HARNESSING THE HEART - PART 15
Living Up to the Challenge of Conscience in Daily Life
Dear Readers, in this series, we offer you real life stories from contemporary heroes who have demonstrated the courage to follow their conscience when confronted with difficult dilemmas or challenging circumstances in their daily lives. This segment is an ode to the strength of the brave-hearts who chose to listen to the voice of their conscience, thereby abiding by the values of Right Conduct, Truth, Love, Peace and Non-violence, even though the choice had appeared tough.
In our previous issues, we brought you inspiring stories from around the globe. These included the experiences of Mrs. Priya K-Alldis, Mr. Dev Taneja, Mr. C. B. S. Mani, Mr. Karthik Ramesh, Mr. Amar Vivek, Mr. Krish Venkatasubramaniam, Mr. Hiten Morarji, Mr. N. Prabhakar, Mr. Sathya Jambunathan, Mr. U. Pardha Saradhi, A courageous woman executive (Part 11), Mr. Shalabh Mittal, Mr. P. S. Kannan and Mr. Sai Mudigonda.
The ‘VALUE’D INVESTMENT
Leading a Values-driven Foundation
After working in a particular field for more than thirty years, the writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, was assigned a responsibility in an entirely new area. With little business experience, he found himself co-directing a multi-million dollar charitable foundation. His co-director also had virtually no previous business experience. The writer and his partner found themselves in an entirely new world wherein they had to supervise two highly experienced investment managers of a large stock portfolio, oversee generous grants made to charities, monitor the programs funded by the foundation, review the charities’ adherence to the provisions of the grants awarded, direct the legal team putting together the foundation, ensure compliance with all relevant laws, oversee the accountant, and run the day-to-day operations of the foundation. Alongside these newly-assumed roles, they both had to maintain their respective professions.
Now, the author shares with us how he coped with the multi-tasking, rode the volatile financial markets while trying to hold firmly to the spiritual values that goaded him from within.
Could someone possibly succeed in today’s financial markets without making a moral compromise? Can business and altruism by managed against the touchstone of a same set of values? Is the very thought of spiritually sustainable financial viability an oxymoron?
While shedding light on some of these sensitive questions, the author is quick to point out that he doesn’t see himself as a “hero of conscience" but rather someone who is but struggling to do his best to live the Values put forth by Swami in all aspects of his life. He wants to make it clear that there have been many failures along the way as well as successes, but feels all of it is a learning process put in place by Swami. Accordingly, he shares two stories here, one which could be considered an example of values in action and a second which could be considered an example of shortcoming in living up to the values.
The author first heard about Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba in 1969 but did not come to His feet until 27 years later in 1996.
With my appointment as co-director of this large charitable foundation, I quickly realized that I had a great deal to learn about subjects which I had virtually no understanding of or experience with. It became apparent that I needed to become not only familiar with the topics but that I needed to do so very, very quickly.
One of the first areas that needed to be tackled was learning about stocks, bonds and investments in general. As a novice, I decided that I needed to read and study the best material available.
Also, following Swami's suggestions given to the MBA students of His University recorded in Man Management, I decided that I should go to learn directly from those who were in this business. Fortunately, the investment team that our founder had used for many years made themselves available and were happy to teach me.
I spent long hours on the phone with them and, even though their office was in another city, I traveled there to meet with them to see the site of the transactions and have more of a "face to face" education. They also came to the foundation offices for further training.
Part of the learning involved being able to determine what constituted a safe and sound investment that also promised a good rate of return so that we could distribute more to the charities we support. Because I felt that this was really Swami’s foundation, I wanted to make sure that all of our investments were in line with the values He teaches. Accordingly, I not only focused on each investments potential for long term growth but also evaluated each with those values in mind. I asked questions such as:
- Was the product or service provided of the highest quality?
- Was it of benefit to others?
- Was there any negative impact on the environment?
- Were the employees treated fairly?
- Were the companies financially responsible and fiscally sound?
- Were they adhering to good ethical practices?
- Did they demonstrate good business morals, ethics and practices?
Taking Stock of Real Value
I decided to review each of the companies we held stock in and was pleased to find that most of them did meet the values-based criteria. This was due in large part to our investment managers who are also highly ethical and moral individuals. There were a few problems though and the stocks that did not meet the criteria were removed from our portfolio. There was one situation of note that I would like to share. It involved a company that was growing quickly and giving us a very high rate of return on our investment that on the surface seemed to meet all the criteria put forth.
