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Harmlessness and the Leadership Spectrum

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William Bergquist and Suzi Pomerantz

[Note: this essay contains personal reflections on the part of both of us as authors, while also directing attention to the broader issue of harm and harmlessness that must inevitably be addressed by anyone who chooses to be active in their society. When we have enjoined our own distinctive reflections and comments, the source is contained in a bracket, with William being identified as WB and Suzi as SP.]

One of us [WB] is now reading the new novel, Jack, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Marilynne Robinson (Robinson, 2020). One of the many rich themes contained in this novel is Harmlessness. Robinson’s protagonist, Jack Boughton, ponders about harmfulness and about whether he (or anyone) can go through life without causing harm. Do we lead a life when no harm is being done to other people—or do we harm other people through the actions we have taken (or not taken)?  Can we ever lead a harmless life or is our world designed in such a way that harm is inevitable? Is this especially the case when we are in a leadership position? Do leaders, by nature of the decisions they make on behalf of others, cause more harm than non-leaders?

With the best of intentions, are we inevitably going to leave someone feeling wounded, ignored, misunderstood, betrayed – or at least disappointed? This essay is all about these important (and often haunting) questions and about the way harm and harmlessness play out in the decisions and actions taken by leaders who embrace differing styles of leadership. Let’s begin by turning to a tradition that focuses on doing no harm to any living being.

The Jain Commitment to Harmlessness

We are reminded of the extreme position taken by the Jain in India, who seek to harm no living being during their life. Jain texts, such as Acaranga Sūtra and Tattvarthasūtra, state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. In its extreme form, this includes sweeping the road in front of them when they are walking, so that no animal is being stepped on.

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