By Courtney Trenwith
Swami Parthasarathy is the first to concede that few understand his way of life. But those who do — including many of the world’s top performers — are the ones who excel, he says. During a visit to Dubai, the Indian guru gives a lecture that is nothing short of contentious
The word ‘success’ may as well be blasphemy to Swami Parthasarathy. The Indian guru blames it for many of the problems among business leaders — and not because they have achieved too much of it.
“One of the most important aspects of leadership is to work in a spirit of service and sacrifice, that’s a true leader. To strive, to struggle — not to succeed,” he tells a room full of businessmen and women in Dubai. “Not to succeed means not to be bothered about success. You’re always worried about success, success, success… The accent is on the result, not on the action, but… the accent should be on what you’re doing now. All the time there’s no struggle but you want success, success, success.”
The notion may not make sense to all; even some of the suit-clad leaders in the audience at the Taj Dubai hotel in Business Bay challenge the idea during a question and answer session. But Parthasarathy’s messages do resonate among thousands of leaders worldwide.
Parthasarathy — or Swamiji as his disciples affectionately call him — gave up a potentially lucrative career in the shipping industry to study Vedanta, the ancient philosophy of India. Sixty years on, he is revered as ‘the greatest living exponent of Vedanta’, has been hailed as one of India’s greatest ‘saints’ and profiled among 20 eminent gurus of the world in a book called The Mind of the Guru, in which the Dalai Lama wrote the foreword.
The 88-year-old has featured in international media including TIME, The New Yorker, Businessweek, CNBC, Sky, The Sunday Times and the New York Post and claims business, sport and film celebrities regularly seek his counsel.
In a time when self-help has become a trend, spurred on by the likes of Deepak Chopra, Echart Tolle and Oprah, Parthasarathy’s wisdom has been particularly sought-after in the business world. Top-notch businessmen and women regularly attend his seminars and annual retreats around the globe, while he has close collaborations with the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, Young Presidents’ Organisation, World Presidents’ Organisation and the World Economic Forum.
They seek his advice on everything from reducing stress and improving productivity to relationships and happiness.
No matter the theme, the discourse comes down to the same key point: developing the intellect. And, Parthasarathy will have you believe, most of us do not understand exactly what that means.
“You’re all aware of intelligence… [but] intelligence is just knowledge acquired from external agencies,” he says, beginning what evolves into a harangue that could make anyone start to question their measure of success. “All you do is gather information [and] knowledge; that will help you make a living, period. But you do not learn the art of conducting your business.”
That is what the intellect is for; the subtle control of the emotions, feelings and impulses of the mind.
“The accent today is on gaining knowledge, intelligence on a particular subject… but what you must understand is, millions of doctors have graduated from medical school but one guy thought of how to transplant a kidney, one guy found out the cure for tuberculosis.
“Millions of engineers pass school but one guy built the Euro tunnel, one guy built the Panama Canal. Extraordinary feats of engineering — same school, how did he do it?
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t send your children to university, but for what? You don’t even know how to handle your own affairs. So unless you have an intellect you’re not a human being and much less a leader. You have to have a sharp intellect.”
The intellect helps achieve what Parthasarathy says is the essence of leadership: objectivity.
“A leader cannot be other than objective in his career,” he says.
“The mind is made up of feelings, emotions, impulses, likes and dislikes. The intellect thinks, reasons, judges, decides. Now the question is, are you operating at the level of the mind
"So when the intellect monitors the mind in your actions then you’re objective. When the mind takes over your actions, you’re being impulsive. No leader can afford to be impulsive, he has to use his intellect to guide the vagaries of the mind.”
On the surface, elements of Parthasarathy’s philosophy are somewhat elementary. Yet most — or all, he argues — do not fully comprehend the “detrimental, even fatal” impact of allowing the mind to control the body’s actions.
“I’m telling you this because we’re not taught it in schools, we’re not taught it in universities, and we’re here in life without knowing what exactly is driving us,” he says. “Almost everyone I’ve met in the world has a problem. I can’t think of a single person who can swing up his arms and says ‘I’m happy’. [They say], ‘yes, I’m happy, Swamiji, but, but, but — if I can set that right, I’d be perfect’. There’s always a ‘but’.”
He adds that even those able to pass off as being content — at least for the majority of the time — their happiness is tied to external factors such as having a job, relative health, shelter or family. But that is another misconception.
“Everyone of you believe there’s something external [that can make you happy]. And you try to set the world right but you can never do it. The world is in a flux of change, you can’t set it right,” he lectures.
“In this part of the world you like winter; three months [of the year] you’re happy, nine months’ you’re miserable. In the West they like summer; three months’ they’re happy, nine months’ they’re miserable. The whole world is inflicted with this problem — there is vandalism, militancy, terrorism, everywhere. Individually, there is depression [and] divorces.
“Nothing external can disturb you, [only] yourself. You are the architect of your fortune, you are the architect of your misfortune,” he bellows.
One must find peace without depending on anything provided by the world.
"Everybody believes that money will give you happiness; I’m not saying you shouldn’t have money [but] money pursued will not give you happiness, period. You believe that power will give you happiness, you think a particular type of partner will give you happiness. It’s not your partner, it’s how you relate to [them].”
