Nish Kam Karma & The Art of Purposeful Leadership

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Life is a journey. I believe in the 80:20 Pareto principle which says that 80% of our results come from 20% of our actions. We modulate between 80 and 20 all the time.
The Fragrance of Realisation
The breadcrumbs of my realisation began at Pond’s where I started my career. It was an amazing experience. Two of us – M S Narayan and I – were recruited at the same time in Pond’s. Our Chairman Mr V Narayanan told me, “You and MS are not competing for the same job; your job is to make yourself redundant in your position, because that’s when you’ll grow.”
That was such an enlightening thought. It did not lead to Nish Kam Karma (NKK) but the process started then. We were able to focus on doing our work and having fun learning and growing. We were not pulling each other down. We were there to support each other. It didn’t stop with my immediate partner MS. The group kept growing as Pond’s was a prolific recruiter. The whole culture was not about competing but fulfilling.
Dad’s Army
My dad was in the Army. I spent a lot of time with his friends. What inspires the soldiers in the heat of a battle? It is not bonus or stock options. It is love of the job. It is ‘being fulfilled’ in the purpose they set themselves for. I didn’t even know the term Nish Kam Karma then.
Mission Connect
My first job at Citi group was to start the Citi NRI program in North America. We went from practically nothing to 500 million dollars in three years. It was a great success. But frankly, we didn’t even think of the numbers when we started it. Our mission was to connect with the community who had left India. We needed them because India was perilously close to having no foreign exchange reserves. So here we were, not looking for a reward.
My small team and I worked practically every weekend doing seminars and live TV shows trying to talk to people about the India that had changed and the India that lay ahead. We built connections and business followed.
Philotimo – The Greek Josh
I moved from there to Europe to start relationship banking in Greece and take care of the Citibank business in Central Europe. I realised that the people in Greece were driven by a spirit similar to the spirit of ‘Josh’ we have seen in the bollywood movie ‘Uri.’ They were fascinated and motivated by this spirit.
Greece was always considered an underdog even though it was the best performing Citibank business at the time compared to Germany, Belgium and other places. It won the race to launch Citi’s new ATM networks. Greeks did it first. When we talked to them later, they said there’s a term in Greek called ‘Philotimo.’ It roughly translates to purpose and pride and love of honour. It was not money. It was not reward.
The Dotcom Mishap
In the year 2000, I saw all the dotcom billionaires minting money and I tried to join the bandwagon and failed. My motivations were wrong, as I learned the hard way. I was being driven by valuation and equity stakes.
Around that time, I was working with my colleagues in a technology company called ‘Mastek.’ On our board was Mr Gurcharan Das and he first used the word ‘Nish Kam Karma’ (NKK) with me and I owe it to him. That’s where the thought process began to come together.

I am blessed to have a beautiful family. The children are doing well. I have a life partner who’s also my spiritual guru. She is the one more evolved than me. How did all this happen?
I didn’t work towards a reward. It happened because we did the right thing and left the results to whoever was taking care of things. I began to understand and discover my true strength. After my mishaps with start-ups and trying to get rich quick, I began to understand that there was a higher purpose in all of us and we became Krishna devotees. That’s how it happened for us. I’m not here to preach.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna exhorts Arjun for desireless action. He is not saying, “Do not act.” He says, “Act and just don’t worry about the rewards.” For me, it is about seeing Krishna or your favourite deity whoever it is, as the purpose. If you’re not a believer, you can think of nature or energy as your purpose. There is someone higher than the humans, driving us.
It is not about becoming a sanyasi or dropping material desires. I work 12 to 14 hours a day. It gives me a lot of pleasure. But I am still on the journey, trying to discipline the mind through Sadhana.
Situational Leadership
Another concept which is related to NKK is leadership. I grew up in an army household. The US Air Force developed the ‘crossroads hatch’ pattern of situational leadership and it was copied by GE, Citi and others.

