Articles January 1, 2001

Interview: The Path of Leadership

Anushka Fernandopulle

Anushka Fernandopulle is a lifelong spiritual practitioner who has trained for over 20 years in the Theravāda tradition in the US, India, and Sri Lanka and teaches retreats and workshops around the country. Anushka also works as a leadership coach and management consultant, influenced by a BA in anthropology and religion from Harvard University and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. Anushka is on the Spirit Rock Teachers Council and leads a weekly group in San Francisco, Monday Night Dharma. Her teaching is informed by nature, creative arts, political engagement, innovation, and modern urban life.

Spirit Rock: How can mindfulness meditation make someone a more effective leader?

Anushka: Being a good leader requires many characteristics of mind and heart, like the ability to be present, clear, and focused. The kind of practice we do, Insight Meditation, cultivates mindfulness, awareness, collectedness of mind, and balance of mind—all of which help you to know what’s happening in the moment and to come up with creative and appropriate responses. Insight Meditation also cultivates positive qualities of heart that can help you to connect better with people with a sense of goodwill and kindness.

Mindfulness has become very popular recently as a tool for self-improvement and for becoming more successful in your field. It can be helpful in those ways, but to me, it is important to hold the bigger picture of our human development and our potential to have a positive impact on the world. I’m interested in that more than mindfulness as a productivity tool.

So meditation is just one piece of it. The broader Eightfold Path, including how we act in the world, what we say, what we do in our work . . . it’s important to bring awareness to all these, which are part of a path of spiritual development, and you could even say human development. Meditation can be very helpful for this bigger picture as it cultivates positive qualities that we bring into the world—how we interact with people, the decisions we make, and even what our vision may be.

This last point is also essential. The ultimate goal or vision that we hold is important, as is the way we go about achieving it. What is our vision for what we are trying to do? If you have an idea of something that’s positive for people, for society, and for the planet, then it’s a great thing to pursue. Even if it is neutral, it can be OK. You can then consider how you pursue it as part of a broader spiritual path. It’s important to consider dimensions of impact with your goals and means.

Spirit Rock: Is teaching mindfulness to leaders any different from teaching the general public?

Anushka: Some people have taken on specific leadership roles in a community or an organization in which they have responsibility over people and resources and decisions in some way. In those roles we have great power to influence, so how we act is particularly important. But everyone has leadership potential and anyone can be a leader. Leadership can also be situational, so even if you have no formal positional leadership, you might act as a leader at times.

If you’re a meditator and you’re developing skills and qualities of the mind and heart, it’s good to consider at some point how you can use those in the world too. How can you apply what you are learning and developing to what’s happening in our country, in our communities right now? You can share your energy and talents with the broader world in whatever way you feel called, and it can be an act of generosity. This can be leadership.

In the larger context of thinking about our actions and impact, mindfulness becomes more than just a breathing technique. In the beginning, it may seem like that, but pretty soon, you go beyond that. It becomes much more interesting and rich when you consider a broader picture of how we want to influence the world, how we want to communicate with people, what we want to learn, and how we want to reveal ourselves.

There are many people in leadership roles who see the path of leadership as separate from their spiritual path. I want to help them bring the two together. And then there are some leaders who don’t have a spiritual practice or meditation practice. For them, there are aspects of the practice—the framing of things in the Dharma and the cultivation of different aspects of the heart—that can be very helpful in facing different challenges.

There’s power that moves through all of us. We have the capacity to speak and act with impacts on people and the environment that go way beyond what we know. We all have the ability to influence the world in ways we probably don’t even think about or imagine. Part of the path of leadership is acknowledging that and doing your best to use that power in a way that moves things in a positive direction.

Spirit Rock: Power isn’t a word that comes up often in the context of the Dharma. What can the Dharma teach us about power?

Anushka: Power is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes power to make things happen. If there is a goal that I want to move towards and I put energy and effort towards it, power is going to be helpful. It takes energy, effort, and determination to make anything happen. What I’m talking about here is the energizing qualities of the Factors of Awakening and also some aspects of the paramis. Even the stabilizing factors are very relevant for power. Concentration is a very strong power. The ability to have calm is also a power, and the ability to be equanimous and not be knocked around by things. You can also say that mettā is a strong power, the force of goodwill; it’s like a protective power. Mettā, compassion, and all the brahmavihāras, are very strong powers that can help us take action in the world.

Spirit Rock: How did you become interested in teaching mindfulness to leaders?

Anushka: I’ve done a lot of work in organizations and with leaders, and I have an MBA. I came to this work because I had been doing my own meditation practice for a long time, 25 years. During that time, I held various leadership roles and was seeing the connection between the path of leadership development and the spiritual path. For a while, I kept the two paths separate. Then I became a professional consultant and coach, where my job was helping people in leadership roles with strategic planning and with leadership transitions, particularly. When I started teaching Dharma about ten years ago, I kept that separate from my consulting and coaching practice, but because I have an unusual name, when people looked me up on the web, they would find that I have both backgrounds, so that forced me to be more unified in my life! Now in my coaching practice, I primarily work with people who are interested in meditation and self-awareness or in connecting their spiritual life and work life. I’m also currently writing a book about integrating the paths of leadership and spirituality.

For me, the tools that I learned from getting my MBA were very good for organizational systems. But also in my toolkit are these skills of meditation and Dharma, of cultivating the mind and heart, of developing self-awareness and groundedness. These are more unusual, they’re not taught in Western classrooms, I didn’t learn them at Harvard or Yale, but they are as important, I think, for developing as a person, and particularly for leadership.

Anushka Fernandopulle

Anushka Fernandopulle

Residential Retreat Teacher

Anushka Fernandopulle has trained for over 35 years in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Her teaching is informed by nature, arts, political engagement and modern urban life. She also works as a leadership coach and organizational consultant, influenced by a BA in anthropology/religion from Harvard and an MBA from Yale.