The 5 Leadership Lessons of the Buddha

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What are the leadership lessons of the Buddha, and what do they mean to us?

When we think of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, you may think of him only as a historical religious figure rather than a leader.

However, the Buddha was one of the great leaders from whom we can learn from and apply in our modern world.  In fact, his style of leadership is like what is advocated by leadership experts today.  The Buddha was just 2,600 years early.

Can you become a better leader by learning from the Buddha?  Absolutely, and this article can give you some steps to make that happen.

The Leadership Lessons of the Buddha

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.  ~ John Maxwell

If you are looking to become a leader, the Buddha’s life provides numerous examples of what a successful leader looks like.  

I have examined the Buddha’s leadership and distilled them into five lessons that we can all apply as leaders.

First, I will present you with the leadership lessons I learned from his life, and an image of the rules which you can click the image to donate and receive a high-quality PDF document you can print out.

The leadership lessons are:

  • #1:  Have a Purpose:  This is your “why”, which tells what you are passionate about, which attracts followers
  • #2:  Have a Mission:  This is “how” you, and your followers, can achieve the purpose through a path
  • #3:  Have a Vision:  This is “what” the end of the path (mission) will look like for you and your followers
  • #4:  Set the Tone:  Be a leader that is impeccable with your words, actions, trust, and emancipation, which in turn helps turns followers into leaders that want to achieve the mission
  • #5:  Be Mindful:  Set the tone through practicing emotional intelligence, paying attention (awareness), keeping focused, being self-aware, having empathy, and reflecting daily
Leadership Lessons of the Buddha - the Five Rules
Click the image to donate and get a high-quality PDF version of this for printing.

The Buddha Was Not an Ordinary Leader

Leadership is having a compelling vision, a comprehensive plan, relentless implementation, and talented people working together.  ~ Alan Mullaly

Leadership Lessons of the Buddha - the Buddha teaching the monastic community

After the Buddha realized enlightened, he had the choice of being selfish and keeping this realization and knowledge to himself or do something that would benefit others.

As a leader, the Buddha knew that benefiting others was the obvious choice.

A leader’s purpose is to not only to inspire and clearly share their vision with others, but also to make sure their followers are safe and so that they can become leaders themselves.

The Buddha did this in spades.

The Buddha’s “why“, his entire reason for being from the point he became enlightened, was clear.  He had no confusion or doubt with him from that point on, throughout his 40+ years of teaching, and even on his deathbed.  He was able to clearly, and simply, articulate this why for others, show them how to achieve it for themselves and others, and turn them into leaders as well.

But What Made His Leadership Special?

Here are some things that the Buddha was, and did, that made his leadership something we can examine and emulate:

  • He was a human being, just like you and me, which made his leadership truly remarkable. There was no divine power given to him, and it was all based on his own effort.  In-fact, he started his movement like a focused entrepreneur with just himself, and absolutely nothing else.
  • He organized and managed communities of monks and nuns numbering in the thousands that were spread across great distances.
  • His leadership and vision were filled with compassion, discipline, and mindfulness.  Three things that ever leader needs.
  • He knew exactly what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go, and his followers clearly understood his vision and the mission.
  • He understood the value of interpersonal relationships, and could easily talk with heads of state, and those at any level of the social ladder.
  • He was able to solve problems, and modify existing decisions, to make the mission succeed and be fair to those on his team.
  • When he was dying, nobody had a single question or confusion about his teachings (mission/vision/direction).
  • He had ensured succession planning was in place, so those who wish to follow his path where able to ensure the organization (Sangha) was able to continue and did not need to rely upon him.  In-fact, on his deathbed he told his team (monastics) that they should rely upon themselves and nobody and nothing else besides the truth (mission/vision/direction) he had given them.  2,600 years later we can see that with those who are true to this direction he gave.  How many organizations do you know that have been around for 2,600 years without a CEO?!

With my list of the five leadership rules I have learned from him, I hope you can learn from them also and apply them.

The Buddha’s Purpose, Mission, and Vision

Your passion is ignited by your purpose in life.  Your mission and vision enable you to apply that spark to change the world.

