Leadership is not something quickly learned by reading a book or attending a course. The courses can teach you technical skills, but what makes a leader is about values more than skills.  Values are best learned from inspirational role models and people you aspire to be like. We could do worse than learn leadership teachings from a Buddhist Monk. This was the source of the most inspirational leader I ever had the honour to learn from.

Learning from a Buddhist Monk

Spending a year in Thailand and interested in understanding the culture better and researching ways to create happy workplaces, I once attended a talk by an American-turned-Tibetan Buddhist monk. He gave a short lecture on what he advises people to do each day to be happy. One of the many valuable leadership teachings I’ve encountered.

As he sat in front of the crowd, he was unlike anyone I’d ever met.  He radiated love, a sense of power and humility – all at the same time. Each time he spoke; he demonstrated the true meaning of authenticity.  Each time I listened to his words, I thought the world would be a better place if more leaders were like him.

He gave up everything, including his home country, in search of happiness and meaning in life. Hearing him speak inspired me, as his journey sounded so similar to mine. I’ve also given up everything and everyone I once valued. I came to a point in my career where I wanted to find more meaning in my life than merely working for a salary each month. This lifestyle was keeping me from following the things I felt so passionate about. I understood how much courage it took on his part. I understood what it takes each day to live by the choice he made, and I admired the way he expressed himself.

Sharing wisdom

He humbly attempted to explain the wisdom behind eight short verses. Each time he translated the teachings as the only English speaking monk, he gave credit to his teachers, even though he was the one sitting in front of us providing the teaching.

He demonstrated to me the crucial element missing from so many leaders. He showed me what it takes to be an inspiring leader.  Each word, each action, each response from him were based on humility.  But each time he reflected on the hardships of living as a monk, as opposed to feeling superior or lucky, I realized how magnetic and inspiring his vulnerability and humility was.  He inspired me so much that I’m still holding on to the A4 handout with the verses he taught and regularly reflecting on the contents nearly a year later.  That, to me, is authentic leadership and a true inspiration.

How do you choose an inspirational leader?

However, management and leadership are often seen by organizations as the ultimate reward for loyalty, hard work, and having a dominant personality.

Sadly, most managers and leaders are often not chosen by the people they are to lead. Instead, the managers want their legacy to live on by selecting who best matches their management style and thinking.

A true leader, however, is not selected by the management team of an organization. It is someone who people look up to and aspire to be like.  Whether they have the title to go with it or not, a true leader is selected and followed by the people.  Someone who lives out the values of the company. A leader who inspires people to work towards a common goal that they believe in is followed regardless of their role.

They are not necessarily the best skilled in a particular field. Maybe they aren’t the employee who’s been at the company the longest. They may not be the ones with the most academic achievements. Choosing a leader based on these criteria means that the company values loyalty, technical skills, or academic knowledge. Selecting a leader, however, by asking the people who they consider worthy to lead them, means that you value the culture and the people, an undeniable ingredient for success.2105

Inherently they will choose someone they trust and respect. Someone who has proven in the past that they have the best interest of the people and the company at heart.  However, there is one other value that is critical for a leader to have.

Humility is key

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.

-C. S. Lewis

Authentic leadership is about serving the people. It is to lead, and that requires humility.  Looking at some of the most inspirational leaders of our time, each one has had to learn the lesson of humility at some time during their life.  Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa and barred from hotels because of his colour. Martin Luther King Jr was whipped as a child. His house was bombed, and he was arrested during the Montgomery bus boycott.

They all have had to learn to put their egos aside and focus on a cause bigger than themselves.  Additionally, they all had to learn to serve people with humility.  They all realized that it’s not about them but about the people they do and the cause behind them.

So if you want to be an inspiring leader, the question is not what you can do to have more power or authority, but how you can empower the people, you lead to achieving more. Each day, ask yourself this one question “How can I serve?”. How can you serve the people who create the products and services you sell.  Also, how can you help your customers better?  How can you do the investors, the suppliers, the partners?  When you lead from the outlook of viewing each person you interact with as more important than yourself, you empower them to do great things while growing your influence and power.


One of the leadership teachings I value is that being humble doesn’t mean that you are weak.  It means that you realize how precious each resource in your organization and outside it is to the success of your existence.

Leading with humility means you value the people you interact with.  And valuing the people you work with means that they will do everything in their power to value you back.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.