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Lessons in leadership and decision-making from the Dalai Lama

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As we write this, the votes in the midterm elections were still being counted in several states. One such race appeared to be evenly split, with a dividing margin of only 120 votes. Though close in numbers, that split is sharp in vision and values. How could and should the leaders lead? What do we need to learn, and how do we need to teach future leaders and decision-makers?

Educational institutions and especially K-12 schools are the first to come to mind in the context of teaching and learning. However, in a national study of more than 20,000 high school students at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, 75 percent of the descriptors that students used for school experiences were negative, and the most common words they used were “tired,” “stressed” and “bored.”

{mosads}One does not have to be an educational psychologist to realize that these are not states most conducive to effective learning. Although social and emotional learning programs offer hope for improving school climates and creating an environment that takes into account the whole student, with their cognitive, emotional and social needs, the fundamental evaluative nature of schools as institutions is unlikely to change soon.

By contrast, the annual survey of museum-goers shows that 97 percent of people agree that museums are educational. Museums instill curiosity and wonder, as well as create a sense of community. Museums can provide inspiration and nurture the hunger to learn, especially learn about creating dialogue and developing empathy. As such, museums are well-positioned to nurture deep learning through exploration and meaning-making, without the pressure to perform in standardized ways.

The ability of museums to be institutions for social change was recently explored at the Fostering Universal Ethics and Compassion summit with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Delegates were museum leaders, designers, academics and entrepreneurs representing diverse institutions from a small history museum in upstate New York to a children’s museum in the Pacific Northwest, to a natural history museum in the South, to an art museum in the Midwest. In the discussion with the Dalai Lama, three points stood out as guiding principles worth considering for our institutions and our nation. A perspective shift might help us see where we go from this place in our nation’s history.

The first lesson is that a wise leader bases thinking on the principle of “oneness.” This principle acknowledges the interrelation of people and their environment, but includes the oneness of the mind, which does not divide the heart and the intellect. If we act from the perspective of oneness, “us versus them” divisions are not salient. Hurting one hurts all and helping one helps all, whether that is a next-door neighbor or an asylum-seeker fleeing another country. This realization and change in our actions will not come overnight. As the representative from the Seattle Aquarium noted, it is easy to care for cute animals such as the rescued sea otter Rialto, but less automatic to care for creatures such as barnacles.

Another guiding principle is one of “openness to being wrong.” When asked about the possibility of artificial consciousness, the Dalai Lama expressed his belief that what we consider artificial intelligence will not lead to independent consciousness. But he acknowledged he might be wrong. He clearly has a strongly-held opinion, but expressed openness to admitting he might be incorrect. As we get entrenched in deeply held opinions, it becomes difficult to admit we were wrong, even in the face of evidence. However, openness to admitting one was wrong can open doors of communication and cooperation.

The third guiding principle is the acknowledgement of one’s limits, seeking guidance from those who are more knowledgeable, and emphasis on investigation as a way forward. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of investigation as a means of creating understanding. As Tibet’s religious leader, he strongly supports science and creates opportunities for monks to pursue scientific education.  

As a nation, America could learn from wise leaders and borrow building principles as we create — and recreate — our institutions. Creativity scholars teach us that first ideas that come to mind usually are not the best ones. It is thus worth giving a chance to learn from museums and through museums.

As first-generation immigrants, we looked to the United States as the shining light — not as perfect, but always forming a more perfect union. The United States was one in its plurality, which made the country see its best self reflected in the speech stating that we were not “red states or blue states, but the United States.” The Dalai Lama, a wise religious and political leader, can remind us of who we — and our leaders — can strive to be.

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is director of the creativity and emotions lab and heads the research on emotions in the workplace.

Elif Gokcigdem, Ph.D., is an art historian, museum scholar and editor of “Fostering Empathy Through Museums” (2016) and “Designing for Empathy” (coming in 2019). She is the founder of the Empathy-Building Through Museums initiative and co-organizer of the Fostering Universal Ethics and Compassion Through Museums summit.

Tags 14th Dalai Lama Emotions Empathy Human behavior museum

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