Before we get to the list, I want to explain the first three items and how they are connected.   If we apply these three leadership principles to the Buddha and Buddhism, here is what we get:

  • Purpose:  To free sentient beings from Dukkha
  • Mission:  To provide the conditions and teachings so sentient beings can be free from Dukkha
  • Vision:  A world where all sentient beings are awakened to their true nature, free from the three poisons, free from Dukkha, and escape the cycle of rebirth (Samsara)

The first three are all about building a foundation.  You do not build a house without a foundation, nor do you create an organization or movement without a foundation.

If you do not have a foundation, there is no way a following can ensue.  Further, a foundation helps ground the leader to what is always important and makes their actions in direction relationship with the foundation.

For example, the Buddha was so grounded in this foundation that he would not even answer speculative and unnecessary questions that had nothing to do with his mission.

Ask him a question related to the mission/vision, and you would get an answer.  Be off topic, and you would often be met with silence.  You can see this in some of the most focused entrepreneurs and leaders – they are single focused on the purpose, mission, and vision.

Therefore, having a Purpose, Mission, and Vision, are critical in creating a foundation for a leader to lead their followers.

The Four Truths of Your Leadership

To help liberate all sentient beings from their suffering.  ~The mission statement of the Buddha (in modern terms)

The Buddha so clearly articulated everything in this Four Noble Truths, that he instantly made followers of those who had previously shunned him.  That is impressive, and the hallmark of a true leader.

Let’s look at the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.  Many have likened this teaching to that of a doctor who is treating a patient.

  1. The Truth of Suffering (“The Symptom”):  Life entails suffering (“Dukkha”)
  2. The Cause of Suffering (“The Diagnosis”):  This suffering is caused by delusion and attachment (“Trishna”)
  3. The Truth of the End of Suffering (“The Prognosis”):  There is a cure to this suffering, which helps you achieve a state known as “Nirvana
  4. The Truth of the Path That Frees of Suffering (“The Prescription”):  Follow the eightfold path to eliminate suffering in your life (“Maggha”)

When we think of this example, and especially that of a doctor, we can apply that to our leadership teaching.

Write out on a piece of paper your organization’s “Four Truths”.  What is the problem you are aiming to solve?  Why is there a problem?  Is there a solution?  How do you get to that solution?

Here’s an example from a time before bread was conveniently sliced for us:

  1. Slicing Bread is Tedious and Time Consuming:  You must slice bread yourself just to make a sandwich.  It’s a pain, and you have better things to do.
  2. Why Does This Happen?  Bread comes as a loaf and requires the customer to do the work of slicing.
  3. Is there a Solution?  Yes, bread can be pre-sliced, which saves the customer time and effort.
  4. How?  Our new machine will be able to perfectly slice each loaf before the customer receives it.  That way, they never have to do anything besides pull out two pieces of bread and make a sandwich.

Simple, isn’t it?  Yet, we often will make this too difficult and overthink it.  Be like the Buddha and keep it focused and simple so that anyone can understand it.

In the above example, it gives your team everything they need to know to understand the problem, that we have a solution, and here’s how we get there.

Additionally, it is perfect for the customer or anyone else who you want to articulate your vision!

The fourth part can branch off to an entirely separate document, just like the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, which explains how you achieve that vision.

Now, let’s go into each of the five leadership lessons I have created form the Buddha’s life and our modern world.  Included will be YouTube videos featuring Simon Sinek, a popular leadership leader who authored the groundbreaking book “Start With Why“.

#1:  Have a Purpose

“Purpose is the destination of a vision … Leaders must embed their own sense of purpose into the heart and soul of every follower.” ~ General Colin Powell

The first leadership lesson is:  Have a Purpose – This is your “why”, which tells what you are passionate about, which attracts followers.

The Buddha had a simple but profound purpose:  To liberate all sentient beings from suffering. 

As the Buddha of our era, his teachings established one of the world’s large religions with hundreds of millions of followers.  While his intention was not to start a major religion, his purpose was one of the foundational steps that attracted so many followers to his teachings.

His purpose was simple, elegant, and meaningful – to help all sentient beings be free of suffering.  But his why was crucial to understanding this purpose.

