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Sailing to Nirvana

by MOHANBIR SINGH SAWHNEY

Prof Sawhney is the McCormick Tribune Professor of Technology and the Director of the Centre for Research on Technology, Innovation & E-Commerce at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Chicago.  Business Week lists him as one of the world's most influential people in e-business and describes him as the "John Maynard Keynes for the Net Age". In April 2006, Prof Sawhney delivered the following key-note address at the Annual Vaisakhi Gala hosted by The Centennial Foundation at the historic Carlu Theatre in Toronto:

 

The theme that I have been asked to speak on is Leadership... how Sikh values help us in becoming leaders in corporate and public life. This is my charter.

I have two problems with this topic. I am neither a leader nor an expert on Sikh values. But, I am an academic. We academics have an ability to speak with seeming authority on any subject, to any audience, in any city, with absolutely no knowledge of the subject.

So, I will attempt to talk about leadership and values.

Before we talk about what Sikh values are, I want us to reflect a little bit on why values matter, and why they are so important in leadership.  Let me give you an analogy.

Values are like the roots of a tree. When you look at the tree, you see the branches, you see the trunk, and you see the leaves. What you don't see are the roots. But without the roots, the tree would not survive. In fact, everything that we see when we look at the tree springs from the roots that hold it down to the ground.

That's what our values do. We are not aware of them. We don't think about them day to day. But they form the essence of our being. They keep us grounded and they keep us rooted in everything we do. How we act, how we behave, how we relate to people around us, it's all driven by our values.

I teach at a business school. As I look at the world of business, I believe that we are witnessing a grave crisis in values. With frightening regularity, we see scandals both in the corporate world as well as in public life, whether it is Tom De Lay (the ex-speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives), or Ken Lay (ex-CEO of Enron), or Bernie Ebbers (the ex-CEO of Worldcom), or any of the innumerable disgraced leaders we hear about, it is clear that we are witnessing a moral bankruptcy in public life and in the corporate world.

I think in our quest for value we have abandoned values. I remember a Freudian slip at a reception desk at a company. There was a sign in the reception area that said, "Please leave your values at the desk, management is not responsible for losses."  I think that is what has happened. We leave our values at home. We do not take them to work.

Mahatma Gandhi used to tell us that work is worship, but I think work has become profane. The workplace, which should be a place of worship, is now a place where greed, ego, backbiting and lies rule the roost.

I truly believe that we can create value from values. Time and again companies that have done the right thing have not only done good but done well. Profits and values are not in conflict. In fact they enable each other. As I think about how we can overcome the crises in the corporate world and in public life - greed, ego, pursuit of material gain - that is where I make the connection with Sikh values.

But what does it mean to be a Sikh?  I never asked myself this question and what it meant from the perspective of values.  Seventeen years ago I came to the United States from India.  I remember people in America asking me, "Who are you? What are you? Can I buy one of those things you have on your head?" (that was in Texas!). I was faced with a general ignorance of who I was.

Then I realized that I had never asked myself what it meant to be a Sikh. I teach marketing, and one of the things we teach is that if you are selling a product, or you have a startup company, you need to have an "elevator pitch".  In 30 seconds, what does your business do? So I had to construct my elevator pitch for Sikhism. What is Sikhism in 30 seconds in an elevator?

I never thought about this, because as Marshall McLuhan, the famous media critic, once said, "I don't know who invented water, but it probably wasn't a fish."

When I was immersed in my community in India, I had no need to explain to the people around me who I was. When I came to America, I was forced to reflect on what it meant to be a Sikh.

What does that mean in terms of leadership? Let's look at some of these values.

Sikh scripture warns us about the five evils: Kaam (lust), Krodh (anger), Lobh (greed), Moh (attachment), and Ahankaar (ego).

Well, these are the very same evils that seem to dominate the business world, and therefore I look back to our defenses that we have against these five evils.  As many of you know, and many of you are far more learned than I am on Sikhi and spirituality, the three fundamentals pillars of the Sikh Faith are: Naam Japna: meditate on the Name, Kirat Karni: earn an honest living, and Wund Chhakna: share your wealth with the less fortunate.

As I see it, there are a set of values that spring from these fundamental tenets. Sat, which is speaking the truth, Santokh, which is contentment, Seva which is service, Nimrata, which is humility, and then that ineffable thing they call Chardi Kalaa, which is buoyancy of spirit and a "can do" attitude.

As I reflect on these values, I find that they are very much a part of me and they are very much something that all of us have been gifted with. These values have been endowed upon us, and we drink from this very deep well of wisdom, whether we know it or not.

