Field Notes from CCS Conference – ArunKumar talks about Service Orientation and Servant Leadership

Just back from the Corporate Culture and Spirituality Conference held at the Art of Living Ashram. Two days of brilliant conversations, questions, talks and ideas. While I will come back with more details, I would like to share one of the best talks we heard at the conference by N.T. Arunkumar of UBS. Talking on the topic of Inspiration and Implementation, this is what Arun had to say (verbatim transcript of his talk, sent to me by someone from AOL team)


Guru-brahma Guru-vishnu Guru devo maheshwaraha

Guru sakshat para-brahma tasmai sri sadgurave namah

That is my inspiration. And I think that is the inspiration for everybody. And if you have your Guru’s grace, I think all the complexities, dilemmas kind of cut across the clutter and you can find the simple truths and explanations. We spoke about three things: inspiration, implementation, motivation and sustainability.

As Joseph Campbell said, “Everything starts with a story.” So I’ll tell you a very small story that changed the course of…of how I view spirituality, from looking at it as an esoteric practice that was reserved for a few, to a very practical day-to-day living that can be learned at work. So way back, about 15 years back, I used to work for a multinational called PepsiCo and I had the honor of hosting the current CEO Indra Nooyi and the then CEO Roger Enrico. We were visiting a remote part of India where we were doing experimental marketing. As you know, when we entertain senior management, we want to impress them with power points, dressing up the whole place. For some reason, these two people knew that this was going to be the case and as soon as they got out of the aircraft, they kind of singled me out because I was the only, I was the youngest General Manager in the management team at the time and I was not a sales guy. They sat with me in a truck, with a truck salesman who knew no English and here was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company who knew nothing about this place called Trichurapalli. And he just said, “Drive through the market.” And during that one hour of drive, I was interpreting Roger’s instructions to the driver and the driver’s explanation back to Roger.

I learned the concept of servant-leadership. When he was dropping off the soft drinks in a shop, the man who was CEO of a Fortune 500 company actually taught him how to place the bottles in the right way that doesn’t inconvenience the shop-keeper or the customer. He actually wiped the fridge and told them how to maintain equipment. And all this without knowing the language at all. To me that demonstrated the hands-on leadership style and the kind of bonding that the truck driver earning a few hundred rupees a week developed and got inspiration from a global leader. No amount of power point, no amount of strategic conversation would have delivered the impact at the marketplace that was delivered. That was a turning point to me in terms of leadership style. So according to me, sustainable inspiration from a leadership perspective comes from being a servant-leader, being able to get down and talk the language of the bottom-most person who impacts your work.

The second one is, I think, the concept of paropakara, or service. So what does a servant-leader do in order to talk about sustenance. A servant-leader sustains the concept of paropakara or service-orientation by making sure that people have an environment where they can give. You know, all of us are happy when we give, not when we get. We all get so much in the outside world. You know, if you look at all our titles, look at all our positions, why do we come here? And when we come here…you know I had the greatest blessing of my life yesterday for a few minutes when I had the darshan of Guruji very close. My mind went blank. I had a thousand questions and a hundred things to ask of him but I couldn’t ask anything. The only thing that I could think of is, “Guruji, what can I do?”. I think true happiness comes from creating an environment where everybody feels like asking this question, “What can I do? What can I give?” And I find it bit funny that we’ve all come to give a lecture here from our business world when the answers are to be found here.

Look at Art of Living. I have only been associated with it for one and a half days today but look at the global brand that’s been created, not because of any brand positioning or marketing, not because of any complex strategies. Look at the multinational, the global nature. We talk about global business. Can any business or any institution be more global than Art of Living? 150 countries, 300 million people. How was it attained? And how is it that such an organization with no commercial strategy, no investor calls quarter- to-quarter, has attained a global impact. Because first time I heard Guruji speak yesterday, if anybody else had talked to me about balance between passion and dispassion, intelligence and intuition, I would have kind of said, “Yeah, right!” But for the first time yesterday I got the best leadership lesson of my life because it was truth, simplified and delivered by someone, a leader who was talking about it having realized it himself. And I think that’s the second part of making it sustainable.

And the last part…I’m going to be provocative here…the last part is, I think, reintroduce the concept of gender-bias in organizations. Don’t get me wrong, let me explain. I think we have a very wrong gender bias today. In the industry where I come from, investment banking, there’s a running joke that if Lehman- brothers was Lehman-sisters, the crisis would not have happened. Yeah?

Look at Lord Brahma’s creation. Look at the universe. Three key cabinet portfolios – defense, education, and finance – handled by three women – Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi. Yeah? And look at what we have in the corporate world. We don’t have enough women leaders. If we have more women, if we have the gender-bias towards women, I think we’ll be a better, much better, place to work in, much better place to sustain, implementation of service-orientation. Those three are my personal experience, and my personal views.

Having said that, my, I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to and I hope to, but my deepest and loving salutations to Guruji for having opened not just my eyes and mind, but my heart. To a conference like this, and to be able to relate to all this, you know, multiple complex theories of management, leadership, spirituality that I was struggling to integrate into a very simple fabric that as he said, “You got to cut, and you got to stitch, and they go together.” I think that’s what it is. Finally, my prayers that what is the goal of implementation of all this, I think, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos which sold out to Amazon, wrote in his book, a great book that “ultimately we want people to be happy. Happy employees form the best of companies, the most sustainable of companies.” And I think that’s the goal whether in spirituality or in business. And that, I think, is the confluence, to be happy and with that I conclude my prayers, “Loka samasta sukhino bhavantu”. Thank you. 


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