The Manager from Sri Sathya Sai University – By Amar Singh

Administrative Office of Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, 
Prasanthi Nilayam
I had recently embarked on a longish road trip in the United States, and was listening to a recording of a speech by M. Scott Peck, the author of the bestseller ‘The Road Less Travelled’ even as I cruised along the expressway. A famed psychologist, Scott described how once he was studying the behaviours of two distinct sets of children. One group had been brought up in loving, warm, but disciplined families where kids were clearly cared for and valued. The other set had been brought up in violent and hostile environments, where the kids were frequently subject to verbal and physical abuse by their parents. Clearly, in the first case the children were happy and in the latter, they were fearful and disillusioned. Scott was interested in studying the impact of their upbringing on the kids’ futures. His going-in hypothesis was that the children from warm families would be reluctant to leave the comforting familiarity of their ‘happy’ homes while those from dysfunctional families would be happy to bid their goodbyes. He described how he was shocked to find the opposite to be true! 

Children from happy homes were eager to step out, whereas those subjected to abuse preferred to stay within the confines of their homes. An avid researcher, he couldn’t wait to dig into the reasons that explained the anomaly in his expectations. This is what he found out – kids from loving families perceived the entire world to be a happy, warm and nurturing place. As a result, they had no trouble stepping out from the safe environs of their homes. They embraced the larger reality of the world with the same warmth they trusted their family with. The kids from the violent homes, on the other hand, perceived the world to be largely fearful, untrustworthy and antagonistic. They longed to stay within the narrow confines of their little world because they at least knew the ‘rules of engagement’ within it. They knew when they would get beaten, and how to stay out of trouble. The larger world presented them no familiar territory and in general represented an unknown entity, even more sinister than their home.

I shut the tape and paused to reflect on what I had just heard. It had been about eight years since I left the ‘comfortable’ environs of the little world that is Puttaparthi. I had stayed cocooned in this world for thirteen long and impressionable years, with little idea of the larger world outside. And then I had stepped out. Since my departure in 1996 from the comfort of Puttaparthi, my business travels had taken me across the length and breadth of India. Recently, I had transitioned to the United States. Through all this I had met scores of professionals, attended an uncountable number of business meetings, worked with and led teams, handled significant budgets and impactful responsibilities, and surmounted several professional and personal challenges on the course of an exciting and fulfilling eight-year journey. None of this was unlike so many young business executives working hard to deliver meaningful results. 
Prasanthi Nilayam Mandir
With hardly any pride, I realised I had done much better than most of my colleagues and peers in negotiating my journey. I have never regarded myself as exceptionally brilliant, and carry no illusions about the limitations of my abilities and skill set. And yet, I had to admit to a reasonably strong track record. Till that moment, I realised I had never been able to put my finger on the real reason driving the success that came my way. Peck’s example summed up what had befuddled and escaped my objective analysis for the reasons behind my success. My years in Parthi, I realised, had irreconcilably turned me into an optimist with an attitude of warmth towards the world. In so many distinct and yet defining ways, I was always ‘different’ from my peers outside. And what’s more – I realised, this difference was healthy and positive. This also explained why I could adapt to a new culture and environment much better than my other Indian colleagues in the US. A dear friend and colleague once, in good faith, advised me to take life a little more ‘seriously’ as I didn’t seem particularly worried even under trying circumstances. I made an effort to suppress my laughter – it was impossible, I thought inwardly, for me to remain worried beyond a point about anything. After all, I always had the option of surrendering my mental load to Swami. Having done that, I found it quite easy to maintain my cheer even as others around me struggled to discover reasons to smile.

I did not want any notions of humility to cloud my understanding of how my years in Parthi provided me the mental maps that charted the success of my career thus far. A fairly objective analysis led me to recognise that at the very core of my emotional self lay the Love of God. It was not even true that I was in any way a great lover of God; instead I was convinced that God, for an inexplicable reason, loved me dearly. This emotional core provided for the larger framework that sustains me, both as a person and a professional today.

Management thinkers these days have come to accept the Resource-Based View of the firm as a more refined way to think about business strategy. Loosely, the Resource-Based View encourages one to think about developing uniquely differentiated, non-replicable and sustainable competencies for delivering value in the market place. While this is hardly an accurate definition of the Resource-Based View, a more interesting exercise would be to think about what unique competency, students from the SBMAF (School of Business Management, Accounting and Finance, now rechristened as the Faculty of Management and Commerce) carry into the market place. Without leading you through my logic here, I like to think this competency is a combination of attributes that may be best loosely combined and encapsulated in the words – right attitude.

I have had the pleasure of working with extremely intelligent and creative people in my career. Intelligent people make for an environment that provides exceptional learning opportunities, intellectual stimulation and growth. However, intelligent people are also exceptionally prone to placing an exaggerated ‘premium’ on their intelligence. As a result, they run the risk of coming off as arrogant. Increasingly, I have noticed that forward-thinking companies are placing a premium on people with the ‘right’ attitude, over and above the necessary intelligence required for the job. Recruiters look for candidates with the right ‘fit’. Apart from cultural factors, fit issues revolve around questions such as – ‘Is this the kind of person I would enjoy working with?’ or ‘Would I choose this person to be on my team?’ and so on. 

