Selfishness in a Monastery: Leadership Lessons from a Monk and His Brother

Dec 21, 2022 | Articles

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I recently spent two days on retreat at a monastery. Over breakfast, I met our guest master, Brother James (not his real name). When I discovered he was 44 years old, I casually remarked that my wife and I had just celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary.

His eyes lit up with amazement: “That’s remarkable! To meet someone who’s been married for over four decades is uncommon.” He asked what I thought the keys are to an enduring relationship.

Quoting an octogenarian on his 60th anniversary, I said, “The secret to being married 60 years is not quitting in the first 20.” This is because during the first two decades of marriage a couple will typically have fulltime jobs, their first mortgage, and perhaps their first child. They must also learn to share a kitchen, a bedroom, and a budget. If a couple can successfully work through these stresses and strains, they’ll enjoy clear sailing from then on!


Acknowledging Our Selfishness

My wife and I are now happily married, but we did find the first 20 years very difficult and I’ve come to realize that the main problem was how selfish I was.

When I explained this to Brother James, he smiled knowingly and said, “Shortly after my brother got married he called me to apologize. He said he hadn’t realized how selfish he was until he got married.”

Brother James went on to confess that he’d made a similar discovery, but in his monastic life. Learning to share the duties of cooking, cleaning, and maintaining a guest house with 40 other monks had started to reveal how selfish he was, too.

Selfishness Causes Friction with Others

Working as a family enterprise advisor for more than 25 years, I’ve noticed how family members experience the friction that selfishness causes — not in a marriage or in a monastery in this situation, but when working together.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see how selfish I was early in my professional life. Had I been more empathetic, more humble, and more forgiving, things could have been very different in both my personal and professional life. I believe all leaders can learn from my mistakes.

Permit me to explain.


When my wife was pregnant with our first child, she asked me to accompany her to prenatal classes. I went along, but I tucked a copy of Time in my hip pocket in case the classes were boring. Sadly, I didn’t make much effort to understand my wife’s reality.

Empathy means emotionally connecting with someone who feels hurt, afraid, or alone. It means really being present and attentive to another’s needs.

As corporate leaders, we’re wise to pay attention to what’s really happening for those with whom we work so we can build rapport and understanding. As Brother James discovered at the monastery, when we work closely with others, we’ll create trouble unless we learn to empathize.


As an ambitious young executive, I aspired to become president of our family firm. This meant working long hours and often coming home feeling too tired to help with household chores. When my wife asked me to take out the garbage soon after we were married, I begged off. I had a corporate ladder to climb, and I thought I was too important to help with domestic duties.

As leaders, we may sometimes think that we’re too important to do certain tasks. However, I was inspired recently when listening to Betty Portos speak in Los Angeles. She and her siblings manage Portos Café and Bakery, their successful family-owned business. She said that her mother taught them to lead with humility. Whenever her mom visits a café, she looks for a broom so she can sweep the floor or a cloth so she can wipe tables.


When we struggle in our relationships, we’ll inevitably hurt or disappoint others. When we do, it can be difficult to apologize and forgive each other. In my marriage, rather than seeking forgiveness for my mistakes, I spent years defending my best intentions.

Molly Bachechi, a family enterprise executive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, provides great clarity on the subject of forgiveness in business. She observes,

“Forgiveness is one of those things we don’t talk a lot about in business. It’s squishy and emotional, and business is supposed to be impersonal and all about spreadsheets. However, businesses are made of people, and humans are messy. So, every time you have an interpersonal relationship you have the potential for hurt. This means we are often going to have to engage in forgiveness.”

Following are 9 tips for getting beyond our selfishness:

Cultivate empathy

  • Ask lots of open-ended questions
  • Listen eagerly to other’s perspectives
  • Spend time with people who are more gifted than you

Develop more humility

  • Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses
  • Willingly receive input from others
  • Collect information before acting

Practice the art of forgiveness

  • Say that you’re sorry — and mean it
  • Let go of past hurts
  • Learn to admit your mistakes
About the Author, David C. Bentall

About the Author, David C. Bentall

Author, Speaker, Family Enterprise Advisor

David C. Bentall is founder of Next Step Advisors and has been advising family enterprises for over 25 years. He has also personally experienced succession in his family’s real estate and construction businesses. Additionally, he is a gifted author, coach, speaker and facilitator. His book, Dear Younger Me: Wisdom for Family Enterprise Successors (Castle Quay Books, May 3, 2021), explores the character traits critical for navigating the interpersonal demands of a family business enterprise. Learn more about David's books here.