You often feel as though Parthasarathy is preaching, his tone somewhat superior, his pitch occasionally rising to emphasise the point. But he is his own best example: at 88 he still weighs the same and wields a cricket bat as effectively as he did 60 years ago. He continues to rise at 4am every day to revise his Vedanta study (or write one of his soon-to-be nine books) during the two hours prior to sunset — the ultimate study time, he says. He also jogs daily and is an avid fan of yoga.
Practising what he preaches is in fact one of his key principles during the Dubai lecture on leadership.
“If I tell my students ‘you must wake up at 4am’... then I must lead the way,” he says. “They all jog in the morning; at 88 I jog. If I sit in my chair and say ‘jog’, it won’t work. If I don’t keep abreast of my studies and ask them to study, it won’t work.
“So whatever you expect others to do, you must do it yourself — and shut up, no sermons. A leader is one who leads the way and doesn’t sermonise, unless he’s asked. Please understand, knowledge is never given, it’s taken.”
Parthasarathy is full of advice for business leaders — and many of the top echelons have taken it.
The first tip, he says, is for a leader to fix an ideal. “An ideal is something beyond your self-centred interests,” he explains. “What are you working for? You could work only for yourself and the next day you’re struggling. I can’t see anyone working beyond the family.
"I’m not saying you shouldn’t work for your family, but if you work only for the family, you cannot become content and then you blame the world.”
When you are working to benefit the community, the country or something even higher, the focus on material possessions slips by. But that does not mean everyone should stop striving to earn money.
“People ask me, ‘should I give up my profession, should I give up my business?’. You don’t have to give up your business … whatever you do, do it with grace,” Parthasarathy says.
“[Everyone asks] ‘what am I getting, what am I getting?’ You must think, ‘can I be of some service to you?’ Even doctors think in terms of ‘what can I get out of this?’ or ‘what can I sell my patient’; it’s nothing but attitude that makes the difference.”
He runs through the next qualities of a leader: the ability to plan backwards (which allows plenty of time for unexpected diversions during a project) and identifying with colleagues.
After you plan the project any leader must learn the art of listening, he says. “You want to dictate terms!” he cries. “[As a leader] you call the shots, but you’ve got to listen. I’m not saying to judge others but listen to what others say; if you find anything useful, use it, otherwise shelve it.
“So many of you just have a voice. And why is the voice so prominent? Because of the ego; when you have a strong ego you want to dictate.”
Leaders must also learn to delegate.
“The problem is, everyone feels he’s indispensable. What happens after me, what happens after me?” Parthasarathy says. “You must prepare the second and third cohort so that your absence is not felt.”
That leads to his next point: a leader is easily accessible.
“You put yourself in a compartment where nobody can contact you. You must be accessible … so that they can take whatever help they want from you.
"Why are you not accessible? Because of a superiority complex. It’s the ego functioning. As long as you have no ego, no complexes, you make yourself available as a leader. Therefore, if you want to be a perfect leader, you develop this sense of objectivity, you use this intellect all the time.”
At the end of the day, those who have found peace will feel intense work is rest. An absurd notion? Common sense, he dictates.
“One hundred percent [of people] work for Friday. I don’t blame you because you can’t find peace in action, you’re therefore trying to find peace by getting away from action,” Parthasarathy says. “That’s why you want weekends and vacations. If you do not find peace in action, you’ll never find it.
“There is nothing wrong with taking a vacation but if you look forward to the day after the vacation to get back to work, that is a leader. The accent is on work, not the result of action because if you struggle, success is automatic. You learn how to court success but you’ve got to court work. As long as you work meticulously, sincerely, in a spirit of service and sacrifice you’re bound to get what you want.”
Parthasarathy has been speaking for an hour about the importance of intellect, but how does one develop it?
“Never accept anything for granted. Question everything,” he says. But, yet again, Parthasarathy claims few, if any, in the world ask ‘why?’.
“If you look at your life, you’ve accepted everything for granted,” he says. “Everybody goes to school, everybody goes to university, then what do they do? They get a job or they start a business. Then what do you do? You get married. Why do you get married? Everybody gets married.
"Then what do you do? You have children. Why do you have children? Everyone has children.
“It’s automatic, you just follow the herd. You’re just doing what your predecessors have done. They’re stressed and you’re stressed but you think it’s just normal to be stressed. How can you live without stress? Even some leaders [of other] seminars say ‘without stress you can’t make it’, because they’re stressed out.
“You’ve got to understand the importance of the intellect and of developing it, then everything goes fine.”
While his lecture is forthright and uncompromising, Parthasarathy concedes leadership is not for everyone.
“If everyone becomes a leader, there will be chaos. I don’t say that you should become a leader; if you’re prepared to serve, serve. It depends on your best nature,” he says.
But is there one point he will not back down on: “operating at the level of the mind could be detrimental, even fatal”.
Most people Parthasarathy’s age are long retired but — he argues due to his study of Vedanta — he is about to release his ninth book. Questioning religion, it may be his most controversial yet.
Not that that would worry him.
His book "Vedanta Treatise" - a MUST read! Excellent!
One of the best intellectuals alive. Highly recommend his books. Gives new meaning and purpose to life.