Guru Nanak : Corporate Lesson from Founder of Sikhism


Guru Nanak was, and is, many things to many people, but he surely never lived a corporate life, like you and I. So, at first, he did not come across as an obvious choice to look for corporate lessons. However, the more I read about him, the more I began to imagine what he would have been like, if he was a corporate guy. And having taken the liberty to draw some parallels from his life with modern day corporate life, I have come to believe that he would have been a rock-star corporate guy.

Here are the top lessons we can draw from Guru Nanak’s life for today’s corporate life.

[If you are familiar with Nanak, you can skip this introductory paragraph and jump to lesson one. Else, continue reading.] As a context, Guru Nanak Dev Ji was born in 1469 in the north Indian region of Punjab. He travelled across most South West Asian and Middle-Eastern countries including modern day India, Sri-Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. On Foot. Let that sink in for a moment.

As a man of faith, he composed hymns in the praise of one God. But, as an acute poet, he wrote about the prevalent social condition. As a teacher, he busted the myths and malpractices that masqueraded as a path to attain salvation or nirvana. And as a prime example himself, he practiced what he preached.

Nanak was the second child born into a simple family, after an elder sister named Nanaki. They were neither too rich, nor too poor and lived a normal village life. Even by Indian standards, Nanak was exceptionally fast in his education and grabbed the concepts of mathematics, languages and religion with equal ease. He would quickly absorb the contents and then engage his teachers in debates that went beyond the ‘syllabus’. Young Nanak constantly sought the company of saints and holy men and explored his spirituality, much to the dismay of his father who wanted him to lead ‘a normal life’. Even towards the end of his physical life, Nanak was interested in presenting his ideas and debating with other learned people, rather than pronouncing his thoughts as ‘sermons’.

Guru Nanak was born in 1469 AD. Sikhs believe that as a bright shining Sun he managed to dispel the foggy darkness that engulfed the people of that time.

And now we move to the lessons. 

# – Story

:: – Lesson


Titles don’t matter. Deeds do. Circa 1478. Nanak is 9 years old. And as with all 9-years-old boys of his caste, he is now entitled to wear a sacred thread around himself to distinguish him from others. His family has hosted an event to mark the day and everyone has gathered for the ceremony. Here is an exchange between the priest and the little boy Nanak.

“Dear learned priest, could I ask you a few questions about what makes this thread so sacred”, Nanak asked.

The priest replied, “From the Vedic era, we have had this practice of wearing the sacred thread over our left shoulder. The thread symbolizes holy entities; it will distinguish the wearer in this life and pave way for the next. This will allow you to have a Brahmin as a guru who will take you through the religious texts”

Nanak continued to probe “Dear learned priest, why don’t I see this thread on my sister or any other women? Many of my friends like Mardana, also don’t wear the Janeu . Shouldn’t they also have this sacred thread and your guidance as a guru?”

The priest was surprised at the pointed question, but replied nonetheless, “Nanak, only the top three castes were allowed to wear this ‘janeyu’ and your family name makes you eligible for the honor. Unfortunately for us, some of your friends are low-caste and as I have complained to your father earlier, you should stop mingling with them. As for the women, when you get married, you will also get one to wear on behalf of your wife. Lastly, (referring to Mardana, who was a Muslim) people from another religion don’t need to wear this.”

Nanak, “Allow me one last interruption dear pandit ji, and teach me what to do if this thread breaks”

The priest, now clearly irritated, said “You shall take care of the thread Nanak and not let it break or even get soiled. Else it will need to be immediately replaced by a pious priest. Only the fire from one’s pyre is allowed to consume it”

Nanak replied, “Thank you for your patience dear priest. I have made up my mind and I refuse to wear this thread”. Amidst rising ‘haaws’ from the audience and an audible gasp from the priest, Nanak continued “I would rather wear a ‘janeyu’ for my mind and soul, and let my deeds distinguish me. I would wear a janeyu that allows everyone the right to wear it. I would wear a janeyu that will not break or get soiled or even burn on my pyre”

“What insolence is this? Where would you find a thread like that?” asked a fuming priest.