Every Buddhist knows the recorded story of the Buddha, which was filled with suffering, struggle, and transformation.  His mother died after he was born, he was raised without knowing the true meaning of our reality, he experienced with his own eyes that we all suffer and die eventually, his internal struggle about being separated from his family, spending years learning from teachers who did not hold the answers he was seeking, almost dying from wrong practices, and through his own effort was able to realize the truth and the correct teaching.

In short, he encountered what we all encounter at various times and points in our lives.  Yet he was determined to find a solution to this suffering.  He sacrificed more than most people would have, and when he finally had the answers, he openly gave it to anyone who was willing to practice them due to his compassion as a Buddha.

His entire demeanor and appearance were completely transformed by his enlightenment.  Not as a supernatural being, but because he had eliminated ignorance, greed, and hatred, which all of us have and express numerous times during our lives.  This allowed him to live and act in a way that was in harmony not just with the world, but with himself.

This is important because that came across to most everyone he encountered.  Even a mass murderer, who was about to kill the Buddha, was transformed by the Buddha’s behavior and question to him.  This mass murderer turned into one of the most peaceful, famous, and influential monks of the Buddha.

Your purpose needs to be linked to your why.  Your organizations purpose needs to be linked to the organization’s why.  “Why do you want to make the best electric car in the world?”, “Why do you want to help bring medical care to children around the world?”, etc.

Your why is going to reveal your purpose, and your passion behind it.  With that, your followers, team, citizens, etc., will understand the mission and vision.

#2:  Have a Mission

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.  ~ Warren Bennis

The second leadership lesson is:  Have a Mission – This is “how” you, and your followers, can achieve the purpose through a path.

When the Buddha became enlightened, he was struck with a profound insight that all sentient beings can also be a Buddha (and realize their natural state, known as Nirvana), but they prevent themselves from achieving this.  Mostly, this is due to what is known as our delusional attachment to the concept of ‘self’, which leads into all sorts of other problems.

The Buddha already had his ‘why’, and his purpose.  But ‘how’ would he accomplish it?  The mission part of the leadership rules makes this a reality.

The “how” was clear cut:  The Noble Eightfold Path.  This was the blueprint or map that anyone could follow to achieve the vision, which was the result of the purpose.  From there, rules (“precepts”) were created as the community grew to help those following the Eightfold Path succeed.

As the leader, you must help create that mission plan.  How do you get to the vision?  Everyone knows the purpose now, such as “to deliver emergency relief supplies”.  But there can be division, arguments, lack of knowledge, or other factors that influence how successful that will be.

Again, the Buddha made this clear with his ‘path’, the rules his monastics would follow, as well as numerous other details that were to be worked out over the years.  The Buddha was a true leader in the fact that he created or modified rules as necessary to help the team (the monastics) achieve the vision.  Rules in this case were not a negative thing but were positive to keep everyone focused on the right ‘road’ to take.

He even gave a condensed version of the mission plan:

Do nothing that is unwholesome, Do all that is wholesome, Purify the mind.
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.

But the Buddha did not start off this successfully.

In the beginning, the Buddha had no followers, and no infrastructure.  By the end, he had thousands of followers spanning an entire region, support from rulers, retreats, and support of many laypersons.  It is likely that you may start off in the same circumstances and can follow the similar path of the Buddha.

The first people the Buddha talked to was five of his former followers.  They immediately didn’t want to talk with him after seeing him abandon their practice.  Yet, there was something about the Buddha – his demeanor – that made them listen.  And when they did, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, and then the Noble Eightfold Path.  This was how the first five followers of the Buddha came into being.

You do not need to gain a million Twitter or Instagram followers, or be featured in some big magazine or website.  Instead, start where you are and proceed from there.  When your ‘four truths’ are established, and you have your purpose and ‘why’, you will be able to talk with those who are willing to agree with your leadership message.

While this may seem distant from the ‘how’ you accomplish the mission, it is important.  The Buddha found supporters everywhere not because of his ‘title’, but because of his leadership.  If you can’t articulate the purpose, mission, and vision, as well as your four truths (as applicable), then how are you going to accomplish your mission?  Even if you were a billionaire, which may result in nothing if nobody supports you.  This is evident by the millionaires and billionaires who have run for President of the United State of America over the years, and used their own money, who failed to win or secure a nomination.

