At Oxford, it is impossible not think of monks. For, as everyone knows, it all began with schools at monasteries. The first teachers and students at the university were monks and theologians.
And it was while attending an evensong at Worcester College, soon after I spoke at the 125-year celebration of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, that it occurred to me that it was, surely, a remarkable achievement that the order that Vivekananda started in 1897 has grown from its humble home on the outskirts of Calcutta to 205 branches in 22 countries, from multiple centres in the United States to chapters in Fiji, Zambia, Argentina and Mauritius. Among many other activities, the Mission runs 14 hospitals, more than 100 outdoor dispensaries and 50 mobile dispensaries, and one university, seven colleges, and more than 500 schools.
How did this monastic order survive and grow more with barely a controversy and almost universal goodwill?
Barring an onslaught in the 1980s from communists in Kolkata, the Mission has not only never had any confrontation with any government, it continues to be a multi-partisan organisation which is respected by almost every iteration of the state, in whichever geography it is situated. In fact, even though there is no official bar, the monks almost never vote, and express no political opinion.
Like any successful global organisation, it has for decades consistently raised, as charity, and deployed, vast amounts of money across the world, once again without a whiff of scandal.
How to they do it? I believe through a management style which I call “detached ownership”. My argument is that the monks have perfected a management-style which peaches at the same time complete ownership with total detachment. Now this sounds completely paradoxical but let me explain with a few examples.
To start with, its founding principles are non-dogmatic. Its patron saint is Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a 19th century Bengali mystic, who tried every path to find religious truth, or God, if you will – from the esoteric tantrism and sublime Vedanta philosophies of Hinduism to Christianity. The answer he said was joto mot, toto poth (as many as there are points of views, so are paths to god). The non-dogmatic approach of Paramhansa meant that his greatest pupil, Narendranath Dutta (who later became Swami Vivekananda) received, in a sense, the freedom to comparatively analyse his ‘competitors’ so to speak early on.
Paramhansa’s detachment to sectarian dogma set Vivekananda intellectually free to not only own his own philosophical tradition in Hinduism but expand his enquiry to anything else he saw fit. There was a deep and abiding ownership of the teachings of Paramhansa in Vivekananda, but he could truly remain devoted to it all his life because it allowed a detached sense of freedom.
It unfettered his imagination.
To illustrate how important this detached ownership model could be, let me correlate this with the example of the stupendous success and then failure of Blackberry. Blackberry reigned supreme if it had monopoly on a ‘sectarian’ model but its focus and devotion was too narrow-band, and it could not comprehend things that were beyond its sectarian idea of mobile telephony. It could not innovate fast enough because some ideas were just beyond its template.
Its imagination was too shackled to what it knew best.
Let’s expand and explain the benefits of this model. For instance, between 1888 and 1893, Vivekananda travelled across India in a manner many other Hindu monks before him had done, to understand the soul of his land. The two books he carried with him were the Bhagvad Gita and The Imitation of Christ of the 15th century clergyman Thomas à Kempis. This deep dive study enriched his appreciation (even though it is a Hindu body, the Mission celebrates Christmas, for instance) and critique of Christian practices which were breakthrough themes that made his Parliament of Religions speeches so mesmerizing and novel.
This was the USP which made his message stand-out.
The success of those lectures, and that message of openness, in turn opened doors for him, a saffron-robed monk from a British colony, in the heart of American establishment. It was Vivekananda’s multi-disciplinary theological knowledge that so impressed Harvard philologist John Henry Wright that he wrote the letter introducing him to the Parliament. It is this intellectual openness and unconformity that impressed Nobel laureate for literature Romain Rolland about both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Even today, it is a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission who is the chaplain for Hinduism at Harvard, Swami Tyagananda (monks carry the honorific ‘Swami’).
These scholarly roots have helped the Mission attract throughout its history a seemingly endless pipeline of seminal academic talent – from the august Swami Ranganathananda to more recent examples like Swami Vidyanathananda, a PhD in mathematics from Berkeley where he won the Sloan Fellowship (nearly 40% of fellows have gone on to win the Nobel Prize), winner of India’s most prestigious prize in the sciences, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, Swami Sarvapriyananda, one of the best known lecturers of the Vedanta in the world today, and recent initiate, the philosopher Ayon Maharaj, another Berkeley PhD, and Fulbright Fellow, whose work has recently been published by the Oxford University Press. In a practice adopted by the most enlightened corporations for their upcoming talent pool, Ayon Maharaj freely enquires, even deviates, in his own research, from the conclusions of older monks, in their research, on Paramhansa.
As anyone in business understands only too well – and as Apple is finding out after the death of Steve Jobs – you could have all the money in the world, but if your innovation pipeline is not strengthened by extreme top-quality talent, then one day profits will start to turn shaky.
This openness with detachment philosophy is why the order has never been defined by its string of scholarly presidents even though it is their work and vision that has helped it gain global footprint. One prime example illustrates this. For years a monk of the order worked hard to restore and rehabilitate the old home of Vivekananda in Calcutta – one of the most prestigious project within the organization and in the city. But hours before its grand opening, he was transferred to a remote ashram. Asked why, the then president of the order explained simply – his work was done. This is not a rare example within the Ramakrishna Mission – it is the norm.
In the spirit of detached ownership, even though he was one of the best-known presidents of the Mission, the aforementioned Swami Ranganathananda refused to accept the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, because it had been awarded to him in his personal capacity (as the award always is) and not the Mission.
The reason this helps is – it prevents personal ego, ambition and cult-following from poisoning the real work. To understand the importance of this idea, one only must look at the story of Carlos Ghosn, the former CEO of a range of car companies, the auto industry savior and superhero, who is now in a Tokyo jail for fraud. His story exemplifies the danger of cults – something the Mission has stringently avoided.
The Mission, then, is run in a hub-and-spoke model, like a decentralized corporation where a revolving set of monks are constantly moved every few years from centre to centre – to prevent any attachment to one location – and trained to raise local donations to promote the work. The headquarters at Belur, outside Kolkata, oversees quality control.
One of the reasons why the Mission has had so little structural or organisational problems is also because it has a highly evolved, for the lack of a better phrase, system of social security. Monks are taken extremely diligent, if unostentatious, care in their old age.
For all these reasons, the understudied Mission, is, I believe, a notable example of how to run enlightened companies. If you are still not convinced, how about this? India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his youth, repeatedly approached the Mission to become a monk. He was gently turned down and told that his life had a different purpose. To paraphrase a famously prescient man, Steve Jobs, the customer doesn’t know what they want until you point them towards it.