Leadership Lessons from a Humble Monk

The first time I had a chance to personally witness someone leading by example was when I had decided to spend about a month in a monastery in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, India. Of course, that one month then turned into six-months which eventually turned into 15 years of monkhood. The meditation practices in the Mumbai monastery started at 5:00AM sharp and all the monks were required to be there on time. Since I was a visiting guest, there were no such expectations placed on me. However, wanting to be part of the program and not look like a slacker, I made sure to be there on-time everyday. Before the morning services began, a few monks cleaned the entire floor of the meditation hall which has a 500 person capacity. Needless to say, it was a very large space and in India, if something has an official capacity of 500, which means over a 1,000 will cram into it. The morning sessions were usually attended by about a 100 people, half of them resident monks and the other half were congregation that either lived nearby or commuted there to participate.

The monks didn’t use brooms and mops to clean the wooden surface. Rather, they used an Indian broom which had a short stick attached to it and it required one to squat or bend over while sweeping the floor. No easy task by any means. Mopping was done with a simple floor rag and a bucket of water nearby to dunk the dirty cloth, rinse and repeat. Then all the ceiling fans would be turned on high to dry off the floor. Two to three monks would take about 30-minutes to clean the entire space before the 5:00AM service began. I naturally assumed that those assigned to cleaning the floors must be the newer or inexperienced monks still in training. Why else would they be doing the menial work of cleaning floors? The next day, while I was attending the daily study session for the resident monks, to my surprise, I noticed the teacher and main speaker for the session was one of the monks that was cleaning the floor. Some days later, I noticed the same monk, in the kitchen, helping cook for the monks and visitors. He would deliver powerful and inspirational lectures during the Sunday program which was attended by over a thousand people. What really impressed me was that whether he was cooking, cleaning or lecturing in front of large audience, he was equally enthusiastic in all of his services. He didn’t treat one service as better than another. Since he was the senior most, he was leading by example as he knew that the others, especially the younger monks, would be observing his behavior and would most likely adopt his mood and attitude. So, he had to set the right example by letting them know that there is no shame in doing menial services. Rather, all services should be seen as a privilege because these services were giving them a chance to serve others and by serving others, they could develop selflessness, humility and rid themselves of ego.

This is a true example of Mindful Leadership in action and whether one is a CEO of a large organization, a politician, a teacher or parent, we can all become more mindful by following in the footsteps of this humble monk.

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