Satyagraha and Business Values

[opening remarks...]

Has the world of business to learn anything from the philosophy that enabled Ghandi to lead a popular movement that freed India from British rule. What is Satyagraha, and what does it mean for business leaders? As you know, the term Satyagraha was made from two Hindu words: Satya, or Truth, and Graha, which means Firmness.  Satyagraha, therefore is Firmness in Truth. It is a way of using perfect self-knowledge and perfect self-mastery to prevail over others — not by force, but by force of example.

Now, compare the principle of Satyagraha to the description of leadership given by this writer:  “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” It’s a quote from Jim Collins, in the #1 bestseller business book, Good to Great.

The book Good to Great is an analysis of how good companies become great companies. At least if you define “great” as generating stock returns that beat the general market by a lot, and for a long time. If you listen to Jim Collins, the leaders of these companies achieved spectacular results by blending extreme personal humility with unwavering resolve to achieve their goals. When Collins and his researchers first tried to describe this kind of leadership, they could not find a ready-made term that was appropriate. “Servant leader”  and  “selfless executive” were both considered.  But they did not do justice to the fanatic dedication of these leaders to achieving their business goals.  As Collins said, they would fire their brother, if that’s what it takes to make the company great.

As I said, Collins couldn’t find a term to describe these leaders. So he called them “Level 5 leaders.” Originally,  Ghandi didn’t have a term either to describe his leadership style. He originally called it  passive resistance. But the words “passive resistance” did not work for him just as the words “servant leader”  didn’t work for Collins. Ghandi’s passive resistance wasn’t passive just as Collins’ leaders weren’t servants. So Ghandi actually had a contest to name the movement, and this was the way the term Satyagraha was adopted.

If you are just looking at what it takes to make a great leader, it would seem that both Ghandi and Collins are in agreement: A person who combines clear-sightedness with perfect self-mastery and enormous resolve, can do almost anything. That is the power of Satyagraha. But now I am coming to the crucial point, which makes it crystal clear that Ghandi and Collins have very little in common. And the crucial point is values. Some of the companies that Collins called “great” were NOT great. I don’t care how much money Philip Morris and Kimberly-Clark generated for their shareholders. They are not great companies. Let me read you a quote from the interviews Mr. Collins conducted with executives from Philip Morris and Kimberly-Clark.

In wrapping up my interview with George Weissman of Philip Morris, I commented, “When you talk about your time at the company, it’s as if you are describing a love affair.” He chuckled and said, “Yes. Other than my marriage, it was the passionate love affair of my life.  I don’t think many people would understand what I’m talking about, but I suspect my colleagues would. “ Similarly, Dick Appert of Kimberly-Clark said in his interview, “I never had anyone in Kimberly-Clark in all my forty-one years say anything unkind to me. I thank God the day I was hired because I’ve been associated with wonderful people. Good, good people who respected and admired each other.”

Okay, Kimberly-Clark is the number one driving force behind America’s love affair with soft and squishy bathroom tissue. They are the creators of the Mr. Whipple ad campaign:  “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.” Do you know why Charmin is squishy?  Because its made with virgin paper pulp. And Kimberly-Clark is–even to this day–proud to advertise on their website that Kleenex contains 100% virgin pulp. Most of this pulp comes from Canada, where they are  clear-cutting  ancient  Boreal forests to keep American rear-ends happy. So the people at Kimberly-Clark respected and admired each other?  I can’t imagine why. And, as for Philip Morris, I won’t even go there.

So this is the problem in the business world. We have great people with tremendous leadership skills who are leading us in exactly the wrong direction. Ghandi and his movement stand as a shining example of non-violent resistance as a spiritual discipline . Jim Collins and his Good-to-Great companies are monuments to the culture of greed. In both of these  examples there is great leadership. But if the leader is going the wrong way, we need to hop off the bus.

