by Asim Chaudhuri
Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2011 240 pp. hardcover $14.95
Review by Sister Gayatriprana
This small volume was brought out by Advaita Ashrama to mark the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Vivekananda’s birth. The author, Asim Chaudhuri, while born in India, has pursued a life career in engineering with Caterpillar, “the world’s largest manufacturer of earth-moving equipment,” based in Illinois, USA. As such, he is familiar with the American business scene, and from the content of this book the reader can see that he has studied its inner workings with considerable address. In this volume we learn many inside principles of successful and ethical American business, from its very earliest days up to today, when Southwest Airlines seems to command particular attention for its successful business model. The very title of the book includes two principles in American business management—Leader-Manager and Servant-Leadership—which the author deploys throughout the book as key concepts. For those of us not familiar with the history and principles of the business scene, this aspect of the book is really quite interesting and enlightening, introducing us to major thinkers in the field such as Warren Bennis, James Burns, Andrew Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Peter Drucker, Robert Greenleaf, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, Max De Pree, Peter Senge, Jack Welch, and a host of others.
But Mr. Chaudhuri is not simply an American businessman; he is also a devotee of Swami Vivekananda, about whom he has authored two books, following in Sister Gargi’s footsteps: Swami Vivekananda in Chicago: New Findings (2000) and Swami Vivekananda in America: New Findings (2008). In his present work he has combined his two areas of interest in one, showing how Vivekananda’s management of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission conforms to the very best Western business principles, and in some cases anticipates them. There can be no doubt that his primary motive in writing this book is to introduce Indians to Western business practices through the lens of their national hero, Vivekananda; but for Americans there is considerable interest in learning the history of the most reputable and ethical businesses that built up our nation to greatness, as well as an assessment of Vivekananda that most of us have probably not thought of as yet.
To most Westerners, Vivekananda is primarily a spiritual teacher answering the deep spiritual needs of our culture, but at this pivotal point in history where our businesses seem to be going into decay, precipitating the present dire financial situation, it is heartening to see how such a spiritual giant could at the same time be such a successful “business” leader. It gives us a hint that spirituality and business can be combined, and combined successfully, a hopeful note for our future and a model for the up-and-coming Green movement that is basically trying to move our country to a more ethical, caring, and spiritual mode of operation in all spheres of our national life.
The author presents his case for Vivekananda: A Born Leader in five chapters. The first chapter relates Vivekananda to the topic of leadership, and particularly why the author feels Vivekananda was indeed a born leader. He quotes Ramakrishna’s dictum, “Naren will teach,” and also Vivekananda’s own statement, “Leaders are born, not made,” and comes down on the side of Vivekananda’s innate gifts as the secret of his magisterial performance in so many areas.
In the West, however, we are seldom ready to accept nature as completely trumping nurture in matters like this; while it is true that great events propelled Vivekananda forward—and of course he had every single “silver spoon” his mouth could possibly hold (including as probably the most potent, Sri Ramakrishna himself)—most of us would probably prefer to focus on the responses and choices Vivekananda made to the circumstances he had to face and that made him into what he finally was. In this way, we all feel empowered and learn how to maximize our potentials rather than just admiring someone who is a great achiever. However, for those who emphasize innate qualities over effort, Vivekananda is indeed an outstanding example to be studied and as far as possible emulated.
As an example of Vivekananda bringing together both sides of this issue, the author quotes Vivekananda’s statement that “knowledge exists in the human mind; suggestion is the friction that brings it out.” The author asserts that this idea of innate knowledge is not yet developed in the West, and might well be emphasized in order to counterbalance the settled Western concept that leaders are primarily made (46-47). One might suggest that the present enthusiasm for all forms of yoga in the West is the beginning of our collective exploration of our knowledge-potentials, which can only grow from more to more and uncover for us the depths of our capabilities and innate wisdom in all possible fields of endeavor. The other side of this particular coin is, of course, that Indians are now investing themselves in new and very demanding Western-style disciplines geared to bring out their genius that has lain dormant or unused for so long. This was indeed one of Vivekananda’s goals in India, and one feels he must be proud of how his countrymen and women are now coming to the fore in so many ways that are vital, not only for the progress of human society and culture, but also for the evolution of our human species.
