An Integral Approach to management and human development based on the spiritual vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother with an emphasis on its application to various domains of knowledge and life.
[Published in VILAKSHAN, Sep 2010, Journal of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar]
When the present CEO of GEC, Jeff Immelt, after he took over from his famed predecessor Jack Welch, was asked what would be his new priorities, he replied “values”. This shows the growing importance of the term “values” in management. But the concept of values can be understood at different level. When it is perceived and lived in its deeper sense as the ideals, which nurture our higher and nobler nature, values become the foundation of our sustainable growth and wellness. For, an exclusive preoccupation with the ego, self-interests and desires of our material, sensational and lower emotional being will not lead to any lasting fulfillment because it is a closed system subject to the law of entropy. It is only by developing our higher nature made of our mental, moral and spiritual being, we can come into contact with the universal forces of Nature, escape from entropy and attain sustainable well-being. This article examines the relation between ethics, values and wellness in the modern corporate context and in the light of an integral spiritual vision.
Key Perspectives: flowering towards fullness; Spectrum of Values; Values and the Bottomline; Ethics, Spirituality and Wellness
Flowering Towards Fullness:
When we examine the modern literature on values, most of them can be classified into three categories. First is the subtle and abstract speculations or verbal hair-splittings of the philosopher; second is the scientific and objective conception of the social scientists; third is the pragmatic formulation of the management thinker and the professionals. Though all these conceptions are useful as multiple viewpoints, we also need a more inspirational perspective on values, which can relate values with well-being. We can find such a perspective in the ancient Indian scripture, Upanishads.
In an interesting episode and dialogue in the Upanishads, the sage Sanathkumara tells his disciple Narada, “There is no happiness in the Alpa, Narada, there is happiness only in the Bhuma”. We have here two pregnant Sanskrit terms, Alpa and Bhuma which are usually translated as “small” and “big”. But these Sanskrit words have a much deeper meaning. Sanskrit, especially the sanskrit used in Upanishads, is an experiential and manthric language. If we are psychically sensitive we can inwardly experience the meaning of these Sanskrit terms by chanting it slowly and feeling the nature or quality of the inner sensation or vibration. The term Bhuma gives the sensation of flowering into a vast, fertile and expansive fullness and Alpa the reverse, shrinking into a withering smallness. So Alpa means all that is small, narrow, low, petty, ignoble, divisive, mediocre, barren—shrinking towards the limited, partial, finite and the transient. Bhuma is the opposite of Alpa, all that is great, rich, vast resplendent, full, noble, whole, free, generous, fertile, expansive—blossoming towards the universal and the whole. To realize progressive and sustainable well being there must be a constant striving towards higher values and aims, which can uplift us from the consciousness of Alpa to the consciousness of Bhuma. Bhuma is the inborn nature of the Spirit or the Soul in Man.
In our human nature there are deeper and higher elements, closer and receptive to the Spirit, which have a natural inclination towards Bhuma. They are the ideal mind, ethical and aesthetic being, intuitive intelligence and the deeper emotions. These are the elements in human nature, which are the transmitters or channels of the spiritual impulsion in human life, manifesting in the higher aspiration of man for truth, beauty, goodness, perfection, progress, freedom, justice, unity and wholeness. The path to highest well being for the individual as well as the community lies in developing this higher nature in us and making it a conscious and transparent instrument for manifesting the Bhuma-nature of the Spirit in our material and outward life.
This progress from Alpa to Bhuma has to happen in the inner being as well as the outer life of the individual and the collectivity. It must happen first in the inner being of individuals and flow out, from within outwards, into the outer life. For example, in the corporate world, when there is a decisive shift in values from an exclusive preoccupation with efficiency, productivity, profit and shareholder value to a greater focus on creativity, wellbeing, human development, quality, customer service, ethics, social and ecological responsibility and stakeholder value, it means a few petals of the corporate soul are blooming towards Bhuma.
The Ethical Imperative
In most of us who belong to the average humanity, the ethical instinct is the first and the most prominent manifestation of higher nature. So it is very important for the higher evolution and well-being of the individual and collectivity to nurture this instinct of the higher nature and develop it to its highest potential. For once the ethical instinct becomes conscious and active in us, even slightly, then any attempt to suppress, ignore or deny its promptings causes serious and subtle damage to our inner well being. It leads to a deep unease and unrest, which may manifest inwardly and also outwardly in various forms of mental and physical disease. On the other hand, when the ethical instinct is pursued consciously and sincerely in thought and action it leads to greater well-being by giving a higher sense of meaning and fulfillment to life.
