’t just donate money, he also donates his time, and his mind. He recently wrote a book Beyond the Robe, which outlines the program he created with the Dalai Lama to fund science education for Tibetan Monks. All the proceeds of the book’s sales go to the program. Bobby Sager is an amazing human being, and I’m proud to know him.

When it was my turn, I asked: “Your Holiness. We saw a video earlier of some of the amazing activities Bobby Sager is doing for the Monks, and for the world. I’m wondering, we are all business people here, we work in businesses or run our companies, and we have our busy lives. So, if we are not so ambitious as to go out there and change the whole world, what advice do you have for those of us living in our small towns in our homes with our families, about how we can change the world in a smaller way closer to home?”

Let me be clear – I am quite conservative (I adored Ronald Reagan), and for a long time, I was annoyed with the concept of corporate social responsibility. I felt, as The Economist has argued for many years, that the entrepreneur’s most important contribution to society and ‘the greater good’ was to run a business well, and create more jobs. I still personally believe that is the most important function of business.

Priority number one is, and will always be, financial security for my family, but after that has been achieved, what more is there? Well, raising your kids to become happy, well-balanced adults is certainly at the top of the list. After they are all grown up, then it’s just a matter of time before the topic of ‘giving back’ to society crops up. For the Bill Gates and Richard Branson’s of the world, they do it in big, very public ways.

But for Mary and John Doe Entrepreneur, who perhaps haven’t amassed the same fortune as Sir Richard, the urge to help out is just as strong. As I look back at what we’ve done at Lynka over the years, I now realize that I was a CSR advocate all along.

When a region in Southern Poland was flooded a few years back, and thousands of people lost everything, we immediately packed up hundreds of shirts and sweats and shipped them to the local Red Cross. We didn’t get any tax deductions (there were none in Poland) and we didn’t get any public relations out of it. We just did it because we felt awful for those people.

When the American Chamber of Commerce decided to ‘adopt’ an orphanage and support the children with clothes and toys, we chipped in, again without public glory. We’ve printed free T-shirts for dozens of charity events and organizations over the years including Amnesty International, Junior Achievement and others.

The other thing we do all the time is to bring groups of students into our company so they can see and learn how business can be a great force for good. We have students of all ages, from five year olds to MBAs, and we donate our time to teach them what we do. It is tremendously fulfilling for everyone involved. Our hallways are lined with thank you letters from schools and groups from around the world.

So getting back to the Dalai Lama, his Holiness’s answer to my question was this:

Our aim, our goal within this century, should be a peaceful world and a world where no one goes hungry. We humans have the ability today more than ever to achieve this. We have the ability to transform society, to create a more compassionate society. In our lifetimes. How? We will create real peace in the world through our own inner peace.

So, every single one of us has this opportunity to make a contribution for a better world. To change society, first we need to change the individual. One individual changes himself, and then he affects 10 people around him. Then those 10 influence 100 then one thousand then a million. That is the only way to change the world. So the initiative must come from the individual. So each of us, you see, has the opportunity to make a contribution for a better world. That is what I fundamentally believe.”

Here’s wishing that you, dear Reader, find ‘inner peace’ in whatever it is that you do.

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