What makes companies, executives and managers tick?

An interview with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev on organizational and individual purpose


The quality of leaders in the business world is very different today than it was 30 years ago, says Sadhguru.
The quality of leaders in the business world is very different today than it was 30 years ago, says Sadhguru.

New Delhi: Sometime in the middle of my conversation with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, I realize several things.

One, we seem to have acquired an audience, but it is a quiet one, and so I carry on.

Two, the man is easy to talk to.

And three, this isn’t very different from conversations I’ve had with a lot of management gurus in terms of tone and tenor.

We are discussing the Isha Foundation’s Insight leadership programme, targeted mostly at family-run businesses, that Mint has been associated with for two years now.

Not because this is some new-age fad that the newsroom has to keep up with, but because the programme seems to address issues that several CEOs and management philosophers have been grappling with, especially in recent years.

The first is about purpose. Purpose has to be the buzzword of the 2010s, and it is usually prefaced by the word higher. Everyone wants to discover this—for themselves and for their organizations. And just for the record, the answer usually isn’t bigger cars or higher profits.

The second is about potential—not in an F.W. Taylor kind of way but from a more meditative and holistic perspective. Those who get it will understand that this isn’t as much about productivity gains and efficiency as it is about balance and evolution (like climbing the higher levels of the pyramid that Abraham Maslow didn’t really describe). Again, everyone wants this for themselves and their organizations.

The third, of course, is happiness.

That explains why management guru Ram Charan, Tata group chairman emeritus Ratan Tata, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories chairman G.V. Prasad, BRICS Bank chief K.V. Kamath, Bank of Baroda chairman Ravi Venkatesan, former IBM India chief Shanker Annaswamy and several others have been associated with the Insight programme. This year, the programme features Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy and former Kellogg and INSEAD dean Dipak Jain.

All this is as mainstream as it gets in the world of business. Some of these are also questions I’ve been asking myself in recent years. Which explains why I have travelled across town on a weekday evening—I should be in office, like I usually am at this hour, overseeing the print edition as it goes to bed—to sit down with a man his followers simply call Sadhguru.

Some clearly see him as more than a life coach or a management philosopher. There is a beautiful portrait of the man just outside the room where we are talking. It shows him, draped in the expensive-looking indigenous fabrics he usually sports, structured loosely into a holy man’s robe of his own making, in mid-stride, but the effect is one of levitation.

My first real (but indirect) encounter with the man came in 2011 when Rohini Nilekani, the anchor of a series we were doing on philanthropy (apart from being all else that she is), suggested his name as one of the columnists. She’d previously suggested Bill Gates and Matthew Bishop and several others (none of whom could say no to her, it turned out, so Mint did feature all their columns), but I balked at Sadhguru’s name.

“I have this thing about godmen…,” I started, and would have gone on, except that Nilekani interrupted me…

Anyway, the short of it is that he isn’t a godman.

There may be people who think he is, and I guess he doesn’t really have a problem with it, but he doesn’t advertise himself as one.

In fact, I find out that he doesn’t advertise at all.

“I’d rather not do anything at all,” he says. “I am happiest when I am left alone. I can just sit here for hours doing nothing.”

Now that I’ve established the fact that Sadhguru isn’t a godman, and that there is a business angle to this piece, I guess I can safely proceed without damaging my standing as editor of a serious business publication.

The other piece of evidence that this is a serious business piece is, of course, Sadhguru himself. I know this may sound like an insult in some quarters, but the man talks like a consultant.

“You will see a lot of (family) businesses stuck between Rs.100 crore and Rs.300-400 crore, but they have the potential to become global businesses,” he says, rattling off the reasons why these family businesses hit a wall—“affinity towards their own blood, efficiency, capability, (inability to shift) from family to the professional way of doing business”.

“The idea was to bring those people in and liberate them from those fears,” he adds, explaining the rationale for the Insight programme. “It is better to own 50% of a Rs.1,000 crore company than 90% of a Rs.100 crore one.”

What Sadhguru doesn’t mention is that this isn’t a problem restricted to Rs.100-300 crore ones. Several Indian companies have grown to Rs.4,000 crore or Rs.5,000 crore, largely on the strength of having control over or access to some resource (coal, iron ore, spectrum, and the like) without really growing up as organizations.

