Management as Karma Yoga


By Jérôme Chouchan

Business has become the driving force of our modern societies. This phenomenon built on the values of capitalism started in the West, and has now permeated the East. Traditional societies like India, China and Japan have now fully embraced the goal of endless economic growth.

This principle of continuous growth is embedded in the whole governmental, financial and corporate system, and a set of Key Performance Indicators are used by management of companies to motivate, reward or punish the performance of employees. Sales and profit are the key measures of performance in a company – all the way down to the individual.

So, is this approach sustainable? Is this approach motivating for employees? Engagement surveys have shown that in most companies unengaged workforce is still the norm. In developed countries, voices from young generations are already demanding more meaning and happiness in the workplace. Is there an irreconcilable dichotomy between the need of the company to perform in the competitive market place and the need of the individual to find meaning and happiness in their job? I would like to share here some insights that demonstrate there is a different way of approaching business.

My personal journey brought me to Japan, where I have pursued a double career in business and in studying the ancient Japanese martial art of archery – Kyudo. Kyudo is a word composed of the two ideograms Kyu (bow) and Do (way), and literally means The Way of the Bow. It is a traditional art governed by strict rules and its core purpose is self-development, and a pursuit of the perfection of the human being.

In business, as in Kyudo, we are all under the desire of hitting our targets. Kyudo has a particular teaching that is relevant for management: Right shooting always results in a hit. This means that you shouldn’t worry and think about simply hitting the target; instead, you should calmly focus your energy and willpower on proper mindset and form. In doing so, this right-minded shooting will naturally result in a hit.

In Kyudo practice, you are taught that the hit of the target should never be the aim of your shooting. As, the hit is just the natural result of the correct shooting; your goal should be to perform with utmost sincerity the shooting according to the rules and the forms of the art.

If the art of Kyudo is uniquely Japanese, this principle of focusing on Right shooting is spiritual in nature and universal, as the same principle is expressed in verse 2, 47 of Bhagavad Gita:

To action alone you have a right and never at all to its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive.

This verse in the Bhagavad Gita is the cornerstone of Karma Yoga, is teaching us that our duty is in actions, with a pure heart that is not attached to the fruits of actions.

To strive to perform desire-less action (nishkama karma) is a spiritual path that requires constant practice, because as the Gita tells us: The knowledge even of the wise is obscured by this eternal enemy, having the form of Desire, which is an insatiable fire (3-39).

At first glance, the teaching of the Gita and business seem to be worlds apart.

It should be remembered that in ancient times the Gita was giving its teaching for the warriors (Chatria) class, as Arjuna was a Chatria. Today, the ruling class of the warriors has been replaced by the business leaders, the men/women of action (karma), who are the economic warriors of our times. Hence, in a fast – moving and unstable world, the teaching of Karma Yoga has relevance to business now more than ever.

Management according to Karma Yoga should give preeminence to correct actions and a noble purpose. Sales and profit should not be seen as the goal of the business but as a result of the correct actions for the consumers and society as a whole. Management should put in place and track metrics that defines the correct actions for the consumers. It should not blame staff on the output of sales numbers. The type of management that is obsessed with outcomes, that sets very challenging sales target, is not compatible with the principles of Karma Yoga.

In my duty of President of the chocolatier Godiva Japan, I strived to manage our team according to the principle of the Gita quote of 2,47. Godiva is a company that sells chocolate, but our core purpose is to spread happiness to people throughout the world via chocolate. In order to accomplish this purpose, we need to create and sell high-quality delicious chocolate so that the consumer will purchase our products happily and willingly. If we make this our sole duty, without having our minds captivated by some desired fruits of actions, we will get the entire management process right, and the sales results will come naturally.

And it did! As Godiva Japan doubled its sales in five years, over the period 2010-2015, by consistently achieving double-digit growth each year. Personally, I never set a goal of doubling sales. Due to the market conditions of a flat chocolate market and a stagnating economy, our initial budget was set to increase by a few percent year after a year. However, our team put forth their best efforts, aiming just to do the right thing for the consumers every day, and as a result were able to deliver superior performance.

The principle of your duty is in action alone is an encouragement to do what you can do each moment with utmost care. The team felt very engaged and constantly proposed new products and campaigns that were much appreciated by the consumers. If the pressure was put on the team to achieve on future sales results, I believe that they would have thought and worried too much on the results, and would have lost sight of the correct actions and the purpose of customer happiness.

For those who are in search of a noble purpose in the workplace, the Karma Yoga from the Gita can be a source of inspiration. It offers a source of wisdom for the modern businessperson who wish to align their spiritual goal with their duty as a business person aiming at their business target.

Business is not solely about the techniques of management, but also about the person who performs the task. The techniques of management are changing rapidly with the times, but the soul of the human being is the same as it was a few thousand years ago. Research and practical applications of the Gita spiritual principles in the realm of management may guide us along the Way to improve the person, the company and society as a whole.

Photo by Mike Pont

About The Author: Jérôme Chouchan is the MD Godiva Chocolatier for Japan, South Korea, South East Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. Chouchan is also author of Target – Business wisdom from the ancient Japanese martial art of Kyudo; and board director of the International Kyudo Federation.                

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR Network and its Editor.


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