So the emerging ethical sensibility in the business and corporate world, like for example “Business Ethics” or “Corporate Social Responsibility” are a welcome and promising development, which can uplift the corporate life to higher levels of consciousness and well being. These trends have to be pursued to their highest and total potential. If this is done in the right way, it may even open the consciousness of business to the spiritual dimension. For, as we have mentioned earlier, ethical development is the most natural path of growth towards the spiritual. On the other hand if this emerging ethical conscience is ignored or suppressed for some immediate or temporary gains to the bottom-line or to cater to some passing “market realities”, then it will be a serious evolutionary lapse, with adverse consequences for human wellbeing and development. Such missed evolutionary opportunities have to be paid for with much pain and suffering.
The Spectrum of Values
This brings us to other important issues like the scope of ethics and its relation to other human values and activities. The present ethical debate in the corporate world is focused mostly on values like honesty, integrity, fareness or transparency. But the scope of ethics is not confined to these values. Charity, kindness, compassion, trust, forgiveness, generosity, courage, self-control, perfection, service, caring for the welfare of others are also ethical virtues. A company or management which fires an employee for using the company phone for personal talk is strictly ethical. But, a company which treats even a major ethical offence with compassion, trying to understand the deeper cause of the offence and gives sufficient opportunity and chance for the offender to correct or reform himself is perhaps much more ethical than a company which fires an employee for a minor ethical violation.
Here are two corporate examples, which brings out the difference between a narrow and a broader ethical culture. An employee of a company got addicted to alcohol. His performance deteriorated and he frequently absented himself from work. The company management fired him. A similar case from Tata Steel. He was a senior manager who took to the bottle because he was denied the promotion he felt he deserved. But the management of the company did not fire him. The erring employee was treated with patience and understanding and was helped to reform himself. (Mithra. M, 2002). Another example from a cultural-spiritual organization. He is a basically nice and decent young man. But somehow got into a state of aggressive infatuation with a woman-member of the community, who felt harassed threatened and complained to the authorities. The psychiatric experts opined that the young man is psychologically imbalanced and advised temporary suspension of the erring member from the organization, until he is restored to health by undergoing a course of psychiatric treatment. However, leaders of the organizations treated the case with understanding, compassion and patience. And finally, the young man got over his problem and there was no further trouble from him.
But a professional manager may express a legitimate reservation to such a compassionate approach. If the erring employee is let off lightly, will it not send a wrong signal to other employees, and encourage the potential offenders? It depends on the sincerity and inner condition of the leaders. If the leaders are inwardly sincere, compassionate and fare, without any open or hidden personal bias, this inner condition communicates itself to other employees and they will understand. For example in spiritual communities, the Guru, the Master will deal with each disciple differently according to his or her individual uniqueness, nature, temperament, inner needs and evolutionary condition, and sometime for the same error or offense, the master may be firm or severe with one disciple and lenient with another. But such an approach does not cause much resentment among disciples, because they can feel and recognize the superior wisdom and compassion of the Master. Here again the corporate manager may say that such an approach may be fine for a spiritual organization but is it valid for a modern business organization, working in an environment of fast change, intense competition and tough deadlines? But, interestingly the corporate world is beginning to recognize that a reformist, flexible and compassionate approach to erring employees is perhaps more profitable in the long-term than summary dismissals. As a columnist in a leading business daily, writing about the problem of alcoholism in corporate India, states, “It’s easier and cheaper for a company to put an erring employee back on track rather than hire, train and acclimatize a new employee (Mitra.M, 2002). But there are also a few executives in the corporate world, who have followed a compassionate approach to people, not out of practical consideration, but from a moral and spiritual perspective. As Rajan Govindan, former managing director of Banker Trust, US, states:
“The challenge in all this for me was what to do with a person who made the same mistake over and over again —-For years, I simply let the people go the first time. But now it would be very painful for me to fire a person—-I feel much different and would try to help them not make the mistake again. If they did make a mistake second time, I help them find another place in the company where they would be better suited.” (Pruzan.P, 2007)
Moreover, the concept of individual uniqueness and the need to deal with each employees according to her unique nature, talents and idiosyncrasies is now recognized in the corporate world. This principle applies not only to talents but also to ethical lapses. In a long-term perspective a sincere, patient and compassionate attempt to understand the unique inner and outer causes of the individual problems which create the deviant behaviour may lead to much new learning which can be a great help in enhancing corporate wellness and formulating better wellness strategies.