Nanak, explained with a simile to make his point “Take mercy as cotton, weave a thread of contentment, put a knot of self-restraint on it and twist this thread with your love for the truth.”

Nanak says that the most basic thing in life (our cotton) is being merciful and kind to others. This love for others will bring us contentment (the thread). Contentment leads to continence or self-restraint (the knot) and this thread is made stronger when you twist it with your love for knowledge and truth. This is the string that will not break, or get soiled or burn. Is the string that will rein you in from the wrong path. This is the janeyu that we should all wear.

Pretty cool for a 9 year old, right?

:: The lesson that I draw here is about the corporate titles that we wear around our necks.  You will not be remembered for the positions or the lofty titles that you held. You will be remembered for what you did for your people and how you made them feel.

Your degree (or pedigree) will not guarantee your position. Your actions will determine that for you.



Know your values.

The next lessons came from a simple set of values, that Guru Nanak clearly defined in just 6 words; “Kirat Karo, Naam Japo, Vand Chhako”.

I loosely translate these as: Earn an honest living. Remember the Lord. Share what you get.

Or quite simply: Work. Pray. Share.

That was it. This seemingly simple set of values connected the common folk to his mission. The early followers were able to guide their actions according to this value system.

If you understood the prevalent conditions in the region (shared in the introductory paragraph), these three things were supposed to guide the 15th century Punjabi society back on track.

  1. Work: to denounce the trend of resigning to the jungles and instead encourage contributions to the society
  2. Pray : to inculcate meditation into everyday life
  3. Share: to help others in need, and never hoard more than your needs

While, we shall dive into these lessons in detail later, the first corporate lesson here is the value system itself and it is actually quite simple.

:: The importance of a powerful value system cannot be overstated. As an early stage start-up, or when you are planning to expand your team, set up a Core Value System. Everyone following the same set of values, and working towards a common mission would contribute much better. As an individual, a value system allows you to be associated with companies and people that shares the same values that you hold dear. Know your values. It makes the trickiest of your life’s decisions into a simple checklist.



Keep your heart in the right place.

Once, Guru Nanak was to make a stop-over at a small town called Eminabad (in modern day Pakistan) with his trusted companion, Mardana. They decided to stay at a carpenter’s house who had lovingly invited them to stay with his family. Bhai Lalo, the poor carpenter and his wife tended to the visitors as best as they could with their limited means.

When the steward of the town got to know about this, he arranged for a lavish feast and dispatched an invite to all saints and holy men of the region including Guru Nanak.

Nanak refused.

The steward was known to be an ill-tempered, egotistical man in general. Nanak’s refusal made him furious. He issued a summon, and soon enough, Nanak was brought there to answer for his misgivings.

Malik Bhago (the steward) pointed to the wide spread of dishes and said “I hosted this grand function as a feast to all holy men like you. I spent bundles of money for heaps of sumptuous dishes and gifts for you” and resentfully asked “Why would you decline my invitation and dine at this low-caste carpenter’s?”

Nanak replied “God sees no caste, Malik Bhago, so I see no caste in the food that he gives me.” He then added “Lalo’s simple food has the sweet smell of hard work. But, your feast stinks of corruption and atrocities. This cursed meal has been tainted with the blood on your hands, while this blessed food is as pure as milk.”

With that, I believe, Nanak grabbed another bite from the loaf of dry bread that he had carried from Lalo’s home, and smiled.

:: I have been told many times that the best way to succeed at business is the crooked way. Yet, we have far too many examples of entire companies crumpling when the crooked way becomes the way of life. There are enough bankruptcies and meltdowns in our history to prove this point. And most recently the mounting pressure against Amazon after it was discovered that thousands of its employees are currently on food stamps.

Business with their hearts in the right place will survive the best in the long run. Short-cuts or corruption might seem to get you there, but the results wouldn’t last.

