Smart leaders make New Year resolutions and set quarterly milestones, charting progress against ambitious plans and goals. Wise leaders, however, take a different approach: they root themselves in a noble purpose, align it with a compelling vision, and then take action — not just for that year, but for the rest of their lives. That noble purpose becomes a North Star, giving direction when the path ahead is hazy, humility when arrogance announces false victory, and inspiration when the outlook seems bleak.
In India, we call the north star "Dhruv Tara" — or "Dhruv Star." According to the story, Dhruv was a prince transformed into the ever-fixed star as a reward for his perseverance. But the idea of a guiding star can be found in many different religious and cultural traditions. North Star is a concept (pdf) that I have been using in my teaching and coaching for over 20 years to represent our highest personal aspiration — especially when it's connected with a noble purpose. (Those of you familiar with Bill George's "True North" concept may notice some overlap.)
One of the best examples of a wise leader is Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (also known as "Dr. V"), an ophthalmologist with crippled fingers who started the Aravind Eye Care System in 1976 — with no business plan, money or resources. Aravind now sees 2.7 million patients every year, and even more impressively, treats the majority of them for free. Aravind has become a business example of compassion, as well as proof that wise leaders can radically change the world by following their North Star. The case study written about Aravind has been required reading for all Harvard Business School students for over a decade.
We have a choice in creating the life that we desire. With our judgment, choices, actions we take, we change the course of our future and steer our destiny, moment by moment. Wisdom is not about focusing on the future, but rather about acting in the present, aligned with our North Star.
North Stars align our energy, emotions, and actions in the service of our vision. Though it is not always simple to find one's North Star, once it appears, its guidance helps simplify one's choices. As paradoxical as it may seem, wise leaders are, first and foremost, wise followers. Once they become clear about their North Star, it becomes their calling, and they serve that calling willingly, happily, and infectiously.
So what was Dr. V's North Star? He dreamed a seemingly impossible dream: to eliminate needless blindness by providing appropriate, compassionate, high-quality eye care for all. Along with his siblings and their families, many of whom he had guided into medicine, he started his simple 11-bed clinic with three revolutionary guiding principles:
- Turn no one away, regardless of whether they can pay or not
- Give everyone the same high quality of care
- Don't depend on any outside sources for funding
These constraints, despite coming from a deep conviction in his own values, seemed to destine him for limited impact.
Instead, Dr. V changed the face of eye care on the planet, and he did it by owning the entire problem — providing community outreach, eye care, training, eye banks, research and the production of inexpensive but high-quality eye care supplies. He realized that if he wanted to eradicate curable blindness from the world, he had to start thinking not only about his organization, but also about training others. Conventional wisdom would be to guard your secret sauce, but Aravind did the exact opposite. By giving away all its secrets, Aravind has trained approximately 15% of all ophthalmologists in India and thousands more from over 69 countries. The work of this one man is said to have touched 40% of eye care patients in the developing world to date.
I've had the opportunity to meet Dr. V and work with Aravind over the past several years. I am deeply touched, moved and inspired by the revolution he set in motion and sheer impact of his contributions on the world. How did Dr. V come up with his North Star? Was he a wise person to begin with? Can you and I do something that can have a significant impact like Dr. V?
To my mind, Dr. V was not born wise — he became wise because of his decisions and actions. Here is an extract from Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy (a special note: Read this book!):
To Dr. V, the cultivation of empathy, the effort toward equanimity and self-awareness, the stepping back from ego, and the attempts to align with a clear-sighted, inherent wisdom are all part of his larger aspiration to be a perfect instrument.
His story provides tremendous inspiration and guidance for those looking to follow their North Star. His story also flouts many conventional rules of business. Wise leadership does not fit the strict patterns of smart analysis, but instead taps into an intuitive part of who you are at the core, unearthing counterintuitive principles:
- Compassion doesn't have to come at the cost of efficiency — it can actually drive systems and operational excellence. You don't have to separate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals and project goals. You can make CSR the strategy or even the end goal for your business growth.
- If you truly focus on service, resources do organize themselves — if your main interest is in solving a problem, then there's no question that cooperation beats competition. Businesses should focus on the customer, not on profit or business model.
- When individuals (and especially leaders) stay rooted in inner transformation —being true to one's calling, paying attention to one's values and being aware of one's emotions and actions — it fundamentally alters the way in which organizations develop. Leaders aligned with their own North Star inspire their teams to do the same, not simply by words but by the power of their example.
In order to identify and then follow your own North Star, you have to ask powerful questions of yourself. Those questions will yield new insights for you and help you find inspiration in the most unthinkable places. For Dr. V, inspiration struck when he learned about McDonald's. Due to his experience as a government doctor with rural camps, he knew that he had to develop highly efficient, scalable, repeatable processes to treat the masses that came. In McDonald's, he saw that throughout the world McDonald's franchises had similar quality meals for low prices. "If McDonald's can do it for hamburgers, why can't we do it for eye care?" And sure enough, he developed systems that allow Aravind surgeons to do more than five times the number of cataract surgeries done by the average Indian doctor (and ten times that of an average US physician).
Following your North Star can also lead to quixotic decisions. When intraocular lenses (IOLs) came on the scene in the West in the early 1990s, global health professionals called it a luxury that developing countries could ill-afford. Dr. V saw the value of IOLs and literally manufactured a revolution. At a time when India was far from being the hotbed for technology outsourcing that it is today, Aravind started manufacturing these IOLs at world-class quality, driving the global price down from $150 to $10. Aravind now makes 7% of all IOLs in the world.
I hope Dr. V's story brings you closer to your own North Star. The key to making 2012 a special year is to first find our North Star, our noble purpose, and then to execute on it as if it is the only thing that matters — because it is. Wise leadership comes from identifying our own North Star, then using the light to enable others to find their own.
What is your North Star? And how can you be the perfect instrument of a higher calling? Share it with us here.
Prasad Kaipa is a senior fellow in center for leadership, innovation and change at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and is an advisor and coach to senior executives through his consulting company Kaipa Group. He is co-authoring a book on wise leadership for Jossey Bass.
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