Buddhism and Leadership: Bend Not Break

I’ve been thinking about the special attributes women bring to entrepreneurship lately, how they are more nurturing, more compassionate, more transparent, and more resilient to help their companies through the inevitable dark moments.

But while Silicon Valley loudly complains about the lack of women in technology, and Sheryl Sandberg writes books urging women to lean in to their careers, one of the pioneering women in technology over the past three decades is being criticized for her success.

Ping Fu, founder of GeoMagic Software, has written a memoir about her childhood in China and what it taught her about entrepreneurship. In the memoir, “Bend Not Break,” she tells about being removed from her Shanghai mama and papa when she was 8 and being forced to work in a factory from the age of ten during Mao’s cultural revolution.

At age 25, Ping was quietly deported to the US, without much education besides the contents of Mao’s “Little RedBook,” and through a combination of very hard work and lack of interest in money became a reluctant entrepreneur. Her life as a child was a series of unexpected events, during which she leaned on her grandfather’s teachings about how bamboo survives the winter. It will bend, but not break.

Now that Ping is a success in the US and her company does business in China, critics in China have come out of the wood work accusing her of lying about her experiences, applying for asylum under false pretenses, and making up her kidnapping upon arrival in the US.

I’m not concerned about the literal accuracy of her memories of those events, because from what I have read about how memory works, people don’t remember events per se, they remember their impressions of events. In other words, all memoirs are fundamentally inaccurate. We remember only the impression, the scar. That’s why when an entrepreneur commits suicide, as three men did this year, we say we should have reached our to help them, because their situations don’t seem worth suicide to us. But to them, it was different.

For me, the most powerful part of “Bend Don’t Break” isn’t the litersl circumstances under which Ping Fu was wrested from her parents or how she got to the US, but the “letting go of expectations” from her Buddhist upbringing that allowed her to succeed in the largely male world of Red Guards and tech entrepreneurs. Time after time, she succeeds by letting go, or by following the principle “sometimes the best strategy is a retreat.” She sees the world as grey, not as black and white.

Why? Partly because she was brought up with Buddhist teachings, but also because this is how women in general lead – not from command and control, but by consensus-building, and it is what makes their leadership different from that of men.

We need a more open dialogue about the special qualities that enable women to be good leaders. Women lead more like Ping Fu than like sports figures or generals.Women recognize our interconnections, and try to look for the good in others. We try to love each child equally.

After we recognize this, we need to allow women to lead in their own ways, and not like men. There are always many roads to the same destination.


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