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Excerpt from "Two Birds in a Tree"

Being in Business

by Ram Nidumolu

He who sees himself in all beings, And all beings in his own self,

Loses all fear and embraces the world.

isha upanishad

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.1 “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.2

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 industrialized 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 perspec- tive. 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 im- pact 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 eco- logical, 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 alien- ation 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 leadership4 is about anchoring in this foundational reality of shared connections. It is about freeing business to renew itself while simul- taneously restoring balance to its shared connections to its larger context.

It is about how we can be as leaders to alleviate businesss 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 real- ize the higher, golden-hued bird within us while engaging with the world through the lower bird that we embody. The end goal is busi- ness 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.5 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 realiza- tion 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 civ- ilizations. Wars, migrations, natural calamities, and the disin- tegration of long-established empires and civilizations caused tremendous turmoil and societal strife.6 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 gov- ernment 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 corpora- tions as institutions of capitalism today bears a remarkable similarity to the loss of public trust in the high priests of tra- ditional 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 es- cape 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 bur- den 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 re- ligions of Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, and others. Even Christianity and Islam were later influ- enced by these practices.

While the particulars of each tradition were different, these reli- gions had something of a shared commonality of wisdom—the con- nectedness of all and the rediscovery of the fundamental nature of Being.

The Principle of Correspondence

Lets 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 mean- ing was “hidden connection”—such as that between the two birds in the tree.7 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.8

Ram Nidumolu is the founder and CEO of InnovaStrat, which provides consulting and advisory services to help Fortune 500 companies develop a corporate vision, strategy, and identity around sustainability. He is a scholar at Stanford University’s Kozmetsky Global Collaboratory and has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, the University of Arizona, and Santa Clara University. He has written for the Harvard Business Review and the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Purchase info: ISBN: 978-160994-577-0 Paperback: 216 pages Price: $18.95


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