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“How To Relieve Stress” with Sudhir Chadalavada

Overcome fear of failure: We cannot achieve peak performance when we are afraid of failing or losing. We have to overcome the fear of failure. In order to overcome fear, we have to first know our fear. We cannot deny or pretend to have no fear. When we genuinely experience no fear, we achieve the following […]

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Overcome fear of failure: We cannot achieve peak performance when we are afraid of failing or losing. We have to overcome the fear of failure. In order to overcome fear, we have to first know our fear. We cannot deny or pretend to have no fear. When we genuinely experience no fear, we achieve the following peak performance mindset: “I desperately want to win, but don’t care if I don’t”.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewingSudhir Chadalavada.

Sudhir Chadalavada partners with successful business leaders to help unleash their full potential and unlock the full value of the organizations they lead. A pioneer in the implementation of enlightened principles in business organizations, Sudhir integrates advanced human potential and mastery techniques with superior business practices. This allows CEOs to consistently operate in a state of presence and peak performance and foster an environment of inspired action, in spite of the complex challenges and high-pressure distractions they face. His book, CEO Mastery Journey — 7 Breakthrough Practices that Propel Successful Leaders to Greatness, explains this in-depth.

Sudhir brings more than 25 years of leadership experience with F500 and small to midsize companies as a CEO, senior executive and trusted advisor. He coaches, trains, speaks and writes passionately on the socio-economic shift and the role of business organizations and leadership in resolving socioeconomic challenges. His clients have been recognized as outstanding leaders. Sudhir engages his audience with passion, candor and practical wisdom that naturally result from his vast professional experience and inspiring personal journey. An avid sports lover and a fitness fanatic, he enjoys Tennis, Yoga and nature walks with the family.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My most vivid memory of childhood in India was to experience the diversity of life to its fullest. I grew up and thrived in a close-knit global community of people speaking different languages and following different religions. I studied in a Jesuit school, and my paternal grandmother was a Christian preacher. My maternal grandmother was a devout Hindu. My first close friend was a Sikh; the second one had a white American mom and an Indian dad. My two best friends in high school were Christian and Muslim, respectively. We also had a few Russian families living in the same community.

I worked hard to excel in academics and extracurricular activities such as athletics, racquet sports, student body and debate club. The Indian saying “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family) was ingrained in my DNA and upbringing. Being objective, open, and inclusive came naturally to me. I was extremely curious to learn about the secrets of living a fearless inspired life and becoming an inspiring and effective leader. I was on a deep quest from a young age. I got glimpses of the answers through texts like the 5000-year old Mahabharata which provided clear examples of righteous living, right action and enlightened leadership. But it was disappointing to see those principles not being widely practiced in the modern social, political, economic organizations and institutions.

I graduated with a degree in electronics and communications engineering, but my real interest was the inner engineering of the mind, human nature and psychology of motivation and inspiration. I got a scholarship to purse a master’s in Electrical Engineering in the US, but my real interest was to accelerate my quest to learn about enlightened living and enlightened leadership in this diverse and inclusive global nation.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.

As I said, I was an accidental engineer, more interested or even obsessed with the inner workings of human nature. Immediately after I got my master’s degree in New York, I got my first job in sunny Silicon Valley, CA the high-tech mecca of the world. I was supposed to be living the California dream, getting paid well paid in an iconic company, Intel, run by a legendary CEO, Andy Grove. You could say, I had no business being so miserable, but I was. At 24, as my daughter says now, I was having a quarter-life crisis. Intellectual stimulation and material satisfaction was not enough, as it seemed to for many of my friends and colleagues. The business leaders and organizations that I was involved with achieved remarkable, but only one-dimensional financial success. There was no attention paid to the other two important aspects that are essential for a meaningful and fulfilling life, emotional and spiritual development.

But this didn’t make sense to me. I felt that business should be a playground to express our gifts, fulfill our deepest yearnings and realize our highest potential. I felt that business leaders have the opportunity to connect with their stakeholders at a deeper level and inspire them like Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi did. This was a pioneering thought at that time, I went on a deep inner exploration of self-inquiry and meditation. I had to find my mentors and inspiration among the living saints and masters who had the wisdom of the inner human development. That’s exactly what I did. Then the dots got connected and the answers came, as they always do. The full spectrum of human motivations got revealed along with ways to integrate them with superior business practices in an organization. Since then I discovered that many business leaders such as Paul Polman, Satya Nadella, Ray Dalio, Jeff Weiner, Mary Barra, Bob Chapman and Charlie Kim are on that path, not to mention a rapidly growing number of young leaders and CEOs who see this as the only way to build a business organization.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, this is the story of breakdown to breakthrough. For a period during this deep quest, I felt stuck and deeply disappointed at the large gap between leadership demonstrated by successful business leaders and what enlightened leadership actually is. I then got a cosmic gift of a physical breakdown and was bedridden for several months. I had always intuitively felt that positive thoughts and emotions could play a major role in preventing and healing physical ailments. Could I heal myself by going within, by understanding my thoughts and emotions, and consciously getting into a more positive, fearless state of mind? I resolved to do exactly that.

Though it initially didn’t seem like it when I was flat on my back, it became obvious that this was a precious gift of unlimited and unconditional time, which I spent reflecting, listening to healing music, engaging in self-inquiry and mediation, and reading inspirational stories. The answers I was seeking and the growth I needed became evident as I delightfully leafed through the biography of the enlightened saint, Sri Ganapathy Sachchidananda Swamiji, who continues to guide me in this purposeful and delightful journey.

I discovered that I had one especially important lesson to learn in my quest to unlock the secrets to leading an inspired self-actualized life and leading an inspiring self-actualized organization. I had to fully lose judgment of people, be in a state of gratitude, and always demonstrate empathy and compassion. This required me to overcome my ego and submit to a greater omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient force. While my goal was noble and lofty, I had to recognize that I am only an instrument and have to align myself to this universal force. My ego cannot be in the driver’s seat anymore; it has to be in service of this force which is my deepest essence.

When this awareness sunk into my consciousness, I healed magically without any medication and shocked the doctors. The steps to leading such a life and organization unraveled. For the past 10 years I have been partnering with successful CEOs and taking them on this journey.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Looking back, it is funny but was gut-wrenching at the time. I now feel wiser and grateful for that experience. It was a typically beautiful winter day in sunny Southern California. I was having an offsite discussion away from the distractions of work at a nearby resort with the CEO of a company I was helping. We were to review our progress and map out the plan to grow this mid-size company to a purposeful $1 Billion global organization, where everyone is fully engaged with an owner’s mindset. Imagine that — every employee feels and acts like they own the company they are working for! To build such an enlightened organization requires enlightened leadership. This was my passion and dream and was one of the most exciting projects of my life. I was basking in the beauty of the surroundings and was excited to share all the things he was doing wrong and present a “brilliant” plan to do it right.

He beat me to it and said calmly, “I don’t know what it is about you Sudhir, you make me feel so small, I feel like a failure and a loser in your presence.” He went on, “I am a successful entrepreneur and have been running this company for 20 years. I am financially independent, have a lovely family. I am not such a terrible person, am I?” He was visibly and deeply hurt.

I was shell shocked and felt like I was smacked on the head with a baseball bat. I had believed that I was a caring and compassionate person, especially since I had been meditating for a while. I am now being told that I was judging a good man and a successful leader, who was doing the best he can under the circumstances. My wife had observed earlier that in my passion and excitement to do the right thing, I tended to judge people. I had brushed aside her wise counsel saying that business is a tough sport and leaders have thick skin. Boy, have I been proven wrong on that assumption countless times! Successful leaders, like most human beings want to be liked, get hurt and are sensitive to criticism.

How can I help, lead or coach anyone when I am judging them? My dream came crashing down! But through this experience I learnt most important lesson of my career, “if I want to help or make a difference, I must not judge, I have to care.” We cannot judge our way to leading a purposeful life and inspiring others to do the same. I discovered further that in order not to judge, we have to be grateful, because gratitude and judgment do not go together. It is hard enough to be grateful when things are going well for us. To be grateful when things are not going our way, we have to rise above self-interest and ego. When we master our ego, we naturally become grateful, empathetic and inclusive and inspire everyone to give their best.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Two of the top reasons people regret at the end of life are: 1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 2. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

Ensure that you do not become another number in this unfortunate statistic. Invest in yourself. Take the time to go within and self-inquiry: Who am I? What are my strengths and gifts? How can I utilize my gifts to serve and make a wonderful living in the process? This inner exploration will require you to go against the grain of typical social conditioning and education. You will need courage, self-belief and self-confidence to pursue the path that is true to you, to unleash your full potential and become your best version. You will find, like I did, that you are not alone in the journey. You will discover wonderful companions and mentors who can lead you and partner with you. You will inspire others to do the same. Isn’t that a rewarding and fulfilling life?

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Yes, “Bhagavad Gita.” Gita answers all questions about self-actualization. As I said earlier, I have been on a quest to unravel the steps to self-actualized leadership. I was looking for answers in all the top leadership books. Many described “what” self-actualized leadership is, but no one tackled “how” we get there. You may be familiar with “Good to Great” by Jim Collins where we describes Level 5 (we can call this self-actualized) Leadership very well. When someone asked him,” how can I become a L5 Leader,” he joked, you need a near-death experience or religious conversion or change your parents. I was not satisfied with that answer. I developed a 3-level Leadership Development Model based on the insight and inspiration from Gita. While we are born with certain intrinsic talents, skills and tendencies, I knew that self-actualized leadership requires specific action steps. A few more details about Gita for those interested.

Gita is about “Right Action” which all thoughtful human beings and conscious responsible leaders seek. It is no wonder that Gita has been widely acclaimed and acknowledged by the greatest thinkers and leaders of our time, including Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, several heads of state and military generals. If you want to lead a life of professional excellence and personal fulfillment, if you want to pursue money and meaning, profit and purpose, performance and principles, Gita provides the direction. If you are the kind of leader who believes in demonstrating both passion and compassion, authority and empathy, Gita provides hope, guidance and confirmation.

The wisdom of Gita is timeless and universal and cuts through all parochial barriers of nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion. It is not a religious text but a profoundly spiritual treatise of human nature and human psychology at its deepest core. The timing of Gita, 5000 years ago predates all organized religions and is the foundation for all important texts that followed. Everything that needs to be known about human life and its complexities is said in the Gita. If it is not there, it will not be found anywhere else. Such is the profound completeness of Gita. It is one of the most translated epics, more than 300 languages, in human history.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

It is quote in Sanskrit from the Bhagavad Gita, “Karmanye vadhi karaste, Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma phala heturboohoo, ma te sangostva karmani.” It means, “You have control over your actions alone and not on the results. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor should you be attached to inaction.”

Why it resonates for me? We live in a results-oriented and results obsessed world. However, we can only control our actions and give our best. Many other external factors come into play to decide the outcome, be it in business or sport or any other activity in life. All great leaders and exceptional performers focus on right action and process. Outstanding results will naturally follow! The mindset, which sounds paradoxical is, “I desperately want this result, but I don’t care if I don’t get there.”

That’s how John Wooden became the winningest coach in college basketball history. He asked his players to focus on right action — play hard, play fair and stick to fundamentals. Wins and losses, he said will take care of themselves and they did. Great leaders calmly and confidently focus on right action, the team will respond and deliver exceptional results.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

  1. Partnering with the CEO and the executive team to grow a $1 Billion asset size and build a $10 Billion asset transformative organization. We are building an organization that is an exceptional place to work and delivers top financial results.
  2. I am helping the owner CEO of a business conglomerate whose portfolio software and technology companies, restaurants, real estate. His goal is to build a people-centric organization and make a difference.
  3. I am advising a global manufacturing company; whose owner CEO says that they are in the business of “selling happiness packaged in tools.” We are implementing an objective performance evaluation system which is based not just on results but also process (Right Action) and adherence to behavior aligned with core values.
  4. I am working with a pharmaceutical CEO who is in the process of developing valuable, low cost pharma products and building an organization with a $ 500 Million valuation.

This is my contribution to being the change we want to see in the world. It will accelerate the shift to stakeholder-centric capitalism and help resolve the socioeconomic challenges we face.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?

Accept myself: There is a Chinese proverb, “tension is who you think you should be; relaxation is who you are”. When I accept myself and am comfortable with who I am there is no stress. It also gives me the freedom and inspiration to continually work on becoming a better version of myself.

Meditation: When I sit still in meditation and simply observe my thoughts without getting involved in them something remarkable happens afterwards. Thoughts of stress and fear become less intense and positive thoughts become amplified.

Visualization: I not only visualize a positive and ideal outcome but get into the details of how to accomplish that. This has helped me immensely in leadership, public speaking and in my tennis game.

Deep breathing: When we are stressed our breath is shallow and rapid. When we are relaxed our breath is deep and steady. We cannot control our mind, but we can certainly control our breath. I practice and teach several deep breathing techniques. The simplest and remarkably effective practice is alternate nostril breathing.

Competence reduces stress: I work every day to enhance my competence and skill, so I am prepared to face challenges and opportunities. Just like we work on physical fitness, we must, especially as leaders, work on building our emotional muscles. This a highly effective approach to combat stressful and high-pressure situations.

Worst-case scenario: In some situations when the stakes are exceedingly high and pressure is extreme, I go through a worst-case scenario exercise. I ask myself, what is the worst that can happen? I face the fear and potential danger head on. Most fears are imaginary and never come to pass. This is how we can put our analytical skills and logic to work in our favor. This invariably reduces stress.

Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Right Action: I remind myself that we don’t have control over the result. I set a lofty goal, for example, “with this keynote address, I want to inspire CEOs to become role models for self-actualized servant leadership and build fully engaged organizations” and then focus only on the steps I need to take to accomplish that goal. If I am thinking about the outcome and not on action steps, the chances of a good result are diminished. When I release attachment to a particular future outcome, I naturally get into a “Peak Performance” mindset.

Overcome fear of failure: We cannot achieve peak performance when we are afraid of failing or losing. We have to overcome the fear of failure. In order to overcome fear, we have to first know our fear. We cannot deny or pretend to have no fear. When we genuinely experience no fear, we achieve the following peak performance mindset: “I desperately want to win, but don’t care if I don’t”.

Clear strategy, precise planning: Before implementing I get clear on my strategy and take the time to plan. Planning is the secret sauce for massive execution. They say, no plan survives contact with implementation. It doesn’t mean we don’t plan and flail aimlessly. We have to course correct on the way. NASA is an excellent example. Even after spending an enormous amount of time on precise planning, they are constantly course-correcting after the rocket launch.

Relentless preparation and practice: Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Mastery and peak performance is about consistent and relentless practice. When I first started meditating, I practiced for two sessions every day for 10 years. It is critical to practice the basic and fundamentals all the time. In leadership, it is authentic communication, decision-making and conflict resolution. Every interaction is an opportunity to improve and excel. Just like we work on physical fitness, we must, especially as leaders, work on building our emotional and spiritual muscles. When I say spiritual, I mean purpose, meaning, right action and “being the best” we can be.

Focus on “presence” and enthusiasm: Before a crucial presentation, negotiation or communication I focus more on how I need to be “present” and connect with the audience, reminding myself that I already know the content, delivery is more important. When I focus on my energy and I am excited and enthusiastic, the right words automatically come out.

Meditation: Meditation for me is the ultimate weapon for peak performance. I owe it to meditation for unraveling many of the practical answers I was seeking in both personal and organizational mastery.

Root cause analysis: I spend a significant of time in identifying the root cause of the problem before jumping in to the solution. Einstein said, “if you have an hour to solve a problem, spend 55 mins identifying the root cause.” This approach helps me solve some of the trickiest conflicts, leadership and communication challenges.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.

Yes. I have been using and teaching breathing techniques and visualization for many years. As I said earlier, with visualization, I significantly improved my backhand in tennis — it actually became a weapon. I do the same in high pressure presentations, coaching sessions, and communicating with top leaders. I have learnt and practiced many powerful and effective meditation techniques from realized saints. I teach guided meditation to help executives sit still and meditate for longer periods of time. They say that it helps them immensely in the earlier stages of practice. Over time they are able to meditate consistently on their own.

I love breathwork and practiced many advanced breathing techniques from yoga masters. I find the basic alternate nostril breathing technique to be remarkably simple and stunningly effective. Sanskrit chanting has been scientifically proven to expand memory and brainpower. I chant every day and have experienced this myself.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

Yes, I have a few. Distraction is normal. The wandering mind has been likened to a drunk monkey and an intoxicated elephant. My regular practice of meditation, breathing exercises and chanting Sanskrit verses from memory has improved my focus significantly. I naturally get into a flow state many times when my actions and work are in alignment with my purpose. I work in blocks of 30 or 45 minutes when I am totally focused on that activity. I work on my highest priority projects by creating at least four blocks of 45-minute sessions a day. I do not get distracted with any other activity, such as eating or checking emails and text messages during this block of time.

We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Absolutely! Good habits are crucial to accomplish our dreams, goals and highest priority projects. Otherwise, we remain unfulfilled. I believe in routine and consistency. I have started waking up at 5 AM and start the day with yoga, meditation and chanting. I prioritize my activities list and work on the highest priority (generally the toughest) first without procrastinating. I leave enough time every day for purposeful and important projects that are not urgent. We are what we eat. Diet that is most suitable for our physiology and mindset is important. I became a vegetarian many years ago. I try to eat at the same time every day and only when hungry. I work hard to eat just the right amount at every meal, about 50% to 75% of my full capacity. I must admit, of all the disciplines, diet is the toughest and naturally most rewarding and impactful when we can stick with it consistently. I developed the mindset to embrace tricky and complex human relationship challenges head on and treat every interaction as an opportunity to master the art of communicating authentically.

What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Great habits are personal and individual. My great habits may not be applicable for you. Learn all about the peak performance habits of people you admire. Listen to your body, mind and soul. Adopt what works for you and customize your own peak performance habits. Routine and consistency is important. Progress then is guaranteed.

You cannot stop bad habits forcefully. Knowledge alone about the potential danger doesn’t stop one from indulging in bad habits either. Beating ourselves up for bad habits is not a good idea. Be kind and tolerant to yourself and understand that none of us are perfect, we all have bad habits. This is an important first step. We don’t stop there though. I tell myself, “if I don’t have this bad habit, there are the amazing things I could do and feel purposeful”. That mindset helps us to stop a habit, sometimes immediately. A good friend of mine used to smoke every day. One day he told me that he will stop smoking and never touched a cigarette in 30 years.

As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

One thing to recognize is that you cannot force the flow state. Flow is a natural outcome of a lifestyle that is purposeful to us. It becomes more natural, consistent, and regular when we are true to ourselves. Doing what we like, are good at, and what we are meant to do in a relaxed but focused and purposeful way is the ticket to achieving the flow state naturally and automatically. We all have equal access to that flow state, we just need to follow our purpose, follow our bliss and stay with it. I feel the flow regularly when I stick to my routine and habits that I mentioned above. The beauty of the flow is that it can be felt in any activity. I first experienced it when playing tennis many years ago. Now I feel it in many other activities such as speaking, writing, even routine stuff like washing dishes or watering the plants. Remember the Zen Koan, “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Business leaders have the most impact and influence in the world today. We are facing serious socioeconomic challenges, such as spiraling costs of healthcare and higher education, and income inequality. This has been acknowledged by the top business leaders in the world. Business leaders have the most power and impact to do something about it. Top business leaders talk about stakeholder centric capitalism being more effective than the shareholder centric capitalism we have practiced the last few years. While there is an intention, the mindset and skillset of leaders has to shift and come from business leaders at the top. That’s what inspires me, that’s my purpose. I have written a book about this. I help successful business leaders to unleash their full potential and unlock the full value of the organization by building an inclusive and collaborative org. This would make a significant difference and have a strong beneficial impact on the socioeconomic health of our country and the world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Jeff Bezos. He is a role model for success in shareholder-centric capitalism. He is also a signatory to the business roundtable statement which states that the purpose of a corporation is to promote an economy that serves all stakeholders and all Americans. I would love to help him make the shift in his approach to business as a servant leader. He would inspire, influence and impact a generation of professionals and leaders and accelerate the socioeconomic transformation.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can check out my website: www.sudhirchadalavada.com, and my book CEO Mastery Journey: 7 Breakthrough Practices that Propel Successful Leaders to Greatness.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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