There are two birds, two dear friends, who live in the very same tree.” So say the Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts about the nature of reality. “The one lives in sorrow and anxiety and the other looks on in compassionate silence. But when the one sees the other in its power and glory, it is freed from its fears and pain.” These two birds are symbolically perched at two different levels in the tree.
The first bird, which lives in constant anxiety, is in the lower branches of the tree. Its view obstructed by the many branches of the surrounding trees. It hops around nervously, pecking at fruit both sweet and sour. So focused on eating fruit, it loses sight of the world around it and gets caught up in satisfying its immediate material desires. It is disconnected, in a way, from its environment and other beings and jumps from branch to branch, from one disappointment to another.
The second bird is perched atop the tree itself on its main trunk. From this highest perch, it has the broadest view of the tree and the lower bird. It can see vast expanses of earth stretching outward for miles and miles. It sees its feet attached to the tree, feels connected, and sees the lower bird moving frantically, following appetite after appetite, as it strips the tree bare of its fruit. The second bird does not eat fruit but simply watches, content to be in its place at the top of the tree.
Like most images in the Upanishads, this one is an allegory for life. We can also look at it as an allegory for how we lead our lives in business and how business itself works.
Many of the thousands of books on business leadership deal with issues that are relevant to the lower bird from the Upanishads: How do I work effectively? What qualities do I need to have to be successful? How do I get ahead in the world of business? Business leadership at this level is about doing and having, themes that are indeed important from this narrow viewpoint.
But if business leadership is about Being (quality of existence, which we share with all other living beings, human or not), then an additional set of considerations become vitally important. These considerations have to deal with the commonality of existence that undergirds business, business leaders, and all other beings. A corporation, a start-up, a family-owned company, or any other business is then considered an integral part of an interconnected network of beings (whether individual or collective) that share the same foundational reality.
Moreover, the scope of business-such as business purpose and vision, stakeholders, success criteria, and management approaches—now become much broader to include these hidden connections (or externalities) of business to humanity, nature, and Being. Business leaders can no longer justify their actions solely in terms of the lower bird of material gain since Being-centered leadership requires a broader sense of collective and individual self that extends outward to humanity, nature, and ultimately Being.
Through the lens of Being-centered leadership, business is not just about the right to pursue material self-interest, such as material profits and growth, but also about recognizing and nurturing its connections to humanity and nature. The responsibilities toward them become an authentic part of such a sense of connection. Doing becomes guided by this broader vision and purpose. After all, if, under our law, corporations are treated as having many of the rights of individuals, can we not expect that they too have responsibilities for nurturing their connections beyond just profit? Shouldn’t they be expected to have empathy, just as human beings do? These responsibilities extend even beyond the life of a business since is impacts survive its material existence.
The Upanishads tell us that these expectations are reasonable because of the principle of correspondence between human beings and corporations. All beings, whether individual or collective, are connected inextricably to one another because they are ultimately expressions of the foundational reality of Being. When business leaders realize these hidden connections, they will naturally embody a genuine sense of the responsibilities that arises from these connections. In this way, business becomes more holistic through Being-centered leadership, thereby bridging its great schism with humanity, nature, and institutional credibility.
The story of the late Anita Roddick, founder and former CEO of the Body Shop is an inspirational example of a Being-centered leader. Her connection to humanity was forged at the age of ten when she came across a book on the Holocaust. When she was “kick-started into a sense of outrage and a sense of empathy for the human condition.”
Years later, Roddick set up a small cosmetics shop in England where she sold skin-care products to survive. She was a big believer in the power of stories, and cosmetics allowed women to tell stories. She said, “[In] every group I have spent time with, women will always corral around a well and tell stories about the body, birth, marriage and death. Men only have conversations or memories about their first shave. But women will always use the body as a canvas, a playground. Even when they were taken to the gallows, women would always want to put some makeup on.”
The Body Shop became one of the earliest companies in the world to fight for protecting nature, but Roddick was not just about nature. She campaigned vigorously for tribes and indigenous populations in solving livelihood and human rights problems created by corporations, and she provided a sustainable livelihood for Amazonian Indian tribes by trading in brazil nuts, which produced an oil for moisturizing and conditioning. As she said, “For me, campaigning and good business is also about putting forward solutions, not just opposing destructive practice or human rights abuses.”
Other groups that Roddick worked with included indigenous tribes in India and Nepal, sesame seed farmers in Nicaragua, aloe vera growers in Guatemala, marula growers in Namibia, and the Ogoni people of Nigeria. She campaigned actively for Greenpeace and other activist organizations and led campaigns against the use of sweatshops by corporations, animal testing in cosmetics, unfair trade practices, domestic violence, and many other practices that demonstrated her passionate caring for humanity.
Throughout all these causes, she built the Body Shop into a billion-dollar global corporation (or a multilocal business, as she called it) with more than two thousand stores in fifty markets serving hundreds of millions of customers. She passed away in 2007 of a brain hemorrhage, leaving her wealth to charities and a company globally revered for its ethical principles.
Roddick was a shining example of a Being-centered leader, connecting deeply and fearlessly to the larger context of business and fighting vigorously to preserve and renew it as an integral part of doing business. She was a true exemplar of the core principles of Being-centered leadership covered:
• Seeing business as embedded in and deeply connected to a larger context of nature and humanity because of the relationship of these elements to Being.
• Recognizign that individual business purpose that has to be aligned with a shared business purpose that preserves and renews the larger context of business.
• Viewing the outer world of work as a projection of inner aspiration.
• Redefining business success as ensuring the long-term holistic health of all stakeholders.
• Having the courage to embody these principles in one’s own life.
This is an excerpt from the book Two Birds in a Tree to be published in October 2013.
TWO BIRDS AND A TREE. Author: Ram Nidumolu. Published by Barrett-Koehler Publishers. Oct 2013. $18.95. 216 Pages.
Ram Nidumolu is the founder and CEO of Innova Strat, which provides consulting and advisory services to help Fortune 500 companies develop corporate sustainability. He has writted for the Harvard Business Review and the Stanford Social Immovation Review.