Hitendra Wadhwa, PhD, is a renowned Columbia Business School professor and the founder of the Mentora Institute, which provides leadership training to organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to social enterprises and educational institutions.
In his new book, Inner Mastery, Outer Impact, Dr. Wadhwa shows how all success, both inner and outer, arises from one place: our Inner Core. He focuses on how we can activate the core energies of purpose, wisdom, growth, love, and self-realization to create our framework for success in life and leadership.
You’re obviously drawn to mathematics—you have a PhD from MIT—but you seem equally drawn to spirituality. What’s the connection?
I think all of us have a hunger for truth, a curiosity to understand things at the deepest level. Mathematics for me has been a pathway to truth—and so has spirituality. I find a lot in common between these two pathways.
Mathematics is a pursuit of perfection and beauty, where you look for symmetry and patterns and connections across entities. Mathematics is also the pursuit of precision. Ultimately, it reduces things down to what are called axioms, the core, essential, inviolable, timeless truths.
Spirituality to me is the same pursuit of perfection and precision. It’s the same search for patterns and beauty and connections in the Universe, to understand the simplest core essentials of what life and existence are about. Of course, it’s pursued through a different medium. In mathematics, it’s the intellect. In spirituality, it’s the discovery and awakening of spirit.
When did this search begin for you?
From a very early age. I can’t really date it because my memories of my single-digit years are vague and incomplete. I think I always loved mathematics, and I have very tangible memories of being with my family at one of Yogananda’s ashrams in India when I was ten years old. We visited the monks and I talked with them. I think by then I was also tapping into my father’s spiritual bookshelf.
Your career took off after you earned your PhD. You became a consultant for McKinsey and then launched a startup in Silicon Valley. Yet you were also experiencing a feeling of something missing.
In my teens, I felt a practical need to split my inner spiritual world from the outer material world that I was operating in. The reason was very simple: My outer world was full of the usual trappings—being competitive and seeking to make my way to the top, striving to earn respect and applause, and so on. It was not purely out of vanity. There was a fair amount of inner joy in accomplishment and excellence, and I was drawing actively on spirituality and faith to help me understand the world and to guide my practical, everyday conduct, like how to overcome resistance and failures and setbacks. But at the same time, I was putting on pause the time, dedication, attention, and effort that my inner work needed to materialize into something meaningful.
With hindsight, I see that the reason I deferred my deeper, inner spiritual pursuits was because of a fundamental insecurity: I believed that if I put one hour into contemplation, there would be one hour less to spend on all the outer things that I really wanted to achieve next and next and next. I thought that dedicating time to inner pursuits would cost me on the outside.
The result was that by the time I was in my early 30s, I felt a dryness of spirit. I felt like I was always postponing my ultimate goal. Then my startup Paramark got acquired and I extricated myself from the spell of Silicon Valley. That created an opportunity for me to reconnect with academia and teaching. I found the space to reconnect with my spiritual roots as well. I traveled back to India, to the same ashram that I had been to first when I was 10 years old, and re-engaged with some of the monks there. My inner voice became more salient.
Ultimately, I just had to tell myself that the inner stuff does comes first. And then I took a leap of faith that the universe would create opportunities: that what was meant for me would come to me if I started to fully dedicate myself to my spiritual practice.
This core belief had long been part of my DNA, but I hadn’t fully implemented it until that moment.
You then started teaching leadership at Columbia Business School. How did that class evolve?
When I came to Columbia, I didn’t just want to teach a traditional business class. I wanted to create something original, something that would have a deeper kind of impact for our students, something that was true to me. That quest in turn brought my mathematical and spiritual journeys into alignment. And yet, it took me 15 years to create and evolve my framework for leadership.
The core ideas on which it’s founded are not new. I started with fundamental spiritual principles like gratitude, hope, compassion, a sense of selfless purpose, a disciplined commitment to one’s growth, and a regulation of one’s emotions. As you know, there’s an enormous body of work from our timeless spiritual traditions as well as from the latest science on these topics. I had access to all of that as I dove into my personal practice and developed my course.
I organized my first Personal Leadership and Success class in 2007 along three things that I initially called pillars: purpose, wisdom, and growth. That first class was more about inner mastery. My view at the time was that the more inner work you do, the more you will show up in the world in a way that draws the right people, creates the right influence, and has the right impact.
Back then, I wasn’t teaching the outer skills needed to lead, the messy stuff around influencing and trust-building and feedback and difficult conversations. Other professors were doing that and I didn’t think I had the background. But one day the head of strategy of a global conglomerate came up to me and said, “Hitendra, we want you to teach outer leadership, not just inner!” I give her all the credit for the shift. I came to realize, over time, that the inner and outer were part of the same process. The inner guides the outer, and the outer guides the inner.
Over time, the three pillars became five—purpose, wisdom, growth, love, and self-realization—and they changed from being pillars, which have a sense of rigidity, to being energies that we can generate and fluidly direct all the time from within. My students learn how to ground themselves in and express these five energies that arise from their Inner Core.