A motley bunch of IT and financial sector executives, businessmen, couple of police officers, a few officers from the Indian Air Force, executives from public sector companies, are all listening intently to Debashis Chatterjee as he speaks, flitting between anecdote, stories, humour and discourse. Chatterjee, Director, Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Kozhikode, Kerala, is addressing a management development programme, based on his book ‘Timeless Leadership, 18 Leadership Sutras from The Bhagavad Gita’and his class of senior executives is keen to learn what for them is evidently new ground.
The sylvan surroundings of IIM-K, built as it is on two hillocks with a breathtaking view of a carpet of coconut trees as far as the eye can see, is an ideal retreat for these executives to get away from the hurly-burly of corporate life and step back and take stock. Chatterjee seamlessly pulls in examples from everyday life to illustrate his point and draw parallels from the discourse Krishna, the charioteer, gives to the warrior Arjuna, who’s paralysed into inaction on the battlefield. At the end of a day’s session, Chatterjee talked to Business Line about on his book and what the corporate world can draw from what the Gita has to offer. His office, more windows than wall, offers a spectacular view of the valley below.
The corporate world is rocked by a crisis in ethics and values. In this context, does a study of the Gita’s tenets offer some relevant lessons?
The Gita is a text for the foundational values of life. It’s not just a book of skills. The corporate world has a preponderant emphasis on skills without the discretion that must go behind these skill sets. If I am an investment banker then I am really honoured for my craft in creating financial models. But, the emphasis is largely on skills. That emphasis has been so disproportionate that we have not paid enough emphasis on values that run these skills, which need to serve the larger good. In business you collect money, you have investors and shareholders; all of them constitute the larger component of a business and the society in which you do business. If you look at only the craft as your business capability then you are missing the whole point of what business stands for. Businesses need to understand what is the larger good; leaders need to have a sense of what corporate dharma is, which is to generate more wealth with less resources for a larger number of people. That’s the dharmic tenet of a corporation.
So, what learnings can corporate executives draw from the Gita?
Businesses of today will have to look at the multiple impact of their business. They have to be conscious of the larger or the whole picture. In the Gita, Krishna is telling Arjuna, ‘Don’t be worried so much about your role as a part. As long as you connect to the whole, the part is taken care of.” The earlier Chairman of Hindustan Lever, Vindi Banga, used to say that whatever is good for Hindustan is good for Hindustan Lever. He didn’t say it the other way round. Narayana Murthy says ‘whatever is good for India is good for Infosys’. Why are they saying this? Because they are saying the same thing that the Gita is: what is good for the large is good for the small.
Krishna is painting the picture of the large and telling Arjuna, “See your little part in connection with the whole…once you do that your ability to act for the larger group will enhance progressively. Then you will not engage in unethical actions.” If Rajat Gupta was sensitive to the world, that he was actually depriving a genuine investor from his legitimate wealth by insider trading, he would not have done it. It’s a lack of sensitivity.
When were you fired by the principles of the Gita to draw parallels for the corporate world?
I have been hearing Gita since I was a child. But my real serious interest in studying it developed when my father started scribbling notes on this before he passed away in 2009. And the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a company asked me to do a series on the Gita for 18 days. I did that diligently, one chapter each day, without knowing why I was doing it. But the result was so phenomenal. All of a sudden you saw into the heart of things with so much more clarity. Later, when I was in Singapore, an editor of Wiley walked up to my office one day. I was contemplating a comparative work of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the Gita. But, he wanted me to write a book based on the Gita. For that I needed to understand what it meant for corporations. This work is two years for writing. But the preparation for it was nine years. I read 200 editions of it. Everybody that you can think of has done some thing on the Gita: Tilak, Mahatama Gandhi, you name them…even CEOs are writing on it.
I even went to Rishikesh and met people who have made Gita their way of life, to understand what they had to say.
The book evolved as a result of this series of conversations. My earnest aspiration is to rescue the Gita from the vocabulary of an exclusive religious cult. I have nothing against religion but I have absolutely a problem when this is seen as a touch-me-not. The Gita’s message had to be transcreated for a new generation of learners who would not buy its esoteric notions. They would not see Krishna as an otherworldly being. So, I took examples form mundane existence (to draw parallels).
So, shorn of all the religiosity, the principles of the Gita you say are universal?
First of all it’s not meant to be a religious text but a way of living. It’s one of the works of psychology, depending on how you look at it. It has been interpreted by multiple people, so it lends itself to so many nuances, it’s a primary work, and my work is to interpret it for the corporate sector, transcreating the work in my own way.
Do you see India’s corporate leaders using these principles of the Gita?
If you see the top 100 wealth creators in India, 80 will swear by it, that their basic manual will be the Gita. The Gita is like a case study. The Upanishads are like a text book; Gita tells you how to apply the principles of Upanishads and Vedanta in real life. If that case study does not appeal to businesses which one will? I found that it is very compelling to speak to corporates with the evidence that the Gita not only has the power to create an Indian knowledge system, it can explain how the Indian business system runs the way it does, why Indian businesses can cope with the imponderables and uncertainty much better. Foreigners are amazed at the chaos here, but there is order in chaos. But, apparently, there is no chaos, there is a cosmos out there which lies just below the threshold of chaos and that order lends itself to depth of intelligence. So, instead of going out there and borrowing from shallow Western manuals we can go deep into our own knowledge systems.
With all the turmoil and scams in the corporate world, can B-schools inculcate values and ethics in B-school to your students?
The first point of ethics and values is that they are very subtle in nature. They don’t lend themselves to just teaching and talking like you teach time management or operations research. It is a different category, it’s very layered. So, ethics and values are caught rather than taught. They have to be built into the DNA of the organisation.
What are the attributes, according to you, that a CEO needs in today’s world?
A CEO needs wilderness skills; how do you deal with wide variations in data, in market fluctuations, you need a mental capability that has to seek out coherent patterns from a swarm of data, the ability to connect the dots and take decisive action, you need a certain equipoise, an equilibrium, a certain calmness of mind. That is missing in many CEOs. You need to know how to process your emotions.
CEOs also need an ecological sensitivity, which was not needed before. There are so many environmental factors buffeting businesses, that you cannot become ecologically vulnerable. Today, if you look at McDonald’s, they advertise their supply chain rather than their products. Sustainability is a function of being ecologically sensitive. GE has changed 180 degrees from the time of Jack Welch; in India, ITC is talking about responsible luxury. All this is pointing towards a change in mindset about the context of business. It is no longer about shareholders, it is the large societal factors impacting businesses. We need a bigger vision for business today.
Today you can’t bribe a Government servant and get away with it, there is the civil society which you have to contend with, there is the judiciary, there are environmental hawks who are scanning your carbon footprint. It’s difficult to be a business leader today, it’s much more challenging.