5 things Deepak Chopra can teach you about leadership

The spiritual guru’s documentary has lessons for managers, speakers and executives alike.

The last thing I expected to do as I headed down to Austin last week for South by Southwest (SXSW) was to see a film.

A filmmaker named Gotham Chopra was premiering his new documentary called “Decoding Deepak” about following his father, spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, around the world for a year. I am personally connected to the Chopras, so I probably would have seen the film regardless, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so good.

Here are some of the leadership and marketing lessons I took away from the film:

1. Be a guide, not a dictator. The thing about a spiritual guru is that sometimes people expect them to live by example. Deepak, however, is not a vegan (or even a vegetarian). He isn’t fanatical about meditation and sometimes doesn’t have all the answers. Yet if people want to live a more extreme version of life, he doesn’t steer them away. His leadership helps guide without prescribing. In a world where plenty of people want to tell you what to think, who to marry and what to believe, his message is that you can believe what you want to believe.

2. Go beyond your niche. The easiest thing to do with a film like “Decoding Deepak” would have been to launch it to a “friendly” audience of celebrities who are his fans and would easily tweet about it to their millions of followers. That’s the usual formula for something like this. Instead, Gotham Chopra chose to premiere the film in Austin at SXSW in front of a tech-savvy and possibly less spiritual audience. It was a risk, but if the film could stand on its own in front of a “real” audience, then the message could go far beyond Deepak Chopra’s considerable fan base.

3. Share a personal story. Businesses in general are tragically bad at being personal or letting the personality of their people come through. In fact, many have policies in place to prevent it. In a film, however, telling a personal story is important to have the audience invest emotionally. Throughout his exploration of his relationship with his father, Gotham Chopra takes us into his journey as a father, a son and how his family manages to make it work. His struggles are human, and his journey is believable.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Perhaps the most important lesson I took from the film was from a moment when Gotham and his father are in a train station in India. They are looking at a newsstand with several books and none of the more than 60 titles that Deepak Chopra has written are there. It is a brilliant reminder that even when you have amassed millions of followers and become a spiritual leader to the most famous and influential people alive, you can’t take yourself too seriously. In a world filled with outsized egos from people who are little more than Twitter-famous, this may have been my favorite lesson from the film.

5. Don’t shy away from the truth. Every post-film question the audience asked after the premiere seemed to focus on whether Deepak felt the film did a fair job of portraying him. He wasn’t always the hero, but the film was accurate and it was honest. To his credit, Gotham Chopra shared that his father didn’t ask for any edits or revisions after seeing the final cut.

Rohit Bhargava is the award-winning author of “Personality Not Included,” a member of the Strategy & Planning group at Ogilvy, and Adjunct Professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University. His highly anticipated new book “Likeonomics” will be released globally on May 22, 2012. He also blogs at Influential Marketing Blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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