Through The Looking Glass

A leader’s biggest journey is the one within. With power abound and the temptation that comes with it, how do you continue to remain competent, vulnerable, generous, and happy in an exceedingly superficial world?  Dr. Ramesh Ramachandran former CEO and leader details his learnings along the way. 

The old saying goes, “Opportunity may knock only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.”

As we watch leaders around the globe, stumble, bumble and act out of line, in business, politics, media, or even academia –  we often laugh or cry, confused… wondering, “What in the world were they thinking?”

This downfall may be due to moral failings with others, or possibly, the incessant need for validation that accrues with an accumulation of wealth. However, nothing can truly justify or rationalize such failings.

From Boeing to Ford, The Guptas, Archegos Capital, McDonalds and Theranos, – the colossal breach of core values is, frankly, mind boggling. 

But why does it keep happening?

That too with individuals who should be the ideal embodiment of people skills, charm and strategic thinking? And how does one make sure they don’t fall prey to these speed bumps and craters of derailing behavior?

Accept that leadership positions, especially as you get higher up the ladder, can get very lonely, especially, if you are fortunate enough to become CEO. Even when blessed with a supportive partner and family, its still hard to handle the temptations borne out of ego and desire.

As a leader whose lived out many lives in the spotlight, here are a few essential tips I learnt along the way:

1. Look inwards

Self introspection is the first and easiest place to start the process of discipline. Find your purpose in life, your Ikigai, but do it methodically.

In fact, here are 2 course recommendations that I believe are essential at any stage of your career:

– “The Science of Well-Being” By Professor Laurie Santos- hailed as the most popular class in Yale’s 300 plus year history.

– “Justice” – By Professor Michael J. Sandel – the preeminent course on the fundamentals of social and criminal justice. Though the subject matter may sway heavily towards philosophy, i believe it is essential for all leaders to invest in.

Both courses are completely free to experience online and I have no stake in either.

By understanding the ethical conflicts of yore, and the art of diagnosing them today, coupled with a comprehensive strategy to find your purpose and subsequent happiness –  you will enliven your inner moral compass.

It will always point you in the right direction and help you consistently distinguish between the grey and red lines of ethics in your life.

2. Evil is a slippery slope

And that slippery slope is really slippery.

The human mind can rationalize a lot of evil. To some, corruption can be justified with a logical framework – that by being underpaid you need to resort to certain mechanisms in order to establish fairness, and the ‘everyone does it’ excuse is just the cherry on this unethical pie.

Loneliness and power can often be used as a crutch for a variety of indulgences. Sometimes these can grossly violate your own sense of ethics and result in acts of harassment or other deviancy.

The twisted leader might think,  “Next quarter’s earnings will take care and bury these creative accusations”…and so the list goes on. But let us be clear, the minute you start down this path, it is only you who can reverse course. Others cannot do it for you.

Carl Jung famously wrote, “ Understanding does not cure evil, but it is a definite help, inasmuch as one can cope with a comprehensible darkness.”

As you rise in organizations, you have to train your body and mind to engage in non-derailing activities.

If you are religious, that can help – but the world is full of examples of religious figures that preach piety but are the most egregious violators of decency and ethics.

One cannot compartmentalize ethics and compliance – and ask the mind to be switched on and off.  I believe the mind has to be occupied with thoughts and behaviors that counter derailing thoughts. Fitness, sports, the arts, movies, downloads and tweets are all needed activities that offset and occupy the lonely mind. And it’s a very necessary engagement. Pick a few of these because each activity plays a unique role in keeping you engaged. The passionate pursuit of such activities bring a lot of happiness in life. 

3. Avoid testing yourself

I find it both alarming and distasteful to find leaders putting themselves in locations and positions that they would never want to be seen in by their peers or families. 

Business meetings are not Spring Break events.

Yet, at business conferences set in locations that cater to party goers, senior leaders suddenly regress into teenagers– is it vanity or foolishness? Either way, it is just unacceptable. If you are not capable of saying no to these invites, you deserve the consequences. Play out these scenarios in your head, and make sure you are very clear on your red lines.

4. Find power in Vulnerability 

People want access to leaders. Making the time to share your family and personal stories, is a great way to settle the mind and engage in productive pursuits. If you are willing to be vulnerable and share stories and pictures of family, children and pets, the work atmosphere around you takes on an inclusive and warm spirit.

 Make a list every month of what makes you happy – the top 5 activities. It could be a movie with your partner, a delicious meal, golf, or a book – whatever. Then reflect on how many times you are engaging in activities that keep you happy.

5. Write yourself an Obituary

Write your obituary in one paragraph at least once a year. What will be your legacy? And would you want your family and friends to read about what you did for others or for yourself? We all soon reach a phase where incremental income is not going to contribute to incremental happiness. When you reach that state, and I hope you all do, just quit. 

The mind is a powerful tool, but even if you know how to channel your thoughts it will wander off periodically. But ego, Ego is the enemy of your career. Know your weaknesses and ensure that you are winning the battle against them.