Bridging Disconnect Between Values and Business Practices
This particular company had as a division, a large dairy farm in South America. In reviewing the company information the cows seemed to be treated well and they were not injected with hormones to force unnatural levels of milk production, a practice used by many dairies.
However, as I continued to read the “small print”, there was a short statement about recycling the cows. I had no idea what that meant so I contacted our investment advisor and asked him to check with the company.
It turned out that the company also had part ownership of a slaughterhouse and that when the cows no longer produced milk, they were taken there and “recycled”. While I don’t feel I have the right to tell anyone not to eat meat (in fact my co-director and all members of the investment team are non-vegetarians), I had a strong reaction to being involved in a business that partially owned a slaughter house.
Rising Stock Maximized Returns
I talked to my co-director and told him of my feelings and he agreed to let me do what I wanted in this situation. I contacted our investment team and told them I wanted to sell. While they are good people, they did not support this decision and pointed out that this stock was a real money maker with a huge potential for growth and return. They strongly advised me to not sell or at least wait until it stopped its current sharp incline in value (this was at a point when the stock market was doing quite well and this stock was increasing in value significantly each day.)
While I understood their points, and it was their job to maximize our return, I could not accept their advice and directed them to sell the stock immediately which they did. We invested the money in another company which met all requirements and also showed good potential (though it was believed that it would not be as quickly realized as the first stock.)
Value-based Portfolio Outperforms Market
As an after word on this experience, the advisors were right, short term. The stock we sold did rise for a while but then for a reason I still don’t understand declined sharply (this was long before the general decline of the market.) Parenthetically, the second stock continued its slow growth and then suddenly, again for some unknown reason, sharply increased in value.
It continues to do well even in the current market. In fact, our entire value based portfolio continues to outperform the market significantly, even in the current down-turn. Another interesting point is that both my co-director and one of the investment advisors are now interested in Swami and plan on visiting Prashanthi Nilayam in the near future.
Prioritizing Between Goals and Values
I certainly do not want to leave anyone with the impression that I am always successful in following Swami’s teachings. In fact, I seem to notice my failures much more than my successes. At times, I slip and my ego tries to run the show. It becomes more about my plans and what I want as a goal rather than sticking to the values. I want to share an example of how I failed to keep hold of the values and became too goal focused.
...I seem to notice my failures much more than my successes. At times, I slip and my ego tries to run the show. It becomes more about my plans and what I want as a goal rather than
sticking to the values.
Bridging Two Charities
This experience involves two charities that the foundation supports. The first is a well-established charitable clinic which provides medical, dental and psychiatric services to the low-income and homeless population in a large metropolitan area. They provide examinations, testing, treatment and medication all at very low cost, or free of cost. Their one rule is that they will not treat anyone with insurance as those people can receive the same treatment at other facilities.
The second charity provides services to homeless youth aged 13-22. They have a center where the kids can come and receive food, clothing, counseling and other helpful services. This charity is not as well-established and the foundation I work with is their main source of funding. I personally had been involved with this charity for many years and introduced it to the founder of the foundation.
To understand what happened the reader needs to know that the foundation has certain legal restrictions on how much we can give to each charity. Due to a happy set of circumstances, we could increase the grants awarded in 2009 by a factor of 2 ½ times over those given in 2008.
For the charity involved with the homeless teens, this meant that their current programs would be completely funded and there could be an increase in some of the needed services for this population. The clinic would actually wind up in a surplus situation. I thought it would be a great opportunity to connect the two and see if the clinic would expand their services to include dealing with the homeless teen population even though there was a great deal of separation geographically which would make it much harder on the clinic.
I felt that this would be an important program as the teens aged 13-17 were in a particular “no-mans” land. To receive treatment from any other clinic they needed to have parental consent for treatment. As these kids lived on the street without parents it was virtually impossible for them to get treatment except in emergencies and even then the local child welfare services would need to be contacted - this was something these kids would avoid at all costs as most of them had already had bad experiences with the foster care system and did not want to return to it. The proposed program seemed to be a perfect solution to a serious problem.