On a personal level, I can safely say that the sweet smell of success is achieved through one’s own hard work. The rewards might seem slow in the beginning, but your flight would be longer. And if nothing else, it will surely help you sleep better.



Share the credit.

Guru Nanak strongly believed in the concept of community living. Early during the day, he toiled in his fields, tended to his crop and grazed the cattle. And every evening, he would meditate and pray together with the people gathered in his company. He then cooked a meal and served to everyone who showed up, while thanking the one God for his blessings.

Charitable donation was not a new concept, but the difference in Nanak’s kitchen was that it was focused on ‘sharing’ and not ‘giving’. It shifted away from the common practice of ‘donating-unwanted-things’ or hosting feasts for high-caste brahmins, only to earn ‘divine credit’ for oneself.

In Nanak’s kitchen, called ‘Langar’, people from all social and economic backgrounds, were welcome to share a meal that they made together. The rich did not get to give unwanted stuff and the poor did not go hungry after a hard day of labor. Everyone was welcome and whatever anyone could spare was brought to the kitchen, cooked into a meal and shared amongst them. (This practice continues in Gurudwaras across the world, feeding millions to this day). The underlying belief is: It is not mine to give. It is His for everyone to share.

:: I compare this to a cross-functional team that brings various skills and expertise to the table. Together they work towards a common goal, and in the end they achieve results depending on what they ‘cooked up’.

More often than not, people are focused on what I can get from this. While the best of the projects that I have worked on, have been where everyone contributed to the end goal without an expectation of who gets the credit. Credit is not yours to give. It is for everyoneto share. Share the credit.

Through this story, we can also learn that a team is

–         where everyone is focused on the ‘we’ instead of the ‘I’

–         where everyone shares the outcome and

–         a team that eats together, stays together (too far ? I couldn’t resist)


#You become what you practice. I love the stories of Nanak busting the common myths of the time. So allow me a few.

Circa 1520 AD. Mecca. Guru Nanak is sleeping under a tree outside the city. His long time companion, Mardana was a practising Muslim and longed for the Hajj pilgrimage. They had travelled on foot for months to reach here.

Noticing something awkward, a few Haajis are approaching them. Kazi Rukan-ud-din, their leader, angrily kicks Nanak “You Infidel! How dare you dishonour God’s place by turning your feet towards Him?”. Nanak was sleeping with his feet towards the Ka’aba.

With a disarming calm, Guru Nanak says, “I am really sorry brother. I didn’t mean any disrespect. Would you be kind enough to point me in a direction where there is no God.”


Guru Nanak

Circa 1500 AD, Haridwar. One early morning, Guru Nanak noticed a congregation of people offering water towards the rising Sun. This was practiced to empower the Sun (against a demon army) OR on certain occasions, to offer food and water to the departed ancestors. Nanak also got into the water and started offering water westward. One of the priests shouted to correct him, “Our ancestors are in this direction, you fool”. Guru Nanak said, “Sorry, but I am only offering water to my fields back in Punjab” and he started throwing water even harder. The priest started laughing, “No matter how hard you throw, how can water from here reach your fields?”

“If it can reach as far as the ancestors, I am sure it will manage till my fields as well” said a smiling Nanak.


:: Many such ‘practices’ can enter our work-life as well over time and they are hard to identify. I have a personal experience related to one such practice as well. Used to send out a weekly report to all stakeholders like a clock-work very Monday. I was repeatedly told that it was needed early on Mondays to ensure that all stakeholders read it at the beginning of the work week. In the beginning it helped when the report was a short, quick overview; however it soon grew to accommodate more and more details and soon enough, I was sacrificing my Sunday nights in order to be ready on time on Monday. After doing that for a few months, I noticed that my audience had stopped responding with queries / follow ups. In conversations when I mentioned some details from the weekly update, I met with blank expressions.

It had become a meaningless practice. So I stopped. I spoke to my audience on the must-haves in the weekly update. The restructured email took me half the time and saved my Sunday dinners.

Have you noticed any ‘practices’ like these that actually don’t get you anywhere? Try stopping.



Balance is not something to be pursued.