However to maximize moral and psychological well-being of the corporate world, ethics should become a natural and integral part of corporate life. For this to happen, the ethical impulse must emerge from within than imposed from outside. The creative question, which the corporate mind has to ask, is how to do the various activities and functions of the corporate world in a nobler, truer and in a more beautiful way.
In fact, there is a moral element even in some of the mundane values of the corporate world like Quality, Customer Service and Continuous Improvement, and Employee Welfare. There is a spark of selflessness in the emerging custom-centric corporate culture. For example, Michael Hammer, the inventor of the concept of Reengineering, while describing the qualities required for success in the future, mentions “a certain degree of selflessness to focus on the customer” as one of the qualities. (Hammer.M, 1996) Similarly the concept and practice of Continuous Improvement, which is a part of Total Quality Management (TQM) philosophy, if it is pursued as an integral part of the ideal of progressive perfection can help in the moral and spiritual development of the individual. As the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in one of her letters on Yoga, points out: “Try to enjoy doing everything you can do. When you are interested in what you do, you enjoy it. To be interested in what you do, you must try to do it better and better. In progress lies true joy.” (The Mother, 1972) When we seek for a progressive excellence or perfection in every aspect of our work, then it can be a means of spiritual growth. Again as Mother states: “In works aspiration towards Perfection is true spirituality”. (The Mother, 1972)
Similarly employee wellbeing is a great ethical value and an organization, which gives the priority attention to this value, makes rapid progress in its higher evolution. Thus, when these modern corporate values are pursued with certain selflessness and with the right inner attitudes it can lead to the moral and spiritual development of the individual and the organization. In fact, every activity of business or the corporate life can be pursued with an ethical, aesthetic and spiritual attitude and orientation.
Values and the Bottomline
Here comes an important principle, which is beginning to be recognized in the modern corporate life. It is the pragmatic significance of values. For a moral or spiritual value lived in action releases a corresponding moral or spiritual force, which in the long-term leads to positive material gains. This is a fact, which was intuitively perceived by all morally and spiritually sensitive minds but difficult to prove in empirical terms. However, there is at present a growing body of research, which indicates that moral ideals can lead to financial and business success. For example, Patricia Aburdene, in her well-known book, “Megatrends 2010,” states:
“Socially responsible firms repeatedly achieve first-rate financial returns that meet and often beat the market and their peers, proving morals and money may be curiously compatible, after all. For example, Governance Metrics International rated public firms on governance, labor, environmental and litigation policies. Top-ranked firms substantially outperformed the market, while poorly rated firms significantly trailed it.”
Patricia gives the following example to substantiate her hypothesis.
However we must note here this link between higher ideals and the bottomline happens only when the pragmatic values are not rejected or ignored but properly integrated with the pursuit and actualization of higher values. But if the higher values are pursued exclusively at the expense of or ignoring the pragmatic values like efficiency, productivity or prosperity it will not lead to integral well-being of the individual or the community. For example, if the people of a nation or civilization—at a certain stage in its history—were carried away by a powerful and lofty but world-denying spiritual philosophy, and neglect or ignore the material and pragmatic aims and values of life, then it will weaken the vital vigor of the nation resulting in poverty in the economic and social life, and weakness in the political life, sometimes culminating in painful and humiliating subjection and conquest by foreign powers. As Sri Aurobindo explains:
“The nation or group is not like the individual who can specialize his development and throw all his energies into one line. The nation must develop military and political greatness and activities, intellectual and aesthetic greatness and activity, moral sanity and vigor; it can not sacrifice any of these functions of the organism without making itself unfit for the struggle for life and finally succumbing and perishing under the pressure of more highly organized nations—-No government—can really be good for a nation or serve the purposes of national life and development which does not give full scope for the development of all the national activities, capacities and energies”(Sri Aurobindo, 1972)
This principle applies not only to the development of a Nation but also to any human community like an organisation. The mental, moral, aesthetic or spiritual ideals should not be pursued exclusively at the expense of pragmatic values, which lead to economic, social and political vitality and vigor. A strong vigorous, creative and productive vital energy and a beautiful and harmonious plentitude and prosperity of the material life are also part of total well-being of the human life. The right condition for integral well being is a harmony and integration of the values of the body, life, mind and spirit in man, organized in a proper hierarchy. In practical terms, it means the values and ideals of the higher mind and spirit should inspire, guide and control our physical and vital life and cast their refining influence on the body and life of our individual and collective organism.