The transformation isn’t about letting go, says Sadhguru. He asks me to imagine someone on a trapeze bar. The only way you can get that man to jump to another trapeze bar and soar even higher is if you bring the second bar closer. Or even show the man that there is a second bar close by. Everyone is willing to take a little risk, he says.

Enabling this transformation are people, some of whom I have named above. Isha and Sadhguru call them resources. All have volunteered to share their experience and expertise. “People who have been there and done that are telling them (the attendees of the programme) how to do things. That’s the difference,” Sadhguru says.

I point out that this sounds a lot like what a consulting firm would do. Sadhguru nods his head as if he agrees and then proceeds to disagree anyway. “Consulting firms are there, but consultants aren’t,” he says. They haven’t done anything, he adds, but the “people we have as resources are all practitioners”.

“These are the kind people they (the attendees) wouldn’t normally” have access to, says Sadhguru. “Here they are rubbing shoulders with them, being mentored by them, not just for those four-five days (of the programme), but through the year.”

There’s also the appeal a guru has, especially in the Indian context. Surely, that’s a draw for both the attendees and the resources? After all, even when it comes to sticky issues such as business disputes, there have been instances where gurus have stepped in to sort things out. Are people more open to listening to Sadhguru because they see him as a guru, a holy man?

It doesn’t matter what you call it, says Sadhguru.

“If these people are seeking wisdom, and find it somewhere, it’s good isn’t it? I don’t think hardcore corporate (types) are going to listen to a guru just because of his position.”

Such belief has to be earned through “intelligence and wisdom”, he adds. “If I don’t make sense, I don’t make sense, and no one will take it.”

But what of the resources themselves? And aren’t more people open to listening to someone like Sadhguru these days because everyone is looking for a higher purpose—something beyond running a tech company or a bank?

Sadhguru channels Lily Tomlin.

“If you win the rat race, you are still a rodent,” he laughs. “A big backward movement in the evolutionary scale—and people are beginning to realize that.”

Humans need more, he says. “Business executives no longer want to do just business—they want to create something.”

This is something he has been trying to do for 17 years, Sadhguru says—“moving people from personal ambition to a larger vision”.

“We have contributed significantly to this,” he adds, speaking of his foundation’s role, “but it has also happened” because the world has started moving in “that direction” now.

Many leaders no longer want just a job, he explains, unless there is something larger that goes with it.

That rings true, even if the sample set is just a few people I know.

There’s the former technology entrepreneur trying to crack the problem of online education.

There’s the private equity executive trying to catalyse a new model for education.

There’s the other private equity executive who is trying to create an entirely new framework for philanthropy.

It is evolutionary, Sadhguru says, but it still won’t happen on its own. Someone has to make people think, he adds.

“That’s what we do. We’ve been throwing up questions so that people can think, not just get lost in their day-to-day work. And once they begin to think beyond the quarter, the thought comes to them naturally, ‘What am I doing with my life?’.”

These sort of fundamental questions have to be asked by people and, by extension, companies.

“Business as usual is the most destructive thing there can be,” he says.

That’s a conclusion reached by everyone from Alain de Botton to Thomas Piketty.

We toss around ideas on capitalism and market economics (“I don’t like the term,” Sadhguru says. “It looks at people as markets.”)

Still, his own thinking does veer towards it.

Business and profit are still bad words in India, he says. “Businesses have to flourish and this is something we have still not understood in this country. Any society that does not seek a success is a disaster;… human possibilities will not find expression.”

Then, Sadhguru decides to define business the way he sees it.

“The business of all businesses is human well-being,” he says. “Whether you are making a safety pin or a rocket, what is the fundamental motivation? Human well-being. And if human well-being is the fundamental business, you would think in a more comprehensive way instead of wanting to sell something more than somebody else at whatever cost. Then, you are lost in the process; you have forgotten the goal.”

The companies and CEOs that realize this, he explains, are the truly successful ones. Many business leaders truly understand this, Sadhguru says, and see the connection between the pin and humanity. It may not be on display all the time and at all levels but it is there, he adds. The quality of leaders in the business world is very different today than it was 30 years ago, Sadhguru says.

The Isha Foundation’s Insight leadership programme is scheduled to happen between 26 and 29 November at the foundation’s HQ near Coimbatore. Mint is a partner of the programme. For more details, see www.ishainsight.org

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