It is about being. Nanak relentlessly campaigned against the prevalent practice of total abstinence from the ‘material’ world, in the quest for nirvana. True nirvana, he believed, is NOT to be found in the jungles or mountain-tops or caves; with his lifestyle, he wanted to prove that you can be a part of the world, perform your worldly duties and yet attain a connection with lord that everyone seeks.

Nanak enjoyed a married life, played with the kids, worked in his fields, tended to his cattle, cooked in a community kitchen, composed music and hymns, sang and meditated with his companions, donated to charity and even squeezed in a few international trips along the way.

He showed people that one world need not be abandoned in pursuit of the other. So, I think, in his own way, Nanak showed us work-life balance.

:: Balance, not only, in the professional vs. personal life; but balance in the worldly and spiritual life as well. Now, I’m personaly not a big fan of the pursuit of ‘balance’ in everyday life. I find it odd to see people leaving work at a certain time even if they don’t have anything better to do outside of it.

Balance to me, is to have your priorities in place and to be aware of them at all times. I find myself asking this question quiet often, ‘is this the best use of my time right now’. Everyone has a limited bit of time and energy to give. So when you choose to spend your time and energy on one thing, you choosing to devoid something else of the time and energy that it needs. It could be personal relations, your work, your health or anything that you feel important.

This choice of yours should be dependent on your priorities. If it is, you wouldn’t need to strive for balance, you would already have it.


#Succession planning is not someone else’s headache. All good things come to an end, and so did Nanak’s physical lifespan.

Nanak knew that he is not physically going to be there forever to continue what he started. So, he quietly looked for a successor. And in his choice for a successor he showed us another lesson.

Bhai Angad was a devoted Sikh who came to Nanak in his late 40s and became an integral part of the group. By traditional logic, Angad had a lot stacked up against him to be even considered for being a successor. He was not Nanak’s son. They were not even related. Angad was not the oldest / most ‘experienced’ in the group. He had not been there the longest. Also, he had not striven to be Nanak’s ‘favorite’.

Instead, in his daily life, Angad practiced exactly what Guru Nanak preached. He got up early, meditated, worked in the fields, managed the affairs of the community kitchen, tended to the sick-ones in the small hospital, taught little kids in the school (including his own) and had an unflinching, unwavering dedication to Nanak’s way of life.

:: Also, Nanak denied the powerful urge of nepotism. He did not fall prey to suck-ups or the traps of ‘seniority’. Did not equate longevity to experience. He instead chose a successor based on who was most closely associated with the mission and practiced it in the true sense. Chose someone who would continue to be a prime, shining example for everyone to follow. He chose a worthy leader and a strong successor.

You will come across many such occasions wherein you would need to handover your job to someone else after you. To my mind, a strong handover process is not only good for business continuity, it falls under the purview of basic courtesy. Enabling someone else to do their job well, is a very simple and desirable trait for a leader (or a human). Choose well.



Women equality.

Nanak shared a very special relationship with his elder sister, Nanaki. Throughout his early life, Nanaki was the supportive and protective one. Nanak also lived with his sister’s family when he took up his first job as a grocery store manager (read the next story for more). Nanak’s marital life and his campaigns against the ill-treatment of women bear a testament to his views on women equality. This is what Nanak said about women back in 15th century.

“It is the woman who gives birth. Within a woman, all men are conceived.

To a woman he is engaged and married.

Woman is his friend, his partner; from woman, the future generations come.

When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is always bound.

How can we demean those, from whom kings are born.

From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

O Nanak, only the True Lord is outside of a woman”

Nanak uplifted women from being objects of desire that were to be avoided in the quest for salvation, and instead projected them as the source of everything (which, they are!)

:: So, the next time you think of yourself as better / stronger / smarter than women, remember that she can do all that you can do, and then some more.

Our houses, our offices and our boardrooms would not be complete without women.




Bakers Dozen.

