The Art of Supportive Leadership
by Swami Kriyananda
Swami Kriyananda came into this lifetime with the desire to serve people, a desire that unfolded into a compassionate commitment to help people grow toward God. His understanding of leadership grew out of this desire, and rested on two essential, and interconnected, principles—that people are more important than things, and that, in any undertaking, worldly or spiritual, only right action (dharma) can lead to victory.
The first sentences of his book, The Art of Supportive Leadership, succinctly capture Kriyananda’s approach to leadership:
Genuine leadership is only of one type: supportive. It leads people: It doesn’t drive them. It involves them: It doesn’t coerce them. It never loses sight of the most important principle governing any project involving human beings: namely that people are more important than things.
Praise from the business community
Lecturing in Australia around 1980, Kriyananda was frequently questioned about communities, and questioned with particular skepticism about the role of leadership in communities. His answers came entirely from his own experience, and met with gratifying success, notably so in light of the initial skepticism of his audience. Out of this beneficial exchange came The Art of Supportive Leadership, first published in 1983.
Kriyananda wrote The Art of Supportive Leadership, as he did Money Magnetism, to bring Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings into such eminently pragmatic realms as business and finance. The book’s subtitle puts the point well: “A Practical Guide for People in Positions of Responsibility.”
Not surprisingly, Kriyananda’s book has had a profound effect on the business community. In March 1995, after Kriyananda had given a lecture at a breakfast club for businessmen in Anaheim, California, but before the master of ceremonies could thank him, a member of the audience took possession of the microphone: “I’ve just realized who this speaker is,” he cried. “My work is reviving failing businesses. For several years now, I’ve been giving out this book, The Art of Supportive Leadership to everyone I work with. It’s a great book.’”
Leadership principles based on experience
What impresses me most about The Art of Supportive Leadership is that everything Kriyananda writes comes from leadership roles he himself has played—as a young monk in Yogananda’s organization, and in founding and leading Ananda from its humble beginnings to its present status as the most successful intentional community of this age, with branch communities, centers and meditation groups worldwide. Not only have I seen Kriyananda unfailingly adhere to the spiritual principles that underlie the book, but perhaps even more tellingly, I have seen generations of new members successfully practicing these same principles in their own leadership roles.
Paramhansa Yogananda placed Kriyananda, still in his early twenties, in charge of the monks, many of whom were older and resistant to his authority. Motivated by the desire to carry out his Guru’s wishes and to serve his fellow monks by organizing a strong and regular meditation routine, Kriyananda never asked obedience of the monks, but rather cooperation and a spirit of mutual surrender to Yogananda’s will. In return, Kriyananda pledged to the monks his own cooperation and willingness to support them in any undertaking that did not conflict with their shared rules. Always uppermost was the spirit of service.
Expanding Yogananda’s mission
Having begun his life of discipleship in Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), his guru’s organization, Kriyananda’s innate longing to serve people found its natural expression in service to Yogananda’s mission. Yogananda himself frequently pointed Kriyananda in the direction of expanding his mission to reach more people, to help them on the journey homeward to God.
Kriyananda’s adherence to that vision after Yogananda’s passing would ultimately bring him into conflict with the new SRF leadership and result in his separation from the organization. Throughout that long and difficult period of his life, Kriyananda dedicated himself even more determinedly to the principle, “Where there is right action, there is victory,” and transmuted his own personal suffering into a deeper understanding of the two principles that have since formed the foundation of his approach to leadership.
Reflecting on the origin of the principles that have guided his leadership of Ananda, Kriyananda writes:
I built Ananda on principles I’d learned through meditating on the life of Paramhansa Yogananda after years of working with people as head of the monks at Self-Realization Fellowship, and as director of SRF center activities throughout the world, [and] as the target of misguided attempts to suppress my expansive understanding of Yogananda’s mission to the world….
A workbook for dedicated students
The chapters of the book are each organized around a specific principle with explanations and illustrative stories in the text. (The conclusion at the end of each chapter is a review of essential points, which for the dedicated student can serve as a workbook for his own practice):
- Leadership as an art.
- Taking responsibility as a leader.
- Setting aside personal desires.
- Leadership as service.
- “People are more important than things.”
- Making decisions based on intuition guided by common sense.
- When to stop talking and start acting.
- Giving support.
- Working with people’s strengths.
- Guidelines for gauging true success in any undertaking.
Broadly applicable principles
As I read and studied the individual chapters of The Art of Supportive Leadership, memory produced, from my own thirty-seven years at Ananda, stories and images illuminating each principle. Those who have understood and practiced these principles have blossomed as devotees and have blessed those around them with their service. Those who have done less well, who have struggled and perhaps even fallen down as leaders, have also served—as models of why certain attitudes don’t work, and as mirrors to others of their need to improve in those same areas.
Those who undertake the spiritual life with serious intent, whether living in a spiritual community or fulfilling a different dharma in the world, come face to face with the principles of supportive leadership—in their own work, in their relations with friends and family, and ultimately in their own inner life. The principles apply equally well to all areas of life: to organizational settings such as the military and business, to the relation of parents and children, and to the ongoing dynamic between soul and ego.