Let's look at some of these and how they might help us in our lives. Let's start with Kirat Karni. What does that mean? To me, it is  -  earn an honest living and be proud of what you do. I believe that you should follow your passion. Let your passion lead you, because if you are passionate about what you do, you will be good at it, and be proud of what you do. Work must not be just a job; work must be something that you enjoy, that you are passionate about. Even if that passion takes you in a direction that the world says is not right, follow your instinct.

Let me tell you a very personal story about this. In 1999, when I was at the Kellogg School, I started to do a lot of work around the emergence of the Internet. I found that there was an urgent need, a hunger for people to understand this phenomenon, the business models, the winners and the losers. I had no time and no patience for academic journals to spend three years on the review process to write articles about this fast-paced phenomenon. So I started writing in the trade press. I started writing for magazines like Business 2.0, and the articles that I wrote at that time had significant impact on practice.

However, when the time came for my promotion and tenure at my school, my department said, "We really cannot recognize these contributions because they are too practical, they are not in academic journals, so you have been wasting your time. We don't think we can give you tenure."

Six months before this happened, I had told myself, "This is where my passion is leading me, and nothing else matters." I was like a locomotive going off a cliff at 100 miles per hour, but I didn't care. This is what I wanted to do. This is what I was passionate about.

I went to my Dean, Don Jacobs, and I said, "Don, although you feel that I've made a contribution in many different ways, it seems that you cannot recognize this contribution. I think I have to leave. He said, "You can't do that. It's not possible. Let me see what we can do." Then he did something unprecedented. I was an assistant professor at that time. From this position, we generally get promoted to associate professor, then a full professor, and finally, a Chaired professor. Don promoted me three levels directly to a Chaired professor. And he bypassed the entire tenure system.  

So I'll let you in on a secret. I'm a Chaired professor but I don't have tenure. I'm the only one in North America with this position. The benefit of this is that I don't have to sit in on any administrative matters leading to promotion and tenure, so I can spend more time doing what I want. I'm an academic entrepreneur, and I have added a lot of value to the school through innovative corporate partnerships, executive programs, and practitioner-oriented research.

People look at me and say, "You know, you've been lucky you got this great deal." I tell them, "Yes, you can look at me and say I was lucky. But I think it was because I was passionate and didn't care about what the outcome was." Everyone around me, including my parents and advisors, told me this was the wrong thing to do. They told me, "Just do what is expected of you." But I would say, follow your gut and be proud of what you do. That's the one thing I took away.

Now let me comment on Seva, or service. Seva means giving of yourself. I believe that we all need to find ways to give. We have different things we can give; the volunteers who put this show together gave up their time and their energy. Some of us can give money. Some of us can contribute intellect. Find something that you can give.  Remember that you are wealthy in different ways. So give, and give generously.

And give without expectation of return, because you don't know where the return comes from. The universe has a design much greater than we can appreciate and much greater than we can understand. Give selflessly without expectation of returns. You will be astounded by the rewards from giving, and how unexpected they are.

I'll relate another personal story in this respect. It was 1997, and if you know marketing, you know that there is a professor named Philip (Phil) Kotler, the father of Marketing. Nowadays, he's more like the grandfather of marketing because he's 75 years old. He was my mentor at Kellogg.

One day I got a call from Phil, saying, "Mohan, I need to understand this Internet thing. Can you help me configure my PC? I want to get a modem set up and e-mail and I don't know where to start." So I went to Phil's office and I sat with him for a day. Not only did I get it set up, but I sat down with him and explained how to do e-mail. I told him to go to Yahoo!. I said, "This is how you search for information," and so on. I didn't think anything about it.

Now, what I could have said was, "I am not the IT guy. We have an IT staff downstairs. Could you please call them, this is not what I do." But I just gave him a little of my time.  

Two years later, in 1999, my phone rings and the person says, "This is the World Economic Forum calling. We would like to invite you as a Forum Fellow to speak at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos." This is unimaginable if you know what the Davos meeting is. It involves heads of state and people who are Nobel laureates. I was a rookie. I had no idea why they would be calling me. I said, "Why me? How did you think of me? I'm nobody, I'm nothing." They said, "Well, we can't tell you, but we got a very high recommendation from a person we respect a lot."

I later discovered that it was Phil who had recommended me.

I went four times to the World Economic Forum annual meeting. That experience has completely changed my career, my outlook, and my perspective. I got catapulted to the public stage ... in return for six hours of technical support.

What is the return on investment? If we constantly think about returns on our time, and ask - "Should I invest time with this person? What am I going to get in return?" -  we end up being very myopic. Give of yourself and rewards will come back to you in ways that you cannot even imagine.

