(An insightful Interview with Mr. Thane Lawrie)
1. In your book, “The Buddhist CEO,” the protagonist, Hamish, has a chance encounter with a Buddhist monk that significantly impacts his life. Could you share with us the inspiration behind this story? What led you to explore the intersection of Buddhism and corporate leadership?
I had always wanted to write a book, but life got in the way with having a family and busy job. But as my children reached adulthood, I thought this is the time to write my book. By this time, I had been a Buddhist myself for about 25 years, and it means a lot to me and has greatly shaped my life. I had also worked as the CEO of a large charity in my native country of Scotland for several years.
I was struck by how difficult I found it to remain grounded and peaceful and stay true to my Buddhist values whilst working as a modern-day CEO. I then wondered how many people across the world are facing the same kind of struggle where they are trying to diligently follow their religion, but the modern world seems to make it difficult.
I then decided to write my novel about this theme and in so doing describe the difficulties of having a high-pressure job but also the desire to be a committed Buddhist. I chose to write it as a novel rather than a non-fiction book as I really wanted to describe the inner turmoil that the main character feels when he deals with high pressure decisions and how this affects his Buddhist practice.
2. Hamish dreams of becoming a monk, but he also deeply cherishes his family and ends up becoming the CEO of a struggling nonprofit. How does he navigate the balance between his spiritual aspirations and his responsibilities in the professional world? How does Buddhism influence his approach to compassionate leadership?
The main character Hamish never set out to become a CEO. But unexpectedly an opportunity arises for him to become the CEO of an organization. He questions if he should take up the job as he knows it will be stressful. His biggest fear is how will it affect his Buddhist practice that he is so committed to. On the other hand, he can see that as a CEO of a large charity he could help bring about a lot of good in his society. He takes the job and resolves to lead as a Buddhist CEO.
Buddhism informs his leadership style, and he seeks to lead with a compassionate approach. He starts various initiatives in his organization that aim to treat people well and give them a say over their work. He makes changes quickly and raises moral and the staff appreciate the positive changes he makes.
Despite the positive changes he makes he still at times dreams of being a Buddhist monk although he knows this will never happen. But he finds great support and peace from visiting a monastery regularly on week long retreats and he thinks of the monks often when he is dealing with difficult work situations.
3. The core principles of Buddhism, such as mindfulness, compassion, and self-reflection, have gained increasing popularity beyond religious boundaries. How do you see these principles being integrated into various aspects of society, including education, healthcare, and business? Could you share any notable examples or initiatives where Buddhism has influenced positive change?
There is no doubt that some of the core Buddhist principles as listed above are entering mainstream society. I see this as a very positive development. I am aware that the National Health Service in the UK has trained people in mindfulness and that this is offered to patients and also staff. As far as I am aware this is still on a relatively small scale but the use of mindfulness as a practice to improve people’s wellbeing is certainly now happening. I think in business, people now realize that a successful business needs to look after their staff. People work for money but they also want to be treated well, with dignity and respect, and to have a sense of purpose. This helps a business to thrive. Perhaps to some degree this has been influenced by the increasing interest in mindfulness and a growing awareness that this comes from Buddhism, which promotes compassion for our fellow beings.
One initiative that has impressed me in the UK has been a Buddhist initiative called Angulimala, The Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy. This charity was founded by a Buddhist monk called Venerable Ajhan Khemadhammo, and its volunteers, both monks and lay people, go into prisons and teach meditation and Buddhism to prisoners. There is something remarkable about this. I am heartened to think that when someone is in a very dark place and they enter a tough environment like a prison, it is amazing to think that they will have an opportunity to meet with a compassionate Buddhist chaplain like this.
4. In your experience as the Chairman of The Haven and Vice Chairman of Scarf (Scotland), both organizations committed to social welfare, how have you seen Buddhist principles guide compassionate leadership and community engagement? What are some practical ways in which individuals can incorporate Buddhist values into their work and contribute to the betterment of society?
For seven years I was the CEO of Scarf, before I stepped back from this role and became their Vice Chair. I didn’t necessarily discuss my Buddhist views with staff but many of them were aware that I was a Buddhist. But my Buddhist values informed all my decision making. I sought to treat people fairly and with compassion as well as being aspirational about what we could achieve as an organization and thus help a greater number of people.
The organization was going through a difficult period when I took on the role of CEO and staff moral was low. Quickly I brought about positive change within the organization and quickly staff moral increased significantly. So much so that the organization went on to be listed in the prestigious Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to work for in the UK in six out of the seven years when I was the CEO. I firmly believe that this was the influence of my Buddhist practice and how this informed my leadership style that allowed the organization to succeed in the way that it did.
I believe that developing a daily practice of meditation and mindfulness is the best thing a person can do to contribute positively to their work and the wider society. I recommend starting each day with meditation and then trying to practice mindfulness as often as you can during the rest of the day. Doing this daily builds up a feeling of peace and contentment I find, which we can bring into our working life as the day unfolds.
5. As the Director of IBHForum, I understand that our missions align in preserving Indian Buddhist heritage, including its culture, ideology, architecture, and books. How do you view the importance of such preservation efforts, and how do they contribute to the broader understanding of Buddhism and its historical significance?
I believe that the work of the IBHForum is massively important and preserving Indian Buddhist Heritage is vital work. I have never visited India, but I have so much respect for the country. As a Buddhist I am aware that India is where the Buddha spent most of his life, along with Nepal. The famous sites where he was born, taught and died are sacred sites to Buddhists all over the world and it is great to know that your organization is preserving these sites and their cultural history for India but also for the whole world. I hope to visit many of the Indian Buddhist sites in person one day.