Former CEO and long-time Buddhist Thane Lawrie on the tension between being in business and wanting to live a calm, moral life.
“It seems to pique people’s interest,” says Thane Lawrie when we ask him about the usual reaction he gets when people find out he is both a Buddhist and a businessman.
It is no doubt a question he has been asked many times before – and not just by curious journalists. To most people’s minds the worlds of Buddhism and business are poles apart.
Picture a stereotypical Buddhist and it’s probably a monk sitting in the lotus position with their eyes closed to the madness of the world.
Lawrie says that Buddhism is more nuanced than that rather simplistic picture. For one thing, Buddhism is about being connected with the world, not shutting it out or floating austerely above it.
His years as a practicing Buddhist have certainly influenced Lawrie’s outlook on life, but there was always “a tension” he observed between the Buddhist way and the demands of running a business.
Buddhism is all about a “more peaceful, compassionate life … Then you become a CEO and find yourself busy and dealing with different issues.”
Lawrie is former CEO of Scottish social enterprise business Scarf. Although he enjoyed his career and is proud of his achievements in business, he had to step back from the CEO job a while back because of health problems. He was diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder (FND), which he reckons may have been brought on by stress. The condition is not very well understood by medics, but Lawrie says it is not that rare and around 100,000 people have been diagnosed with it in the UK.
He remains on Scarf’s board of directors as vice-chair. It was an amicable decision for him to step down. These days, he’s interested in advocating for empathy in the workplace and listening to and supporting leaders – something he feels we don’t talk enough about as a society.
From his home just outside Aberdeen, he tells SiliconRepublic.com all about his career ups and downs and how they informed a novel he has released based on his life called The Buddhist CEO.
The book is fictional; the main character is called Hamish and the action follows his efforts to lead a struggling non-profit company in a compassionate way. Hamish often seeks advice from Buddhist monks and he does his best to apply Buddhist philosophy to his working life.
“It does draw heavily upon my life, but it’s not a biography,” Lawrie says. Like Lawrie, Hamish becomes ill from the stress of the job, but he also manages to affect positive change by setting up a group called Fellowship of the CEOs.
It’s something Lawrie did himself, too, although his group was not called Fellowship of the CEOs. It was simply an anonymous platform for leaders to turn to one another for advice and support when the going got tough.
“What I found was that all these leaders felt they couldn’t share their struggles. They were the face of the company. They couldn’t walk into work and say ‘I’m struggling today’. They couldn’t go to a senior staff member or to someone below them and say ‘I’m struggling’ because they were there for them.”
“What I found was that all the CEOs, when I got underneath their skin, underneath their bonnet, they were all brilliant in their own ways and people really admired them. But they all struggled at one level. And I just felt that maybe this was a struggle that hasn’t been shown. There are not many leadership books out there that come from that angle, and I thought it would be an interesting one.”
Mostly, the book is about giving people an insight into the “difficult journey” that is being a leader.
“I wonder if it’s actually a far more common story that we think it is,” Lawrie reflects. “My book is called The Buddhist CEO, but could it be the Christian CEO, could it be the Hindu CEO? Could it have been the moral atheist CEO?”
“I think there are a lot of people out there in the modern world that are not Buddhists. I hope they would identify with a story about our faith or just the idea of a good life of no fear.”
Some of Lawrie’s readers have told him that they feel less alone when they read the book. He says that this shows that there’s an appetite for modern spiritual stories.
Suit and tie sage
“At one point in the book, Hamish refers to himself or people trying to live a good life in business, as a suit and tie sage. Maybe it’s a universal struggle, where people are now wanting to live quiet, compassionate and deeply moral lives.”
Lawrie sympathises with these people, who like he once did, find themselves “torn” between being living a good life and working 10 hours a day to meet KPIs.
“Now, I’m not against making money, by the way. I’m not against businesses making money to make a profit, but I feel it has to be more than that. Businesses are grounded in the community – I hope and think. They employ staff from there; they draw upon resources from the area.”
Lawrie says it is important to give something back if you’re making a profit in business. “I think that’s where Buddhism can inform business.”
He returns again to the tension that exists between being a Buddhist and a CEO. “I think for a Buddhist it’s quite difficult to go into a busy situation when they’re trying to live a more peaceful life,” he says.
“At the same time, it’s not trying to escape the world the way my Buddhism is. It’s about trying to be part of the world and contribute to it positively. If businesses are just run purely for profit I think, as a society, as a global society, we’re in trouble.”
That said, Lawrie is fairly optimistic that lots of businesspeople are becoming more aware of morals and employee wellbeing. For one thing, they see the benefit in their bottom lines. Happier staff means better productivity and better services.
But it’s not just staff we need to have empathy for. Leaders need it too. Lawrie says he has met many politicians and leaders over the years in his line of work. “I was in no doubt that most of them were there for the right reasons.” He thinks it can be too easy to criticise leaders, and society needs leaders to grow and move forward.
Lawrie’s spirituality may not have saved him from the stresses of the business world, but it does contribute to how he sees himself now as he looks back on his career.
“You can choose how you experience the world … FND, I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone really, because particularly the first two years are quite horrible, but I don’t believe in feeling sorry for myself around that. It’s actually helped me to calm down, be more relaxed and maybe take my life in different directions. So, I don’t view it as just negative.”
“It has taken on some strange twists and turns but I’m still enjoying life. I’m still getting a lot from life,” Lawrie says. “It’s just part of the journey as I see it.”
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