While teaching at Columbia business school, Srikumar Rao pioneered a popular course called ‘Creativity and Personal Mastery,’ which was about how to maximize one’s potential and attain happiness at work. He now teaches the course independently all over the world and it’s the only such business program with its own alumni association.
Rao is also the author of Are You Ready to Succeed: Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life and Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful – No Matter What. Rao has been featured in numerous publications. He received his Ph.D. in Marketing from the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University and his M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. His undergraduate training was in Physics at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.
In a conversation with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, Rao takes a philosophical approach to explaining the forces that have driven the Arab Spring, and the pushback by some governments against citizen demands. Even in those countries in transition, Rao says true leadership hasn’t emerged, rather a rush to find expedient solutions. "They’re giving very little thought to the longer-term ramifications of their actions," he says.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Many of these post-Arab Spring nations need to revitalize their economies in order to stabilize their governments. Based on your observations, what kind of solutions might you recommend to the Egyptian government?
Srikumar Rao: What happened with the Egyptian government is that we had a dictator who was the ultimate practitioner of crony capitalism. We need to revert back to the ideology of the great emperor Ashoka. [Ashoka, who was known for his devotion to truth, love, nonviolence, and tolerance, ruled the Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC.] Leaders need to ask themselves, "Is this good for the people overall?" We need to have a culture where the entrenched elite knows that all their transactions are subject to scrutiny. We need a person of great moral stature who is constantly bringing out the best in people. Unfortunately, we don’t have that anywhere in the Middle East now.
There is a Native American story that has several different versions to it. It talks about a wolf that is always attacking and destroying everything. And a dog that is very faithful, trustworthy and loving. Both the wolf and the dog are always inside each of us at the same time. And they’re always fighting with each other. The question is which one will win? And the answer is whichever one you feed.
What people in the Middle East are doing now is feeding the wolves. They are being expedient. They’re giving very little thought to the longer-term ramifications of their actions. This kind of society gives rise to bloody revolutions, much like what happened in France [during the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette].
Servant leadership is a concept outlined by Robert Greenleaf, who was a senior executive at AT&T for many, many years. It was inspired by a Herman Hesse novel [called Journey to the East]. In that story, a group embarks on an arduous journey organized by a religious organization. One of the persons on that trip is Brother Leo who would do all the menial tasks necessary — make sure everyone is fed, be full of good cheer and bring up everyone’s spirits. Then one day, Leo disappears and the group falls apart. That’s when they realized how important Leo was to the functioning of the group. Some years later, a member of the expedition enters the order of the same organization that sponsored the trip. It turned out Leo was actually head of the organization.
That story illustrates the term ‘servant leadership.’ Greenleaf talked about how you can be of service to everybody, especially those at the bottom of the organizational ladder. Being a leader is an opportunity to serve rather than getting the corner office. Do you really have that in the Middle East? That’s what we also desperately need in the world. Everyone has a role to play in this.
Even with the Muslim Brotherhood, what its leaders need to do is to recognize the dog and wolf in each one of us. They’re thinking, "What do I need to do to get what I want accomplished?" They’re willing to cut any deal to accomplish their goals. And they’re completely convinced that what they’re doing is better.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Philosophically, are there certain principles that leaders need to remind themselves of as they venture into a new era in the Middle East?
Rao: The most important one is the duty of a leader to bring out the best in the population and uplift those who are at the very bottom. Not by giving them money or showering them with benefits, but by helping them by changing their view of the world and their role in the world. So it is a massive education process and program and best done by principle and by example.
Countries need to do and think in terms of benefiting the spirit of its people. They cannot be dogmatic about religious beliefs, and that unfortunately is happening. Whenever you encourage fundamentalism, you are feeding the wolf, not the dog. The danger is feeding the wolf when you’re professing to feed the dog. Some people do it maliciously or some do it unconsciously. For me to be right, someone else has to be wrong. Everyone else has a false god — that is really feeding the wolf. We have a lot of that going on all over the world, not just in the Middle East.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is your exercise with alternative reality?
Rao: What happens is a lot of the times we think stuff happens to us. Mark Twain supposedly made a comment, "I’ve endured a great deal of tragedy in my life; most of which never happened." That is funny but there is a great element of truth in it. What happens is we don’t live in the real world; we live in a world we have constructed.
The alternative reality exercise helps you see, "Hey, the reality you are experiencing may be a reality, not the reality. This is something you created. And if this something you created, this is something you can de-create, or deconstruct, the ways that are not working. You choose to be that way. This is one method of showing you that you’re sharing a reality that you’ve created. So it’s a very powerful exercise.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give some different versions of alternative reality scenarios for the leaders who have been ousted (e.g. Tunisia), the ones who refuse to relinquish their power (e.g. Syria), and the new leaders post-revolution (Egypt) to give us an example of how alternative reality may work in the Arab Spring?
Rao: Alternative reality scenarios can only work if they can apply them. I don’t see any signs that Syria will apply them. In Egypt, we have a military very willing to hunker down in power. The military should be in civilian control but not to be used so a group of civilians can exert control over another group. That will have to be resolved. I certainly don’t have easy answers to that.
These are important questions that need to be addressed. What the military is holding on to is their own self-interest. Like in Pakistan, the military is controlling the economics for their own personal betterment. Some people will be less prosperous because of this.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are proponents of a higher rate of taxation than what they have to pay now. Ultimately, they’ll be better off [with an improved society]. That is the kind of thinking we need. An alternative reality scenario is if a society is better off, then I will be better off.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why is it that some leaders like in Tunisia understand when to walk away from the command-and-control hierarchies while other dictators like in Syria resist giving up their power?
