At Oxford, it is impossible not to 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 had spoken at the 125-year celebrations of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, that it occurred to me that it was 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 U.S. 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 with barely a controversy and almost universal goodwill? Barring an onslaught in the 1980s from communists in Kolkata, the Mission has not 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 raised, as charity, and deployed, vast amounts of money across the world, once again without a whiff of scandal.
How do they do it? I believe they do it through a management style which I call “detached ownership”. My argument is that the monks have perfected a management style based on complete ownership and total detachment. Now, this sounds 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 religions there are, that many are the 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 meant that Vivekananda could not only pursue the 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 and kept his imagination unfettered.
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 when it had monopoly on a ‘sectarian’ model, but its focus and devotion was too narrow, and it could not comprehend things outside its sectarian idea of mobile telephony. It could not innovate fast enough because some ideas were just beyond its template. Its imagination was 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 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 written by 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) and critique of Christian practices which were breakthrough themes that made his speeches at the Parliament of Religions so mesmerising and novel. This was the USP which made his message stand out.
The success of those lectures and the message of openness opened doors for him, a saffron-robed monk from a British colony, in the heart of the American establishment. It was Vivekananda’s multi-disciplinary theological knowledge that impressed Harvard philologist John Henry Wright, who wrote the letter introducing him to the chairman of Parliament of Religions. It is Vivekananda’s intellectual openness that made a great impression on Nobel laureate for literature Romain Rolland not just about him, but his guru, Ramakrishna. Even today, it is a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission who is the chaplain for Hinduism at Harvard: Swami Tyagananda.
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, and 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 it will tell on profits.
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 projects within the organisation 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 said simply that his work was done. This is not a rare example in 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 for the Mission.
Detached ownership prevents personal ego, ambition, and cult-following from overshadowing 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 saviour and superhero, who is now in a Tokyo jail for tax fraud. Ghosn’s story exemplifies the danger of cults—something the Mission has stringently avoided.
The Mission is run in a hub-and-spoke model, like a decentralised 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 because it has a highly evolved social security system. The monks are diligently taken care of in their old age.
For all these reasons, the understudied Mission, is, I believe, a great 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 the words of a famously prescient man, Steve Jobs, the customer doesn’t know what they want until you point them towards it.