Dalai-LamaSo the Dalai Lama came to Silicon Valley and I don’t think it all turned out the way we expected it to. But then again, maybe we should have expected it to turn out this way. First of all, let me say the Dalai Lama is the hardest working man in the spiritual business. In a whirlwind Bay Area tour, he’d already spoken in San Francisco and Berkeley the day before, and had addressed Santa Clara University students earlier this morning before we saw him speak as part of a panel discussion on Incorporating Ethics and Compassion into Business Life. The 78-year old could be excused for being a bit off his game at this point, and although he does speak English, he seemed to have to rely on his translator more than he usually does. Although that might have been as a result of the other panel members — mostly Silicon Valley luminaries — slinging around so much BizSpeak that I felt I might need a translator.

The program opened with an extended chant from Tibetan Buddhist monks.

The program opened with an extended chant from Tibetan Buddhist monks.

And that’s where the problem lay. From thirty years of living and working in Silicon Valley, I’ve learned that you can’t tell many people on the cutting edge of technology — particularly people who have made a lot of money — that they might not know everything. Panel discussions benefit from a lot of stage managing and ground rules to remain interesting. That goes triple if you have Silicon Valley executives on the stage. They can’t seem to resist telling you about ALL THE STUFF THEY KNOW. A more interesting discussion would have evolved if the other panel members had been instructed to bring an example of a specific ethical dilemma they face or had faced in the corporate world, then ask the Dalai Lama to weigh in from his perspective as a spiritual leader. Instead we got the the retired Chairman of the Board of Intel and the co-founder of Adobe blathering on about all the wonderful ethics they fostered in their workplaces. They may know a lot about running hardware and software companies, but I’d wager the Nobel Prize winning Dalai Lama might know just a thing or two more about ethics and compassion. Besides, we bought tickets to hear His Holiness, not them. However, the Dalai Lama did manage to make a point without seeming to try to make a point and with very few words.

Apropos of nothing, here is what you can't bring if you want to hear the Dalai Lama. Sunflower seeds?

Apropos of nothing, here is what you can’t bring if you want to hear the Dalai Lama. Sunflower seeds?

The Adobe founder was droning on about how ethics trump everything at his company because people are their only assets and they want an environment that retains them so they only hire ethical people and treat them right … blah blah blah.

The Dalai Lama interrupted with: “But what if a really talented employee is devious?”

Adobe guy: “Oh no, the team is important, so we wouldn’t hire anyone who isn’t a team player.”

With the demeanor of an extremely bright but slightly annoying child, the Dalai Lama kept interrupting in this vein: “But suppose he is the most talented candidate you’ve ever seen?”

Finally, the Adobe exec admitted, “Well, we do make exceptions.”

Exactly. If you stick to your ethics only until you encounter something or someone who might make you a lot more money, are you really ethical? Score one for His Holiness.

Lest you think I’m picking on Adobe, I will say I have friends who have worked there and it is, by all accounts, a great, fair and equitable place to work. And, full disclosure, Silicon Valley has created a lot of opportunity for a lot of people, myself and Andy included. Let’s give props for representatives of the industry for even having this discussion. I sort of doubt this is a topic at Halliburton or in the oil and gas industry. In any event, the lesson I took away was the manner in which the Dalai Lama “debated”. Smiling and polite, he asked just a few simple questions that allowed the person he was talking to on the dias to make his point for him. When finally asked a direct question — not by the execs but by the audience members — he would answer simply, then counter with a self-effacing “But I am not in business. Perhaps these people can tell us more.” His calm, Socratic and humble line of questioning is a powerful way to debate. I’m not sure his points resonated with those for whom they should have resonated, but I think enough of us got the message. And isn’t the point of a debate (although this was not billed as a debate) not to convince your opponent, but to convince the audience. (Note to self: Must replace my more combative approach with some of these techniques.)

Jack Kerouac's phrase "Holy Goof" applies to the self-effacing Dalai Lama. He happily donned a Santa Clara University visor for the event.

Jack Kerouac’s phrase “Holy Goof” applies to the self-effacing Dalai Lama. He happily donned a Santa Clara University visor for the event.

The second resonant point made by the Dalai Lama: to be ethical, “we must always be looking, and we must look from all eyes.” I took this to mean that we should step outside whatever bubble we are in — especially if it is a bubble of privilege — and see how our actions will affect other people. The reason for my interpretation is a remark he made after the Intel exec mentioned that she’d grown up in post-War Britain under rationing. The Dalai Lama said something to the effect that this would have been an important experience and not one that would be common to many Silicon Valley business leaders.

So there’s my take on this event. If you want another one, here’s how the San Jose Mercury News spins it. While it wasn’t the event I’d hoped it would be, maybe, in retrospect, it was just as valuable. I’m only bummed that they had us write our questions for the Dalai Lama on index cards, then never collected them from my section. Here’s the question I wrote:

What is one simple guideline that you would give to business people that would serve as a touchstone for maintaining a moral compass and keeping ethics in business?

What would you have asked? Go ahead. I’ve Friended His Holiness on Facebook, so I’m sure he’ll be dropping by this blog soon.

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