Leading from the Soul: A Case Study on Spirituality Inspired Leadership

M.S. Srinivasan

Can spirituality be the foundation for effective stewardship and elevate the level of leadership from the average to extraordinary heights? The life of an exemplary banker, R.K. Talwar provides an affirmative answer to this question. R.K. Talwar joined the Imperial Bank as probationary officer in 1943 and rose to become the chairman of its nationalized avatar, state Bank of India in 1969 at the age of 49. But it is not this achievement in his career which makes him unique in the annals of leadership. What makes Talwar stand apart as a leader is his exemplary character, moral courage and spiritual dedication which evoked respect and admiration from everyone who came into contact with him and inspired countless young officers to lead a life of integrity and values. This article is a case study on Talwar’s leadership based on the following sources:

  • R.K. Talwar: Values in Leadership by N. Vaghul, Shrenuj & Company Ltd
  • R.K. Talwar: Tributes, Shrenuj & Company Ltd

The first part of the article gives a glimpse of the character and personality of Talwar as a human being. The second part examines the value-based leadership of Talwar and his effectiveness as a leader. The last part presents a brief discussion on the spiritual inspiration behind Talwar’s leadership.

The Inspirational Leader
Talwar groomed and mentored many officers under him who later rose to the pinnacles of their careers. A brief summary of the views of some of them gives a glimpse of the character and personality of Talwar. One of them was N. Vaghul, who later became the chairman of Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India, ICICI and widely recognised in India for his role in pioneering the concept of universal Banking. Regarding the nature of his personality, Vaghul states:

“Talwar was easily the most eminent banker of his times. His leadership was characterized by an outstanding intellect, honesty, integrity and a strong commitment of purpose. Above all, he possessed an indomitable courage which helped him to take on the political establishment. His personality was shaped by a strong faith in God and an unshakable belief that he was merely an instrument of the Divine, whose purpose it was, his bounden duty to carry out. It is this faith, which became the fulcrum of his personality and any analyses of his leadership traits would inevitably lead to an analyses of this characteristic.”

And on the respect he invoked in banking circles, Vaghul writes:

“More than his achievements, the reputation for honesty and integrity enjoyed by him in the industry drew the admiration of everyone with respect to his views on banking issues and he was generally recognised as the spokesperson for the industry.”

The other senior banker who worked closely with Talwar is Dr. A.S. Dave, who later became the chairman of Industrial Development Bank of India, IDBI. Dave in his tribute to his mentor states:

“To us he is more than a manager, leader, chairman, friend or a Guru. He is a living symbol of values of perfect professionalism and fearlessness overall guided by his spiritual hunger and deep concern for human beings. He just cannot be measured by the conventional yardsticks of logic, success or failure. He is above all these. It does not matter at what stage in life one came to know him, nor the limited time for which one worked closely with him. What matters is his immense presence, the instantaneous respect he commands, the spontaneous responses he evokes, and the lasting impact of the relationship that stays behind in one’s life. Getting to know him closely it was a beginning of transformation in our own lives.”

A Role Model for Value-based Leadership
What are the qualities or values of a leader, not professed in lips but lived in action, which create a lasting impact on people? Many systems of classifications are possible and each one has its validity. In the personal view of this author, there are six qualities which make the inspirational leader in the corporate context:

  • Courage
  • Compassion
  • Fareness and Justice
  • Integrity
  • Mentoring
  • Professionalism

Contours of Courage
The first quality is Courage, which may be defined as the ability to hold on to one’s values and principle against stiff, persistent or powerful opposition. In his biography of Talwar, Vaghul gives many examples where Talwar has displayed exemplary professional and personal courage in living according to his values.