With the proliferation of specialized educational inputs in various fields worldwide, intelligence is increasingly losing it’s sheen as a slick differentiator in the marketplace. While it may never become a generic competency, I feel reasonably sure that intelligence will stand to lose ground as a unique differentiator in tomorrow’s workplace. Intelligent people with the ‘right’ attitude will become increasingly sought after instead! I certainly buy the argument that there is no unique way to describe the ‘right’ attitude, but I hope you will appreciate that a meaningful discussion around the topic is hardly the purpose of this article.

Why do I believe in the potential of the SBMAF to generate management graduates with the ‘right’ attitude? A key reason for this belief is my understanding that a healthy attitude is based firmly on an individual’s emotional maturity, and further that spiritual growth essentially also makes for an emotionally mature mind. Very few Educational Institutions in the ‘secular’ world of today would venture to mix ‘values’, ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’ in their courses – any such attempts would be deemed politically incorrect, and, in some countries subject to libel. Business Schools across the world are scurrying to teach courses in ‘ethics’, ‘leadership’ and ‘corporate governance’ but I am not aware of many doing what is done so seamlessly at Parthi – blending spiritual thinking into the mental make-up of students.

Let me round this off by citing a personal example that underscores my above point. I was recently being interviewed by DuPont, a $27.4 billion company at the company’s headquarters in Delaware in the US. This was the result of DuPont’s efforts to inject a marketing competency into the organisation, as well as to prepare a team of young business leaders to take up leadership responsibilities for DuPont globally. 

I certainly enjoyed meeting with DuPont’s executives and senior management. At the end of a day-long rigorous schedule, my final interview was with a Human Resources professional. He told me that while the others had checked my technical competencies and fit, he wanted to know more about me as a person. With that, he asked me which Institution I had studied at while in India, and why I chose to go there. I smiled, thinking I would never be able to verbalize how big Swami and the SBMAF experience have been in my life. In any case, I briefly explained that I went to my Institution of choice because of its unique Vision and focus on Holistic personality development, as well as its spiritual leanings. ‘Education is for life and not for a mere living’ – I quoted Swami while crisply explaining the essentially non-commercial nature of education here. He listened to me with attention, and I sensed that my words were beginning to get some traction in his mind. 

He then asked – ‘If you really believe in that (the need for a non-commercial focus), how would you explain your desire to land in a job of this nature?’ Indeed, the job at hand was extremely challenging and the emoluments were much above industry standards. This was the big, bad world of business and competition. A lot of candidates really wanted the job. Was I under-selling myself by quoting soft philosophy? Did I really want the job? I was intrigued by his question. He certainly wanted to know more about me as a person, I mused. 

With that, I paused for a moment’s thought and replied – ‘Eric, imagine if you were a teacher, and you had a student in your class who was essentially dim-witted, lazy and didn’t pay attention to his lessons. Imagine further that you went up to him and asked him to concentrate and study harder, and he were to reply – ‘Eric, there is much more to life than studies’. That would be one kind of answer. Imagine now, that in the same class you had another student who was the exact opposite – extremely intelligent, conscientious, and hard-working. Someone who regularly secured the highest grades, and recently even received a gold medal for his academic brilliance. You go up to this student to congratulate him for his feat, and you get a reply like – ‘Thanks Eric, but you know – there is much more to life than studies’. I asked my interviewer (you might have guessed, his name was Eric) ‘In my example, both students provided you the same exact answer, but which of these students would you respect more?’ 

I continued then, without waiting for his response – ‘I would really respect the latter student in my above example. Having achieved, he was not limited by his achievements. The lazy student was essentially incompetent, so his reply smacked of a case of sour grapes. One cannot give up or rise above something that one has not achieved. While I am assured in my mind about my beliefs, I cannot conclusively prove this till I have the opportunity to do so. I do believe my years in the Sri Sathya Sai Institute have provided me with the competency to achieve and the balance to look beyond whatever I achieve’.

Eric had listened to me with rapt attention. He broke the silence with the words – ‘I haven’t heard something like this before. That’s a very good story!’ After that, we chatted comfortably for half an hour and I couldn’t help thinking that Someone, sitting physically thousands of miles from Delaware would be smiling at our conversation. I was not wrong. As I left DuPont, Eric asked me for permission to share my ‘story’ with other interviewers and decision-makers in DuPont. 

I knew I had the job right then, but more importantly, I felt re-affirmed once again that Someone never ever leaves your hand and is always guiding you to do, say and believe in the right things. No one has inspired me ever in my life like Swami, and I feel so assured in His love. Increasingly I feel I am capable of handling any situation life puts me in, not because I trust any capability I may possess, but because I know I am sustained entirely by a power in me that is not my own. And remaining connected with that power, in essence, is the core competency of any alumnus of the SBMAF.

- Amar Singh
Student (1996-1996), Department of Management Studies
Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Prasanthi Nilayam Campus
Currently, Director, Strategy and Innovation, Delhaize America
Fayetteville, Arkansas Area, USA

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