TWO BIRDS IN A TREE
Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders
By RAM NIDUMOLU
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Ram Nidumolu
All rights reserved.
Being in Business
He who sees himself in all beings,
And all beings in his own self,
Loses all fear and embraces the world.
There are two birds, two dear friends, who live in the very same tree." So say the Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts about the nature of reality. "The one lives in sorrow and anxiety and the other looks on in compassionate silence. But when the one sees the other in its power and glory, it is freed from its fears and pain." These two birds are symbolically perched at two different levels in the tree.
The first bird, which lives in constant anxiety, is in the lower branches of the tree. Its view obstructed by the many branches of the surrounding trees, it hops around nervously, pecking at fruit both sweet and sour. So focused on eating fruit, it loses sight of the world around it and gets caught up in satisfying its immediate material desires. It is disconnected, in a way, from its environment and other beings and jumps from branch to branch, from one disappointment to another.
The second bird is perched atop the tree itself on its main trunk. From this highest perch, it has the broadest view of the tree and the lower bird. It can see vast expanses of earth stretching outward for miles and miles. It sees its feet attached to the tree, feels connected, and sees the lower bird moving frantically, following appetite after appetite, as it strips the tree bare of its fruit. The second bird does not eat fruit but simply watches, content to Be in its place at the top of the tree.
Like most images in the Upanishads, this one is an allegory for life. We can also look at it as an allegory for how we lead our lives in business and how business itself works. By business, I mean the modern industrial and services corporations where many of us in in dustrialized societies work. The first bird—the bird moving from appetite to appetite—is the individual ego. This is the self we often are at work: feeling fearful and anxious, acting protectively, viewing our life narrowly, and constantly comparing ourselves with others to create our sense of self. It is the business persona we have come to adopt—it is analytical and impatient and measures its successes largely in material gains with little consideration for how those gains may impact the world.
The second bird, free of fear and confident of the future, is the Being (Brahman) that is the foundational reality of the world. It is described as a golden-hued bird that is also the universal self (Atman), the authentic, unbounded, and everlasting self of all living beings. This fearless presence within us enables us to view our human condition with compassionate understanding and a larger perspective. This perspective is often missing in business.
Although the concept of Being is hard to define precisely, it broadly refers to our essential nature, or quality of existence, which we share with all other living beings, human or not. This shared commonality, or essence, gives living beings their name. Because of it, we call ourselves living beings; we are neither living doings nor living havings.
Today, much like the lower bird in the Upanishads, business seems to have lost its genuine sense of connection to humanity, nature, and its institutional credibility, which is the larger context within which it operates. It has lost its sense of Being. Many business leaders seem to have distanced themselves from the rest of the world, and the impact of business decisions on the world outside the company rarely appears to be a central factor.
Such a sense of separation is one major reason for the great ecological, humanitarian, and institutional crises that threaten our very existence and well-being—the growing threat of climate change, the ongoing destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, the growing public concern with ethical breaches among many businesses, the spreading inequality between business executives and other people in society, the seeming disregard for societal well-being by financial institutions and other large corporations, and the increasing alienation of employees from their corporations. Business as usual that is based on separation from humanity, nature, institutional credibility, and ultimately Being engenders crises as usual.
How can we respond to these overwhelming crises that seem to be converging in ever-increasing fury? Human beings have a deep and shared connection with other humans, as well as with other living beings in nature and with the world itself. Being-centered leadership is about anchoring in this foundational reality of shared connections. It is about freeing business to renew itself while simultaneously restoring balance to its shared connections to its larger context.
It is about how we can be as leaders to alleviate business's deep schism with humanity, nature, and its credibility with the public. Being-centered leadership is the effort to lead from a place of seeking to realize Being. In terms of our allegory, it is the great quest to realize the higher, golden-hued bird within us while engaging with the world through the lower bird that we embody. The end goal is business that is more holistic and sustainable in the long term because it continually nurtures the larger context in which it is deeply and existentially embedded.
