By Mukta Hegde
Narayanan Vaghul, Former CEO, ICICI
Although he retired in 1996 as chairman of the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), Narayanan Vaghul, 64, continues to be as busy as ever. During his 11-year tenure as CEO, ICICI came to be transformed from a small size, long-term credit bank to a large diversified financial conglomerate. Besides, Vaghul is also on the board of several companies and his work takes him all over the country though he is now settled in Chennai, India. Since 1998 he has been a visiting professor at New York University, teaching a regular course ‘Emerging Economies’ to MBA students.
Next to finance, spirituality is his forte. Vaghul was one of the earliest people to introduce spirituality at the workplace. His spiritual journey, he says, went through different stages. ‘I belong to a traditional, religious family of Chennai. In my early years, I had deep abiding faith in God. During my twenties, my scientific temperament questioned the concept of God. In the next two decades, I explored various beliefs, delving into the metaphysical and the concept of spirituality. I sought knowledge from various religious texts and also met luminaries: Swami Chimayananda, Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Parthasarthy. Gradually the realization dawned on me that it is not possible to find the solution merely by reading books. The truth lies within our own selves, and we alone have to explore and reach it.’
About 12 years ago, seeking answers to some of his doubts led him to S.N. Goenka. He learnt Vipassana and ever since, he has been an ardent follower.
‘Purifying the mind involves de-conditioning it, which is difficult as it is already conditioned in many ways and also full of impurities such as self-centeredness. Look at it this way, suppose there is this huge tree to be cut down. You can either snip the branches or go to the root level, which is more difficult. To gain control of the mind, you have to still it first and then slowly work towards getting rid of the ego that is the ‘I’ consciousness.’
At work, Vaghul’s spiritual values influenced the work culture in many ways. ‘I don’t favor forcing anyone to do anything, but I feel the best way to teach anything is by example. I used to often talk about Vipassana and encourage people to go for it. I believe in merely acting as a catalyst. Those days, we used to send our middle-level executives to the Vivekananda Yoga Kendra near Bangalore to introduce them to spirituality. This has the immediate effect of bringing about a level of calmness and lowering blood pressure. These days there seems to be a trend towards conducting stress management workshops in many organisations, but more often than not, it is superficial.’
Although Vaghul doesn’t believe that he has directly influenced anyone, he is aware that people regard him as a friend, an approachable colleague who can be relied upon for advice and help, if needed. It is largely due to this way of thinking that the work culture at ICICI is different from others, in that there is informality and a faith in the individual’s responsibility for his actions.
‘We have a weekly meeting every Monday that is open to all staff. All decisions pertaining to the organization are taken in the open and everyone has the freedom to express a thought or an opinion without hesitation. On my part, I have placed importance on values such as honesty, integrity, and sensitivity to other people’s feelings and dignity in behavior. Even disagreeing with the other’s point of view can be done in a dignified manner. I talk to them about my personal values, which are also a part of my lectures in business schools. I avoid quoting shlokas and always stress that spirituality is not religion,’ Vaghul says.
He adds: ‘Today’s youth are different and will not blindly follow all that they hear. They will ask questions and demand logical answers and we have to give it to them. Can ethics and business co-exist in a world where corruption is the rule rather than the exception? There are no easy answers here and it is not possible to remain idealistic and avoid confronting the issue. The answers must come from within oneself. If you are able to remove desire, greed and ego, you will get the answers yourself.
‘Spirituality is not opposed to wealth, when it is used for the good of society. The Narayana Murthys of today’s world are more spiritual than some of the biggest business houses. When you create wealth for reasons other than solely for personal use, it assumes a different perspective. The US is more spiritual; they have examples of Ford and Rockefeller who created wealth not for themselves but for the good of society. But a distressing factor is that many young people today are dominated only by greed and there is hardly any social accountability.’
At the workplace, Vaghul looks on the work he does as a sacred duty that he has to execute to the best possible extent with no rewards. For this reason, he says, he experiences no highs or lows; there is no euphoria at anything achieved and no depression when it doesn’t happen either.
Vaghul also believes that since the individual is the same, one cannot differentiate between spirituality at work and at home. With his children well-settled abroad and his wife a devout lady, rituals are followed in his household. ‘I cook and find it a great spiritual process as it calls for a high degree of concentration. Actually, a spiritual approach can be brought to almost anything in life be it cooking or going for a walk. It all depends on how you look at it.’
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