Most people start as an individual contributor. I started my career as an assistant brand manager at Pond’s, then grew up to manage a Brand team, then a department, become a P&L leader and an Enterprise leader. This is a perfectly legitimate career path and goal. It tells you who the leader is.
However, there is more than one path to Mount Everest. There can be individual contributors and I’ve certainly run into many in my life who do not want to go through this ladder, but they can be hugely successful too. I don’t think Lata Mangeshkar wanted to be the CEO of a company. She wanted to bring out her talent to the highest level possible.
I was a chief marketing officer 20 years ago. I’m back to being that in some roles today. The truth is that this leadership structure doesn’t matter anymore. It’s about purposeful leadership. Are you being fulfilled? Leadership is situational. It’s personal. It’s not hierarchical. That is an important concept that goes along with NKK. We are all leaders and followers. Even the President of the United States is answerable to the House and Supreme Court. There’s a leader and a follower in everyone. We can learn to become servant leaders.
Living with NKK
When you are on purpose, you are in a flow. Time doesn’t seem to matter and you are in a Zone in which you are completely oblivious to what is happening around you.
Every one of us has a purpose. We were not born to be random occupants of Mother Earth. You have to figure out what is your purpose. Your purpose sustains you during adversity and gives you a constant context for decision-making. It brings out the best in you and in others. This is what leads to greatness and it is self-fulfilling.
Our Purpose Insured Us
Let me give you an example from Covid times. We are a software data and claims company. We help automobiles. Our purpose is to keep them safe and back on the road as quickly as possible. We work with insurance, body shops and repair shops.
When Covid hit, naturally traffic stopped and accidents reduced. Our business dropped precipitously. Our purpose is putting people back on the roads. People still had repairs; damages were coming up. But they were afraid to go to body shops. We took that purpose. We were on a digital path even before Covid. We now accelerated the digitization of solutions to make it a completely touchless experience. In the process, we are getting more business from insurers and more unsolicited calls than ever before.
My point is that if you are on purpose, stay focused and don’t worry about the exact results, things will happen. You are automatically more transparent, connecting more with people. You have higher EQ; you appreciate your strength and know your limitations. When I’m on a trek, I know I cannot find my way back to the base camp. But I’ll find somebody who will help me. That is the whole point about being on purpose and being in flow. Let me give you more examples of NKK from the world around you.

Just Good Science
During Covid times, I watched the movie ‘Radioactive.’ It is about the Marie Curie family which won five Nobel prizes, an amazing feat. She could have patented radium and made billions. She did nothing of the sort and kept saying that she just wanted to do good scienc.
Two is More Than a Million
After leaving Pond’s, I had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, I went to her with a commercial proposition and it had nothing to do with NKK. I thought I had a brilliant marketing idea. She pointed out to me was that her project was about love and not about money. “I never ask money but the Lord just provides,” she said.
The day I met her, a big company in Calcutta had donated a large tract of land which was probably invaluable. But she said, “There is a post man who has been giving me two rupees from his monthly salary since 1940. Those two rupees mean more to me because he gives till it hurts.” That’s the mindset of people who are about a purpose.
The Wealth of Giving
Mr. Warren Buffett is seen as probably the most driven at 87. He is the most successful finance person to have ever lived. If you read the biographies on him, there is a quote from Peter Buffett, his son. “The thing that Warren Buffett talks about all the time is that wealth ethic is not the same as work ethic.”
He says his father is the happiest when he is in his study immersed in the balance sheet of a company and he comes out like dancing, not because he has counted his money. He is giving away 97% of his wealth. He keeps telling people when he goes to commencement speeches, “Take the job as if you were independently wealthy and then you’ll do great.”
Miles to Go
I watched recently a fantastic movie – Ford versus Ferrari. It is a biopic about Ken Miles who did a 24 hours, Le Mans race – an absolutely excruciating endurance race and won it. He was finally cheated of his prize that he won. He turns to his sponsor and friend and says, “You promised me the drive. You didn’t promise me the win. That’s okay.”
I am training myself that I don’t pray for rewards. I don’t pray for even spiritual gratification and this is my prayer to the Lord: “Just give me what you desire, what I deserve and if that happens to make me rich or poor, peaceful or agitated, it is all yours, your problem, your fault.” It is liberating when you do that.
NKK – What it is (and not)
Great thinkers and personalities from time immemorial have said pretty much the same thing.
Purpose is the meeting point of your passion and talent. It is about action in the pursuit of personal excellence, not rewards. It is not about renouncing action or the material world.
I have been fortunate to have interacted with billionaires – Ross Perot, the self-made billionaire; Michael Dell; and more recently the founder of our company who though not quite a billionaire, has done really well. Each of them followed their passion and the results were incidental. It is not about the material wealth. It is about putting something higher in front of it. You can have billions but just remember there’s ‘1’ in front of the zeroes – it may be Krishna, Jesus, Allah or your personal God.

