Right Speech & Good Leadership


In the 5th century BC, Buddha in the East (India) and Socrates in the West (Greece) were asking "difficult" questions about the meaning of life in pursuit of enlightenment. Both in their own ways discovered that the path to enlightenment requires insight and proper action based on that insight.

To acquire insight, they believed we only need to use our minds, broadly conceived as the capacity for seeing and being curious about what is given in experience. It’s all there if we only remove the blinders of “doing” (habitual action) and simply notice it and examine it with openness and acceptance.

I know, you may be thinking, “That sounds like philosophy, not business management or leadership.” Yes, you are right – well, sort of. It is a philosophical attitude. Attitudes are mental mindsets we can adopt and use for a purpose, in this case, to achieve a considered understanding of something.

Put that way, I suspect most executives and corporate fiduciaries would see some practical relevance for adopting this attitude, especially when addressing important decisions affecting their stakeholders. But then what? We call some managers executives because we expect them to guide action, execution.

Right Action

Both Buddha and Socrates were ultimately quite practical, that is, if we appreciate what it really means to be “practical”, i.e., oriented toward “good” or “skilled”[i] practice. Mindful of this, the practice of a responsible leader at any level, in any role, must be aligned with what is good, right, and proper.

In Buddhist psychology, the practice of skilled leadership leads to good Karma, a pattern of virtue that elevates us. As an example or model for others, such leadership promotes an elevated level of practice in others, which influences culture. And among the most important actions of leadership is speech.

Why? Because almost all action (mental, physical, technical, organizational) is mediated by language and speech. And ancient wisdom offers some particularly good guidance on the unskilled forms of speech that can cause harm and impede effective functioning as a social-organizational system:

  1. Lying – It diminishes our ability to trust relationships, to trust ourselves. When we examine with curiosity the motives behind such unskilled action, we open the way for courageous choices and right action. We thereby place truthfulness at the center of our practice.
  2. Harshness – Words can cause harm. When we speak reactively from feelings of anger, we must discover what lies beneath them. Perhaps we feel hurt, offended, frightened, and/or impatient. We cause others to defend themselves. It divides rather than connecting us.
  3. Backbiting – Whether it’s gossip about others or invidious comparisons that are self-serving, this is an all-to-common temptation in social-organizational settings. As Joseph Goldstein reminds us, we have choices, “words need not simply tumble out of our mouths.”[ii]
  4. Useless Talk – Why is it that we can feel compelled to talk without having anything to really say? It’s frivolous, but its effects are not benign. Our words can quickly become worthless to others and to ourselves when they lack some considered intention, timeliness, and relevance.

As we characterize these patterns of “unwholesome” speech, we find ourselves evoking a reflective pause. We see more clearly what they are, where they come from, and the consequential effects they have upon ourselves, our practice, and others. But we only see and understand if we “accept”.

Acceptance is not resignation. It is not complacency. Rather, it is a compassionate acceptance of our vulnerabilities to imperfect, reactive behavior. It’s acknowledgement that we have “feet of clay” and the opportunity for learning, growth, and further realization of our virtue as a skilled practitioner.

For more on noticing unwholesome speech and unskillful action and making wise choices that promote adaptive development see my paper: Developing at the Inflection Point.  

[i] Socrates was essentially a moral philosopher and would characterize virtuous practice as “good”, while Buddha was a spiritual guide and would characterize virtuous practice as “skilled”.

[ii] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2003). New York: Harper One. I’ve drawn on his work in this article and have adapted it for use in my practice as a psychologist.