Jul 17, 2023
What makes an inspiring leader? According to my guest today, Dr. Srikumar Rao, it is to be personally inspired by a vision which brings a greater good to a greater community. As a leader, you are in the business of helping everyone you run across improve their position in life and raise their level of consciousness, because this is your path in life. Isn’t that a great message to live by? My dear friend Pat Shea, with whom I did a podcast back in 2020, told me that I just had to have Dr. Rao on our podcast and boy was she right! Listen in, this could very well change your life.
Watch and listen to our conversation here
Dr. Rao’s pearls of wisdom that you can take and apply to your own life
Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink with Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon, and I’m your host and your guide. My job is to get you off the brink. We’ve done this for four years now, and as we approach our 400th session, I’m still in awe of how many wonderful people there are to share with you so you can see, feel, and think in new ways. Remember, we decide with the heart and the eyes and then the head comes into play.
So, how can I introduce you to this wonderful man, Dr. Srikumar Rao? Pat Shea, dear friend, said I must have him on our podcast. Now this is important. So let me give you a little bit of background so you know why his perspective is so important for you as our listener to better understand. Dr. Srikumar Rao is a speaker, former business school professor and head of the RAO Institute. You should look it up. It’s a great website based out of New York. He’s also an executive coach to senior business executives whom he helps find deeper meaning and engagement in their work.
This is a theme, a recurring theme. Now, it isn’t work that gives you purpose; it’s finding deeper meaning in your work. Dr. Rao’s programs have helped thousands of executives, professionals and entrepreneurs all over the world achieve quantum leaps in effectiveness, resilience and overall happiness. Like, you know, there’s a whole body here. Graduates of his workshops have become more creative and more inspiring leaders in some of the world’s most successful companies. He helps leaders around the globe transform their lives so that they can experience abundant joy no matter what comes their way. He is a Ted speaker, an author and creator of the pioneering course, Creativity and Personal Mastery.
Dr. Srikumar Rao, please tell the audience better than I can your absolutely wonderful story for the audience. There are two stories that are going to come together today. One is Dr. Rao’s own personal journey, and it is a wonderful role model for you yourself, and then what he developed to tell others through their journey so that they don’t get stuck or stalled on the brink. Remember, today people are on the brink, and they get off it because they have an aha moment, an epiphany. They begin to see things through a fresh lens. And that’s why I want to share with you, Dr. Srikumar Rao. Please, who are you? What is your journey?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Thank you, Andi. My pleasure. Let me share the brief or the briefer version of my journey. I grew up in India. We were a middle class family. I was a physics major and then I came to the US. I came to Columbia to do my PhD. I had no interest whatsoever in doing a PhD, but I had a huge interest in coming to the United States of America. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you want to come to America, it’s a very good idea to come on somebody else’s nickel if you can manage it. And here were all these great universities saying, Mr. Rao, come do a PhD. We will give you a fellowship. That means money. So I said, Yes, I’ll do a PhD. So I came to Columbia because it was in New York, which seemed good.
I did my PhD in marketing because at that time, Columbia was the world’s best business school for marketing. So that’s how my life went. I was drifting. I got a job with Warner Communications and there were a series of lucky breaks as a result of which I rose spectacularly fast. I got a big project, which normally would not have been given to me, but my boss had a personal emergency. His boss had to go to Europe on a long scheduled trip. So I got to do it. So I advised on the marketing strategy for a book, which went on to be a movie, which went on to become an all-time blockbuster. In fact, even today, after more than 50 years, it’s on the list of 50 top grossing movies of all time. This was the original Exorcist. Ah, so that was my career.
And I rose rapidly up the ranks. And at the ripe age of 22, I was head of corporate research for Warner Communications, reporting directly to the president. I got burnt out by corporate politics. So I thought I’d go to the academia where everyone was imbued with a quest for pure knowledge and politics did not exist. I was sadly mistaken. So then I got stuck in a university environment while my colleagues who remained in corporate now moved on to great financial success and hierarchical positions of authority.
