The Buddha has often been described as one of the greatest leaders of all time. But just what characterizes a good leader? What are the duties and qualities of good leadership? And what can we learn from the Buddha as a leader that we can apply to our chaotic world?

The Leader as Visionary

Like the captain of a ship, a leader must have a definite goal; only then can he chart his course and steer his ship in the right direction. Having given up his royal rights, wealth and family, Prince Siddhartha had one goal – to find the cause of suffering and a way out of suffering. Despite much hardship and setback, he never veered from his course but persevered till he gained Enlightenment.

But the Buddha did not stop there. He made it his mission to lead all sentient beings out of the samsaric cycle of suffering. It is this vision which defined his forty-five years of teaching and shaped his role as leader of an order(sangha) and a following that is still growing strong today.
Guided by this vision, the Buddha’s mission was an all-embracing one. It is a mission founded on compassion and love for all sentient beings, regardless of race, creed or status quo. Addressing his first group of disciples, the Buddha instructed them to go forth and spread the teachings for the good and happiness of the many. In this respect, the Buddha was revolutionary, displaying extreme courage in his advocacy for the emancipation of the persons belonging to all the four castes, in his dismissal of the Brahmin as the supreme authority and in his admission of women to the sangha.

The Leader as Role Model

A leader must be an exemplary figure, someone we can respect and emulate. The Buddha, having purified himself through many lifetimes, embodied all the Perfections (paramita). He was extraordinary, virtuous and righteous in every thought, word and deed. He says as he does and does as he says. Such integrity and consistency won him the trust of his followers.
As a leader, the Buddha led by example. His simple and humble lifestyle is a reflection of his teachings. In his daily routine, the Buddha wasted no time on idleness and frivolity. For forty-five years, he devoted his time and effort for the good of others, starting his day before dawn and working till midnight.  

Compare this with many world leaders who live in the laps of luxury while half of the world’s population suffer from poverty and hunger, and we can understand why many people lament the lack of good leaders in our times. In his advice to the rulers of his time, the Buddha emphasized the importance of leadership according to the Dharma.

A ruler must first establish himself in piety and righteousness, and avoid all the vices. Sovereignty and the rule of power are subjected to the rule of righteousness, not the rule of force. Here is the ideal model of a value-based leadership. The Buddha highlighted ten principles which a ruler ought to be possess:

1. Dana – alms-giving
2. Sila – morality
3. Parricaga – unselfishness
4. Ajjava – integrity
5. Maddava – gentleness
6. Tapo – self-restraint
7. Akkhoda – non-anger
8. Avihimsa – non-violence
9. Khanti – patience
10. Avirodhana – agreeability

The Leader as Mediator

As a leader, the Buddha demonstrated both skills in mediation and impartiality in judgment. In the Ummagga Jataka, as Prince Mahausadha, the Bodhisattva (the Buddha in a previous birth) showed his ability to resolve problems and arguments. As advisor to the King, he displayed wit and intelligence in the protection of his people.

The Buddha displayed his skills at resolving conflicts between opposing parties on several occasions. Once a dispute broke out between the Sakyans, to which the Buddha belonged, and the Koliyas, to which his mother, Queen Maya, belonged. Unable to arrive at an agreement over the distribution of the waters of the river Rohini, the two parties were on the verge of war. The Buddha settled the dispute by asking:”What do you consider as more valuable – water or human lives?”

The Leader as Manager

The Buddha was a great human resource manager. With an acute knowledge of human beings, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of those around him. Based on their dominant traits, the Buddha categorised people into six groups:

1. those lustful and passionate
2. those with hatred and anger
3. those with delusion
4. those with faith and confidence
5. those with wisdom and intelligence
6. those with hesitation and doubt

He delegated duties to his followers in accordance with their abilities and temperament. In addition, he showed his appreciation by conferring upon them due respect and recognition. Trainers of managerial leadership could learn much from the Buddha in this respect to develop an effective workforce.

The Leader as Protector

The Jataka stories, which tell of the previous births of the Buddha, abound with numerous examples of the Bodhisattva’s courage and self-sacrificial spirit to safeguard the interests of his group. In the Mahakapi Jataka, the Bodhisattva in a previous birth was the leader of a troop of monkeys living in the 


One day, the king of the state saw that the forest was abundant with mango trees, set his men upon the monkeys. To flee from the king’s men, the Bodhisattva used some bamboo vines to build a bridge so that the monkeys could cross over to the other river bank. Unfortunately the bamboo vines were too short.

To bridge the gap, the Bodhisattva stretched himself out, clinging on to one side with his hands and the other with his tail so that the monkeys could cross over on his back. Among the monkeys was Devadatta, his arch-enemy. Seeing his opponent in a disadvantaged position, he stamped hard on his back as he made his way across.

The Bodhisattva was in immense pain but remained clinging on to the bamboo vines till the last monkey was safely across. The king, upon witnessing such a courageous and selfless act by such a monkey, ordered his men to bring himdown from the trees and tried to save him. Asked why he endangered his life to save his subjects the Bodhisattva replied:”O King! Verily my body is broken. But my mind is still sound; I uplifted only those over whom I exercised my royal powers for so long.?

After the Bodhisattva’s death, the king in honour his self-sacrificing spirit, erected a shrine and ordered that daily offerings be made.

Another aspect in which the Buddha exercised his role as a protector is in teachings of the Buddha was open to all, in the Buddha’s four-fold party of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women followers, admission was not so liberal.

While this may invite criticisms that the Buddha was prejudicial, it is necessary not for his personal interests but to protect the Buddhist community from corruptive and evil forces and to ensure its long-term survival. The Buddha also set out criteria and rules and regulations, especially the vinaya code, to protect the well-being and order of his community

The Leader Shows the Way

During his 45 years of missionary work, many followers became enlightened after listening to his teachings. 2500 years later, the Buddha continues to inspire millions of people around the world to follow his path. This, above all else, is the most important role of the Buddha as a leader – one who is able to inspire others to bring out the best in themselves, to develop their full potential and gain the ultimate goal of Nirvana.

Author – Ven. Sobhita Thero–advisor of Bodhiraja Buddhist Society


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