The Last Shangri-La: Bhutanese Lessons on Leadership, Sustainable Development and Happiness
In many ways, the story of YPO’s only Bhutan-based member, Dasho (Lord) Sangay Wangchuk, embodies that of Bhutan — a remote Himalayan kingdom abundant in natural beauty and Buddhist culture, where happiness and the well-being of the population is measured and prioritized over economic growth.
After completing his graduate degree from Columbia University, Sangay returned to Bhutan without hesitation. “We are really blessed with this land and unique way of life. We take great pride in our country and culture. Almost everybody comes back,” he says. “Bhutan and its youth are very well connected with the outside world, but culture and sense of community remain ever so strong here. They understand the spirit of Bhutan. They understand how special Bhutan is.”
Mixing tradition and modernism: the Bhutan way of life
Nestled between Tibet and India, the small nation started opening to limited tourism only in the early 1980s. However, it gained global attention when the present king’s father coined and applied the development concept known as the Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“What we mean by GNH is striking a balance between the material, emotional and spiritual well-being of our people. It is based on four pillars: sustainable economic growth, preservation of culture, protecting the environment and good governance,” explains Sangay.
“Starting late had its advantage. Our king looked at models around the world and offered an alternative to the one used in the West. GNH became the guiding framework for all government plans to protect the environment and culture in a world where resources are finite,” he adds. “We all remain grounded very strongly by these national values.”
Today, Bhutan’s predominately agricultural society is arguably far from being the happiest country in the world, ranking 95th out of 156 countries in the 2019 World Happiness Report. But its people are very happy based on different sets of criteria used by the GNH survey index.
Major advances have been made in infrastructure, education and health care, while protecting the country’s forests, which represent 70% of its land. The World Bank calls Bhutan “a developmental success story, with decreasing poverty and improvements in human development indicators.” Moreover, its vision continues to inspire tourists and development economists seeking to experience local culture and Bhutanese holistic well-being.
Creating iconic wellness destinations: eco-luxury in Himalayas
Upon his return from the U.S., Sangay, whose family belongs to the first generation of Bhutanese industrialists, and who is a brother-in-law to His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, started several ventures including the first foreign direct investment bank. But it was in hospitality that he found his leadership passion.
“My family has always been in hospitality and I understood the niche that our country had,” explains Sangay. “Before sustainability became a catch phrase, Bhutan, historically, and by definition, was sustainable because of its culture and geography — an isolated pocket in the Himalayas. I thought, let me see if I can do something different with the fantastic sites, taking luxury to another level.”
Sangay decided to build a collection of hotels on five spectacular sites in the kingdom’s major valleys. To help develop the project, he partnered with Six Senses, an international luxury hotel and spa operator that shares the country’s commitment for sustainability and wellness. In the capital, Thimphu, the resort is designed as “a palace in the sky” facing the mountain peaks and newly completed world’s tallest seated Buddha statue. Each of the other four properties has a story and invites guests into a different unique landscape where they can enjoy a specific wellness experience.
“We wanted to create emotional hospitality by taking our guests on a journey where they spend about three nights in each valley. Our focus has been on the sensory experience, what they can touch and feel, rather than on placing chandeliers and crystals,” he says.
Since the opening of the first three of the five lodges, Six Senses Bhutan has received a number of global recognition and awards in luxury travel, most recently winning the prestigious 2019 Prix Versailles World Architecture and Design Award in Paris.
Leadership tips from Eastern Philosophy
While focusing on his hospitality business, Sangay continues to lead companies across different sectors, including reinsurance, manufacturing, construction and real estate. He is also an outdoor enthusiast and is passionate about motor biking, finding time to pursue meditation, exercise and frequent travel with his family. Taking the best from his Western education and Eastern philosophy, he offers some leadership tips for CEOs looking for success, and happiness, for themselves and their teams.
Do what you love. First, do something passionately and something you genuinely believe in. People can feel that energy. And people will join you. Leadership is not complicated if you are true to yourself. As a Buddhist, I believe energy doesn’t lie.
Take care of people. In the end, everybody is the same in this circle of life. That’s something that leaders should not forget. If you feel taken care of, a sense of belonging follows. Taking care is not only in monetary terms, but more importantly in terms of building human connections.
Do not micro-manage. You have a business plan and need to let people find creative ways to implement it. The days of micro-managing are over.
Take the best of different worlds. Change is inevitable and people need to adapt and modernize. After living in New York where no one has time for one another, and in this special land, I try to mix the best of both worlds and encourage those around me to do the same.”
Practice balance and equanimity. Leaders need to remain centered, balancing the trade-off between financial success and inner wellbeing – and just like Bhutan, between growth and happiness.