Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beyond Labels: Learning to be a "Whole Human Being" from CK Prahalad

By Dr. Srini Sridharan.

Prof. C.K. Prahalad has passed into the ages, and by this time, a few days afterward, thousands of remembrances have poured in all over the world in all forms of media. A casual glance at many of these tributes reveals the key areas of impact that people seem to want to attribute to him. He has changed their thinking, emboldened them to think big, take risks, be contrarian and challenge the dominant logic, ask the most foolish questions to come up with the most impactful answers, and so on. Some have said he changed their whole lives, taught them to explore the meaning of life rather than merely existing. It is almost on a plane that you would imagine would be reserved for spiritual leaders.

And herein lies the heart of the matter, I think. We have become attuned to providing ‘labels’ for everything and everyone, and hence can only identify things and people by their labels – historian, spiritual teacher, analyst, academic, practitioner, politician......The reality however is that all of us are everything, at least in a small way. And that is perhaps what Dr. CK realized very early, while many of us don’t almost to the very end. He perhaps realized that being an academic at a University did not mean that he couldn’t talk to businesses; that teaching management subjects did not mean that he couldn’t worry about the human condition of poverty; that his authority on how companies can best create value in $ did not constrain him from developing an authority on how ‘societal value’ can be ‘co-created’ by companies with society. And I am sure this realization extended to virtually all aspects of his life – I am sure he developed deep friendships with many of his students, I am sure his advice to companies went far beyond consulting fees, and I am sure his extremely busy and public life did not prevent him from being the most loving family man.

In recent years, I have been deeply influenced by his “work” and expanded my own ambit of work to include pondering on the question of poverty. I felt that Dr. CK had successfully taken strategy to poverty and made poverty more tolerable and more escapable. So I began attempting to take marketing theories to poverty. Until now, this made me feel that I have begun to do something meaningful with my professional life. Now after feeling no less shackled than earlier, I have come to realize where Dr. CK was different – he did not take strategy to poverty as I had originally thought, he took poverty to strategy. In other words, long before we read his Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, he had first become a student of poverty.

As a result, as I continue to search for ‘meaningful’ ways to execute my career, I am beginning to realize that real meaning will only emerge when I learn to view “myself” as multidimensional, a whole human being, unconstrained by the rules of academia or business or economy or polity, but constantly striving to discover the rules of the one great game – human flourishing. If you look at it carefully enough, this is what the great scholars of ancient civilizations did for a living. And for this, I have to thank modern sages like Dr. CK.
*Dr. Srinivas Sridharan (Srini) is an Assistant Professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, London, Ontario. His research interests include Marketing, Consumption and Entrepreneurship in Subsistence Economies with a special focus on developing/emerging markets and sustainability. His work has appeared in several journals and in the Economist, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.

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