I asked the director of the clinic what the cost would be to put such a program in place. After she did some research, she came back with a figure that seemed quite reasonable.
Making a Conditional Offer of Help?
I told her that we were going to increase our grant to the clinic and that we wanted them to take on this project (which came to about 33% of the increase and about 20% of the total grant). She readily agreed. I then talked to the director of the teen project and asked her if she liked the idea. She was thrilled and excited as she had often felt helpless in dealing with the teens' medical needs. We set up a meeting with the two directors and started the planning process so that we could get everything going in early 2009.
Honesty and Transparency Necessary Even at Subconscious Levels
To this point everything seemed fine. Enter my co-director who is a very fine, ethical and honest man. He took interest in this program and as he looked over the plans he asked an important question; "had I told the director of the free clinic that she would get the same amount of funding whether she took on the new program or not?" I hadn’t.
To be honest, part of the reason could be written off as excitement and oversight but part of the reason, somewhat unconscious, was that I wanted to get this program going and had some fears as to whether the clinic would be willing to use our funding to do so if given the option. In reviewing the discussions I had with the clinic director it became apparent that I had inferred that the additional money was dependent on the acceptance of the program. I had been dishonest.
I knew that this was not ethical nor did it fit the values Swami teaches and expects His devotees to follow. Not only had I not lived up to the standards I had set for myself and expected from others, I had let Swami down.
Coming Out Clean with the Whole Truth
With the support of my partner, I immediately set up a meeting with the director of the clinic. I apologized to her directly for my dishonesty and told her that the funding was not based on her acceptance of the new program with the teens, the clinic's funding would not be affected now, or in the future by her decision. Her response was truly heartwarming.
While she readily admitted that the program would take some extra effort on her part, she said she was committed to following it through, not just for one year but for two if we would continue to fund at the same level. She wanted to work with the director of the teen program and felt that there would be much mutual benefit.
In reviewing the discussions I had with the clinic director it became apparent that I had inferred that the additional money was dependent on the acceptance of the program. I had been dishonest. I knew that this was not ethical nor did it fit the values Swami teaches and expects His devotees to follow. Not only had I not lived up to the standards I had set for myself and expected from others, I had let Swami down.
She also had met some of the kids and knew how important the program was. In fact, she hoped to do a similar program in the metropolitan area where the clinic is located. She accepted my apology graciously and the working relationship between us has continued to grow stronger and stronger.
I then met with the other program director and told her of my dishonesty and asked for her forgiveness. I told her of the clinic director’s response and gracious support. She also accepted the apology and we are currently exploring other ways of funding the medical part of the program after the two year term is up.
Being Accountable to the Real Boss
In reflecting on this incident I feel more than a bit embarrassed at how I let the goal become more important than the values. Swami has time and time again told us that how we do something is more important than the result. As taught in the Gita, it is up to us to do our best and leave the rest. And doing our best means working from a values orientation as opposed to a goal orientation.
In the end it is all up to Swami. While I know I may fail again, I feel a renewed commitment to being honest in all aspects of my life. Situational ethics is not something a devotee of Swami can live with and call themselves a devotee.
Swami has time and time again told us that how we do something is more important than the result. As taught in the Gita, it is up to us to do our best and leave the rest. And doing our best means working from a values orientation as opposed to a goal orientation.
We want the foundation’s basis to be one of character and values. It helps to have such an impeccable model as Swami and His work with all the business He conducts such as the hospitals, schools, water projects, etc. Swami had originally blessed and approved the formation of the foundation.
Seeking Performance Appraisal from Bhagavan Baba
Now, I have a new way of seeing my position; a new way of reflecting and evaluating my job performance. I work for Baba - He is the director, the chairman and CEO of the foundation. Baba is The Boss. This truly helps as I reflect on how “The Boss” would want me to handle situations I encounter; how would “The Boss” feel about how I conducted the business of the foundation today; in short, did I live up to what “The Boss” expected of me today?
Illustrations: Ms. Vidya, Kuwait
Dear reader, if you have such inspiring tale or know somebody who would like to share his story, we would only be too happy to feature it in this section of Heart2Heart. After all, what is Heart2Heart without tales of love, inspiration, values and compassion? Please write to us at [email protected] with your name and country. Thank you for your time.