Dutch MBA student Tristan van der Waart traveled to Thailand to search for valuable lessons and insights as to what managers can learn from Buddhism.
‘‘Managers can learn a lot from Buddhism. Instead of predominantly focusing on governance and being in control, they should learn to ‘live in the moment’, and take things as they are. Managers often think they are in control of matters, but after my trip I am only more and more convinced of the fact that that, for the larger part, is an illusion.’’
Tristan recently returned to the Netherlands after executing one of his Action Learning Projects (ALP) in Thailand. Unlike many other students that chose to do their ALPs in the safety of their own work environment, Tristan chose Thailand to be his destination. ‘‘Not the most obvious choice,’’ he admits, smiling, ‘‘and especially not for me, considering I’m not really an adventurous person.’’
However, the first two ALPs had been so ‘close to home’, due to the fact that that they, more or less, resembled his daily operations as a Controller, that for this final ALP, he decided to take a drastically different approach. It was a combination of his interest in Buddhism and spirituality that drove the ‘otherwise very rational’ Tristan to book his ticket to Bangkok.
‘‘Connecting Buddhism and business spirituality with my organisational research question that formed the core of my ALP wasn’t easy at first’’ explains Tristan. Luckily he got all the support he needed, both from his employer, Lavans, as well as from Business School Netherlands. “BSN supported me from day one and only encouraged me to make my plans happen, despite my initial challenges in trying to formulate a solid research proposal. In the end I proposed an interesting research question that connected all elements and moreover, posed an interesting, value-adding question for Lavans. The question read: To what extend can behavioural changes in managers in the company be secured, using elements and values that are strongly represented by Buddhism?”
Did you achieve your goal to do a ‘dramatically different ALP’?
“Yes, absolutely! During the trip I often wondered about how I was going to make this project a success, seeing as it – especially compared to my previous two ALPs – was far less corporate and I had to deal with opinions more rather than with cold, hard facts. That obviously makes it more difficult to make assumptions, connections and conclusions. However, ultimately I find the reflection of this ALP significantly stronger than the previous two, since in addition to the professional business part, I gained an incredible amount of personal growth and knowledge.”
Why Thailand and the special interest in business spirituality and Buddhism?
“I had read the book ‘Karmanomics’ by Dutch author Kees Klomp. In essence, the book explains how western organisations can do with ‘a bit of Buddhism’. Next to that, I was reading columns by Paul de Blot, professor in Business Spirituality at the Dutch renowned Nyenrode Institute. The book and columns sparked my interest and caused my focus to slowly but surely be aimed at Thailand. I sent an email to the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, asking them for advice and help. They connected me with Chris de Boer, a Dutch teacher at a Buddhist university. From there on, things started evolving and I connected with various local entrepreneurs. When I realised I could meet many of them if I were to visit Thailand – including a meeting with a Buddhist monk – I realised this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The next day, I booked my ticket.”
Prior to departure, what had you set as your most important goal?
“My greatest wish was to get clarity on the differences between organisations that operate in a Buddhist culture with Buddhist values versus western organisations. I was hoping to be able to draw conclusions about connections between culture and leadership, and how these connections impact daily operations of organisations. Other than that, I wanted to investigate how certain methods and ideas would be mutually interchangeable. These goals merely focused on answering the research questions of the ALP. It was my true ambition to learn as much as I could and gain as much insights and experiences from other people as I possibly could in a week. On the practical side, I wanted my ALP to be virtually finished when I would return to Holland. I managed to reach that last goal and within a week after my return, I handed in the ALP.”
How did you prepare for the trip?
“I wanted to have my literature review completed before boarding the plane, since I was under the impression I needed a (high) level of knowledge before being able to speak to people. I ended up reading far more than I did for the other ALPs; a large variety of books – some very practical and inspiring, others way too abstract and impossible to get through. When I started to see the bigger picture, I managed to align my literature review with my research question. On top of that, I gathered as much information as I could about the people and organisations I was going to interview.”
What is the answer to your research question?
“That sustainable behavioural changes of managers can only take place when the persons that should be subjected to the desired change, truly believe in the change to happen. Changing a person’s beliefs and convictions is essential. Moreover, some Buddhist values – reciprocity, respect, no judgements, altruism and morality – can play a part and contribute positively to the change. There is, however, not necessarily a causal connection.”
What else did you learn about the relation between Buddhism, organisations and leadership?
“These days, people increasingly use the words ‘spirituality’ and ‘leadership’. I personally think that ‘spiritual leadership’ highlights the attitude, values and behaviour that a leader should possess in order to be able to motivate another person. It makes sure people feel understood and to feel that things ‘make sense’. When they do (feel understood), people feel more connected to others in the organisation, ensuring a higher level of overall motivation and commitment.”
Thus, what can managers and organisations take away from Buddhism?
“Instead of predominantly focusing on governance and being in control, they should learn to ‘live in the moment’, and take things as they are. Managers often think they are in control of matters, but after my trip I am only more and more convinced of the fact that that, for the larger part, is an illusion. This is an interesting remark to make, given the fact that I work as a Controller. However, turning off the ‘auto-pilot’ and really, consciously shift between action and reflection is one of the key learning points for western managers and organisations.”
What was the absolute highlight of the trip?
“To me, the way I was welcomed and the enormous effort people were willing to put in to help me with my research was astonishing – the ultimate highlight. It went so much further than just participating in an interview: people invited me for dinner or drinks and were genuinely interested in me and in my research.”
Any setbacks or disappointments?
“I was hoping I would be able to speak to a monk, but that proved rather complicated. There was hardly any response to emails. When I finally got to the temple, I soon found that communication was challenging, since the monks don’t really speak any English.”
How will your employer, Lavans, benefit from your trip and insights?
“This trip, insights and experiences has made me more complete as a human being. The fact that Lavans has been supportive from the beginning only shows the true value and remarkable character of the organisation. I am extremely proud to work for an organisation like Lavans, and have only increased my motivation to put in 100% effort for the organisation, the people and our goals.”
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