Lead Like the Buddha: Integrating Buddhist Thoughts Into Corporate Culture

There was one man who succeeded in using Buddhist teachings to create an amazing corporate culture: Dr. Yoshiro Maruta, ex-president of the Kao corporation. Himself a Buddhist scholar, he was well aware of the similarities between the Buddhist philosophy and great leadership.



Maruta mainly integrated two aspects of Buddhism into the corporate culture of the Kao Corporation. Human equality was the first. With that came the idea of respecting each employee and given them the chance to contribute. A result of this idea was the introduction of the so-called decision-spaces. Whenever there was an important decision to be made, an open conference was held where everybody could contribute, debate and voice their opinion before a decision was made.

Since everybody was equal, every opinion counted. Maruta called this “the power of collective accumulation of individual wisdom”. He placed a high value on collaboration throughout the organization and was an agent for the idea of “biological self-control”. What this meant was that whenever there was a problem in the organization, no matter what it was, anybody could help in finding a solution. So just like the human body, the organization would regulate itself. Resources and ideas could flow freely between departments as nobody “owned” them, meaning that everybody had access to the newest research findings, customer complaints, market trends etc. at all times.

Of course this means that each person is a teacher and a student at the same time. And that is exactly what Maruta recognized.  To him, the company was as much an educational institution as it was a profit-oriented corporation. It was clear to all employees that they were not only allowed, but expected to pursue their own ideas and share them with their colleagues. In fact, they were even required to share their personal projects with others when they were 80% done, because that way different opinions could be integrated into the plan and there was opportunity for reflection. This need for constant reflection mirrored the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, which says that reflection is a requirement for right action.

That said, the company mission of Kao is in itself based on Buddhist principles.  “To strive for the wholehearted satisfaction and enrichment of the lives of people globally and to contribute to the sustainability of the world, with products and brands of excellent value that are created from the consumer’s and customer’s perspective”. First, this suggests that a right understanding  from the side of the company is necessary. One needs to know that knowledge is only a matter of perception. What the company thinks of the consumers needs might only be an illusion.



Because, as Atkinson and Dunkin point out in “Eight Buddhist Methods For Leaders“, attitudes are formed by the mind, the only way of finding out what consumers really want is by learning directly from them. That’s why one of Kao’s principles is “Genba-ism”. They themselves define it as “the importance of observing things “on-site”, in the actual location and environment, both internally and externally, in order to maximize our understanding of the business and optimize our performance.”

Understanding allows the company to serve its customers to the fullest. And, like the Dalai Lama said: “the moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole mind narrows, and because of this narrow focus uncomfortable things can appear huge and bring you fear and discomfort and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by misery. The moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your mind widens. Within that wider angle, your own problems appear to be of no significance, and this makes a big difference”. What this means is that the company has to forget it’s selfish motives of simple profit, but instead focus on delivering the best service for its customers. Money will follow automatically. In Buddhism, such a selfless attitude is what’s called right thought.

Though I have only discussed three aspects of the Eightfold Noble Path until now, I’m only going to talk about one more. The rest is up to you to figure out 😉 Right effort is all about preventing everything unhealthy, and at the same time maintaining everything healthy for yourself. Companies often celebrate their past successes, but what they often forget is that their past successes don’t make them invulnerable. In order to avoid such ignorance, Maruta asked his employees not to talk too much about their successes of the past. Celebrating the past only makes employees rely to much on “old ways of doing things” that might have worked a while ago, but may not make sense in a changed environment. In short: he created an organization that constantly renews itself.

Finally I’d like to thank Christopher Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal whose book “Managing Across Borders” inspired this article. Two of my other sources which are interesting to read include “Eight Buddhist Methods for Leaders” by Linda Atkinson and Jerelyn Duncan, as well as “Buddhism and Marketing” by Dr. Patrick Low.



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