And I was stuck plodding along. And I thought I had such great education, such a wonderful early start, and I blew it all. I wasted my life. I’m done. You know, it’s over. I blew it. So I was not depressed, but pretty down on my life. I’d been doing a lot of reading, spiritual biography, mysticism, a lot of biography which took me to a wonderful place. And I came back to the real world and it sucked. And I remember thinking, if all of this is useful only if you’re sitting quietly thinking peaceful thoughts, but not when you came to the hurly burly, then it’s useless. Somehow I knew that wasn’t true. I knew that this was very valuable. Maybe even the only thing that was valuable. I just hadn’t figured out how to make use of it.
So one day, I got my bright idea, which is, why don’t I take the teachings of the world’s great masters, strip them of religious, cultural and other connotations and adapt them so that they’re acceptable to intelligent people in a post-industrial society. And the thought of doing that made me come alive.My process up to then, I was a marketing guy. So every time I got a bright idea, I’d ask, will others be interested? Is there a market for it? And if I thought there was, I’d develop that idea, otherwise I’d drop it.
This is the first time I didn’t ask the question. My initial thoughts were, I teach MBAs. We all know what motivates MBAs. Nobody is going to end up enrolling for the course, but that is okay if they did register, God bless them. If they didn’t, God bless them. Anyway, I was going to create the course because I needed it for me. So I did, it did well. I moved it to Columbia Business School in 1999 and it exploded. It was the only course at Columbia Business School, which is a university-wide draw. I had students from law school, from business school, from the School of International Public Affairs, from journalism, teachers college, all over the place. And Columbia is a big international school. So people from other business schools came to Columbia on exchange and they took it and they went back and said, Hey, you gotta take this course. It’s great.
So it traveled. I taught it at Columbia, obviously. I taught it at London Business School, at Kellogg, at Berkeley, at Imperial College. And then I spun it out and started teaching it privately. And it got a tremendous amount of publicity. You know, it was in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes Business.
Andi Simon: You have fallen onto a diamond. Yes. And you’re polishing. So where did that take you?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: So that’s how it all started. And in the meantime, I became an executive coach because people viewed my videos. They watched my TED talks and said, I want to work with you. So I became an executive coach with a global clientele by default. I have a unique niche in coaching, Andi. And my niche is I coach successful people who really want to have an outsized impact on the world, but they also have a spiritual bent, and they want to infuse that into every part of their life. That’s my coaching sandbox.
Andi Simon: When you think of this as a podcast or a video podcast, the audience is saying, how does one do that? Is that something you can share with them? How can they begin to, it’s the same words that you are using to see, feel and think in new ways about themselves because you said something important. These are executives who don’t just want to make a living, they want to transform others in the world in what they’re doing. They have purpose and meaning. How does one do that?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Well, the answer to that, Andi, is very simple. You begin that process of transformation inside. In other words, you have to undergo personal transformation before you can become effective at helping others on the journey. If someone tells me, I want to be an inspiring leader, I tell them, you’re pretty well advanced on the wrong path. Because when you say, I want to be an inspiring leader, it’s all about you. I want to. And what you’re really saying, if you examine it, is, I want people to do what I would like them to do which perhaps they don’t want to do. So I got to figure out how to get people to do what I want them to do. And they don’t want to do what I want them to do because I got to learn how to manipulate them. I’m being deliberately provocative, but there’s more than a grain of truth in what I’ve just shared with you.
So the way to become an inspiring leader is to be personally inspired by a vision, which is a grand one, which brings a greater good to a greater community. And you have tremendous flexibility in defining both the greater good and the greater community. But if you find something which draws you so strongly that you’re willing to devote, if not your whole life, at least a big chunk of your life to it, and it brings a greater good to a greater community, and you learn how to communicate that vision, then whoever comes in touch with you will become inspired. You’ll become an inspiring leader by default.
