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Advice from the Top: CEO succeeds through silence
Vijay Eswaran (pronounced Veejay Eeshwuhrn) is not well known in the USA, but throughout Asia he has become something akin to a CEO/spiritual guide. Picture a Kung Fuepisode with David Carradine running Hong Kong telecommunications, travel, e-commerce, entertainment conglomerate QI Group, a company less than 10 years old that is approaching $1 billion in annual sales. Eswaran, a Hindu Indian born in Malaysia, starts each day monk-like with an hour of silence, a practice detailed in his book In the Sphere of Silence. From a time zone 12 hours away, Eswaran, 47, spoke with USA TODAY reporter Del Jones. Following are excerpts, edited for clarity and length.
Q: Aren’t CEOs a bit busy for new-age gobbledygook?
A: I was talking to a talk show host a few months ago and he reminded me that I was the CEO of a multinational corporation, not some swami sitting on a rock meditating on a lotus garden. I said, “In today’s world, if you’re going to be CEO of a major corporation, you need to be a little bit crazy.”
Q: Are most CEOs crazy?
A: It pays to be different. To me (an hour of silence) is practical, a structured, analytical approach to life. It’s not about moving to another plane or traveling between planets. It’s taking control of where you want to go, where you need to be, why you need to be there and constantly checking on those things. Life is fast, demanding, chaotic.
Q: OK. Tell me how you came upon this secret of silence.
A: I did it at my granddad’s knee, about age 5 or 6. When he was alive the entire household became virtually silent for that hour. It’s a very traditional part of our heritage in India. It’s called mouna, which means silence. Essentially it’s yoga of the mind. It’s traditional to do this in the early part of the day in the two hours before the sun rises, known as Brahma muhurta, when the day is born again.
Q: Is it like prayer?
A: It is not of religious significance. It does have a spiritual side, a recognition that there is something beyond dashing around 9 to 5 that defines the purpose within us, a gift that we have to begin unwrapping. I’m a Hindu, but where I got to understand this process better was when I spent some time as a lay monk in a Franciscan monastery in Italy. I took an oath of silence for 33 days right after I graduated from college. It brought me back to the practice that I had given up in college amid all the partying. It was a Catholic process, but it made me understand the value of what I’ve been doing all my life. Communicating with your maker, if you should choose to believe in one, is relevant. It’s not prayer, not asking for something or needing something. It’s a time of asking questions as you would to a buddy, looking upon your maker as a guide. Here are the things I’m being challenged with, things I need to deal with that are making me lose ground. What do I do? Where do I go? The answers eventually materialize, in my experience.
Q: How should Westerners get started?
A: It has to be customized. Today’s world is not as structured as 50 or 100 years ago. We’re not living the lives of farmers. The best time would be when you begin your day. For a lot of people this is not possible, and they should do it at the end of the day.
Q: What exactly should we do for that hour?
A: It’s not sitting in a sea of tranquility trying to figure out the meaning of the universe. It’s about taking control of your life. It begins with analyzing the day that has gone by, going through the goals that you had set and seeing what you achieved and what you failed to achieve and trying to derive lessons. Then, plan the next day and beyond. There is a Chinese saying that goes: “A beggar lives meal to meal. A peasant lives day to day. A farmer lives season to season. A nobleman lives year to year. A king lives 10 years at a time, but an emperor lives a century at a time.” How much of what we do today counts in a month or six months? The point is to go deeper.
Q: So the silence isn’t meditation, it’s strategizing?
A: Most of us allow life to pick us up like a piece of driftwood, and we get thrown back to the shore every once in a while. We’ve lost track of where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do, the purpose of our existence. Are you with me?
Q: I’m trying.
A: It stills the rest of the planet, the continuous din you are assailed with from the time you are born. It forces you to slow down a moment, detach yourself and take a good, hard look at yourself.
Q: Should monks be CEOs?
A: Anyone can be a monk. It’s an easier lifestyle than begging for food. Being the pope, now that’s a whole different challenge. If you take a world-class CEO and put him running a monastery, I think the monastery would probably derive great benefit. It will require the same attributes and skill sets. You need to lead people, have vision. But you also have to desire that position in life. You need to want to be there, but the talents required are essentially the same.
Q: What do you mean when you say that the best decisions come from detachment, which is a byproduct of silence?
A: Detachment does not mean dispassion or apathy. It’s the reverse. It’s the ability to love more deeply, to care, to feel more deeply. One can only do that when you’re not attached to emotions. Emotions get in the way, particularly when they involve a decision for people we love. My responsibilities are probably different than the average person. I have a couple of thousand souls that are dependent upon a decision I make. The detachment is even more vital.
Q: These are times of multitasking. Can we read or exercise during the hour of silence?
A: Anything’s possible, but I’ve been doing this most of my life and I have not been able to take it to that level yet. There is a certain amount of walking around. I strongly recommend writing, because you are really communicating with yourself and you can look back upon it later.
Q: Can you think of something specific you have gained as a CEO that came out of silence?
A: It happens every day. You look at problems in 3-D because of the depth. I walk into meetings with a new armory of information that looks like it’s coming off the cuff. It’s like practicing before you play the game. That’s all it does. It makes me better. I’m mentally fit, I’m faster on the uptake.
Q: So, what’s the meaning of life?
A: Each of us will have a different answer for that, and we’re all right. The answer changes as we grow.