In my business career spanning three decades, I have found that the core of success lies in human qualities, all of which are rooted to a great degree, in mastery over the self. External victories are subordinate to and a byproduct of managing the self. My experiments with this locus of leadership have repeatedly pointed to the timeless wisdom of human experience, arising from the accumulated thought of the learned and the judicious, propositions that have been tested both objectively and subjectively, what we often recognize as religious philosophy.
A quick look at the world around us highlights the dichotomy that religion, a source of morality, kindness and community, can also be a source of dishonor, acrimony, and upheaval. Mix religion with individuality, you get light. Mix it with politics, you risk a fire. At its core, religion is philosophy. It weaves humanity’s common threads. At the periphery, religions exhibit differences of history, place and culture. Judaism’s origin is in the Bronze Age as an ancient Semitic religion. Hinduism was an agrarian religion. Christianity became a faith of the underprivileged. Islam bloomed amongst desert tribes. Sometimes, these cultural manifestations become difficult to reconcile. But the underlying philosophical essence – kindness, reciprocity, truth – is overwhelmingly similar.
Is religion relevant today? Lebanese-American thinker Nassim Taleb’s concept of Lindy’s Effect captures this best: ideas that have been around for a long time indicate robustness. Over the centuries, societies have found tremendous value in religion. Even though rationality cannot fully decipher its appeal, it’s here to stay.
As the old saying goes: “I used to be religious but then I grew out of it”. I discovered myself as a cultural Hindu, a philosophical deist, who found Greek Stoicism, Protestant values, and portions of Zen, Jewish and Islamic wisdom intellectually and emotionally appealing. Below are some learnings from Hindu philosophy and their salience in the modern world.
God is optional
A survey of ancient Indian texts, well captured in Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, shows that in 2nd century BC – Hinduisms golden period – atheism and deism were common. Atheism rejected God. Deism rejected organised religion as the link between man and God.
Hinduism offers optionality. A child believes that his father can solve everything. The same child, as a teenager, thinks his father can solve absolutely nothing. By the time he becomes an adult, he forms a balanced view and the conviction that his father can guide on many issues. The story of man’s relationship with God is similar. When one can have a divine parent looking out for you, why be an orphan?
Versatility as leadership
The Ramayana is one of Hinduisms two great epics. Its opening verse defines leadership accurately. The sage Valmiki asks the worldly Narada whether there exists a perfect man: someone with heroic qualities, well versed in the duties of life, grateful, truthful, firm in his vows, an actor of many parts, benevolent, learned, eloquent, patient, slow to anger, truly great, free of envy, yet can cause terror when excited to wrath.
This description relates well to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which enumerates that in contemporary society, such versatility is a defining characteristic of people who reach the pinnacle.
The law of dutiful action
In The Gita, another seminal text, Krishna prescribes dutiful action: simply doing one’s duty diligently, not overly attached to actions and not inordinately motivated by results, because action is in one’s hands, the results are not. This insight draws on the fact that no progress is linear. Riding cyclicality – in world affairs and within personal circumstances – is a key aspect of success. Staying in the game fully is a competitive edge.
Hindu philosophy believes that beyond a point, an external focus clutters the mind, adds stress and is ultimately limiting. An internal focus channelizes energy, promotes a growth mindset and shields us from of effects of randomness. All super-achievers demonstrate this inherent capability. Michael Jordan – widely acclaimed as the greatest basketball player of all time – embodied this perfectly when he claimed: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Luck as cause and effect
The Upanishads are 200-odd manuscripts, crowdsourced over centuries, signifying the intellectual humility of the masters. Arthur Schopenhauer, amongst the first western thinkers to affirm tenets of eastern philosophy, titled them “the highest human wisdom”.
My favorite quote from the Upanishads: “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” This is the best definition of luck I have encountered.
It conceives fate as somewhat deterministic. It celebrates the human spirit. When Ralph Waldo Emerson, champion of Transcendentalism in 19th century America said “Shallow men believe in luck; strong men believe in cause and effect”, he meant the same. Today, when venture capitalists evaluate management teams of early-stage investments, in the face of intense competitive uncertainty, this innate “deep, driving desire” is what they look for.
The technology of the brain
Meditation is synonymous with Eastern religious traditions. The oldest evidence of meditation is Indian wall art from 5000 BC. Meditation declutters the mind, provides perspective, and activates the subconscious. Just like our minds are subconsciously conditioned so that we are more likely to hear our own name in otherwise ambient noise, meditation turns on our mental receptors to pick up signals amidst the noise of everyday life.
Meditation has many advocates. Oprah Winfrey calls meditation a heightened state of being which fosters creativity. Ray Dalio claims meditation makes him balance the “two you’s” of emotion and thoughtfulness. Google’s Chade-Meng Tan runs the legendary “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness meditation, personal growth, and emotional intelligence program, which he claims can not only bring inner peace but also world peace. Mark Benioff has built meditation rooms throughout Salesforce’s various offices because it helps people maintain “a beginner’s mind”. US Congressman Tim Ryan finds meditation helps improve intuition. He leads the “Quiet Time Caucus,” a weekly thirty-minute meditation for members of Congress. Steve Jobs meditated regularly to tackle “the technology of the brain” and refine out-of-the-box thinking. This was one reason he came up with iEverything!