The first episode is his confrontation with the political bosses during emergency days in India when the authority of an extra constitutional political figure, reigned supreme all over the country. A borrower, who is a friend of this political figure, applied for more loans for his perpetually sick company. The bank management has found that the company is failing because of gross miss-management and therefore there is no point in pumping more money into it unless the company appoints professional management. The borrower used his political connections to put pressure on the management to release the funds. The Finance Minister of Government of India rang upto Talwar and asked him to sanction the proposal because the “highest political authority” wants it. But Talwar refused to budge and told the finance minister he cannot do it. And when the matter was reported to the political authority, Talwar was asked to meet the reigning political boss. But Talwar refused to meet him and said that he would not take his orders from some who has no legal or constitutional position.

We must note here such defiance during emergency days in India requires a very great courage because in this period no one dared to go against the political authorities. Even a mild murmur of protest may lead to arrest, imprisonment or even torture. And finally Talwar was eased out of his office through an amendment of the laws in parliament, which became wellknown in banking circles as “Talwar Amendment.” Here is one more episode of courage recounted by Vaghul in his biography.

“A Minister of State called Shri. Talwar to his office and insisted that he act in a particular way in an industrial relations dispute. Shri. Talwar had a different view on this issue and politely declined to fall in line. The Minister was furious. ‘Are you refusing to carry out the orders of the Government?’ he asked. Shri. Talwar, without losing his cool, replied, ‘Mr. Minister, you are not running SBI, I am. It is for me to decide what is in the best interest of the Bank. You have a right to decide whether I should continue to be the Chairman, but you have no right to tell me how to administer the Bank. If you want to issue a directive to me please do so in writing. The SBI Act provides for the issue of such a directive, but before issuing such a directive, you must first establish that it is in the public interest as provided for in the Act.’ The minister was taken aback, and no wonders he did not pursue the matter further.”

The Soft Human Touch
But courage alone is not sufficient to make a great leader; it must be tempered with the softer qualities like compassion, fareness and sense of justice. On this softer side of Talwar Vaghul states:

“As a person, he is capable of boundless affection, an affection which is given generously without asking for anything in return. As a friend, he is capable of providing immense support and comfort. He is someone with whom you can share your innermost feelings and count on a sympathetic hearing. As a leader, he was unrivalled and to many younger colleagues he was a mentor responsible for shaping their lives. He is a spiritual Guru who with his simple yet profound spiritual thoughts can create vibrations in the deepest layer of consciousness.”

Here is another episode in Talwar’s career which shows how true a leader can be at once firm, compassionate and fare in dealing with people or a difficult situation.

The junior officers of the bank had certain grievances regarding their working conditions and remuneration. Talwar was sympathetic to some of their demands but before he could put his mind into the problem, the officers union called for a work-to-rule agitation followed by a strike. Talwar felt that this kind of unionism and agitations are harmful to discipline and efficiency of the bark. He took a firm stand that there would be no negotiations unless and until, the officers call of the strike. The officers union was adamant and the strike dragged on. Talwar held his ground with full support from the Government of India. And finally the striking worker could not go on further and called off the strike. A settlement was reached in favour of the bank management. The Finance Minister of Government of India rang up to Talwar, asking for some clarifications. Vaghul who was present when the minster rang up, describes the conversation between the minister and Talwar, which brings out the character of the stalwart banker.

FM: I hear that you have reached a settlement with the officers.
Chairman:       Yes Sir. We reached a settlement late last night.
FM:                 Is the settlement satisfactory from your point of view?
Chairman:       Yes Sir. I am fully satisfied with the settlement.
FM:                 Did you get what you wanted? Have the union leaders accepted your proposition not to function as a parallel authority?
Chairman:       Yes Sir, this is the part of the settlement.
FM:                 Have you dismissed all the suspended officers?
Chairman:       (After some pause) No Sir, they have been reinstated.
FM:                 I do not agree with this settlement. All of them should be sacked and no mercy should be shown to them.
Chairman:       (After some pause) Sir, you have been kind enough to leave the handling of the strike to me. Why don’t you leave this issue also to me? They are after all my colleagues and I will decide how I deal with them.
FM:     (After some pause) Ok, have your way

We can see from this conversation that Talwar was compassionate in dealing with the erring workers, though he was firm in dealing with the striking employees. He was also courageous in not yielding to the demands of his political bosses.