You are Your Brand
Only you can become the purpose-driven leader of your personal brand. We are never too young or too old, never too good or too far gone.
I was 24 years old when Pond’s Chairman Mr. Narayanan took three of us to an advertising Congress in Delhi that David Ogilvy came to attend. We had an opportunity to listen to some phenomenal speakers. Ogilvy had great slides and a great video show. The person who came after him had nothing. He said that the best audio visual ever made is the human being and that he was there to talk. There was pin drop silence. He had more impact than Ogilvy. I always believed that karma has brought us up to this point. Our actions, which we control, will take us further. So whether you are fortunate to be a multi-millionaire or are struggling, how you wish to respond and whether you have a purpose or not will take you further. To quote Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
We need to practice the power of silence. I read that the CEO of Kimberly Clark would, rather than expressing an opinion, take inputs by being silent.
Hubris, Nemesis and Catharsis
I lived in Greece and there is a beautiful trilogy of words in Greece, which is- Hubris, Nemesis and Catharsis. Hubris refers to foolish pride, nemesis to agent of downfall and catharsis to purification. Fundamentally, it means that people get arrogant, end up with their comeuppance and then there is a cleansing and a rebirth.
There are different analogies. There’s a bullet with your name on it. The question is who is going to fire first. Someone is working in a business context to disrupt us. Our choice is whether we do it ourselves or allow someone to disrupt us. We need to reinvent ourselves, find our purpose and keep sharpening the saw. Otherwise, we will go through the pain of hubris, nemesis and catharsis.
From Greed to Great
Though greed has a negative connotation, we can be greedy for success. At some point, we can go from greed to green, green being nature. Nature is greater than human beings, but there’s something greater than nature and which created nature. If we can figure out how our purpose links to that, then we can go to great.

Jim Collins wrote the book, ‘Good to Great,’ that has become a sort Bible for a lot of people. Ideally, the title should have been: From ‘Greed to Great!’

Insights from Panelists

Sheela Balaji, Chairperson, Swami Dayananda Educational Trust

It is time for us to change from being a consumer to a contributor. The contribution can come in the form of sharing one’s experience, wisdom, helping people hands-on or doing something for the nature. We have to leave the world a better place.
People think that to pursue Bhagavad Gita or come to the spiritual world, they should give up all desires. But Lord Krishna in the ninth chapter tells Arjuna, “I am in the form of desire, but that desire which is not against dharma.”
Jagdish Rago, MD, Citigroup, New York

I like the concept of servant leadership. In 2008, during the financial crisis, the top management got overhauled in Citi group and we had a new CEO- Mr Vikram Pandit. Raising capital was a big challenge. He went about fixing it and raised 160B$ in 12 months! He got all of us involved. I was running technology at that time from New York.
He gave me a tough target and a time frame of six months and made me responsible for divesting two of the companies that I built. I was upset and angry and questioned the decision. The CEO listened to me and said, “Right now, this is important for us to do this. You are really attached to the results from the actions of your past. Keep the attachment aside.”
He gave me a two-minute counsel and asked me to focus on the job. That was my NKK moment. I learnt the importance of focusing on the actions and not the results. I was happy and relieved that I could sell the companies to TCS and Wipro, who, I was confident, would take care of our employees in those companies.

I learnt the importance of focusing on the actions and not the results. I was happy and relieved that I could sell the companies to TCS and Wipro, who, I was confident, would take care of our employees in those companies.

Suresh Rajagopalan, Founder, CEO of Sigma Consulting, UAE

I am a student of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and I closely follow his teachings. We all attach ourselves to the results, but we don’t have control over that. It is a great paradox. This is not to say that we should not be ambitious. We need to follow the universal dharma.
Receiving the results is like receiving the prasada. Swamiji used to give an example. When someone is given a laddu (a sweet ball of calories) and if he is diabetic, he may return it. But if he is told that the same laddu is from Lord Venkateshwara, his mind changes and he immediately accepts it. In life, how we accept the results –be it pleasant or unpleasant – reflects our attitude. We need to have the equanimity to receive the results.

In life, how we accept the results –be it pleasant or unpleasant – reflects our attitude. We need to have the equanimity to receive the results.

V Balaraman, Past President, MMA and Former MD, Pond’s India

Assume that you are in Sales. If you dedicate your product to the consumer and you work very hard to keep the consumers truly happy, then that is NKK.