Sunday, July 26, 2009

Leadership and the Gita: Leader Has the Beginner’s Mind

The opening scene of the Bhagavad Gita is immensely beautiful. Arjuna is in the battlefield and the armies are standing ready for battle. And as it frequently happens in the battlefield of life, he does not know what his best course of action is. And the more he thinks over it, the more he gets confused. Eventually he surrenders to Krishna and seeks his wisdom. He tells him: “My mind is confused about the right course of action. Please tell me what is better for me. I am your disciple, and I take refuge in you.” It is then that Krishna begins his teaching.

True learning begins only when we accept our ignorance.

We, particularly the leaders among us, often assume we have all the answers. We do not. Particularly in today’s fluid world of fast changing situations. In a world that was more or less stationary, it was possible that a leader had all the answers, or at least most of the answers. But certainly not in our world where the pace of change itself has become dizzyingly fast and situations rarely repeat themselves. Every situation is new and unique and readymade solutions do not work.

Speaking particularly of leadership in business and industry, this is the age of knowledge explosion and information overload, and a large section of the workforce that a leader leads consists of knowledge workers. To assume here that a leader has all the answers is not just stupid but suicidal.

A leader should not become like a pot kept upside down, which is what many leaders become. When that happens, the leader ceases to learn new things, and when he ceases to learn new things, he becomes redundant. This is how many leaders cease to be leaders. The leader needs to be like an open pot – kept open so that it can catch every drop of rain that comes in its direction.

The Japanese speak of the mind of such leaders as the beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is the complete contrast to the scholar’s mind. The beginner’s mind has a lot of empty space in it so that new knowledge can be received. It is a highly receptive mind. Whereas the scholar’s mind is full and overflowing. Nothing new can enter it.

One of the most beautiful stories illustrating the contrast between the beginner’s mind and the scholar’s mind is about a Zen master and a university professor. It is said that the professor wanted to learn the wisdom of Zen from Nanin, a Japanese Zen master during the Meiji Era [1868-1912] and came to meet him in his monastery. The professor was famous for his scholarship and well known to Nanin by reputation. The master received the professor and offered him a seat. The professor took the seat and then started explaining to the master of the different subjects he has studied, the researches he has done, the papers he has presented in international conferences, what he is doing now, what his plans are for the future and so on. As the professor went on and on, talking about his pet subject – himself and his intellectual attainments – the master listened silently. Fifteen minutes passed, half an hour passed, and yet the professor kept talking.

Nanin now ordered one of his disciples to bring tea. When the tea was brought, the master started pouring the tea into a cup. The professor was still speaking. The cup was soon full. The professor continued talking and the master kept pouring the tea into the full cup which began to overflow. It was then the professor’s eye fell on what was happening. “Master,” he pointed out politely, “the cup is full and no more will go in.”

And Nanin said, “And so is your mind. If you want to learn Zen, you need emptiness inside. First empty yourself and then come to me.”

When a leader becomes full of himself, full of his knowledge and opinions, full of his own ego, then he ceases to learn and becomes redundant.

The beginner’s mind is the mind that sees wonder everywhere, beauty everywhere, and precious lessons everywhere.

With receptivity, a leader can learn from anyone, including his own subordinates and workers. In their brilliant book A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters and Nancy Austin say: “Bosses don’t have all the answers. The worker who does the job always knows more about it than his boss. But all that he knows can’t be used unless he is free to talk about it. Especially to you, his boss.” Unless the leader is open to learn and shows that he is open to learning, the worker does not reveal his thoughts, ideas and experiences to him and the leader loses the opportunity to learn from him.

Speaking of willingness to learn from anyone reminds me stories told about the great sage Dattatreya. Dattatreya is a master who was willing to learn from anyone and anything and all life became his teacher for him.

It is said that one day Avadhuta Dattatreya was crossing a large field when he saw a wedding procession moving across the field. As wedding processions in India go, there was much noise as it moved on – drummers played on their drums, pipers played their pipes, the sound of symbols filled the air. Many people were singing and dancing – the singers raised their voices loud enough to be heard above the drums, pipes and symbols. There was much celebration as the party moved on and Dattatreya watched it with interest. All on a sudden his eyes fell on a hunter on the other side of the field. The man’s attention was fully on his prey. Neither the singing and dancing, nor the drums, pipes or symbols had distracted him from his prey.

