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Employees can become disillusioned with their company or workplace when bosses fail to address toxic behaviour.Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

Thane Lawrie is The Buddhist CEO.

A Buddhist since his mid 20s, he found himself in his early 40s catapulted into the chief executive officer’s chair at the social enterprise in Aberdeen, Scotland where he was operations manager when their leader died suddenly. Buddhists believe in compassion. They shun judgment. They are known for letting go, meditation and silent retreats. Can a Buddhist be a CEO?

Even Mr. Lawrie wondered. The prevailing culture had told him the boss is a bad guy – out to get you – and the actions he had seen over the years in various jobs in different workplaces that disempowered and hurt people led him to accept that belief. But he says in an interview with The Globe and Mail, “when I became a boss I was struck by how untrue that was. I met other bosses and found most were motivated by the right reasons.”

There are moral people in other religions, spiritual practices and amongst atheists, he says. But Buddhism provided him with a moral structure that helped him to face the various dilemmas, notably about people, at his 50-person non-profit, which helped people struggling with fuel costs in a cold climate. “I felt as a leader if I knew who I was and knew what my values were, it quite often made difficult situations easier to deal with because I knew where I stood on things before a situation arose,” he says.

One of the 10 Buddhist main precepts is refrain from stealing. “I see the toxic person in the workplace, the person who speaks against others, as stealing – stealing the company’s time, stealing energy,” he says. In his book The Buddhist CEO, fictional but drawn from his life, Mr. Lawrie stresses that being a Buddhist does not mean being a doormat. Indeed, he feels that when bad behaviour arose, he was probably quicker as a Buddhist to address the untoward conduct because it violated this important principle.

In his career, he had often seen colleagues become disillusioned with their company or workplace because bosses failed to address toxic behaviour. “People are uplifted when management deals with troublesome situations. And Buddhism gave me the permission or the clear vision to deal with those difficult situations,” he says in the interview. “People don’t equate that with a compassionate approach but in my head it is.”

A boss, Buddhist or otherwise, should point out to people the behaviours that are wrong and ask them to change. Quite often, people were surprised when he pointed out the unwanted behaviours to them, were embarrassed and made amends. But if they don’t, the boss must press harder and take disciplinary routes if need be.

“I think that overall is compassionate. If you don’t do that, it undermines people who are doing well and trying to engage with the company. A lot of managers in my experience shy away from confronting bad behaviours to the detriment of everyone in the long term,” Mr. Lawrie says.

Buddhists are schooled in the eightfold path, which includes right speech and right livelihood. That heavily influenced him as a leader because he believes speech can do enormous damage in a company – speaking about staff or customers in a negative way. He had been troubled when first joining the organization because there were difficult relationships with partnering organizations. The staff used negative language toward one of the main funders so when Mr. Lawrie took the helm he went to that organization’s CEO, confessed about that negative attitude but also explained some of the reasons why that feeling had arisen, which led to a joint effort to improve. He told his own team: “Let’s talk about our partnering organizations in a positive way and if situations aren’t positive let’s find a constructive way of dealing with that which is aligned with our company values.”

Right livelihood for him meant it was important people understand the part they play in the strategy and purposeful work accomplished together. People joined their non-profit to make a difference, to help people with what was called “fuel poverty.” But they didn’t understand necessarily the impact they were having through their own work. They also didn’t know the overall targets the company had set for achieving its goals and meeting funders’ objectives. The concept of right livelihood led to quarterly all-staff meetings in which people could see the bigger picture beyond their team and also their contribution.

Being a CEO can be lonely. Indeed, that can apply to many managerial roles, where you can’t share deep emotional concerns with colleagues. Here, Mr. Lawrie drew on the Buddhist notion of sangha – bring together or create community. He reached out to others in similar roles at other organizations and formed what he calls “the fellowship of the CEO,” sharing their difficulties and offering each other support. He had to retire prematurely from his post when struck by functional neurological disorder, which doctors speculate was brought on by the stress of his job. He warns others that rising in a company you can feel impervious, but are only human so build support structures like a peer group.


  • Recruiting specialist John Sullivan urges you to reduce the number of “quickly ended” interviews - when you know after asking a couple of questions the candidate doesn’t fit your needs but you are obligated to continue the session. Those probably amount to 20 per cent of your interviews and can be diminished by asking candidates in advance to supply additional information on issues of concern. A preliminary telephone interview can also help.
  • We often see the term “founder and CEO” and assume it goes together like peanut butter and jam. More like oil and water, contends Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp. A founder’s job is injecting risk into the business: Flooding it with new ideas that seem hard to do and nobody else would dare try. A CEO’s job is nearly the opposite: Reducing risk and executing diligently to achieve obvious goals.
  • A new PwC study found that companies with an executive-level chief data officer achieve faster revenue growth. Only a quarter of the world’s top 2,500 public companies have someone in that relatively new post.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.