#3:  Have a Vision

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” – Lewis Carrol

The third leadership lesson is:  Have a Vision – This is “what” the end of the path (mission) will look like for you and your followers.

I have placed vision as third on this list for a reason.  While it may make sense to have it first since this is the ‘goal’, having it third allows you and your followers to understand what the purpose and mission results in.

The Buddha’s vision was to help others achieve what he had – to end suffering in their lives and escape the cycle of rebirth.

That’s it.  No more, no less.  In-fact, that’s exactly what he said:

Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I teach, and the cessation of suffering² ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

What is the biggest issue with most leaders?  They don’t have a compelling vision because they have too many visions.  If you look at some of the leaders you may look up to, they may have had many products, but only one vision.  A vision is not a product, instead it is where they see all their efforts focused.

You can have multiple products, such as Steve Jobs with Apple and Bill Gates with Microsoft, but both men were focused on specific goals.  Bill Gates vision was to have a Personal Computer (PC) in every home.  With over a billion PC’s worldwide, he was almost there.  Steve Jobs vision was to build beautiful and elegant devices.  After his return to Apple, he focused on achieving this and now Apple’s products are idolized by many for their design aspects.

The Buddha was a well-educated and intelligent man who could have focused on numerous things.  But he only focused on one topic:  Dukkha (Suffering).

When questioned about numerous things he could have answered due to his knowledge, he remained silent.  This was because they would not help in any way with his purpose, mission, and vision.  For example, he would receive questions about metaphysical things, to which he would not answer or simply tell the individual it was not provide any benefit to that person as it related to the Buddha’s teachings.

When your followers understand your vision, and/or that of your organizations, they will understand the end destination.  This can be an infinite destination that has no end.  For example, say your vision is to have the clean water in your city and you are the head of the water district.  Of course, making water drinkable is not a one-time event, but continuous.  Yet everyone will understand this vision, and the purpose behind it.  The mission gives them the roadmap to ensure that vision comes to fruition every day.

#4:  Set the Tone

“Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control” ~ Capt. Marquet, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The fourth leadership lesson is:  Set the Tone – Be a leader that is impeccable with your words, actions, trust, and emancipation, which in turn helps turns followers into leaders that want to achieve the mission.

Captain L. David Marquet is one of the most influential leaders to me.  His leadership philosophy, “Leader-Leader” (more commonly called Intent Based Leadership) is about giving up control to create leaders.   He learned this firsthand when assigned the worst performing submarine in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and turned it around into the best in the fleet.

How?  He gave up control and realized he did not need to have all the answers.

This was in contrast into the typical “leader-follower” method used so routinely in our world where an order is given, and the follower just ‘follows’.  Not only are no leaders created for the future, but Captain Marquest realized it was extremely dangerous.  One of the sailors on the submarine followed his order (in the typical leader-follower mindset) which was impossible to achieve on that type of submarine.  It was that, and several other instances, which shaped his transformation to intent based leadership.

What does this have to do with the Buddha?

The Buddha was the ultimate authority figure.  He was the teacher and spiritual leader.  Yet, he was practicing intent based leadership well before it became known today.

Leadership Lessons of the Buddha - the Buddha teaching monks
A replication of the Buddha teaching the Dharma to his monks. (Photo via Pixbay)

The Buddha started out with just five monks who he previously practiced with.  Since he left them, they were initially skeptical of him and saw him as someone who abandoned their way.

How did he instantly win them over?  His purpose was solid, he was able to articulate the mission, and provided a sharp vision.  But from there, he had to build his team (in this case, monastics).

Leaders need to constantly set the tone because they are held at higher standards, are there to calm their followers during any crisis, and need to put their team out front and support them.  Further, a team is only as good as the amount of empowerment they get.

For many leaders, they are just managers.  And management is managing “things”, not “people”…that is what leadership is all about.

True empowerment means trusting your team (really trusting them) and empowering them with responsibility.  A leader is there for their team, and to protect them so they can succeed.

To go further, Captain Marquet advocates that empowerment is giving ‘power’ back to someone you took power away from.  He advocates for emancipation, which is different.  This means a person inherently has inherent power already, so let them be the leader.