You know, when Ghandi set out on his journey, he never said, “I want to be an inspiring leader. I want tens of thousands, millions of people to follow me now.” He said, “The passport laws are unjust and I will not let them stand.” And he was a British-trained attorney. He had verbal skills and he used whatever talents he had to mobilize support for the passport laws. “Laws are unjust and I will not let them stand.” And later on when he led the war against colonial rule in India, and in the process of doing that, he did in fact become an inspiring leader who, and even 80 years after his death, there are millions of people worldwide who were influenced by his ideas. That’s how you become an inspiring leader. The journey of transformation always begins between your ears.
Andi Simon: This is so both brilliant and appropriate. I have three leadership academies. The word “leading” requires us to have followers and followers who hear you, understand what you’re asking of them, but hear it in a way which takes them and inspires them. Not just to be tactical and practical, but to have a bigger reason for doing something.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Exactly correct.
Andi Simon: In the words. Purpose and meaning have become trivialized in today’s world.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: That’s true.
Andi Simon: In “the great breakup,” people are saying to corporate: “Unless I have meaning in work, I don’t need to work there.” But I’m not sure they know how to find that purpose and meaning, and what those words actually mean. I know you have some courses and you have a book in the process. Is this a collective experience, a personal one? How do people begin to discover themselves?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: It’s both. See, what happens is, in the very syllabus of my course, I state, “This is a program which will profoundly change your life. And if it doesn’t, we have both failed.” What do you mean, it’ll change my life? But it really does. Consider where I’ve drawn my material: from the words of hte great masters.
So what happens is, as you undergo this journey, you change, and as you change, you recognize that you’re not in the business of creating followers. You are in the business of helping everyone you run across, improve their position in life. More precisely, raise their level of consciousness. And the reason you raise their level of consciousness is because that’s your path in life. In the process of helping them raise their level of consciousness, you’re really working on yourself in raising your level of consciousness.
Because in my book, Andi, the only thing you ever do in life is, you work on yourself, and everything you’re given by the universe—your partner, your children, your job, your career, your business—they’re tools. You use those tools as skillfully as you can. But in the process of doing that, what you’re really doing is, you’re working on yourself. And that’s the only thing you ever do in life. You work on yourself.
Andi Simon: You came about this by struggling through other avenues. You knew you really didn’t want to go into marketing, but you did really well in it. You left and joined a university and you did well, but not financially well. And then all of a sudden you had an epiphany. Those master courses opened your mind to a whole other way of thinking. Do people have to go through a similar kind of journey? Is there a pathway that starts earlier that can help them? Or do we have to experience life first?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: It’s a combination, Andi. There is no must. Each person has a unique path in life. I’ve had people who’ve taken my program say, “Your course completely changed my life.” And they didn’t have any dramatic reversals or breakthrough switch catapult. They just examined what I said, and it made sense to them and they adopted it. And others have to have their head beaten by life before they start recognizing the way I’ve been doing it is all wrong. So there is no one size fits all. It’s a uniquely individual journey.
Andi Simon: It’s interesting as I’m listening to you, because my third book has just gotten published, it comes out in September. It’s a good book. It’s called Women Mean Business. It’s a great book. I think all my books are great books. But in the process, I’m now at a phase saying, what’s next? Business is very good. We picked up a great client. We’re going to study the meaning of life for older adults and what is quality. I mean, it’s really cool work, but there is another piece, and I share that with the listeners and yourself about what matters as you reach a particular stage in our lives.
I’m not growing younger and the past has been a delicious one for me. I’ve had a great life, great family. But you’re raising that question of what’s that larger purpose, meaning something beyond tactical and practical, something that can really lift up and lift up others. While people have said that to me, I’m not quite sure what that meant. And I’m not sure I can touch it and feel it, but you are saying something which is, maybe I should come and wander through your course with you and begin to understand it and begin to see it in a bigger picture. You’re smiling at me.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: I would be delighted.
Andi Simon: It’s funny because Pat and I were talking about this just a week or so ago, and Pat is very interested in having me deliver my course in Nashville. And she is a dynamo, as you know. And she wants it so strongly, and I’m not opposed to it, that we might very well conduct a live program in Nashville. We are still working out dates and details and so on, but it very well could happen.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: But aren’t you in New York?