Talwar was also well known for his impartiality, fareness and justice in his relationship with his colleagues. Here is an anecdote recounted by Vaghul, which illustrates this aspect of Talwar’s character.

“Bhide who was his personal secretary when he was Chief General Manager in Mumbai region narrates a series of incidents with regard to a senior manager of a branch for whom Talwar seemed to have developed a prejudice. This could have been due to either a sporadic incident or as a result of a series of interactions with him. When Bhide was accompanying Talwar during one of his visits to the Branch, where this gentleman was the Manager, Talwar made known his general dislike of the person to Bhide during the course of the journey. Both of them spent two days at the branch at the end of which, Talwar turned to Bhide and told him, “I realize I was completely wrong about this person. I allowed myself to be carried away by stray incidents without collecting adequate evidence to judge his capability.” Bhide also narrates several cases when Talwar used to put up a stout defence in favour of employees who according to him were being unfairly dealt with as scapegoats for something going wrong in the Bank due to accidental turn of events. When he became Chairman of the Bank in 1969, he was not only known for his firmness in dealing with the employees but also the manner in which he used to balance the firmness with a sense of fair play. The President of the Employees’ Union had several times confided with me, that while one could disagree with Talwar on issues, it would be difficult to doubt his bona fides and good intentions. Once he becomes convinced about the logic of the argument advanced by the union, he would not hesitate to back it with all his might.”

The Backbone of Integrity
The other set of leadership qualities which command respect from people are honesty, truthfulness and integrity. He lived the ideal of truthfulness with an austere and fanatical rigour. As Vaghul describes this quality of Talwar with a revealing anecdote:

“That Talwar was a person of unimpeachable honesty and integrity hardly a matter of surprise. Had this not been an integral aspect of his personality, it would not have been possible for him to take a firm stand with regard to the political system as well as the Bank’s clients whenever the occasion demanded!—- His concept of truthfulness had a sense of inflexibility. Most of us who claim to be truthful would not mind uttering minor harmless lies from time to time to avoid embarrassing situations. But even this aberration was totally unacceptable to Talwar. In the early days of my association with him as his personal secretary, an incident happened which illustrates this aspect of his personality with some force. We were planning a trip to Kolkata and an invitation for lunch had come from a senior industrialist at Kolkata which Talwar had accepted. A few days later, he received a communication from the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry that during his visit to Kolkata he should avoid eating food outside his home. We also received an anonymous letter at around the same time that an attempt was being made to poison him during his trip to Kolkata. While Talwar did not pay any heed to the anonymous letter, he had no option but to obey the directions from the Mother. He called and told me to draft a communication to the Industrialist saying that it would not be possible for him to attend the lunch. I drafted a simple communication to the effect that as he had some unavoidable commitments he had to cancel the lunch. When I sent the communication to him for signature, he called and told me that he could not sign the letter as this was not truthful, since he had in fact no unavoidable commitments. I was a bit puzzled and asked him, “Sir, but you wanted to cancel the lunch, is it not?” He replied, “Yes, but I can’t be telling a lie.” I responded, “Sir, but I cannot tell the truth. Obviously you do not want me to tell the industrialist that you have been asked by the Mother not to take food outside the home.” He said, “Yes, you cannot say that, but at the same time, you cannot also tell a lie. Take it back and think of something else to say. It is important that we should never utter a lie even though it is not necessary for us to broadcast the truth.”

This may appear to be a too rigid and inflexible approach to truthfulness. A spiritual seeker has other alternatives like for example frank admission of the truth that his guru has asked him not to take food outside, with a total surrender and faith that leaves the result and consequences to the guru or the divine or a response based on a deeper intuition into the truth of the situation or a prayer for a precise inner guidance in the silence of the mind. None of these alternatives are easy to put into practice. In fact, they require a higher level of inner spiritual advancement, purity and surrender which an average seeker may not possess. Nevertheless, such a firm and total commitment to truth as in the case with Talwar, is a very rare quality among leaders.