While this sounds scary to most management, it means using Intent Based Leadership.  In Captain Marquest’s example on the submarine, his crew agreed with his buy-in for this new practice, which is a key component (you can’t force it).  The crew would tell him, or their leaders, what they intended to do and why.  This did two things:  they were acting as leaders at that point, and the organizational leader (such as a Captain) had the information they needed in-case they had to overrule or ask for more clarification.

Here’s an example for a business from a sales associate talking to their manager:

“I intend to call Mr. Johnson today about increasing their order by fifty boxes.  I have noticed they routinely run out of product sooner than our pre-arranged shipment to them.  With our new promotion, we can get them the product they need to be satisfied, and it will increase our sales by 25%”

In that example, the manager need only say “very well”, and the sales associate goes on their way.  If something were not clear, they would just need to ask.  In that way, they are training the sales associate to be a leader by understanding what they will need to know in the future.  Such as:

“What is the 12-month sales for Mr. Johnson’s company?  Will he have too much product if we increase this way and he has highs and lows for product need?  If so, what solution do you have?”

By following up with a question, the leader is helping them understand how to look at different things to make a proper decision, learn what questions may be asked of them, and how to think through things.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. —Lao Tzu

While building the team is critical (and ongoing), leading the team is another key component.

While it may have seemed like all the Buddha did was meditation, and teaching, he was in-fact leading a good chunk of his time as well.  With a growing community of thousands of monastics (that soon spread to many other communities), he quickly was the head of what we would now call a multi-national organization.

In this role, he solved problems and practiced  leading by walking around (or what is commonly called “MBWA” or “Managing By Walking Around”) in an effort to ensure all his team was successful, that those he was wanting to help (all sentient beings) were being heard, and that solutions to problems were found.

He was able to find a solution to a problem in his own community by visiting another community where he was able to see how they solved problems.  He then applied those teachings to his own.

Solving problems did not mean he did it from an authoritative standpoint, but in a way that was beneficial and involved his team.  While he did give rules (precepts), some of which were “set in stone” because without them the mission couldn’t succeed, others were more of a living document that could be modified if needed.

And in his day, he truly was “walking” and would spend either hours, days, or even many months, walking around in his leadership.  This also allowed him to build relationships by helping to ensure the thousands of monastics (his team) were able to work well together, solved problems, and generally were able to move forward with the mission.

He also built relationships with what we might call customers in our modern world (royalty, heads of state, farmers, religious persons, etc.) which led to his community receiving food, shelter, sponsorship, and even places to reside specifically for their practice.

Truly, this was relationship building that most leaders today would envy!  Finally, his team benefited from his ability to be mindful.  While mindfulness is often attributed to being a central part of Buddhism in the religious sense, any leader can tell you that it is beyond necessary in any environment.  The ability to keep your word, speak skillfully, and remove your ego to solve problems, is something we can all learn from.

The best of all leaders is the one that develops their people so that eventually they don’t need them anymore.  ~ Lao Tzu

While building the foundation, building the team, and then leading the team are all important, the Buddha was not going to live forever since he was a regular human being like you and me.

He had to create a future that didn’t involve him.

He started almost immediately by ensuring everyone on his team (monastics) as well as those not on his team (laypersons) had everything they needed to succeed without him.  In our modern world we call this mentoring and succession planning. 

Leadership Lessons of the Buddha - monks in modern day Buddhism follow the rules of the Buddha

What we are really doing is developing people to become leaders.  For the team, he provided the rules (precepts) for their community to work effectively (which it has for over 2,600 years).

For those outside his team (laypersons), he also provided a much more limited number of rules (precepts) than his team so they could also join in on the mission, with the aim that one day they would like to join the team also (or at least support those in the mission).

I often think back to World War II when those in allied countries would go to serve in the military or government, and those who did not would support those (and the mission) by collecting scrap metal, ensuring they saved energy/fuel, and bought “war bonds” to support the effort.

In Buddhism, we support those on the Buddha’s team (the monastics/Sangha) through donations, support, and in turn they provide us with guidance and teachings so we can join them in this significant effort.  If you think you are the only one that can make the mission a success and without you it will fail, then you are not a leader.