Andi Simon: I am in New York.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: So am I in New York? So maybe there’s a New York version that we can do, because I can’t.
Andi Simon: That’s also possible. I’ve conducted the course in New York. Yes. So a big advantage of doing it in Nashville is that Pat is a strong supporter and an anchor. But I also think Pat is seeing it as a bigger thing. If she has, I don’t know, 25, 30, 40 people who she touches, how can she elevate all of them to a higher level?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: That’s the whole point. Exactly. Correct.
Andi Simon: She wants to spread your pixie dust so that those folks have more joy in life. I think you say on your website, life is a short journey, let’s make sure we have joy and it feels purposeful and takes us to another place.
I’m curious, I’m an explorer. People said I’m a futurist, which I didn’t know, but I’m always looking forward to see how fast change is going to affect us and what’s strong about it and what’s weak about it. What do you see coming next, both from a philosophical perspective?
Life is changing and quickly, and as a result of what is happening outside, I’m finding that there are many people who are recognizing that the real journey is between our ears, as you say, not outside. Now, I’m not in a position to say whether this is a trend in the product population. Certainly the persons who seek me out are persons who have already started that inner journey, otherwise they wouldn’t have sought me out in the first place. So there are more of them than ever before. But are there more of them because I’m getting better known and there are more videos of mine floating around? Or is this a trend that’s something I cannot comment on?
Well, but either way, you’re serving your need. Remember, it’s not about I, it’s about what they need and how you begin to open up a doorway into a different view of their lives at a time where we’re all doing it. When I’m working with our folks about preparing for the future, you know, humble perspectives, humans need to see the future. If they’re going to live today, what you do is give them a way of being excited about that future. The past has passed. So what’s coming next and how do we capitalize on it? How do we enjoy it? Because it’s coming.
I’ve become a big fan of ChatGPT. And I just did a podcast with someone who said, “Oh, I haven’t even touched it or tried it.” I said, “So before you criticize it, go explore it, be an explorer because it is here and it’s going to be transformative.” It is here and it’s going to change how we get things done. Is that bad? I don’t know. And that’s not the only, whether blockchain is here to shrink stuff or, you know, 3D printing. If you put ’em all together, the world is in a very transformative moment. It will not be the same as yesterday, but I don’t know what it’s going to be tomorrow. So go ahead.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Think back 20 years ago, you hardly had the internet then. And I can remember if you went from place A to place B, you actually had to have a map. And think how things have changed in just the last 20 years.
Andi Simon: And it is accelerating. Yes. I think that’s actually exciting for my grandchildren who will see the world in a very different way. One of the things that came through the pandemic is a good deal of research on the distinction between virtual and real. And, this is a profound philosophical question. About what is virtual and what are you and I’m not real, because we’re doing this virtually. Are video games for people, adults, not part of their reality. Kids talk about avatars and do-overs. It’s because they’ve been well trained by their video games. That’s a perfectly normal response to something.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Completely. I agree.
Andi Simon: You’ve just hit upon a very important issue. You know, what is real? You can have some interesting discussions on that. And, without a perspective of your purpose and your own life here, it’s very easy to get into the anger over the changes. Humans don’t like change, you know that. As opposed to the joy of the new and the unfamiliar. I do think that we are all going to be changed, whether we like it or not. Who are now writing books and perspectives besides yourself? I’m beginning to identify the transformation in a way that they’ll be a part of our masters in 10 years.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Here is the funny thing, Andi. What the great masters said is as relevant today as the time that they said what they did. And this goes all the way from Buddha and Jesus to modern Michael Singer, Ram Hershey, Anthony de Mello, just to name a few. They are every bit as relevant. The essential message does not change because human beings do not change. No true circumstances do change. And there are all kinds of gizmos and toys to distract us. But who we are fundamentally has not changed and will not change.
