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Buddhism in the Boardroom

A Legacy of IBS President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto


Editor’s note: Dr. Patti Hiramoto, a member of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) Board of Trustees, wrote the following tribute to IBS President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto, who is retiring on June 31. Dr. Hiramoto, a lifelong educator, served as the interim Vice President for Advancement and Chief of Staff at Sonoma State University, and as Vice President for University Advancement and Chief of Staff at Cal State Monterey Bay.


 

When I retired five years ago, my “retirement bucket list” included learning more about Buddhism, although I didn’t know exactly what this path might look like. 


Soon after retiring, I was invited to join the Board of Trustees at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS). As honored as I was, it seemed more like offering service than learning about Buddhism. 

 

In deciding whether to accept the invitation, I had conversations with board members and others about IBS. I listened carefully to their comments about leadership because during my career in university administration, I experienced the full range of competence, commitment, ethics, and ego in leaders. The feedback theme I received was that IBS was on a solid trajectory, due in large part to its President, Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto. On my phone call with him, he spoke about IBS with a rare mix of confidence and humility that moved me to join the board.

 

I remember my first few board meetings well. I was impressed with the board’s discussions and expertise. But the thing that struck me most was how people treated each other. The culture of the board strongly reflected Buddhist values with kindness, respect, and gratitude permeating every board meeting. I was describing this to a fellow higher-education friend who said, “How wonderful! Buddhism in the boardroom.” 

 

This culture does not happen just because everyone identifies as Buddhists. Rev. Dr. Matsumoto’s way of holding compassion while critically looking at all perspectives sets an example for IBS and the board. But practicing Buddhist values alone does not guarantee organizational success. Rev. Dr. Matsumoto instinctively sees and synthesizes multiple issues, applying his broad knowledge base and political acumen to plan and strategize.  


With all of these qualities, he has led IBS to notable achievements during his tenure as President, including increased enrollment, accreditation status, recruitment of world-renowned faculty, and full membership in the Graduate Theological Union. IBS’s standing as a seminary and graduate school has never been higher.

 

Without a doubt, many other people are also responsible for creating this culture at IBS and for its successes including the late Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka, who served as both BCA Bishop and IBS President, the late Mr. Richard Endo and Dr. Leroy Morishita, past and current chair of the board, as well as IBS trustees, faculty, and staff. 

 

So what does “Buddhism in the Boardroom” look like? Here are some examples of what I have learned from Rev. Dr. Matsumoto and board leaders: 

 

  • Power and Strength Look Different

Leaders use their authorized power only for the greater good of the institution, not to further their own agenda or shield their weaknesses. They understand the power of listening and the value of patience.  Difficult conversations are approached with compassion and calm.

            

  • Vulnerability is Commonplace

Leaders and board members know what they don’t know and are open about it because not knowing is considered part of deeper learning. When mistakes are made, people own them because they are not judged.

 

  • Lightness Permeates

When difficult issues arise, they are taken seriously and resolution is not always easy. But there is a feeling of lightness that, while not diminishing the importance of an issue, allows us to remember that we are human. Perhaps Rev. Dr. Yamaoka’s epitaph sums up this humanness best: “I did the best I could with what I had.” 

            

None of the above is new to leadership or organizational development theory; applying them consistently as an underpinning for success is another matter. 


Over these past five years, I have indeed learned more about Buddhism during my time on the board. I now know it is possible to effectively run an organization through a Buddhist lens. It fills me with hope that this model could be used to address many of our society’s problems.  Thank you, Rev. Dr. Matsumoto, for showing us how it is done.


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