The first chapter also puts forward important principles worked out in the West that seem to fit Vivekananda’s “leadership style.” One is servant-leadership, a concept pioneered in corporate America in the nineteen seventies by Robert Greenleaf, the purport of which is “a leader helping people to remove the obstacles on their path and helping them acquire the skills they need to do their jobs better” (p.53). The author quotes Herb Kelleher, Chairman Emeritus of Southwestern Airlines, as an outstanding practitioner of this principle, making his company one of the stars of this book as well as of American business. Another is the distinction between a leader and a manager, which boils down to the pithy “Leaders do right things; managers do things right” (65). In most instances, leaders and managers are two different categories of people, but the author makes the case for Vivekananda combining both in his leadership style—quite a feat, being able to conceive of ideals and also to apply them in actual practice. Any of us who have tried to do this know how very difficult it is to skillfully combine these “mirror-image” qualities.
In Chapter 2 the author enumerates the leadership traits and managerial skills of Vivekananda, from “Having a Vision” to “Foresight.” This is a very exhaustive list (nearly 100 pages), full of inspiring qualities and examples of how Vivekananda embodied them in his founding and running the Ramakrishna Math and Mission (in India), but it is not always clear how they all hang together. The author does state that integrity—with which Vivekananda was liberally endowed—is probably the most important, from which all else follows. It might have been good if he had listed it first and shown how all else follows from it; but no doubt this detailed list will be of immense value for people who are beginning to enter the business world.
Or any other professional world, for that matter: the list is a roll call of the qualities of any person with integrity and the capacity to think of others and respond to their needs, such vital and tragically scarce assets in our present state of culture. However, I am happy to say that listening to the Spring of Sustainability program sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences I daily hear wonderful speakers sharing their own methods to conceive of and run their businesses in this way and also to change the whole American concept of what business is in the first place. And this is, hearteningly, not just a local movement; these people are networking all over the world, even in Africa, China and India. There is a kind of feeling of inevitability that humankind is about to spring forward as a whole into a completely different way of doing things, including business, which at the moment largely gets a pretty bad press.
Chapter 3 deals with the inevitable “Managing Paradoxes” with which anyone who is trying to do something in the physical world is inevitably faced. The author mentions Tom Peters’s Thriving on Chaos, which not only gives us a good idea of the gist of this chapter, but also sounds like a good summary of how Vivekananda was forced to operate in a country all but totally unprepared to work with the contemporary idea of organization, torn by conflicting loyalties and riven by disunion created by foreign dominance and internal dissension. However, the author supplies us with four important aspects of Vivekananda’s work that ultimately helped him to impose his vision and a solid organization on the difficult situation he had to deal with.
In Chapter 4 we move to “Vivekananda Unbound: Beyond Traits and Skills.” Here we encounter Vivekananda’s overarching concepts like man-making education, work “for one’s own salvation and the good of the world,” and his own personal mastery and core competence. Finally, in Chapter 5: “Measuring Leaders’ Accomplishments,” Vivekananda’s achievements are assessed by three cardinal business criteria: Did the Leader Grow the Enterprise? Did the Leader’s Enterprise Achieve Some Level of Prominence? Did the Leader Leave a Positive Legacy?
The author is, of course, preaching to the choir in many ways. His answers to these questions are all affirmative, and in addition, he makes some insightful comments such as “influencing his brother-disciples to redirect their outlook was probably Vivekananda’s biggest achievement as a leader.” (142) These were certainly the men most able to stand up to his radically different ideas about Indian life, and several of them gave him a run for his money. But overall he did win them to a worldview that was, ultimately, what Sri Ramakrishna himself had given him, but which he had made his own in the school of hard knocks, in India and in the West. Another wonderful insight that seems to summarize Vivekananda’s principles from an enlightened Western point of view is quoted from the work of Abraham Maslow, the great transpersonal psychologist of the mid-twentieth century. Speaking of spirituality in the workplace that the author illustrates in such detail in Vivekananda’s life:
Enlightened management is one way of taking religion seriously, profoundly, deeply, and earnestly … [For] those who define religion not necessarily in terms of the supernatural, or ceremonies, or rituals, but in terms of deep concern with the problems of human being, with the problem of ethics, of the future of man, this kind of philosophy, translated into the work life, turns out to be very much like the new style of management and of organization. (214)
SISTER GAYATRIPRANA is a writer on Vivekananda Vedanta, with a background in the neurosciences. Formerly a monastic member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, she retired to Santa Fe, NM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org