Cheng Yen’s leadership story started in 1966 when she was visiting a sick friend at a hospital and noticed a pool of blood on the floor. She was told that an Aboriginal woman had miscarried because, after being carried for eight hours by her family to the hospital, she was refused treatment without the NT$8,000 deposit (then about US$400). When Cheng Yen learned that the woman had died, she resolved to start a mission to defray medical costs for the poor. She began by mobilizing the resources of her disciples in her local Buddhist community, asking them to make baby shoes to sell and also to place NT$0.50 (about US$0.025) each morning in a bamboo container before doing the daily grocery shopping. In one month the daily practice of “50 cents to save one human life” had started to spread, and an organization of sorts was born.
It was a heart attack she suffered in 1978 that prompted Cheng Yen to create a hospital so her relief work would continue after her death. The organization therefore had to change; a Buddhist nun, with a following of monastic disciples and laity, whose goal was to collect money to supplement the medical costs of the needy, now had to raise money for a modern hospital and create the necessary organization to build and run it. Task forces, boards of governance, coordination meetings, and organization charts began to appear. Cheng Yen was careful to enroll the time and talents of professionals (not necessarily Buddhists), but she personally chaired all the important committees.
By 1999, the organization had evolved into four basic missions — charity, medical care, education, and culture. The hospitals, university, and relief organizations are set up as regular nonprofits, albeit with some distinguishing features — e.g., the hospital offers free care for Buddhist monastics and the poor, and the university requires a one-year foundation course in “Tzu Chi Humanity.” The whole organization is financed, in addition to the fees it charges, by tiny regular donations from its 10 million devotees, many of whom also work as volunteers. It is overseen by a small headquarters in the original monastic building known as the Abode, where Cheng Yen resides.
I once had the privilege of meeting Cheng Yen. This tiny, wafer-thin woman was not one’s image of a charismatic leader, but it was clear from everyone I met that she was greatly revered. It was also plain that she was very much in control of the huge organization she had created. She follows all the precepts of Alan Deutschman, even literally walking the walk with monthly tours around the island of Taiwan to visit her organizations. A well-staffed publicity organization, including the 24-hour television station, keeps the membership attuned to her values and her thinking — vital for the finances of the whole venture. Of course, the challenge for any charismatic leader is, What happens when he or she goes? Cheng Yen has attempted to answer that by institutionalizing her mission, but her personal appeal may be hard to match.
The story of how this frail woman could build such a successful and far-reaching organization is an illustration of just how much a dedicated leader and an inspiring mission can accomplish. It is an apt illustration, albeit from a far different belief system, of The Puritan Gift. The book itself is neither slim nor easy to read, written more for students of the Buddhist tradition than for practicing managers, but it is worth the effort in order to understand the true secrets of leadership.
- Charles Handy is a writer and social philosopher living in London. He is the author of many books on work, life, and organizations, the latest being a memoir, Myself and Other More Important Matters (AMACOM, 2008), which was a Top Shelf selection in last year’s Best Business Books.