The next concept I want to talk about is Santokh - which is contentment. We live in a very material society. We are often measured by the zeros in our checking accounts and by our status in society. I think sometimes we can, as they say in Silicon Valley, be guilty of sucking our own exhaust. We get carried away. We are always trying to get ahead of the next person.

In Hindi, they call this greed "The Trap of 99," which is the next 99, the next 99, the next 99. I think that what we don't do enough of, is to count our blessings. Every one of you in this room is very, very fortunate. Although I think it is important to look ahead in order to try and achieve more and to do more, it is also just as crucial to look back and see where you came from. Don't forget how kind life has been to you. You should always remember that there is much, much more you have to be thankful for than what you have to complain about.

As someone once said, "I complained about my new shoes biting me till I saw the man that had no feet." We should count our blessings and be content, because while we need to aspire, we also need to be content.

Another value I'd like to reflect on is the concept of Chardi Kalaa, which is being positive, being optimistic. It means always finding the positive aspects of life and having that buoyancy and spirit that is so uniquely Sikh. I think our Gurus inspired us and endowed us with an entrepreneurial spirit and a "can do" attitude that is unique. There is something very special about the Sikh community. We tend to accentuate the positive and forge ahead, regardless of what life throws at us.

Again, I'll relate a personal story. This is something more painful, but it illustrates what I have tried to do in my life.

After 13 years of marriage, my wife and I divorced last year.  Divorce is painful, and I could have gone into a funk. I could have ruminated about what could have been, what didn't happen, or what could have happened. But I think I asked myself, "What did I learn? What should I learn? How should I improve myself?" As a result, I realized that there were legitimate things that I needed to fix in my life. I needed to take better care of myself physically. I needed to connect better with my children. I needed to readjust my priorities. I needed to rethink what really mattered to me. After the usual trauma and pain, I picked up myself and said, "Let's take the positive lessons and move forward."  

Today, I have lost 20 pounds, and I'm in the best shape of my life. I cook for the kids - I discovered that I have a latent talent for cooking. Come to think of it - "latent" and "talent" are anagrams. All you need to do is put the "t" in the right place.

I have a wonderful relationship with my children, and because the children spend their weekends with my ex-wife, I can do things like this event. I can be here without guilt. I can play golf, which I couldn't before. All in all, I would say I'm a much better person. I'm physically fitter. I'm a better father, and I'm very optimistic about moving forward with life. I didn't realize this, but upon reflection, I believe that Chardi Kalaa had a lot to do with it. This spirit gave me the resilience I so desperately needed.

The final value I will comment on is Nimrata, or humility. When we are recognized, when we are celebrated, when we are successful, we all run the risk of believing that we are really superior. And that leads to ego.  I remind myself that I should never look in the very uneven mirror of other people's perceptions, because that doesn't mean anything. Today you might be put on a pedestal. Tomorrow you might have the rug pulled from under your feet, and then you wonder what happened. You never were higher than anybody, and you are never below anybody. You are who you are. The only reference point you should have is internal, not external.

So these are the Sikh values, and this is how they make us better people, and better leaders. There is infinite wisdom in our spiritual tradition. And it is as relevant today as it was three or four or five hundred years ago. And I hope you agree that the values and the wisdom of our tradition are practical and actionable in our daily lives. All we need to do is to pause and reflect on the teachings of our Gurus.  

In summary, I would say - "Make passion your sail, make intuition your compass, make humility your anchor, and you will sail your ship to success on the ocean of life."    

Sat Sri Akal!

Conversation about this article

1: Davinder Singh Bhatia (Canada), April 04, 2008, 7:51 PM.

The article presents the universality and relevance of Gurbani as a solution to our modern-day problems. It also reminds us of the message and words of our Gurus in the form of Gurbani which, in its quntessence, is: "Aad sach, jugaad sach, hai-bhi sach, Nanak hosi bhi sach!" I am also, in my own life, trying to correlate the teachings of Gurbani for re-interpreting the relevancy of cost-accounting principles and concepts.

2: Narinder Singh Nijjar (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), February 11, 2011, 1:41 PM.

Excellent article. Superb explanation. The author deserve an award.

3: Gurinder Singh Ahluwalia (Chandigarh, Punjab), July 11, 2011, 6:07 AM.

Well said, Professor! "There is something very special about the Sikh community. We tend to accentuate the positive and forge ahead, regardless of what life throws at us ..." What an insight into the behavior of a Sikh. Thank you.

4: Mousumi Ghosh (Kolkata, india), June 09, 2013, 2:30 PM.

A beautiful and bountiful journey of thoughts on a life well-traveled over hairpin bends and ditches but the steering is in the hands of a competent driver who is used to the foggy morning visibility! Take care, Mohanbir. It's been long since we met at the IIMC allumni event.

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