Lessons on narrative from the Dalai Lama

Lessons on narrative from the Dalai Lama

A few years ago, the Dalai Lama invited Buddhists from around the world to participate in a super-secret Tibetan Buddhist ritual at his monastery in India. If you’re wondering how this story might relate to work and creating narratives, please press on.

The Dalai Lama decided that with all the turmoil in the world, it was important to share the ceremony with a broad audience. But during an interview, he admitted with an enormous grin that he had “tricked” these practitioners into making the trek.

They would be on site for five days, concluding with the ritual only on the fifth day. First, this massive audience had to endure four days of lectures on the core tenets of Tibetan Buddhism: study and mediation. During this time, His Holiness repeated a simple message that without the fundamentals, any ritual was meaningless.

But he not only tricked these devout Buddhists, he tricked the Frenchwoman who brought a documentary crew to India to film the ritual. And he tricked nerds like me, who think watching a documentary on a rare Buddhist rite is a good time.

The documentary was meh, but I watched the whole thing. And I can’t recall anything about the ritual. The narrative, on the other hand, stuck with me:

– The Dalai Lama told people what they wanted to hear, inspiring them to come to India.
– Once they got there, he reminded them why they were really there and what mattered most.
– He allowed Westerners to record and share the event.
– He upheld his end of the bargain by closing with the sacred ritual.
– And he was even transparent about his trickery.

Brilliant, right?

Don’t be so literal.

Those last two bullets are important: you and I both know plenty of people who can spin clever narratives, yet never deliver.

But the flip side is also true: there are many of us falling on our swords trying to uphold the bargain, ignoring that we’ve lost our audience and compromised our ability to deliver. This is especially true if you’re a sincere collaborator trying to disrupt and drive change while being emotionally intelligent and vulnerable at work.

Ugh. These might be noble pursuits, but they’re terrible narratives.

The world and work are political minefields. This object lesson from the Dalai Lama reminds us that we can deliver with sincerity, purpose – and a big fat grin.

The trick is to be honest, without being so literal.

Create perspective.

I recently worked with Alex, who’s a crazy-smart business strategist and superior human. He was leading a transformation effort that required help from many teams across his company.

And he knew success required shared objectives and collaboration. But he also knew that in a competitive environment (like most), his leaders had little interest in pleas for collaboration or cross-functional buzzwords.

As a result, Alex felt trapped between leaders with competing points of view and working teams who needed better direction. More infuriating, the contradictions prevented him from helping teams who wanted to work together.

But we parked the messy organizational issues and distractions. Instead, we focused on Alex’s more pressing (and solvable) problem: his frustration was blocking his ability to think clearly.

And Alex is a great thinker. He needed a little space to get his brain back online. So we slowed everything down, which allowed him to see the situation with fresh eyes.

After a few minutes, he had a breakthrough. While the situation was irritating and confusing, the guidance from his leaders was just that – guidance. Informed and uninformed opinions. Good ideas and lousy ones. Brilliance and noise. A lot of noise.

With this perspective, Alex could respect multiple points of view directionally. But he didn’t have to be literal about it. His narrative could be flexible.  To move anything forward, it had to be.

Then he said cleverly, “I can just tell the leaders what they want to hear.”

Expand the narrative.

What did they most want to hear? That Alex was listening. That teams were engaging the right partners. That work was advancing. That details were available (when they wanted them).

And Alex could truthfully and confidently assert all of these.

Ok, so there there’s something a little subversive in Alex’s new approach. And by subversive I mean being a leader, looking out for his teams and doing his job well. That’s the strange world we’re working in.

It’s all in how you say it.

In Alex’s case, this wasn’t spin. It was creating a narrative that made space for seemingly competing views. It was providing air cover for earnest working teams while also preventing leaders from making myopic decisions. And it moved meaningful work forward, allowing people to work together in new ways.

Brilliant, right?


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Documentary: The Enlightenment  (on Amazon Prime) | Photo by  Lightscape on Unsplash
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