London Correspondent for CBS News
Those of you of a certain age (WELL over 30!) may remember a button worn by some members of that late, occasionally lamented species, Hirsutus Nonconformus - the infamous Hippie. It read "Question Authority" and was a reminder that, just because someone in a uniform or in a position of power tells you something, that doesn't necessarily make it true.
Philosophers spend a good part of their working lives questioning authority. The question each other, they question the "experts", and they question the assumptions of their culture.
Sometimes this amounts to nothing more than complicated arguments about obscure points - "What was Nietzsche really getting at with his concept of a 'Superman'?" - but other questioning might involve cosmic matters of fundamental importance - "Was Nietzsche right or wrong when he said that 'God is dead'?". For philosophers, everything deserves a good question.
The man often called "The Father of Modern Philosophy," Rene Descartes, built his reputation, and his distinctive method, on questioning authority. But he wasn't the first great thinker to do so. There are powerful examples of this in ancient times that can give us needed new perspectives on our work, and on our lives. Let's go back about twenty five hundred years for a good, paradigmatic example of this.
The Buddha (c.563 - c.483 BCE) is an example of someone who questioned authority and, in the process, changed his entire way of thinking (as well as, incidentally, founding an entire philosophy and religious system). He was born into a wealthy and powerful Hindu family, but came to realize that the main authority figures in his life - his parents, his teachers, his friends - weren't giving him the real story about the world in which we live. They wove a web of pleasant illusion around him, told him that being a prince was his happy lot in life, and urged him to just enjoy his royal status. But they didn't tell him anything at all about the realities of pain, suffering, sickness and death in our world.
It must have been a psyche-shattering shock when the prince found out that the authority figures had, in effect, been lying to him about life. He left his family and, because he'd been deceived, decided he would find out for himself what was what. The capsule version of what happened next is that he tested various philosophies, found them all lacking, resolved through meditation to find the truth - and did. He then went on to teach what he'd discovered, but always with a special caveat:
"I'm telling you this, but you should not believe a word of it just because I'm a buddha and you're not!
In other words, "Question Authority - even if I, the Buddha, am the authority."
That's an admonition often given by the current Dalai Lama of Tibet. He tells those who come to hear him speak, or who read his books, that not all of them should become Tibetan Buddhists - their proper path may lie elsewhere. His advice is to try, for example, meditation and if it doesn't work out, stop it. Move on to something else until you find the practice or philosophy that matches your own abilities, needs, and inclinations. What's important is the process of discovery, combined with an attitude of openness, and compassion.
There are lessons here for the business world, the most important of which is: The boss is not always right. The good bosses already know this, but the bad ones, well, let's just say they probably have a long way to go before they become business buddhas. The longer a company's been around, the more likely the people in it will tend to do things the way they've always been done. The "authorities" will just say, "Our shipping department is structured this way because that's how it was set up, and it's worked for a long time," even if its inefficiency is obvious to everyone but them. The "authorities" may say, "Going online costs too much, and our customers already have plenty of ways to do business with us," even if the customers themselves are repeatedly asking for Internet options.
The Buddha's advice applies in a business as well as it does in a monastery: Find out for yourself if something works - don't assume it does just because someone who has a office with a window says so.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you should stand up at your next departmental meeting and tell your supervisor, in front of the assembled gathering, that the company is being strangled by outdated methods and an obvious lack of wisdom by management. But it does mean you should be questioning, whether in the quiet of your own mind, or with colleagues. And questioning means analyzing as well as critically assessing. And then, if you do find something that needs to be fixed, try figuring out a way to bring it up and deal with it in a spirit of openness and compassion, a way that can produce results that often will make nearly everyone, at least ultimately, happy. Maybe invite a manager to draft a memo with you, or ask some colleagues for help. Don't be afraid to be a buddha yourself, and enlist others into the process.
The last words of the Buddha also can be applied to our jobs: "Work out your own salvation with diligence". In other words, the one person who can decide if something is really working, in business or philosophy, is you. This means more personal responsibility, but it also holds out the promise of wisdom.
So go into the attic, open the trunk, dig through the tie-dyed T-shirts, love beads, and old bell bottoms, and pull out that "Question Authority" button! Or make yourself a new one. Then wear it to work! Imagine the wonderful discussion that could happen when the Big Boss sees it and says, "WHAT is THAT??" Or if you happen to be the Big Boss yourself, think of what can transpire when others see it and say "WHAT is THAT??" - thereby already following its directive.
On the other hand, you could just keep it in your desk drawer, along with those love beads, and look at it for inspiration from time to time.
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