The Dalai Lama Comes to Silicon Valley

The Dalai Lama came to the hard-driving high-tech corridor with a tough message: corporate compassion is a real thing, and it can’t be faked or used solely for a profit motive.

dalailamaThe fourteenth Dalai Lama visited Silicon Valley last week to discuss the role of compassion in business with two audiences convened at Santa Clara University. Some 3700 tickets for the morning public event were snapped up in less than fifteen minutes. Dignity Health CEO Lloyd Dean held a dialogue with the 78-year old-spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Later, four hundred Silicon Valley leaders attended a private afternoon session featuring Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke, former biotech CEO and Intel Chair Jane Shaw, and scholar Monica Worline talking in greater depth with the Dalai Lama about whether compassion can and should play a strong role in business — particularly in the intensely competitive world of Silicon Valley business. 

The Dalai Lama had three core messages for the afternoon audience, including a couple that will be hard for Silicon Valley to accept and put in practice.

I think the first message was expected: genuine compassion toward your employees, customers, communities and business partners pays off – in more loyal employees, more enthusiastic and forgiving customers, supportive communities efficient and productive business partnerships. So far, so good. Many, if not most, Silicon Valley leaders buy into the notion that treating your stakeholders well is good business — most of the time. The Dalai Lama added that being compassionate is also the only path to true happiness for the individual, and so is its own reward.

The Dalai Lama’s second message, however, was harder to take: you can’t fake compassion — and it cannot just be a strategy to increase earnings. Compassion can’t be just a clever and manipulative way of increasing profits. You have to actually care — deeply — about your employees and customers and communities and business partners. You have to be willing to spend money today to show care and compassion — even though you don’t know where or when you might reap future returns on that investment. Within limits, you have to care “without counting the cost.”

The implications: You have to have that care and compassion foremost in your mind when you develop products, design services and deal with customer complaints and inevitable tumult in the personal lives of employees. You cannot ignore the needs of employees or aggrieved customers when it is too costly; you cannot dismiss quality or privacy concerns when you absolutely need to ship a product this quarter.

You can imagine how this sounded to a room filled with hard-driving Silicon Valley executives. They may agree in the abstract, but this kind of wisdom is hard to implement and may directly contradict much of the culture and practices of the Valley’s culture.

The Dalai Lama’s third message was particularly hard for a 24/7 world: you have to make a deliberate effort to cultivate compassion in yourself. This means setting aside time. It is not something you simply adopt one day. But even in our frantic Silicon Valley world, it is still possible, the Dalai Lama believes, to become more compassionate. There are many techniques, among them meditation and deliberate and regular reflection on the needs of others and on our impact on their lives.

He went even further to tell leaders who want to create compassionate companies that they must teach compassion to their managers and employees – or else they will never create a consistently compassionate, ethical and responsive organization.

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Dalai Lama at Santa Clara University

How to respond to the Dalai Lama’s challenge to Silicon Valley is not immediately clear. While many Silicon Valley companies pride themselves in creating good workplaces for their employees — some characterized by fitness facilities and free food — there is almost always a tough business logic to it. Perhaps: “Feed them well and they will stay around and work longer hours.” Silicon Valley is a place where you keep up or you are cut from the team that is sprinting toward an IPO or a sale to Google or Cisco. Silicon Valley is a place where privacy violations repeatedly occur because every startup must “monetize its eyeballs.” The notion of compassion can sound weak in such a sink-or-swim culture.

The challenge for all of us in Silicon Valley is to find ways to integrate compassion into firms that also must remain on the cutting edge of technology and of global competition. Stay tuned.


Kirk O. Hanson Kirk O. Hanson is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He is also John Courtney Murray S.J. University Professor of Social Ethics.
  • chris

    Another religious site of the Dalai Lama crowd.

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