Dattatreya, says the beautiful story, went to the hunter and bowed in reverence before him. The Avadhuta told him in a voice full of emotion, “Oh master, you are my guru. I have learnt a great lesson from you today. When I meditate in future, I shall strive to have the same focus on my goal that you have just taught me.”

In the Bhagavata, answering a question from King Yadu, Dattatreya tells him: "I am a student of Mother Earth; I am a student of the waters of the ocean; I am a student of the air that blows; I am a student of the sun that shines; I am a student of the moon that is luminous in the sky; I am a student of the honey-bees that collect the pollen-nectar from various flowers; I am a student of the fish; I am a student of the vulture." He then explains that he learnt patience and steadiness from the earth; equanimity from the ocean which neither swells up as rivers empty themselves into it nor dries up because the sun evaporates its water; freedom from the air that is on the move constantly; non-attachment from the space; and so on.

There is no place where there are no lessons for us to learn. I was giving a training programme to a group of Tata Steel officers when I came across this poster in the training hall. It was titled Seven Secrets of Success in My Room and it said:

The roof taught me: Aim high.
The fan taught me: Be cool.
The clock taught me: Every minute counts.
The Mirror taught me: Reflect before you act.
The window taught me: Be open to the world.
The calendar taught me: Be up-to-date.
The door taught me: Push hard to achieve your goals.

In the Mahabharata, we see that the great hero Arjuna is a constant learner and so is Yudhishthira, whereas Duryodhana exhibits a closed mind on numerous occasions in his life, which leads to his failure as a leader. His own mother Gandhari, his father Dhritarashtra, his uncle Vidura, Sage Vyasa, Sage Maitreya, Krishna himself and numerous others try to show him the light, but he closes his eyes tightly against it. Apart from his learning in the early years, through out his life Yudhishthira never misses an opportunity to learn – whether it is from the sages who visit him in the jungle, Bhishma in the bed of arrows, or whoever else. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Realizing that the reason why he lost everything in the dice game is his own ignorance of the game rather than cheating by Shakuni, he learns to play dice from Rajarshi Brihadashwa. [It is not well known that the Mahabharata describes the dice not as a game of mere chance, but as one involving quick, advanced arithmetical calculations.]

As for Arjuna, in his early days he is taught by Ashwatthama and Drona. During the twelve-year stay of the Pandavas in the forest, Arjuna starts out on a journey of learning that takes many years. He learns Brahmastra from Shiva, and is educated by Chitrasena in the abode of Indra. The epic also tells us that he was a student of his friend and cousin Krishna. Of course, the Bhagavad Gita is lessons in living and fighting given to Arjuna by Krishna.


Indian culture talks of three kinds of learners. Those who are like the lotus leaf, those who are like the hot plate and those who are like the mother-of-pearl.

A drop of water falls on the lotus leaf but the lotus leaf remains untouched by the drop. It never becomes part of the leaf, the leaf never digests it, it does not make it part of itself.

Some learners are like this. What they learn they retain, but it is never digested, never made their own. They can repeat it, they can reproduce it, but it does not really benefit them in any way. It is as though they had never learnt at all.

A drop of water falls on the hot plate and the hot plate absorbs it in an instant. The drop disappears, but again the hot plate is not able to make use of it.

Some learners are like the hot plate. They absorb everything, the things they learn are digested, but nothing great happens out of it. In their case too, learning has not really been useful.

A grain of sand enters the mother-of-pearl. And what comes out, is a precious pearl. The mother-of-pearl covers the grain of sand with its own secretions and transforms the simple grain into the sparkling pearl.

The highest kind of learner is like the mother-of-pearl, says Indian culture. Whatever he learns, he transforms it into far more precious things.

This is how all of us should be. This is how great leaders are.

Robert Bruce has lost seven battles and is hiding in a cave when he sees a spider taking a jump to reach a projecting rock so that he can build his nest up to it. He jumps and fails once, he takes a second jump and fails, he takes a third jump and fails again. By now Bruce is all attention. The spider makes seven attempts and fails in all them – exactly as Bruce had done. He too had failed seven battled. Bruce now holds his breath and watches. And as he expected, he spider takes an eighth jump and this time he succeeds. It is said that an inspired Bruce came out of the cave, challenged his enemies an eighth time and this time he won. This is a leader learning a simple lesson from an insect and transforming it into a precious victory.

Here is Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s computer in their early days: “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So we then went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’”

That’s what happens when you do not have the beginner’s mind. You miss golden opportunities.


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