Rao: I think it’s a combination of happenstance that explains what happened in Tunisia. In Egypt, the leader was in part was marched out by the army. In Syria, the leader and Arab League were pretty much connected. Syria had pretty strong control over the military. Mubarak didn’t have much direct control over the army. There was a backlash.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Syria will just try to quell the unrest. If the president pulls it off, then [the resistance] will gather steam, and the next time will the explosion will be bigger?
Rao: I haven’t seen any signs in the Middle East that people are appealing to a higher principle. They’re all talking about a method of containment so they are not affected by the resulting chaos.
If it gets out of control, it will upset my tranquility, and that is what I am concerned about, not the unrest in Syria. The unrest is intolerable. Injustice has always been there but people are finally rebelling. Tunisia is doing a much better job than anyone else, and that is partly a credit to the fact the dictator left early.
During the revolutions, the wolf was fed pretty strongly, full of revenge and hate. It’ll take a very long time to be able to feed the dog again. Even if Assad is strong, the forces that topple him are full of hatred and revenge and it will take a generation for the hatred to die down. In Tunisia, the revolution ended early and the dogs are guiding where they go.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: It seems that the function of a government is to serve its people and yet in the Middle East, some of the rulers were clearly serving themselves and their extended family. How does a large entity, whether it be a business or a government, manifest itself to such a large degree of corruption that a revolt or takeover is necessary?
Rao: This is very true in the Middle East. We have an entrenched elite serving themselves because they can do it. It was raising the consciousness in a lot of people. There was a network of people, who said, "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore." Not every ruler is malicious or evil and some going along with the way it always has been. Someone needs to point out that there is a better way. It’s what Gandhi and Mandela did.
In South Africa, what the African National Congress and [ruling white South Africans] did was extraordinary. The truth and reconciliation process was a wonderful alternative. Otherwise, you would be going after people and punishing each other. They said, ‘Some guilty people will get away with it. But the Lord will deal with it. Let’s see what new talents we have and see where society will take us.’ We need these alternative principles as an alternative model.
The media has a share in this. The press in the Middle East is not independent. You can raise questions without attacking people. What is it we can do to gain influence, to gain advertising? It’s very easy to appeal to the wolf. When you talk about rape and murder, readership goes nuts. What you’re really doing is feeding the wolf in people. We want people to recognize that they have to feed the dogs part of the time. That’s how leaders are born and evolve.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is realizing that coming to power is different from being in power. Before, they had unquestionable support for [certain Islamic factions] and now they’re saying, ‘Let’s unify rather than being at loggerheads.’ Those are trends that need to be encouraged.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: As a professor at Columbia University’s Business School, you developed a course called Creativity and Personal Mastery (CPM) which you now teach all over the world. How would you describe creativity research?
Rao: First of all, let me give you my take on creativity, which is somewhat different. I believe that most human beings are naturally creative. One of the best ways for you to become creative if you don’t feel creative is to become passionately involved in what you are doing. In other words, if you are really passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, then creativity tends to flower automatically. And when you are passionate, it’s a little bit like what a CEO said. When a researcher is so passionately involved in his research that it rises like steam from him and then condenses back as rain, then the problem is solved. It’s a very good metaphor for the way I look at it. When you’re really passionately involved in what you’re doing, you don’t have to think of creativity, it just flowers automatically.
CPM is a course where you radically transform your life. And you transform your life not by using a certain technique. I basically help you reevaluate all the models you might have… You decide this is the way the world operates. And very soon you build a silo around yourself and sometimes you find the silo so thick that you find it hard to break out of it. My course is to help you find a systematic process to identify the models that you hold and make changes to them. As you make changes in them, you make behavioral changes and you become a different person automatically. So we go in very deep about who you are and why you behave the way you do.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you explain the purpose of the ongoing journal you ask the students to keep? Is it personal, work or a combination? How is it different from a private diary and are people resistant to sharing it with other classmates?
Rao: It’s a combination. Typically, I ask people to keep a journal for a few weeks before they start the course. One thing I would like my students to do is to make an entry at least once a day, preferably three times a day. What I want people to be aware of is what their emotional center is throughout the day. Are they feeling positive? Do they feel like things are going on a downward spiral? What are the things that concern them? How they feel about themselves, their life, their situations, the people who are important to them. You make a record of that and that’s very important because I can’t tell you the number of people who say, looking back at my journal, I don’t know the person who started that journal but I never want to be that person again. And that’s a very common reaction. Sometimes they look at it and say, "Oh my god, was I really like that?" And that is one of the occasions of progress that happens when people go through the course. So it’s a very important learning tool.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You talk about corporate mission statements as a dogma that some employees don’t take that seriously. But then you pare down the statements to simple ideas like Google’s "First, do no evil." Do you think corporate mission statements need to go back to basics sometimes in order for all the employees to take it to heart?
Rao: It’s not a question of having a mission statement. It’s a question of, ‘Do you walk the talk?’ A lot of the major corporations have wonderful mission statements but in some cases, no one even knows what the mission statement is.
It has to be something that an employee says, ‘I want to be a part of that. If it doesn’t speak to you at a deep level, then it doesn’t help.’ No employee gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to help maximize my shareholders’ return.’ Would that make you thrilled? You have to have a call that is greater than you are. That’s how most companies fail, because they don’t walk the talk. Employees pick up the disconnect. The greater the disconnect, the more cynical they are. And especially when you have a situation like you do now when senior managers are very good at extracting as much from the company, then the employees extract as much as they can at their level.