Ethics, Spirituality and Wellness
And ultimately, ethics must flower towards spirituality. One of the great confusions of modern thought is the lack of clarity on the distinction between ethics and spirituality. Ethics and moral excellence or strength of character is normally associated with spirituality. Ethical excellence or perfection is undoubtedly an indispensable preparation for spirituality. But the ethical consciousness is not the highest potential in man. Our highest well-being and fulfillment lies only in the spiritual consciousness, which is beyond the ethical. But the spiritual is supra-ethical and not unethical or infra-ethical. We cannot attain the spiritual without passing through the ethical. Another important factor to be noted here is that the ethical being or what is called the “conscience” is not the ultimate source of higher values. The ethical being or conscience is a mixed combination of a mental construction formed by the values imparted through education and environment with a dim ray of light falling on it from the Spirit. This is the reason why in all man-made ethical system there is always the mixture of the relative and the universal. The element of relativity, what is called as “relativity of values” comes from the variation in education and environment. The universal element comes from the ray of light of the Spirit.
Because of this mixed nature of the ethical being, it doesn’t have the unerring insight into the truth, right or goodness of each situation or circumstance. And also, since the ethical being is part of the mental consciousness in man, which can see or know only slices or aspects of truth or life and not the whole, it doesn’t have the integral vision of life. The action of the ethical being is based on some fixed principles of life like non-violence, truth or love and may ignore other values or ignorant of the more pragmatic realities, principles or laws of life, knowledge of which is also equally important for right action or for the integral fulfillment of life. For example, it may tend to be too lenient, saintly or sentimental when the actual situation demands firm and strong measures or else it will be rigidly puritanical when the situation requires a liberal flexibility. A strong and one-sided religious or ethical sentiment can cloud the perception of facts and lead to wrong decisions, actions or dealing with life, sometimes culminating in national calamities, like for example the partition of India. When the allied forces under the able leadership of Churchill were fighting to save the world from the demoniac might of Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi gave the following astonishing message to British people.
“I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or if I aim to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Sigmor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possession. Let them take possession of your beautiful land, with your beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy you homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.” (Nirodbaran, 1994)
The main problem here is that while the situation demands the dharma of a righteous warrior or hero, Mahatma Gandhi was preaching the dharma of a saint. Another example is Subash Chandra Bose who is a great leader of the Indian freedom movement and a man of impeccable character. He sought the help of Hitler for bringing freedom to India. In his passionate patriotic fervour, he was not able to see the long-term consequences of his action. He didn’t ask the question, suppose India wins freedom with Hitler’s support how long she can remain free from the military might and global ambitions of Hitler? Similarly, a strong dogmatic religious sentiment can blunt the ethical instinct. The medieval Christian fathers, who burned and tortured “heretics”, believed it was a pious act. The jihadi terrorist feels no moral compunction in killing people because he believes he was fighting for bringing the Kingdom of God on earth.
All these defects of the ethical being can be remedied fully only in the spiritual consciousness. Only in the consciousness of the Spirit there is a perfect experiential synthesis of all higher values and an unerring insight into the deeper truth of each situation and circumstance and what is truly good for each and the all. So to realize the highest human well being and fulfillment we should not rest satisfied in the ethical but proceed further beyond into the spiritual consciousness.
One of the promising trends in the emerging streams of thought, which augurs well for the future evolution of humanity, is the recognition of the importance of ethics and values in the modern business philosophy. However to realize the full potential of this trend requires a deeper, broader and a more inspiring perspective on ethics and values, which can reconcile idealistic aspirations with pragmatic needs of the bottom line. And ultimately ethics and values of the mind, to realize their highest potential, have to rediscover their truth in the spirit or in other word ethics must graduate into spirituality.
Aburdene Patricia, (2005) Megatrends 2010, The Rise of Conscious Capitalism, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, p.29
Burke J.S. (1986), ed. Thomas R. Horton, What Works For Me, Random House Business Division, New York, pp.26.
Hammer, Michael. (1996), Rethinking the Future, ed. Rowan Gibson, Nicholas Brealey, London, p.101.
Mithra M. One Too Many, Business Today, February 2002, p.112-13.
The Mother, (1972) Collected Works, vol.14, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry pp.325, 28
Nirodbaran, “Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi”, Mother India, October 1994.
Pruzan, Peter and Pruzan Kristen, (2007) Leading with Wisdom, Spiritual-based Leadership in Business, Response, New Delhi, pp.190-91.
Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, Bande Matharam, vol.1, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p.886.