A leader ensures they develop people to become leaders themselves so that “you” become unnecessary.

The Buddha did this with remarkable success.  While we look to the Buddha as our teacher in Buddhism, he remains our leader through his example which endures.  Some may call that legacy, and that is something you can ensure regardless of your mission and vision by following all these rules.

#5:  Be Mindful

Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature. ~ Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh

The final leadership lesson is:  Be Mindful – Set the tone through practicing emotional intelligence, paying attention (awareness), keeping focused, being self-aware, having empathy, and reflecting daily.

In our modern world we call this emotional intelligence.  In the Buddha’s time, he used it to understand people he encountered so he could communicate on their level.  In Buddhism, we often call this “skillful means” or “upaya”.

When the Buddha encountered a farmer, he would explain his teachings to them in a different way than he would a king.  This had nothing to do with their status, but with ensuring the purpose, mission, and vision resonated on the appropriate level with that listener.

The Buddha would also ensure he truly listened to people, took time for self-reflection and meditation, practiced mindfulness in every moment, remained focused on the vision and mission, and showed compassion to his team and anyone he met.
Leadership Lessons of the Buddha - the Buddha visits and comforts a dying man

The Buddha actively practiced many modern-day leadership traits.  These are some core traits you should also employ:

  • Emotional Intelligence:  Leaders who understand and practice emotional intelligence are better able to understand situations, peoples, their team, and themselves, to be effective.  While this topic may get lots of attention in leadership training, it is often rarely practiced in real life.  There are plenty of books on this, with some of the most respected coming from Dale Carnegie.
  • Awareness:  Are you aware of what is going on around you?  This does tie in with self-awareness (below), but it also means paying attention to what is going on with your team.  Are they having a difficult day?  Is your tasks for them not achievable?  Is there something toxic going on in the room?  As a leader, it is your job to ensure the mission is accomplished, and that your team is taking care of.
  • Keeping Focused:  Too often, leaders will be distracted by everything.  Sometimes this may come from those who want to control everything.  Others are simply overwhelmed by their jobs.  And others can’t organize and prioritize.  Keeping focused is crucial because if you are scattered, you set not only a bad example to your followers, but you are likely not addressing concerns, understanding what is happening around you, and many damaging effects could be occurring without you even knowing.
  • Self-Aware:  Who are you?  What are your emotions doing at any given moment?  This is important because if you are not open to your own feedback, that of others, and simply being aware of your actions, you are living in a delusionary state.  One of the most important qualities of a leader is to be self-aware and ask for feedback.  360 reviews are an example of a method you can use for this.  In Buddhism, mindfulness is a useful practice for being self-aware.
  • Empathy:  A leader without empathy is not a leader at all.  If you have no empathy, there is little chance you will connect with anyone.  The Buddha was constantly connecting with people, and relationships and relating to them was crucial.  This was done through his empathy of the situation of all sentient beings, and the unique situations of those he encountered.  In our world, whether you are in a tense business meeting, or talking with a customer, having empathy can be crucial.
  • Reflecting:  An important part of any leader is to reflect daily.  This ensures you understand your experiences of the day – good or bad – and how they affected you.  This is not a punishment session, but one where you can understand what occurred so you can either act differently next time.

What Is the Takeaway?

A leader leads people, not things.

Your real job as a leader is to make other leaders.

This is hard, and if that is not your thing, then don’t be a leader.  A leader is not a title, like manager or supervisor, but is the result of someone’s vision, actions, and compassion.  Calling yourself (or being told you are) “a leader” does not make you one.

Why is this important?  As a leader your leadership is impermanent because you are impermanent.  Causes and conditions can easily take you to another assignment, organization, retirement, or even death.  Yet leadership is not about being the most important person in the world, it is about making those under your care the most important int he world (or at least your sphere of influence).

Unlike in other religions, only in Buddhism is the central figure, the Buddha, someone anyone can emulate.  Anyone can achieve awakening, enlightenment, and nirvana, just like the Buddha.  This includes his leadership style.

The Buddha was a leader in mentoring and emancipating his followers towards the path of liberation not for his benefit, but for theirs and for future generations.

As a leader, are you allowing your followers to act as leaders also?

Article Notes:

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