I have just returned from a leadership journey to Bhutan which I undertook with a diverse group of Dutch executives. It proved to be a complete eye-opener for most of us because the country, its people, its nature and its governance is so totally different from what most of us had experienced in our international travels so far.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country in Asia and the smallest state located entirely within the Himalaya mountain range. Located in the Eastern Himalayas, it is bordered by China in the north and India in the south. Bhutan has a population of approximately 750.000 and is notable for pioneering the concept of Gross National Happiness. In South Asia Bhutan ranks first in economic freedom, ease of doing business and peace; second in per capita income and is the least corrupt country*.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a development philosophy as well as an index which is used to measure the collective happiness in a nation. The concept is indigenous to the country of Bhutan and was enshrined in the country’s 2008 constitution which states that “the State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness”.

GNH is a continuously evolving concept, but perhaps its most recognizable analytical features are the four GNH pillars, which are: economic self-reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance.

During our journey, we slept mostly in farmhouses where we had ample opportunity to interact with the local population. We shared our facilities and meals with their families, witnessed their Buddhist rituals and were showered with their incredible hospitality. Even though Bhutan is one of the least developed countries I have ever visited its people seemed perfectly happy with their way of life. It is a country of contradictions though. One of the four pillars is environmental conservation, which the government and the people we met talked highly of. However, the country side itself is covered in litter that people seemed to have left behind without any effort to recycle. Despite this imperfection it seems that everyone has bought into the philosophy of Gross National Happiness instead of our Western Gross National Product.

What did the journey teach us about our roles as leaders in the developed world? For me personally it taught me that a compelling philosophy does unite large groups of people. Think about the importance of your corporate mission. ILeaders Involved employees become engaged employees who make happy employees. Happy employees are more productive, are less absent, work more safely, make their  customers happy, drive higher profitability and by doing all this simultaneously safeguard the future of all stakeholders, including the shareholders and not the other way around.

It’s interesting to listen to Lord Price, ex chairman of Waitrose in the United Kingdom, who makes a plea for fairness and happiness at the work place.

It’s not a new idea of course but still most companies put the interest of the shareholder as their number 1 priority whilst Lord Price and the Kingdom of Bhutan basically show that if we take care of our people first they will take care of the customers, shareholders and society in general.

Our group journey also taught me that traveling with people I did not know beforehand provides an excellent opportunity to learn from each other. The art of listening to one another is truly an art, something I wrote about in an earlier musing. The experience to interact with the Bhutanese people, some of whom did not speak English, forced us to find ways to communicate by just doing and behaving rather than by talking. Actions speak louder than words, remember!

To wrap up my thoughts I have tried to capture Bhutan in 10 words:

  1. Breathtaking
  2. Pure
  3. Conservation
  4. Litter
  5. Pride
  6. Happiness
  7. Hospitality
  8. Physical
  9. Silence
  10. Respect

Except for (4) – litter, a nice checklist for any leader to bear in mind in his / her daily activities.
*source Wikipedia

We will be organizing a new journey later this year and in 2018. For details please see the brochure or contact me.

Wim Dufourné
Partner NGL International