September 27, 2019

What Being Raised Buddhist Taught me About Leadership


Aaron Hurst

I grew up a BuJew. My parents are both of Jewish descent but had found the need to find their own path in the 1960s and embraced Tibetan Buddhism. It became the core of their identity. In our household, I was exposed to the values and traditions of both cultures. I spent my early school years at a Buddhist school, and my parents centered their lives around the Sangha (Buddhist community).

Being raised a BuJew has deeply impacted the way I lead and my career path. It has made me a tireless advocate for changing the world. It has helped me push myself to find my truth and challenge others to do the same. Finally, growing up a BuJew has inspired me to try to create cultures where everyone can be human at work.

1. Making an Impact

The Jewish concept of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means “repair the world,” suggests humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair, and transform the world. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition’s Bodhisattva Vow similarly focuses on repairing the world through the elimination of human suffering. The vow states: “Although beings are numberless, I vow to save them all from suffering. I vow not to attain enlightenment until all beings are free from suffering.”

Talk about ambition—repairing the world and saving every being from suffering. But this is ultimately our goal, and we must constantly set it as our true north. That said, both are brilliantly grounded ideas. In setting such unobtainable goals, we also directly have to admit that we will never achieve them, which grounds us in reality and forces us to bring humility to our ambitions.

2. Seeking Truth

In the Jewish tradition, there is a strong tradition of questioning everything. One studies the Torah by questioning and debating it. We show respect to others by engaging them in debate. We don't accept anything as true unless we have poked and prodded until we have no questions left to ask. It becomes not only a form of discovery but the basis for relationships - we help each other find truth by push each other to justify our point of view.

In contrast, the Buddhist community I grew up in grounded their practice in the belief that everything is an illusion. The only thing that is real is "now" - being present in the moment. Everyone has their own truth. There is no absolute truth. Wisdom is acquired by letting go of the need for answers.

So how do you reconcile these perspectives? To me, it became a practice of applying my drive to ask questions inward - on myself. What is my truth? How do I help other people find their truth by asking the right questions (this is the mission of my company, Imperative). As a leader, I challenge people to own their truth and act with courage to live it. But, I also try to help them see that their truth is subjective and to respect the diversity of truths in the community.

3. Inclusion

Being a BuJew living in North America made me an outsider. I didn't really fit in any community. I wasn't really a Jew. I wasn't really a Buddhist. And, I certainly wasn't a mainstream American. Not the easiest identity to navigate in middle school.

What I learned was that despite all the differences I had with other kids, I could usually find something we had in common. It was usually a sense of humor - I became the class clown. Humor is one of the best ways to put people at ease and make a connection. It continues to be a core part of my leadership style.

At the Taproot Foundation, an organization I founded back in 2001, we labeled it "playful professionalism". It was short hand for our shared core value of celebrating everyone as the wonderful and weird people they are.

As leaders, we must create cultures that provide the psychological safety necessary for people to bring their whole self to work. We need to create cultures where you can be a BuJew (or whatever you are) and feel a sense of belonging based on shared humanity.

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