What to Learn from The Parable of the Sadhu

I came across an intriguing story a few months back, one that has been floating around the business blogs for years, for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute. It is entitled “The Parable of the Sadhu”, though it’s not a fictional parable at all. In fact, it’s an experience told by real estate and business executive, Bowen H. McCoy.

McCoy set out with a friend, Stephen, to trek through Nepal for several months. They were halfway through the Himalayan portion of the trip when they reached the 18,000-foot pass that they’d have to traverse to reach the village of Muktinath, which was an ancient holy place for the pilgrims. They were fearful. Not only had McCoy suffered from pulmonary edema years prior at the Everest base camp, but the Himalayas were having the wettest season in two decades, making for hip-deep powder and ice. He didn’t want this trip to end tragically.

They were joined by four backpackers from New Zealand, two Swiss couples and a Japanese hiking club. Together the group anticipated the climb ahead of them. They started their ascent at 3:30 a.m. with clear skies. At dawn, McCoy and some in the group stopped to rest near the 15,000 feet mark. One of the New Zealanders who had hiked ahead suddenly came toward them, holding a body across his shoulders. It was an Indian holy man, a Sadhu, who was nearly naked and clearly suffering from hypothermia. He was found lying on the ice, shivering. McCoy held the man’s head and laid him on the rocks. The New Zealander was upset. He wanted to get across the dangerous pass before the sun melted the snow. Angrily he said, “Look, I’ve done what I can. You have porters and Sherpa guides. You care for him. We’re going on!” He turned back up the mountain to join his friends.

The Sadhu was alive, but barely. The group deduced that he had probably visited the holy shrines at Muktinath and was on his way home, but they had no idea why he had taken the most dangerous path home and why he wasn’t clothed.

The group began to strip their outer layering and opening their packs until the Sadhu was clothed head to foot. Though unable to walk he was alive. McCoy spotted the Japanese climbers on their way up the mountain with a horse. Without much thought, McCoy decided to continue his journey up the mountain, afraid he’d miss the window he needed to get over the pass. The terrain was difficult and the altitude was causing some vertigo so he stopped to rest, waiting for the Swiss couples to catch up to him. When they did he inquired about Stephen and the Sadhu. They told him they were fine, so they continued their journey together.

Stephen arrived at the summit an hour after McCoy. Though weak and suffering from altitude sickness, Stephen greeted his friend with a glare and these stinging words: “How do you feel about contributing to the death of a fellow man?”

McCoy asked, “Is the Sadhu dead?”

“No, but he surely will be!” said Stephen.

McCoy learned that after he left, his friend remained with the Sadhu and asked the Japanese group to use their horse to transport the sick man back to the hut. They refused. Stephen then asked his Sherpa guide to take some porters and carry the man back down to the hut. His guide thought it was a bad idea--they needed their energy for the pass. So the Sherpas carried the Sadhu to a rock in the sun and directed him to the hut 500 feet below. The Japanese had given him food and drink. No one ever saw the Sadhu again and his fate is still unknown.

Stephen and McCoy discussed and debated for the next several days about what they could have done differently. Stephen simply stated “I feel that what happened with the Sadhu is a good example of the breakdown between individual ethic and the corporate ethic. No one person was willing to assume ultimate responsibility for the Sadhu. Each was willing to do his bit just so long as it was not too inconvenient. When it got to be a bother, everyone just passed the buck to someone else and took off.” Everyone thought they contributed enough but no one took ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the Sadhu. Stephen even questioned McCoy if he (or others) would have reacted differently if the Sadhu happened to be a well-dressed Asian or a beautiful American? Fair question.

Though lives most likely are not on the line, how often do we encounter similar situations within our own corporations? Yes, everyone contributes their part . . . to a point. But where is the collective or institutional responsibility? How often are are we faced with an ethical dilemma, but don’t act appropriately? How do you ensure the collective efforts of all is contributing toward the end goal?

We may never be able to answer what SHOULD have been done with the Sadhu, but we can decide HOW we will react prior to a dilemma in our various lives or organizations. When an individual or corporation is faced with a problem, first assess the situation by asking the following four questions (as given in an article by Conor Sherman):

  • What resources are immediately available?
  • What is the engagement from the team, will they work together cohesively, are they striving towards the same vision?
  • Will the team drive to the solution when the going gets tough?
  • Is the problem defined clearly, the desired solution clearly communicated, and is there a strong method of communication that can handle a changing circumstance?

The climbers from the parable would have done well to ask themselves these questions. In corporations, the team manager’s responsibility is to continually assess the team’s principles, but also convey to the team what their role is when a dilemma arises. The climbers should have checked their solutions with these questions, such as the provision of food, clothing, etc. Had they done so, the outcome may have been different. Instead, they assumed what the problem was and provided the solution to the assumed problem. Setting a plan in place, based on these questions, prior to a crisis will help your corporation avoid disaster. This is the reason McCoy relates often the lesson he learned years ago on that Himalayan mountain with the Sadhu.

May we learn from it and develop a system for challenges so that we are not left questioning, as McCoy did, “what if”.

Tell Us: What dilemma has your company faced that could have been avoided by setting a previous plan in place?

Written by Mike Williams

I am a serial entrepreneur with more than 20 years of business experience. My goal with this blog is to pass on some of what I have learned in order to help you achieve success in business.

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