Values and Living Your Culture
A lesson from the Mahabharat about living your values and your culture.
Last week we talked about Nachiketa's story, and the choice we face between sreyas (the good) and preyas (the easy/pleasurable). We noted that while we should uphold sreyas, sometimes we fall into the trap of the preyas. This week, we'll explain why with another story and touch on one of my favorite topics in management and leadership: organizational culture. Culture is the operating system of the organization - how you do things.
When I am advising founders of companies, one of the things I emphasize the most is company culture. According to Fred Kofman in his great book Conscious Business, "Culture is as essential a part of the organization's infrastructure as its technology; perhaps it is more essential." I would agree that it is more essential, and that it is likely the one sustaining competitive advantage because of how difficult it can be to get it right. Most people agree on its importance. According to a survey by Deloitte, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. It’s not just businesses, of course, organizations of any kind need the right culture to be effective.
The reason I say it's difficult, however, is because of how easy it is to get it wrong. The same survey shows that executives have an inflated sense of their workplace culture when compared to employees based on significant differentials in their responses to questions about how culture is actually expressed in their organization. In many ways, the idea of organizational culture has become derided because of how ill-formed it is in some organizations. Vague platitudes like 'teamwork' and 'integrity' put up on walls or handed out on flashcards, completely divorced from the reality of working in the organization.
With that as a backdrop let's take a lesson from the Mahabharata, one of the great epics of ancient India. One of the central characters of the Mahabharata is the eldest Pandava prince, Yudhishtir. Yudhisthir was known as "Dharmaraj'' or Lord of Dharma, for his deep understanding and embodiment of Dharma. This story I learned from my father while growing up, describes how he came to be that way.
Once in the gurukul (like a Vedic boarding school) of the teacher Dronacharya, there was a lesson being taught on speaking truth. Dronacharya told his students the Kauravas (sons of King Dhritrashtra) and the Pandavas (sons of King Pandu) "Always speak the truth." He then asked each student to attest to their understanding of the lesson. One by one each said they understood, "Always speak the truth." That was, until he got to Yudhishtir, who was known as typically the most intelligent. Yudhishtir reported to the teacher that he did not yet understand the lesson.
Dronacharya then excused the class, asked them to come back the next day, and they would try again. Once again the next day he said, "Always speak the truth," and asked each student to explain. Again Yudhishtir said that he had not yet learned the lesson. On and on this continued for a week. At this point his cousins, the Kauravas were mocking him for his inability to comprehend this very simple lesson. Finally, after a week, he told the teacher he understood. Dronacharya asked him to explain to everyone how he had come to understand the lesson.
Yudhishtir explained, "When Guruji (teacher) explained 'always speak the truth', there were still many lies coming to mind. I determined that in order to only speak the truth, I should not even think of a lie. So each day I focused and fewer lies came to my mind, and since yesterday not a single lie has come to mind. So now I will be able to always speak the truth."
While the other students took the value of speaking the truth as a platitude and simply understood it on an intellectual level, Yudhishtir took it as a value that must be lived to be truly declared understood. This critical distinction is why he became known as the Lord of Dharma, because he didn't just intellectually understand right and wrong, he practiced it in his life.
As a leader in any organization, you have to absorb this lesson from Yudhishtir's youth. In order to build a culture in your organization, you can't just tell people values, you have to live them. They must become your decision-making compass, and become the decision-making compass of your organization. You have to hold people accountable to the culture to the same extent, or even greater than that of financial performance.
When leaders don’t embody their culture and don’t hold accountability for their culture, a culture still forms. However, in this case, it is unconscious culture - people respond to the values you embody in your actions, not your words. Because this is not consciously shaped, it can lead to dire consequences for the organization.
That same survey by Deloitte put this point in stark terms: in companies with a history of strong financial performance, 75% of employees said leadership acts in accordance with the company's core values and beliefs, while only 49% of employees said this in companies without a history of strong financial performance. The fate of your organization depends on living your values.
The American poet and student of the Vedas, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.
This phrase has been adapted many times since into the common wisdom, "actions speak louder than words." This is normally used in reference to interpreting the values of another. But like Yudhishtir, if we hope to be leaders who inculcate positive culture, we must hold ourselves accountable first, and then spread that through our teams.
Regularly evaluate yourself on your values. Make sure you reference your values for the decisions you make and ask others to reflect on how each decision is made based on values. If you find there is a disconnect, you need to either re-evaluate your process or your values. Part of showing how these values must be lived is by incorporating values and modeling values in your performance management or regular check-ins with your team. And like Dronacharya, make sure you find out whether everyone has understood before proceeding.
Finally tying back to our previous post, this is the difference between intellectually understanding why you should choose the sreyas (the good) instead of preyas (the easy/pleasurable), and actually making the choice. In our next post, we will talk about the difficulties encountered in the process of living your values, and the difference mindset makes in doing so. And again, we'll feature a story from the Mahabharata.
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