The Meticulous Professionalism
In the result-oriented corporate environment, moral characters alone is not enough to inspire and motivate other professionals. An inefficient and unprofessional leader however noble she may be cannot inspire confidence and respect from other competent professionals. Talwar was an exemplary professional and demanded such professionalism from his colleagues and clients. As Vaghul explains with a concrete example:

“Under Talwar’s leadership, State Bank of India acquired the highest level of professionalism. The State Bank officers acquired a reputation for the clean and business-like manner in which they processed the loan proposals. Compared to the rest of the banking system at that time, which was characterized by a cozy relationship between the senior bank executives and the big industrialists, this approach of the State Bank of India brought about a refreshing change. But at the same time, it also made life somewhat difficult for some of the industrialists, who were accustomed to getting what they wanted, regardless of the fact whether their business needed the funds or not or whether their businesses were being managed in an efficient manner. In fact, when Talwar was in charge of the loans department at Kolkata office in the late ’50s, he had a stormy relationship with the jute barons when he insisted on a measure of financial discipline. Apparently they found him very inconvenient to handle and just to get rid off him they seemed to have offered the position as a General Manager in Punjab National Bank – a position which is equivalent to that of a CEO. A few years later, after Talwar became the Chairman, Ramnath Goenka had some problems with his jute company and when the Bank insisted on the enforcement of financial discipline as a pre-condition for any enhancement in the loan limits, he wanted to meet Talwar. In fact, Talwar was spoken to by the Finance Minister who subtly hinted that Goenka’s request should be taken care of. Talwar agreed to meet Goenka at Kolkata when he was on a visit there. At the appointed time of the meeting, Goenka walked into the Chairman’s room to find Talwar sitting along with the Managing Director, the Chief General Manager and four other officials from the Bank. Goenka was a little bit taken aback and remarked somewhat humorously, “Oh! I see the Saptharishis sitting before me and I am all alone to confront such an illustrious group of people.” Talwar retorted, “That Mr. Goenka is really the problem. This is how we take decisions in the Bank. It is not the Chairman’s prerogative to take decisions as he pleases. The decision is taken on the basis of a collective judgment of the professionals who are sitting with me. And you are alone and you do not even bring your finance people to help you in the discussions. This is precisely what the Bank has been demanding from you that you should run your business in a more professional manner to deserve the Bank assistance.”

Talwar counseled his executives to keep the big-picture but without ignoring the ground realities. He was also fond of systems and advised his young officers to evolve effective systems in every aspect of banking.

The Nurturing Mentor
All great leaders are also great mentors. They reproduce themselves by awakening their leadership qualities in others and creating similar leaders. Talwar was an extraordinary mentor who groomed young officers cutting across organisational hierarchy. Vaghul makes the following observations regarding the mentoring abilities of Talwar.

  • Talwar’s ability to spot talent and nurture them had assumed legendary proportions in the Bank. If one were to ask any of his young contemporaries what was the single most leadership trait which they saw in Talwar, it was his capacity to mentor the young people whom he considered vital for not only the future of the Bank but of the country. The terminology mentorship was not widely known at that time and Talwar did not, therefore, practise this as a conscious strategy of management tool. In a way it was embedded in the basic tenet of his personality. The young officers in the Bank got attracted to him because of his charisma and accessibility and he reciprocated this whenever he spotted characteristics which appealed to him.
  • The mentorship he practised was subtle. There was no conscious attempt to coach or preach. Most often it was a hint here and there. More essentially it was the opportunity for frequent interaction which enabled the youngsters to gain access to his mind and the thoughts that floated from it. The relationship between Talwar and the young brigade, as the group of youngsters came to be known, was viewed with considerable disfavour by the senior executives who were used to a strict hierarchical line of control that prevailed earlier in the Imperial Bank and continued in the State Bank as well.