Acts, actors, and common cause
Hindu thought distinguishes between acts and actors. In Hindu mythology, the brilliant Ravana – his exceptional intellect symbolized by ten heads instead of one – transgresses by kidnapping Rama’s wife. After an epic battle, as Ravana lies dying on the battlefield, the righteous Rama asks his younger brother Laxmana to imbibe wisdom from the learned Ravana. He directs Laxmana to stand near the dying man’s feet if he wants to be a true seeker. The scene exudes maturity, respect, and humility. Very similar to the self-reflection in the US radio broadcasts in the aftermath of the victory of World War II, as described by David Brooks in The Road to Character.
As the scene unfolds, Ravana’s dying words on teamwork are even deeper. He claims he was defeated because he had lost the respect of his family and troops. Rama’s army, technically inferior, came out on top because Rama had fulfilled the prerequisite of victory: a common cause. Ravana was no longer invested in the dreams and aspirations of those he was seeking to command.
The dustbin of business history is littered with superstars who had lost touch and were fighting battles that were doomed from the start. At the turn of the millennium, Carlos Ghosn was one of the world’s most prominent CEO’s, credited with the turnaround of Renault and then Nissan. His celebrity status was such that his life was chronicled in Japanese comic books. After two decades as a business leader, his fall from global icon to international fugitive took all of two years, when he was charged with misuse of company assets and under-reporting his income. In a separate story, few remember Enron had a market capitalization of $70 billion in the beginning of 2001. It was the 7th most valuable company in the US and rated as the most innovative large company in America by Fortune magazine. But that did not deter founder and Chairman Kenneth Lay and President Jeffrey Skilling from misrepresenting financial statements. By end 2001, Enron was gone. In an eerily similar case, Rajat Gupta’s hubris and pride did him in as well. He was every professional’s dream: the first foreign-born managing partner of McKinsey, Board member of Goldman Sachs and Proctor & Gamble, and Chairman of the Board of Associates at Harvard Business School. A victim of the disease that afflicts many successful people — the triumph of temptation over mind — he was convicted in 2012 for insider trading.
The common feature of all these spectacular failures was that the protagonists – much like Ravana – were isolated. They were pursuing personal ambitions rather than shared goals. In this regard, John Wooden, one of the most revered coaches in US sporting history, summed up the mantra of effective team leadership: “Ability gets you to the top, character keeps you there”. A beacon for those aspiring to greatness.
Hindu wisdom eschews mere intellectualism and instead endorses practical wisdom. In the Mahabharata, Guru Dronacharya teaches young royals about values and urges them to always speak the truth. When questioned, the idealistic prince Yudhishthira replies he has not fully understood the lesson. He submits that while he comprehended the message, he has not really learnt it, because he has not had the opportunity to test himself in the real world. The moral: ideas have limited value until they are internalized.
Angela Duckworth, MacArthur Fellow and co-Director of Wharton People Analytics, has done extensive research on high achievers. It led her to develop The Grit Scale, which evaluates a person’s passion and perseverance. These, she believes are bigger markers of outperformance than the default intelligence quotient, which measures talent, and is essentially an indicator of potential. Her non-profit, Character Lab, is using six concepts — grit, gratitude, self-control, curiosity, purpose and intellectual humility — to help thousands of children turn the latent gift of talent into an actionable path to success.
Intentions, concepts and strategies — however great — are relatively simple in the intellectual realm. Bringing them to reality needs perceptiveness, focus and self-command. This is what ultimately distinguishes the outliers from the ordinary. This translation from ideation to action is what enables disruptors in the world of business to steal the thunder from incumbents. And the inherent challenges to such translation is why there is more wisdom in books than in the real world!
Meaning of a good life
Hinduism accommodates multiple life objectives. It advocates Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha — righteousness, material prosperity, aesthetic and sensual pleasure, and liberation — as worthy life pursuits. It does not see these as contradictory, but as parts of a holistic life. Each objective modulates the other.
On Diwali, the Hindu New Year, Hindus worship Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth. The ode to Laxmi flatteringly acknowledges: “In whichever home you reside, all good qualities come”. Symbolically, however, Laxmi follows Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning. Message: if you want Laxmi, invite Saraswati. There are many corollaries in the business world: If you want market share, build better products. If you want happy customers, have happier employees. If you want market capitalization, pursue excellence.
Respecting human agency
In the Hindu pantheon, Krishna and Rama are iconic. And opposites. Rama followed protocol. He fought a war to liberate his abducted wife. But after much public debate and personal anguish, he gave her up because that’s what his role as a king demanded. Krishna broke rules. He exposed the shades of grey in society. He helped his cousins fight a war, but because it was an inter-family war, he instructed his army to join the enemy. Hinduism gives us a sense of agency to choose who we want to be.
With one caveat. Rama predated Krishna by a few centuries. Lesson: only by following rules can you test them and selectively break them. When Steve Schwarzman was thinking of dropping out of Harvard Business School, his mentor Richard Jenrette persuaded him to follow the rule book and stay. When Schwarzman started Blackstone in 1985, private equity was a nascent industry, yet he set an audacious goal to raise $1 billion for their first fund. Most tales of extraordinary achievement are made of such Rama and Krishna moments.
My takeaway from Hinduism, indeed, from various schools of religious thought: all profound truths are paradoxical. Good things turn bad beyond a point. All political and economic isms are constraining. Dogmas are dangerous. The Enlightenment tradition of skepticism – not to be confused with cynicism – is a virtue. The quest for a better world requires we transcend superficial differences and embrace deep commonalities. That’s where one can realise the human potential. And that’s where the metaphorical God resides.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.