The Axial Age and the Upanishads: Wisdom of the Sages
We can find inspiration for dealing with our multiple crises by considering the period 800–300 BCE, called the Axial Age. The common emphasis of Axial Age philosophies was not so much on what you believed but on rediscovering the fundamental nature of the human being and who you were as a person. When this realization of our core nature occurred, changes in our beliefs, values, and behaviors followed naturally. The Axial Age is relevant for developing a new model of business leadership today in three ways:
First, the changes and uncertainty about the future that we are seeing worldwide today are similar to those of Axial Age civilizations. Wars, migrations, natural calamities, and the disintegration of long-established empires and civilizations caused tremendous turmoil and societal strife. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to see how the present age might be similar.
Second, the business leaders of today exert an influence on society that is similar to that of the high priests of the Axial Age. Since the Industrial Revolution, the market economy has become central to everyday life, just as religion was central to the lives of Axial Age peoples. As a result, business leaders affect societal well-being like the priests did in the past.
For example, business leaders have a major influence on the values and behavior of people, particularly with regard to work, consumption, and social status. In their impact on government policy and the officials who get appointed or elected, business leaders mirror the influence that the priests once had on rulers and royal policy. Through their understanding and control of the mechanisms of capitalism (the new "religion" of modern society), business leaders exert the kind of power that the priests exercised over religious practices.
Third, the loss of trust in business leadership and corporations as institutions of capitalism today bears a remarkable similarity to the loss of public trust in the high priests of traditional religion in the Axial Age. Public skepticism sprung largely from the inability of these religions and their priests to explain the tremendous changes that were taking place and reassure the public about the future.
In the Maitri Upanishad, the story is told of a king who turns to a wandering ascetic, rather than his priests, for counsel on how to cope with the changes. In describing these changes (summarized in exaggerated terms in the quote that begins part 1) and talking of his helplessness, the king laments, "I am like a frog that cannot escape from a waterless well. Only you can help me." Not only were the established religions and priests helpless in reassuring the people, they were themselves considered a chief cause of the disruption. The increasing demands of the priests for patronage imposed a large burden that led to public resentment and distrust.
The ways in which Axial Age civilizations responded to the changes that took place are hopeful signs for our modern-day Axial Age. Transformational ethical principles and practices developed in India, China, the Middle East, and Greece gave rise to the great religions of Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, and others. Even Christianity and Islam were later influenced by these practices.
While the particulars of each tradition were different, these religions had something of a shared commonality of wisdom—the connectedness of all and the rediscovery of the fundamental nature of Being.
The Principle of Correspondence
Let's begin with the word Upanishad itself. While its conventional meaning is that of sitting near a teacher for instruction, for the teachers and their students who learned an Upanishad, its real meaning was "hidden connection"—such as that between the two birds in the tree. The individual who saw the hidden connections between the universal self and the individual self could also understand the correspondence between all beings in the world.
The Upanishads go even further: the persons who constantly saw this correspondence between themselves and other beings could become them. They could expand their consciousness and sense of self to include other beings they were connected to. In doing so, they developed a profound empathy with all beings in the world and with the world itself. This all-important principle of correspondence is central to the Upanishads. To see a correspondence between two things was to recognize an essential similarity between them.
The principle of correspondence was not scientific and could be abused if it was applied too indiscriminately. However, it provided a metaphorical way of seeing the world that was closely aligned with how our minds function. As modern cognitive science has shown, the mind works primarily through a wide variety of conceptual metaphors—implicit comparisons between two seemingly dissimilar things that nevertheless have something in common—that are the building blocks of our abstract thinking. We use metaphors to point out this commonality, or correspondence.
The Upanishads described this correspondence not just through metaphors (such as the two birds in a tree) but also through similes and other comparisons that made the meaning more vivid and memorable. The integrative vision of the Upanishads was of a world where a deeper structure and unity bound seemingly disparate and changeful things together.
