Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders

Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders

by Ram Nidumolu

See All Formats & Editions

The Higher Reality of Business The health of business is inextricably linked with the health of humanity and nature. But our current approaches to leadership treat business as entirely separate—and the result has been recurring economic, environmental, and human crises. In this extraordinary book, Ram Nidumolu uses evocative parables and stories from the


The Higher Reality of Business The health of business is inextricably linked with the health of humanity and nature. But our current approaches to leadership treat business as entirely separate—and the result has been recurring economic, environmental, and human crises. In this extraordinary book, Ram Nidumolu uses evocative parables and stories from the ancient Indian wisdom texts, the Upanishads, to introduce Being-centered leadership. This new kind of leadership is anchored in the concept of Being, the fundamental reality that underlies all phenomena. Being-centered leaders are guided by an innate sense of interconnection—the good of the whole becomes an integral part of their decisions and actions. Using the experiences of over twenty trailblazing CEOs, as well as those from his own life, Nidumolu describes a four-stage road map every aspiring leader can use to reconnect business to the wider world—to the benefit of all.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book provides a timely—and eloquent—reminder that business does not operate in a moral vacuum and that tomorrow’s business leaders will need to be driven by a deeper sense of purpose. After reading it, no one can doubt that business can—and should—become a giver and not a taker in a system that gives it life in the first place.”
—Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

“Two Birds in a Tree beautifully describes principles that enable leaders to give back to humanity and nature while running successful companies. It is a book filled with wonderful images and stories, both ancient and modern, that are worth savoring.”
—Casey Sheahan, CEO, Patagonia

“Two Birds in a Tree helps open up our minds to the importance of leadership that is anchored in our interconnection. As leaders, we need to listen more deeply to each other, find purpose in our work, and commit to making a positive change in the world.”
—Eileen Fisher, founder and CEO, Eileen Fisher, Inc.

“If we are to make a transition to a humane world where business restores equality, ecology, and equanimity, it will be based on the principles revealed in our ancient collective wisdom as so beautifully portrayed herein.”
—Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and Blessed Unrest

“Through an illuminating journey into ancient Indian wisdom, Two Birds describes a new type of leadership that can help us manage our businesses successfully and sustainably, rather than at the expense of the planet and people. It beautifully shows that the true sustainability of humanity is actually a matter of the heart and mind, compelling us to act consciously for the future rather than continuing to ignore today’s realities.”
—Jochen Zeitz, Director, Kering; former Chairman and CEO, Puma; and cofounder of The B Team

“Two Birds provides unique insight about the balance needed between our roles in meeting the financial goals of our business and in improving society. The reader can quickly identify with each bird and the branches we all navigate in our career and personal lives to enable continuous learning and adapting.”
—Kevin Kramer, President of Wiring Division and Vice President, Stoneridge, Inc.

“Ram Nidumolu has done a beautiful service by reintroducing us to the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads. Far from being out of date, this wisdom is a contemporary, brilliant lamp that both exposes our current destructive ways and illuminates the way out of this perilous time. For those who yearn to offer meaningful leadership in service to this time, this book offers clear guidance.”
—Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science and So Far from Home

“A brilliant and inspirational look at how business—which today controls global economics and politics—can fix the messes it created. Two Birds encourages those responsible, now and in the future, to take the reins of leadership and truly lead.”
—John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

“Those who read Ram Nidumolu’s remarkable book on the future of leadership will find a deep well of inspiration and wisdom. Both are things they desperately need at a time when so many of them are being forced to draw on their deepest selves to provide their people with purpose and a sense of direction.”
—John Elkington, cofounder of SustainAbility and Volans and author of The Zeronauts

“Nidumolu’s use of the Upanishads weaves an ancient story about Being that is still deeply relevant today but has been hidden by our Western ways of thinking. Being must be reawakened if we are to find our way out of the havoc our thinking has produced.”
—John Ehrenfeld, former Director, MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, and coauthor of Flourishing

“People forget facts and figures, but they remember good stories. It’s no accident that the world’s great spiritual leaders all teach by storytelling. Great business leaders know this too. Ram Nidumolu is a master storyteller. Read him and reap—great results!”
—BJ Gallagher, coauthor of A Peacock in the Land of Penguins

“The most compelling executives today have mastered not only business strategy but the philosophical realms of social and environmental responsibility. Two Birds in a Tree cleverly explains how today’s business leaders can leverage ancient Indian wisdom to achieve holistic corporate and personal success today.”
—M. R. Rangaswami, founder of Corporate Eco Forum and Indiaspora

“The conversation about a new level of consciousness in business leadership is overdue. Two Birds in a Tree not only informs this important conversation. It inspires us with powerful stories rooted in ancient wisdom. I will share these beautiful allegories with colleagues and clients for years to come.”
—Larry Dressler, author of Consensus through Conversation and Standing in the Fire

“A brilliant story-based approach to effective leadership, Two Birds in a Tree takes a very different path. Rather than offering the latest-and-greatest management theory or practice, it draws on insights from the world’s oldest recorded wisdom, making it enormously relevant to today’s business challenges.”
—Dr. Chris Laszlo, coauthor of Embedded Sustainability

“Two Birds draws from the universal well of ancient wisdom and offers us stories and modern examples that literally change our minds about business. We imagine and live out of the idea of a separate self at our own peril and that of future generations. With this book, Dr. Nidumolu has provided the key that inspires and empowers us to change the mistaken idea of separation. It is a must-read for every person in an organizational leadership role.”
—Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brian, Spiritual Director, Center for Spiritual Enlightenment

“Two Birds in a Tree is truly inspiring. The writing style is beautiful and authentic, attributes that are rare for a book intended for business. The balance between personal experiences, personal observations, stories of business leaders, and stories from Upanishads is just exquisite and quite a feat. This is a book I will read and reread, since a book like this is a highly personal journey.”
—Mohan Sodhi, Professor of Operations Management, Cass Business School, London

Product Details

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
BK Business
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt


Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders


Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Ram Nidumolu
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60994-577-0


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..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ram Nidumolu is the founder and CEO of InnovaStrat, which provides strategic consulting services to global corporations. He is also a scholar at Stanford University’s Kozmetsky Global Collaboratory and a former professor at leading US business schools. Winner of the 2013 Emerald Managment Reviews Citation of Exellence Award.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews