Vijay Eswaran explains how you don’t have to be vocal to lead
Some of the best advice for entrepreneurs and leaders comes from others who have walked the same path. The well-known Life as Leadership Podcast aims to help spread the advice, experiences, and expertise between thought leaders across industries and the globe. Notably, a recent episode titled “Develop Your Sphere of Silence” featured entrepreneur, speaker, and philanthropist Vijay Eswaran.
Leaders are often recognized for being vocal and paving the way for development, innovation, and success. But as much as they can, and do, speak up, Eswaran shared that there is a great deal of value in preserving silence, both inside yourself as a leader and in presentation with others. Chatting with host Josh Friedeman, Eswaran opened up about some of the lessons he and his team have learned over the past year and how he applies a practice of silence that can help leaders of all types.
Exploring the Definition of Leadership with Vijay Eswaran
With every Life as Leadership podcast, Friedeman asks his guest to explain what a leader is from their own perspective. Eswaran approached the topic directly, noting that a leader is someone who is always there. In leadership, constant communication, touchpoints, and feedback are critical. People need to see, feel, and hear the people who give them direction.
What’s more, a leader must lead from the front. There are times when leaders can present an example from the side or back of an initiative as well. But the leader essentially has to always be in front because they break the path and make headway for everyone.
Leaders should also be strong in standing for the principles that they believe in. They need to establish the principles for others that they would be able to follow themselves.
When it comes to introspection, Eswaran emphasized that leaders should ask themselves if they are better than they were yesterday. “There has to be constant improvement,” noted Eswaran. This self-exploration is fundamental. Leaders must be open to learning whether they are wrong in any fashion. Using a neutral point of reference can be helpful including the wisdom of the masses.
What Inspires the Leaders of Today
Leaders often have their own sources of inspiration that help propel them forward in their careers. For Eswaran, Mahatma Gandhi serves as a strong influence. “My favorite phrase from Mahatma Gandhi is ‘Be the message that you want to see in the world, be the change you want to see in the world’.” These words echo through Eswaran’s own philanthropic work.
He also finds inspiration in a number of books including “My Experiments with Truth” by Gandhi, which he uses as a fascinating life management guide that he goes back to quite often. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” remains on his shelf as constantly insightful as well as the tale of “Musashi,” which is tells the story of a Japanese monk-turned-warrior who reinvents himself.
Eswaran also encouraged other leaders to ask “why not” when taking on new projects: “For me, there are no limitations to what one can achieve. The potential that one has constantly needs to reach and breach. It’s a process where you continuously grow.” Rather than using limiting language, leaders should ask themselves why not, why can I not do that, why not me, or why is this not something that I was born to achieve.
The Power of Silence in Leadership
Asked to share advice to help others become better leaders, Eswaran emphasized the importance of silence. “I have practiced silence every day, literally, for the last three to four decades. I take about an hour to myself every day, and in essence I call it entering the sphere of silence.” Practicing silence helps Eswaran reflect on himself, the day ahead, and beyond as needed. “That constant analysis keeps my feet on the ground and keeps my head in the right direction.”
This practice was passed down to Eswaran through his family. He grew up watching his grandparents observing some period of silence every day lasting one to three hours at a time. This became a habit that he picked up on at a young age and expanded as an adult during his travels in Europe. Eswaran found himself at a monastery in Italy, where he spent the time from Lent to Easter, 33 days in absolute silence. This experience became a turning point for him.
“One of the monks described the body as the oldest scripture that has a message if we look for it,” shared Eswaran. “We see that our bodies are binary: two eyes, two ears, two hands, two legs. We even have left and a right brain and left and right chambers of the heart.”
The notable exception is in the middle of our faces: the mouth. The directive he found was to think, observe, hear, and breathe twice as much as you speak. But this approach is not common in daily life, let alone in leadership roles. Instead, we do the exact opposite, talking from morning until night. We are even known to talk in our sleep.
For Eswaran, “When I observe these silences, I find myself going inward, which is very critical because it allows me to create a buffer between myself and the world.” That ability to pause, listen, and reflect is valuable in nearly any situation. The good news is that this buffer can be automatically created every time an individual spends time in the sphere of silence.
How Silence Sifts Through Urgent vs. Important Tasks
Leaders can start by considering how they start their days. Many people, even within the first hour of the day, tend to get up and reach for their phone. There is barely a moment to take a breath between waking and addressing one urgent task after another. Urgency is the primary function of the day.
Eswaran observed that immensely successful individuals operate at a different frequency than those driven by urgency. “Productive people focus on the important things and start by defining what is urgent and what is important to them, their day, and their goals.” The movers and shakers who write the music we listen to, write the books we read, and act in the movies we watch are people who push the boundaries we live by. By living by a different code, they’re focused on more important things than what seems urgent at the time.
Asked to elaborate on how impactful (positively or negatively) urgency is in our lives, Eswaran explained, “Let’s say I were to catch you on the street while you were rushing into the bank. I’d say to you, ‘Hey bud, let’s catch a drink’ but you would quickly respond ‘no, I have to go to the bank.’ A week later, when we run into each other and I mention how you were such a hurry the other day, you’re going to look at me blankly and say you can’t even remember.” Urgent things are dire in the moment but rarely long lasting.
In contrast, important things are those that the work today will have an impact a year from now. If what you do lasts five years, you’re really onto something. Retain impact 10 years from now, and you have probably found your life’s vision or your life’s journey. Silence is what helps leaders discern what is important versus what is urgent. This way, we can reduce our dependency on urgent items over time.
Practical Habits in the Sphere of Silence
The fundamental important thing when practicing silence is to be able to hold the world at arm’s length. This starts with setting aside our phones. In our generation, the level of connection that comes from our phones has become both a boon and a bay.
The first hour of the day can be a great time to start off strong with silence and reflection, setting the tone for the rest of what is to come. Eswaran shared, “Particularly in my culture, we regard the first hour of the day as a time of creation or the most powerful time. Our minds tend to be their most sprightly, versatile, and flexible. And that’s the time that you need to harness.”
Leaders can create a habit of setting aside the first hour, or at least a half an hour, to sit quietly and reflect. If you do not have time at the start of the day, this practice can also work before going to sleep. While earlier can be more impactful, any practice of silence will be more productive than none. Not allowing the world to get in the way is important here. Avoid taking any phone calls, watching television, or picking up anything that can distract from getting in touch with your own reality.
Eswaran shared several aspects of his own practice and practical habits leaders can apply to their own lives. First, he tries to get an hour a day in silence that he breaks into sections. To practice the segment of duty, he conducts a post mortem of the day before and what could have made yesterday better. “I analyze the things that I had chartered and wanted to achieve against whether I was successful or failed,” said Eswaran. “I do this by writing, which can be a great way to process this information.”
After looking at the past, he shifts his focus to the day at hand and sets a plan for the day and week. Eswaran noted that when you look at short-term goals, you can compare them to your long-term objectives and see how they match up with your expectations. “You’ll be surprised at how the goals for the year can change, literally, within the span of a week. Life is always in flux, and you need to keep planning.”
Following this personal reflection with time spent reading edifying books can amplify the affect. Avoid best sellers and contemporary reads and choose texts that can inspire and make a difference in your life. These books can allow you to change your thinking pattern. Take note of what speaks to you, jot down a summary of key points, and revisit these when needed.
Lastly, closing out the sphere of silence in quiet reflection or connection with however you view the spiritual. Some people call this meditation, others call it prayer, but the label doesn’t matter. Sitting down with the force that is higher than you, connecting with what is around you, or communing with nature are all great options. Then go on to meet the world afterward.
Three Leadership Tips for Weathering a Business Storm
No aspect of business remains untouched by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting with a higher self, reflecting on experiences past and present, and dwelling in a sphere of silence can help leaders find direction, clarity, and confidence. After the trying times brough on by the pandemic, this silence and the insights from it may be more welcome than ever.
“Life as Leadership” podcast host Josh Freideman asked Vijay Eswaran about the lessons he and his team learned over the past year while doing business and remaining connected during a global crisis.
Revert to a Startup Mindset
“The startup mindset is one of the most powerful places to be in,” explained Eswaran. As companies start to grow, they can also develop a sense of stability as systems kick in. While systems have their place, they can also be where great ideas die. In Eswaran’s own experience founding companies, the first five years were turbulent and full of challenges. But startups are known for being dynamic, and that mindset encouraged communication, cutting through clutter, and willingness to try new ideas.
To keep this spirit alive, Eswaran’s team maintains a group they call Plan B, which functions as a separate, innovative entity. This keeps ideas in motion, challenges existing assumptions, and creates healthy competition. By keeping energy levels high, ideas are kept fluid.
Redesign the Wheel
When a company starts out, it can establish what works and what doesn’t at the time. But ice breaking, phenomenal ideas that bend the curve also set new standards. These baselines cannot be permanent. Eswaran shared, “Eventually you need to take the basic fundamental of what made your company successful and pull it apart. Ask yourself: how do I redesign this?”
Leaders need to go back to the basics and look at what they would do differently if they were starting over with the company. Explore ideas based on what you know now as well as the new goals that are established in the business. When doing this, it can help to tap into people who can offer a fresh take. Eswaran draws some of his own inspiration from chats with team members from other generations and walks of life: “They come with a whole different way of looking at the same problem, and I learn a lot from them.”
Prioritize Your People
After decades of experience and working with hundreds of different people, Eswaran discovered that the most important thing a person brings to a company cannot be found in a resume. They are a way for people to gain employment but fail to represent their full potential or capacity. “I found that the things to look for when hiring people traits like loyalty, integrity, and work ethic,” Eswaran said.
While some of these qualities are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, they are vital for leaders to identify and cultivate. Hiring employees who work for their pay, what Eswaran termed as mercenaries, lands companies with people who deliver but lack loyalty. Conversely, performers who are able to carry a company on are more akin to missionaries. By focusing on people and the intangibles they bring to the table, leaders can hone in on top talent that brings lasting value.