Not only was this supposed to reflect reality, but it also had great pragmatic value. In the midst of uncertainty, one could take comfort in something that was stable and lasting. The value of this worldview is captured in one of my favorite verses in the Isha Upanishad (the most beautiful, simple, and lyrical of all the Upanishads): "He who sees himself in all beings, and all beings in his own self, loses all fear and embraces the world."
The Axial Age in India and elsewhere was indeed a period of tremendous uncertainty and change. Because the priests did not have satisfactory responses to the problems of the time, the Axial Age wisdom that developed in response was successful because it reminded people of their fundamental interconnectedness to one another, to nature, and to the world. Might a similar wisdom help business re connect to the world—to Being—in this Neoaxial Age?
Being in Business
Many of the thousands of books on business leadership deal with issues that are relevant to the lower bird from the Upanishads: How do I work effectively? What qualities do I need to have to be successful? How do I get ahead in the world of business? Business leadership at this level is about doing and having, themes that are indeed important from this narrow viewpoint.
But if business leadership is about being, then an additional set of considerations becomes vitally important. These considerations have to deal with the commonality of existence that undergirds business, business leaders, and all other beings. A corporation, a start-up, a family-owned company, or any other business is then considered an integral part of an interconnected network of beings (whether individual or collective) that share the same foundational reality.
Moreover, the scope of business—such as business purpose and vision, stakeholders, success criteria, and management approaches—now becomes much broader to include these hidden connections (or externalities) of business to humanity, nature, and Being. Business leaders can no longer justify their actions solely in terms of the lower bird of material gain since Being-centered leadership requires a broader sense of collective and individual self that extends outward to humanity, nature, and ultimately Being.
Through the lens of Being-centered leadership, business is not just about the right to pursue material self-interest, such as material profits and growth, but also about recognizing and nurturing its connections to humanity and nature. The responsibilities toward them become an authentic part of such a sense of connection. Doing becomes guided by this broader vision and purpose. After all, if, under our law, corporations are treated as having many of the rights of individuals, can we not expect that they too have responsibilities for nurturing their connections beyond just profit? Shouldn't they be expected to have empathy, just as human beings do? These responsibilities extend even beyond the life of a business since its impacts survive its material existence.
The Upanishads tell us that these expectations are reasonable because of the principle of correspondence between human beings and corporations. All beings, whether individual or collective, are connected inextricably to one another because they are ultimately expressions of the foundational reality of Being. When business leaders realize these hidden connections, they will naturally embody a genuine sense of the responsibilities that arise from these connections. In this way, business becomes more holistic through Being-centered leadership, thereby bridging its great schism with humanity, nature, and institutional credibility.
The story of the late Anita Roddick, founder and former CEO of the Body Shop, is an inspirational example of a Being-centered leader. Her connection to humanity was forged at the age of ten when she came across a book on the Holocaust. What she saw "kick-started [her] into a sense of outrage and a sense of empathy for the human condition."
Years later, Roddick set up a small cosmetics shop in England where she sold skin-care products to survive. She was a big believer in the power of stories, and cosmetics allowed women to tell stories. She said, "[In] every group I have spent time with, women will always corral around a well and tell stories about the body, birth, marriage and death. Men only have conversations or memories about their first shave. But women will always use the body as a canvas, a playground. Even when they were taken to the gallows, women would always want to put some makeup on."
The Body Shop became one of the earliest companies in the world to fight for protecting nature, but Roddick was not just about nature. She campaigned vigorously for tribes and indigenous populations in solving livelihood and human rights problems created by corporations, and she provided a sustainable livelihood for Amazonian Indian tribes by trading in brazil nuts, which produced an oil for moisturizing and conditioning. As she said, "For me, campaigning and good business is also about putting forward solutions, not just opposing destructive practices or human rights abuses."
Excerpted from TWO BIRDS IN A TREE by RAM NIDUMOLU. Copyright © 2013 Ram Nidumolu. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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