Believing that profit should be the primary and ultimate concern of business, it has disconnected from society, humanity, nature, and higher values. The results — from multi-million dollar bonuses for CEOs who have ground their corporation into the ground, to boom and bust cycles and environmental devastation — are clear to everyone. Trust in business leaders is, unsurprisingly, at an all time low.
Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders by Ram Nidumolu (published by Berrett-Koehler) looks at what went wrong, and presents a radically different vision of what business should be about. His aim is to inspire a new kind of business leader; one that is concerned with “being” — the inner person, and his innate sense of connectedness to the world — and not just with “doing” or “having.”
Nidumolu’s credentials as a business leader are certainly solid. Besides being a former professor at US business schools and a scholar at Stanford University’s Kozmetsky Global Collaboratory, he is also the founder and CEO of InnovaStrat, a consultancy for global corporations.
Still, Nidumolu is realistic about the problems of contemporary business practices. The statistics he presents are striking: “In 2012, only 18 percent of the global public trusted business leaders to tell the truth” (p. 3). Other, and perhaps more important concerns, for Nidumolu, include environmental devastation, the daily deaths of 20,000 children (through hunger, preventable diseases, pollution, etc.), and the drift of employees from management and CEOs (“In America, only about 30 percent of employees feel engaged in their work … While the ration of CEO pay to average employee pay in America was about 30:1 in 1980, it is now around 243:1” (p. 3)).
The primary illustration, contrasting the differences between the old, and — Nidumolu implies — outmoded type and the higher type of business leader is the Vedic story of two birds in a tree, one in the higher branches, and one in the lower branches, symbolic of our higher consciousness and baser, ego-centric, myopic, and me-orientated consciousness.
While profits will remain important to corporations, Nidumolu believes that they will not, and cannot, be the primary aim of future businesses. Instead, the higher kind of business leader will recognize that profits come as “the outcomes of larger goals.”
Moreover, there are four kinds of capital that business leaders need to consider:
Material capital (its goods, stocks, and so on)
Human and social capital (employees and their relationship to each other, etc.)
Natural capital (the ecosystem, natural goods required for business — e.g., energy)
Being capital (integrity, trust, values, etc.)
If the emphasis on “Being” rather than profits, shareholders, and so on strikes you fanciful, and simply not realistic in the world of business, then you may be in for a surprise. Steve Jobs, founder, head, and public face of Apple, himself saw profits as secondary to innovation and the creation of new technology that would make our lives easier and more rewarding. (And Apple is the most frequently in referenced company in business lessons, and the most emulated — if largely unsuccessfully — by competitors, as well as companies in other fields.) And, incidentally, Jobs was also influenced by his journey to India, where he studied religion and mysticism, and tried to put the principles he learned there into Apple.
True to its mission, Two Birds in a Tree speaks on a very human level about business, and avoids technical jargon. The book also goes into areas not normally associated with business, such as Nidumolu’s experience of the funerary ritual for his father. Nidumolu uses this to discuss the idea of ritual, continuity and connectivity. he wants, after all, business leaders to leave behind a positive legacy; one where they are remembered for improving the environment, not destroying it, and for improving the lives of people, not for merely seeing them as potential consumers.
Interspersed throughout the book are several pages of short reminders and questions. these might have been called “koans” a few hundred years ago. Here they’re called “Tweets” and “Seeds.” “Like rituals,” one Tweet reads, “Being-centered leadership can provide a larger identity and meaning to business work for its practitioners” (p. 55).
Once the groundwork has been laid in Two Birds in a Tree Nidumolu introduces other CEOs and business leaders, and uses their anecdotes and voice to get his message across. Seemingly radical, it is, we discover, “Being-centered” business leadership is already being practiced — by some of the most successful leaders of some of the most successful brands around. Nidumolu recalls, for example, a conversation he had with former CEO and chairman of Puma Jochen Zeitz. “Everything is interconnected,” Zeitz told him. “The moment you take philosophy, psychology, religion, and business and look at the underlying commonality, that’s when you start looking at business in a different way.” Once you have your basic needs taken care of, Zeitz said, you have to discover your “life through being, and not through having” (p. 33).
Two Birds in a Tree is a challenging, though inspiring book, that wills us to do better — to reconnect with higher values and ethics, and to place “Being” above consumption. It’s lessons would benefit most business leaders, and, by extension, most businesses. That said, it could also benefit small businesses, individual entrepreneurs, and those engaging the public, from blog editors and content managers to creatives. Highly recommended.
You can purchase Two Birds in a Tree from Amazon.com here.