The Change Agent
Qualities like courage are only one aspect of leadership. The other aspect is the quality of performance. Qualities must produce results. The best indicator of leadership competence is the ability of the leader to change or elevate the culture and quality of the organisation she leads to a higher level. Talwar is such an uplifting change-agent. As Vaghul sums up the positive impact of Talwar’s leadership on the culture of State Bank of India:

“Under his leadership, State Bank of India quickly came to be recognized as a Bank with a difference, consisting of officers who displayed the highest sense of honesty and professionalism, apart from a high level of competence. I have often heard this being mentioned in the Reserve Bank and Government of India circles that one could easily pick unerringly a State Bank of India officer from amongst an assembly of bankers.”

The Spiritual Foundation
We are now brought to the question what is the deeper source of Talwar’s achievement as a leader? It is not entirely mental or moral but predominantly spiritual. Talwar is mainly a spiritual seeker and a practicing Karma Yogi who happened to be a professional banker. Talwar believed and practiced the yogic doctrine of surrender to the Divine and becoming an instrument of the Divine Will.   “Talwar’s personality—-and his entire value-systems” says Vaghul “were shaped by a strong conviction in God and he was carrying out the God’s Will” and his moral courage to defy the pressures of the powerful, “stems from a deep sense of spiritualism from which he drew his inspiration.” Here is another anecdote from Vaghul which gives a clear indication of the spiritual inspiration behind Talwar’s leadership.

“On the first day of his assumption of the office as Chairman he called me to his room and offered me the post of his secretary, which I accepted with delight. I sat with him to discuss as to what we should be doing and what should be our priorities. During the course of the conversation, I remarked, ‘Sir, during your tenure as Chairman we should ensure..’” He immediately stopped me and said, ‘Vaghul, never again bring this phrase ‘during my tenure’, I as an individual do not matter. I can never let the thought enter into my mind that I am the doer. I am here in this office because of the Divine Will and my duty is to serve Him and obey His command.’”

Similarly another close associate of Talwar, S.A. Dave states:

“He saw every new situation in which he was placed as a new opportunity, new challenge and himself as a chosen man to offer his services to his best abilities and as perfectly as possible. To each new stage of life, he believes, he is driven by Divine Will, and there can be no place for regrets; only joy for the new and gratitude for the past. There is no passivity, no fatalism in his acceptance of events; his acceptance is total and joyful, and all his responses positive. For him they are nothing but occasions for offerings and further offerings. Life, for him, is meant for unconditional offerings to Divine Will.”

Talwar was a dedicated follower and disciple of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and his entire life was moulded by the teachings of his Masters. He believed that The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram was a human manifestation of the Divine and made a conscious attempt to live according to her inner guidance or outer instructions. In the following passage Vaghul describes clearly the spiritual faith behind Talwar’s actions and achievements:

“His meeting with the ‘Mother’ was not preplanned but took place when he was on a visit to the Ashram. When he looked at the Mother’s eyes, something snapped in him and he experienced as though a strong energy was flowing through his body. This was a moment of a sudden awakening in him and he found that his search of Divinity ended with his meeting with the Mother. From that point of time, the Mother and the Ashram became the focal points in his spiritual journey. He stopped reading any scriptures, refused to engage himself in any discussion on metaphysics and confined himself only to the readings of the Mother’s teachings. His favourite literature was, of course, the Mother’s ‘Questions and Answers’, which he believed contained all the wisdom that a person needed to have. He came to a simple but strong conclusion at this point of time, that the Divinity he always believed in, was manifested in the form of the Mother, and that he was merely an instrument or tool to serve Her Will. He did not waver from this thought till the time of his death.”

In receiving the inner guidance from the Divine, Talwar followed the formula given by The Mother, which he describes in one of his interviews as “Sincerity + Silence = inner voice,” which means when the aspiration to live according the Divine Will is sincere and the mind is silent, the inner divine guidance is heard or felt in the stillness of the mind or heart.

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