Andi Simon: How true that is. And we are good people, humans who have thrived and survived because of our ability to tell beautiful stories and share extraordinary lives. A couple of things you want the listeners not to forget as you’ve been thinking about this? We always remember that they remember the ending better than even the beginning. And I’ll always remember you coming to Columbia because it was a cheap way to get to the Americas, but apart from that, what don’t you want them to forget?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Okay. Let me share some things that I would like every person watching or listening to this to take away. The first thing I would like them to be aware of is that your awareness is like a flashlight. This is very important. What does a flashlight do? A flashlight illuminates whatever you shine it on. Take the flashlight of your awareness and shine it on the chair in which you’re sitting. The moment I ask you to do that, you become aware of the pressure of your buttocks on the seat. You feel the fabric or the leather against the back of your thigh. Correct? 30 seconds ago, you were not aware of any of this, but now you are. That’s true. Why? Because you’ve shone the flashlight of your awareness on it.
What do we typically do with the flashlight of our awareness? We shine it on the two, three or four things that are problems in our lives. More precisely, we shine it on the two, three or four things that we think are problems in our lives and we’ve defined them as problems in our life and the 40, 50, 200 things that are pretty damn good about our lives, we never shine the flashlight of our awareness on it. So this slips by in the background unnoticed.
You and I are incredibly privileged. We’ve had books published. We don’t have to worry about whether we are going to eat tomorrow. We have a bed to sleep in, a roof over our head. We have competent people who can give us medical attention, should we need it. Any of this is a big deal in a huge chunk of the world outside. But we never shine the flashlight of our awareness on it. So it slips by.
So what I advise everyone, my coaching clients, people who take my call: shine the flashlight of your awareness on the many ways in which you’re fortunate and blessed. Do it the last thing at night before you go to bed. Do it first thing in the morning. Don’t go to the space of there’s too much to do and I don’t have enough time to do it all. Call to mind the many ways in which you are truly fortunate. Bathe in it, marinate in it, value in it, soak in it. It is my hope that everybody listening to this will be in the default emotional domain of appreciation, gratitude. Because when you are there, you’re not nervous, you’re not anxious, you’re not fearful. The two cannot coexist.
Andi Simon: That’s a very important lesson to learn. You have the flashlight of your awareness, shine it wisely.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: The second thing is for them to become aware of something called mental chatter, which is an internal monologue that you have going on in your head all the time. It begins right up when you get up in the morning. It is with you throughout the day and is with you when you go to bed. And sometimes it’s so loud that it prevents you from going to sleep. The kind of thing that says, what time is it? Do I have to get up? I don’t want to get up. Let me hit the snooze button. I can get another 10 minutes of sleep. All of that is mental chatter. It’s always been there. It’s like an unwelcome relative who’s shown up in your house and you can’t kick him out. So we ignore it, suppress it. We work around it.
We do our level best to live a life despite our mental shadow. Huge mistake. And it’s a mistake because we construct our lives with our mental shadow. We think we live in a real world. We don’t. We live in a construct. And we built that construct. We made it out of our mental chatter. Let me illustrate.
One of the more powerful teachings of the Buddha is the parable of the second arrow. The Buddha asks his disciple, If an arrow would’ve hit you in the arm, would it not be very painful? Yes, Lord. Very painful. And if a second arrow would’ve hit you exactly where the first arrow hit you, would it not be even more painful? Yes, Lord, it’ll be even more painful. And then the Buddha asks a surprising question. Why then do you shoot the second arrow? So that needs some explanation. So let me tell you a story.
There was this woman, which is a good mother of a son who grew up to be 16. And he got his provisional driver’s license. And one day he wanted to show off that he had his license. So he went to his mom and said, Hey, I’m going to go out with some friends and can I take the car? And she said, of course not. You know, you just got your driver’s license. Where do you have to go out from? No, no, no, mom, you don’t understand. I’ve got to take the car. She said, okay, I’ll drop you. No, no, no. You don’t understand. I’ve got to take the car and you have to not be there. I was okay if I can’t be there, that’s fine. There’s Uber. No, no, no. You don’t understand. I have to take the car. Didn’t you hear me? I have to take the car and you have to not be there. And the mother says no, but you know how children are. He begged, he pleaded.
