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Harmlessness and the Leadership Spectrum

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I am 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 down 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?

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. I start this essay by turning to a tradition that focuses on doing no harm to any living being.

The Jain Commitment to Harmlessness

I am 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.

The commitment to doing no harm extends beyond the domain of physical harm and beyond one’s own actions. Those devoted to the Jain perspective believe that one should neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jains strongly advocate non-violence against all beings—one must in all ways be harmless. Nonviolence for Jains comes not just in the form of action but also in speech and in thought. Instead of hate or violence against anyone, we must respect and protect the life of all creatures. Jains specifically believe that violence, in all forms, chips away at one’s soul. This is particularly the case when the violence is done with intent, hate or carelessness, or when one indirectly causes or consents to the killing of a human or non-human living being.

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