So, how do we know if we are–in fact–leading in the right direction? Ghandi devoted his life to the pursuit of Satya, or Truth. He once said that Truth is God. He also  wrote a biography called  My Experiments with Truth. He begins the book by saying that, while it was not his intention to be autobiographical, it was necessary for him to write about almost all of his life, since all his life was devoted to a search for truth. So, Ghandi was a “seeker” in the classic sense of the word. But he was not content with merely seeking the truth. He was also a doer. He wanted to LIVE the truth. And, for him, this meant devoting his life to leading India  back to the simplicity of her ancient civilization, and  out from under, not just British rule, but modern civilization itself.

And this is where Ghandi’s concept of Satyagraha is so relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves today. Maybe under other circumstances, Ghandi would have been content to live his life as a seeker, as many Indian gurus and swamis have. But circumstances compelled him to become a leader of his people.

Today we are facing our own terrible crisis. And it is not the financial crisis, although, yes, I have had to lay off four people, and I am not taking a salary. No, the crisis I am talking about is the worst mankind has ever faced. Our world is warming. Our oceans are rising. And we, for the moment, at least, stand powerless to stop it. This not a matter of opinion. This is documented fact.

Over the last two years, scientists from over 60 countries have participated in a research program called “The International Polar Year.” This $1.2 billion dollar program funded more than 160 multi-disciplinary research projects. The final report was released on February 25th. It says that ice over both poles is melting much faster than scientists had thought possible. And the rate of ice loss in Greenland is increasing as well.

And this is where I feel we can learn from Ghandi. Many of us so urgently feel the need to stop global warming. But it’s easy to feel powerless when we think of the task ahead of us. How do you choose what to do every day when there is no path before you? How did Ghandi, for example, decide that he would choose 79 of his followers, and march 240 miles from his ashram to the sea to defy the British salt tax by making his own salt?

This is the power of Satyagraha. It is the power of the will.

Now I’m going to tell you a personal story of something that did a lot to deepen my will.  Although it had nothing to do with freeing India or stopping global warming, it taught me that everyday people like me and my Dad can summon the strength to fight these forces that are far greater than we are. Now notice I didn’t say “fight these forces and win.” Because we didn’t win.

Eight years ago, my dad was diagnosed with a very rare form of melanoma.  It was growing, not on his skin, but in his sinus. And Dad and I fought that disease. Dad fought his disease in order not to leave my Mom and the rest of his family. And I fought it because he asked for my help. For the next three years, I went to medical libraries, photocopied articles in medical journals, pored through listings of clinical trials, wrote to doctors all over the country, made appointments, sent medical records, fought with insurance companies. I even created a website where I listed clinical trials and tracked my dad’s medical history. And I did this knowing that my Dad was not going to beat this disease.

How did I know this? Because, within three weeks of his diagnosis, I had found a retrospective study on melanoma of the sinus. A retrospective study is when someone goes to multiple hospitals and looks up every documented case of the disease and records the initial diagnosis, the method of treatment, and how long the patient lived. In the case of my dad’s disease, they hadn’t found even one person who had survived for more than a few years.

So I knew he was going to die. And I was almost positive that nothing I could do would prolong his life. Actually, in some ways I made it worse because I’m sure Dad would have been a lot more comfortable, and he would have been in the hospital a lot less if he hadn’t gone through all those clinical trials.

But, for our family, what we did was right. They say that “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” But they’re wrong. Because, even though melanoma did kill my father, what he he endured to try to be there for his family was a shining act of bravery that will resonate forever for everyone that knew him.

My father died five years ago. I’m sure you are not surprised to hear that after his death, things changed for me. He died in February, 2003. At the time he died, my computer business was already eight years old. By all accounts, I had a successful business. We were growing every year. And I was making money. But this was no longer enough. I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

In fact, I didn’t even know why I had started the business in the first place. One day, I had picked up an old hippie book called Earning Money without a Job by Jay Conrad Levinson. The advice was basically to start several businesses at the same time and see what panned out. That’s how I started selling used computers to college students. It was such a rough and tumble affair, it seemed more like an adventure than a business to me. I bought used equipment from shady people who cleaned out offices and sold them for cash to inner city students. One day I was even held at gunpoint when I tried to repossess a computer.