One of the first jobs that Nanak took up was as a grocery store manager at the state granary. The folklore goes that when Nanak was counting the goods for a consumer, he stopped at the number thirteen. In Punjabi, the word for thirteen is ‘teraan’ which sounds close to the word ‘teraa’ meaning ‘yours’. To Nanak, the number thirteen reminded that everything belonged to the God. Thereafter, he would pass-on the extra item to the customers while chanting “Tera, Tera” (meaning “this is yours, this is His”).

The early observers complained to the store owner about Nanak giving away stuff for free. An enquiry ordered into the whole episode. It turned out that over time, giving extra to the consumers had actually done wonders for the business. In addition, they discovered that the store owed Nanak since he hadn’t withdrawn enough for himself.

But, for Punjabis, he is the originator of the concept of a ‘baker’s dozen’. Also, he the reason that the number 13 is not considered unlucky in this culture. Also, I think that he taught us an important lesson here.

:: I draw three lessons from here. The first one is obvious – Delight your customers and they will come back to you for the much coveted repeat business. While we see many instances of businesses forgetting about this simple rule, I think everyone knows about this.

The second one is less obvious: Nanak lived frugally in his personal life. Even his own earnings from the shop were diverted into the consumer discounts, which helped propel the store’s business forward.

So, as a new business owner, investing as much as possible of your earnings into the business in the early years, (versus withdrawing too much for yourself) will help the business prosper.

I see a lesson here for the start-ups focused on getting ping-pong tables or swanky offices with a view, instead of investing that extra bit of money back into the business.

The third lesson is more long term: We are only as strong as the communities we serve.

So, when Nanak starts helping the people of the community that he is selling to, more people come forward. It is a way of paying it forward. A strong community helps grow strong businesses.

This also substantiated with his belief and dedication to the community kitchen.




One of the key reasons for the expansion of Guru Nanak’s message is attributed to his command over the local language and its usage. Most of the prevalent religious texts of that era were in a long forgotten language and hence had over time gotten restricted to select few individuals or clans (read ‘high caste’ Brahmins or Maulavis). The common folk, who did not understand Sanskrit or Persian anymore, were to rely on the ‘knowledgeable’ folks who translated the learning from these texts to the best of their ability.

Nanak’s teachings however, easily understandable as they used everyday language. Nanak’s prose and poetry were formidable. He presented ‘radical’ ideas in a beautifully simple way. And his work was easily accessible.

:: In 15th century, as in now, the consumer was always distracted, media was rare (and inefficient) and the budgets were tight. I think most marketing worked with similar ROI back then as well.

But a genuine message delivered in the consumers’ language connected better and had a better recall. Plus, Nanak’s content was easily accessible, was personalized and had amazing interactive quality. No wonder that his teachings went viral in the region. J


#The Last One. While, this is not related to business, I could not resist the urge to share.

Once as an old man, Nanak visited a wealthy disciple, Duni Chand, who rather fond of collecting things from across the world. Eager to impress Nanak, he took him on a grand tour of his property, pointed to various things and shared stories of where on the globe they belonged from.

When it was time to leave, Nanak gave him a needle from ‘his collection’ and said “Since you are so good with collecting things, could you safeguard this needle for me? You can give it back to me when we meet again”

Duni was super excited. He gladly accepted the needle, bid his farewell and quickly ran to his wife to show the new addition to his collection, a needle from the famous Guru Nanak.

The wise woman told him, “You shouldn’t have accepted this, what if he dies before you are able to meet him again. You will forever be in debt of a holy man, and you surely don’t want that burden for the rest of eternity!”

However, seeing her point, Duni Chand ran after the Guru and caught up with him after much struggle. He folded his hands and said “Nanak ji, I cannot accept this needle. In case I am not able to find you later, this debt of yours would be too much for me to bear”

So, Nanak said, “Don’t worry, you can give it back to me in the afterlife”

Surprised Duni asked, “How can I carry this needle to the afterlife, O Nanak”

But, Nanak smiled, “Just pack it with all the other things that you have been gathering”


-By Arashdeep Singh
Head of Marketing, Start-Ups | Ex Coca-Cola

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