And bit by bit, she felt herself giving way. She took promises, you’re not going to drink. No, no, I’m not going to drink. You’re going to call. Yes. You’ll be back by 10 o’clock. Yes. So reluctantly she gives him the car keys. And of course once he gets the keys, he forgets all about his promises, he doesn’t call, breaks curfew and has too many beers. On the way back, he has an accident and his mother is with him in the hospital while he is being operated on. And then when he is wheeled to the recovery room, she dashes home to have a quick shower and change so she can go back to the hospital. And at that time a friend calls and says, how could you possibly have given him the car? You are not a mother, you are a murderer. Now, are you shocked that a friend would say something like that at this juncture? Probably. Would you be less shocked if I said, that’s not what a friend said, it’s what she told herself. That is the second arrow.
It’s bad enough having a son who’s recovering from an accident, and you don’t know what the after effects are. Does it make matters better to tell yourself that you are a poor mother and in fact, maybe a murderer? Of course not. No. But we do it all the time. That is the second arrow. And the second arrow is always delivered by means of mental shadow. Let me repeat that. The second arrow is always delivered by means of mental shadow. No matter what situation you’re facing, Andi, your mental chatter about that situation is making it at least in order of magnitude worse. For most of my clients, if I can get them to stop at the second arrow, they’d be way ahead of the game. By the time they recognize what they’re doing to themselves, they’re on their fifth, sixth, 253rd arrow.
Andi Simon: Oh, I know. My daughter is a special ed teacher, and she sometimes tells me, If only I could work with the parents, the kids could turn out far better than the parents working with the kids. And as I’m listening to you, that mother-son story is a very appropriate one to think about. Where and how do we create the right action, values and self-care so that we can deal with the situations that come, in a very positive fashion with control over it. And that friend who said, You’re a murderer, was right in some ways, but that was less important than that it was the mother.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: So those are the things I’d like to leave your listeners with.
Andi Simon: If they want to reach you, your book is on Amazon?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Yes, it is. So the book is called Modern Wisdom, Ancient Roots: The Movers and Shakers’ Guide to Unstoppable Success. It is virtual and we’ll be starting up live courses again, but all those details are being worked out. They can go to my website, which is www.theraoinstitute.com and sign up for it. And then they will be signed up to get information about that. And then they’ll be on my list. They’ll get my weekly blog, and they’ll also get information about my courses and programs.
Andi Simon: I love it. This has been a very heartfelt conversation. I want to thank Pat Shea for insisting that I have Srikumar on for my listeners, I know you are sitting there saying, This is really important. I can already imagine some of my listeners, I know who they are, saying, Hmm, am I shooting myself with the second arrow or am I able to rise above it and see the world the way it should be?
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Yes. It’s hard, but it’s important.
Andi Simon: Let me thank you. And I think I’m going to sign up and get your blogs, maybe even take your course.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Thank you, Andi, it’ll be a pleasure having you. And if Pat is your friend, you can be sure she’ll reach out to you.
Andi Simon: To our listenerers, thank you again for making us among the top 5% of global podcasts. But most of all, thank you for coming, sharing, and enjoying. Our job is to get you off the brink. And today you can really hear why we are both anxious for you to see, feel and think in new ways so you don’t get stuck or stalled. And I urge you, listen to Dr. Srikumar Rao’s podcast, share it, give it to others. The transcript will be up on the blog that we post. I think there’s some deep thoughts here that are well worth remembering, thinking about, reflecting on, and maybe taking to the next step.
Dr. Srikumar Rao: Yeah. And they can watch my TED talk, Andi.
Andi Simon: Yes. I will make sure that’s on there as well. Thank you. You’ve been such fun. Thank you all. Thank you all for coming. Have a wonderful healthy day. Please see the world as a gift every day as a gift to you.