Not really a credible beginning for a values-driven business. The truth is, I didn’t start Tech Networks with a social purpose. But after my dad died, I started to realize that I had the strength and courage to try to address real problems in this world. And I didn’t need to wait until I was a millionaire to do it. So, over the next few years I worked on morphing the business from the traditional profit-maximizing model to a less traditional change-maximizing model. It’s what Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunis calls “a social business.” Instead of taking donations, you  generate revenue from sales, like a regular business. But you then channel the profits from those sales to fulfill your social mission.

My company still makes money by helping people use technology. But our new social mission is to reduce the environmental impact of computing. Not just for us, but for every company.  This has proved to be more difficult than I thought. Our first attempts to reduce computer energy use started in 2006 when we announced our new Earth PC.  The Earth PC was one of the first computers with a power supply that was more than 80% efficient. It was endorsed by the EnergyStar program and by utility companies who gave us a $5 rebate for every PC we sold. The media loved us. We even landed a front page article in the Boston Globe.

But how much energy did we save? Actually, very little, even though we were very successful at selling them. By recommending Earth PCs, we failed to take into account all of the other solutions that were actually more efficient. Sure, an Earth PC used less energy than one that was exactly the same except for a less efficient power supply. But what about buying a laptop instead of an EarthPC, or what about a thin-client solution?  Maybe our customers shouldn’t buy anything new at all.  If they just kept their existing computer and installed power management on it, so the computer goes to sleep when they are not using it, that would save more energy than anything else.

In fact, the deeper we dug into the issue, the more confused we became. Some of the data we have found says that 81 percent of the lifetime energy use of a PC is expended during the production cycle. So the very idea of replacing your computer to save energy becomes ridiculous. Not only does it take a lot of energy to make a new desktop computer, but it takes a lot of resources. I have some 2006 data that says it require 528 lbs of fossil fuels, 38 lbs of chemicals and 400 gallons of water to make the average desktop computer. That’s the same resources as it take to build a mid-sized car!  And when you dispose of these computers, you release toxic waste materials such as dioxins, mercury, lithium and lead.

So now we are asking people:

  • What problem are you trying to solve by purchasing new equipment?  Is there any way to reconfigure existing equipment to achieve the same result?
  • Are you buying hardware or software from vendors that promote equipment obsolescence in order to sell more stuff?
  • If you don’t need your equipment anymore, who else can get some use out of it?
  • And, finally, what will happen to your equipment when it dies?

Sometimes, these questions are as counter-intuitive for us as they are for our clients. In the past, we agreed with our customers that it is better to spend $500 on a new computer than to repair your old one. Somehow, we have to change this. When you purchase a computer, most of your money is sent to far-away companies that are polluting our planet by mining the natural materials; fabricating silicon wafers in hugely polluting factories they call “fabs”; assembling them, boxing them, and shipping them overseas. When you pay a technician to fix your computer problem, your money stays right here in the community and provides someone from around here with a good job.

So, how do I know if I am leading my company in the right direction? Obviously, I don’t.  None of us ever do. As Al Gore said at the climate conference in Fiji last year:  “Path walker: There is no path. You must make the path as you walk.” Ghandi was a great path walker. He made a path that led India out of British control towards self-rule. He did it not by telling others to change, but by BEING the change he wanted to see in the world. Making a new path is hard. But it’s the only way that we are going to get out of the blind alley we are in today. Thank you very much.

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About TNB

Founded in 1994, Tech Networks of Boston (TNB) delivers people-oriented IT support and care through service desk, remote monitoring and maintenance, staff augmentation, onsite support, strategic planning, training and project IT services to non-profits and businesses in greater Boston with a focus on non-profit health care and human service providers.

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