The Lesson of the Sadhu: A case study in organizational ethics

July 3, 2005

A paper written for “Creating and Leading an Intentional Organization” (Leadership 8520).The Case of the Sadhu

Bowen McCoy’s (1997) “Parable of the Sadhu” gives us the tale of McCoy’s journey walking through Nepal. Half-way through his 60-day trip through the Himalayan Mountains, McCoy and his anthropologist friend along for the journey, Stephen, encounter a near dead, almost naked, barefoot, Indian holy man suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion. They found the the Indian holy man, a Sadhu, above 15,500 while on one of the most difficult summit climbs of their entire trip. Climbing the mountain in the vicinity of McCoy and Stephen, and their assorted porters and Sherpas, were three other climbing parties representing an international flavor from New Zealand, Switzerland, and Japan. While representatives from each climbing party provided some assistance to the Sadhu, in the end, the Sadhu was left behind – with clothing, food, and drink – more than two days journey from the nearest village. The climbing parties all pressed on and made the summit, their goal for that particular climb; the fate of the Sadhu was left unknown. Both Stephen and McCoy supposed that, in the end, the Sadhu died. McCoy’s dilemma was simple, at least on retroflection: should he have done what he did – provide some assistance and then press on to complete his goal – or should he have done more. As McCoy suggests, “Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous, and many of us hike right through them, unaware they exist.” (1997, p. 58)

Encountering the Sadhu

On our journey through life, all of us encounter our own Sadhus, people who come into our lives and seem to need some help and yet, if we provide that help, we will be pushed from our path toward our goals. Often, if we are even conscious of the dilemma and not just “hiking through it,” we will believe that providing help to the Sadhu will keep us from our goal. Often, we are so focused on the intended goal that we see nothing else. As McCoy (1997) notes, the hikers at 15,500 feet were under stress and oxygen deprived; their decisions were made under duress with the goal of attaining the summit within sight. To turn back, to provide true aid to the Sadhu, would have been to give up the goal of the summit. McCoy also notes that his most interesting experience in Nepal involved living in a Sherpa home for a five days while recovering from altitude sickness; Stephen’s most interesting experience was participating in a Nepalese funeral ceremony. Neither of these “most interesting experiences” involve attaining the summit; as a matter of fact, both of them are about taking the unplanned route. Some people would suggest that life is about the journey, not the destination; McCoy’s observation seems to support this assertion, although his essay provides clear evidence he is not convinced.

What then, should I do when I encounter Sadhus on my journey through life? Do I stay on the path toward my goal, or do I deviate and provide aid and comfort to the Sadhu? Using Brown’s (2000) standards and ethical bases, the answer is simple: it depends. As McCoy notes, “Not every ethical dilemma has a right solution. Reasonable people often disagree; otherwise there would be no dilemma.” (1997, p. 59) Brown’s mental model, the decision making diamond, would have us use three steps, or bases, in making a decision (observations, value judgments, and assumptions) to do one proposal or another. (p. 32) Brown suggests we filter the decision-making diamond process through three possible paradigms, examining the proposed action against our purpose for being, against some moral principle, and against the consequences of the action.

McCoy’s (1997) analysis of his encounter with the Sadhu shows that only after the encounter did he run the decision making process; his friend Stephen was quicker. On the mountain, the over-riding purpose – attaining the summit that very morning – was paramount for McCoy and all the other climbers but Stephen. Judging their actions against a moral principle or against the consequences did not come into play at all, aside from Stephen’s grappling with the issues while in an oxygen-deprived state. While I cannot easily compare my own sense of being and my own decision-making process to those of the climbers on that fateful morning, in quiet of my book-lined study, I believe I would side closer to Stephen than McCoy. In this particular case, it was a likely life-or-death situation. My sense of who I am – and my reason for being on this earth – and my own grounding in Judeo-Christian values (fired with the glaze of progressive philosophical and political bent), leads me to think I would put aside my personal goal to help another. Who we are, suggests Elkins (2000), creates our personal ethics, that which drives our actions.

The brotherhood of the derelict and the Sadhu

While I live in the city, not the suburbs, and I drive a little Kia sedan, not a sport utility vehicle, I do see people in need on the street. Perhaps because I live and work in the city, I see them more than daily. If, as I note above, I would put aside my personal goal and help another, should I (and do I) stop to help the needy and homeless each time I pass? With more than a little hesitation, then, do I admit, “No.” But, more than once, I have stopped. And, frankly, I probably stop and help more than most of my colleagues and friends. On the one hand, this is not a fair comparison to the Sadhu, however. The Sadhu was near-death; no intervention on the part of the climbing parties meant certain death. Most of the homeless and needy people in my city – and in the cities to which I frequently travel – are not near-death. On the other hand, how focused I am on some goal – such as getting to work on time or getting home to spend time with my wife and sons – does impact my actions. Like the climbers, the more focused I am on some goal, the less likely I am to take time out to help.

The nature of responsibility

What are we responsible for if we consider ourselves to be ethical persons? McCoy (1997) noted that often we do not even realize we are faced with an ethical situation; we hike on past, missing the moment and the opportunity. Barlow, Jordan, and Hendrix (2003) suggest a fundamental part of character is “moral knowing.” (p. 566) Moral knowing includes knowing when a situation is one which demands an ethical examination. Moral knowing is realizing the person at the side of the trail needs help; it is the acknowledgment of dilemma. This, then, is the first step to being an ethical person. This “knowing” is only the first step, however. The next step would be to move beyond the knowing and actually do something about it. At this point, Brown’s (2000) framework would provide a reasonable process toward ethical decision making. Perhaps fundamental with Brown’s three philosophical paradigms is actually knowing the purpose, knowing moral principles, and being able to maturely and appropriately predict the consequences of an action.

McCoy’s (1997) anthropologist friend had a strong sense of knowing his greater purpose, being in touch with moral principles, and being able to see how actions would lead to particular consequences. McCoy describes Stephen as a “committed Quaker with deep moral vision.” (p. 56) Stephen’s moral fiber was so strong it was able to cut through the oxygen deprivation and provide him with the compass to go in the right direction, to make a decision in alignment with his values. We could see Stephen as exhibiting the “Be, Know, Do” model of leadership (Campbell & Dardis, 2004), although he fell down on the do because he did not receive any support from those around him. Had he acted alone, had he returned with the Sadhu to the village at the foot of the mountain, he might have lost his own life.

What, then, are we responsible for? At the very least, we are responsible for aligning our actions with our values, for ensuring we maintain our overall purpose (which may, or may not, be aligned with the near goal), and for creating the most positive of consequences. We can second guess the actions of those climbers high in the Himalayans, but it is only second guessing. Even McCoy’s own musings are second guessing, a philosophical discourse attempting to find both the right answer for the situation and some meaning for his own life. He does not find the right answer, acknowledging that often a dilemma is just that, a dilemma; it cannot be soused out with ease. In terms of meaning, however, McCoy comes closer. For McCoy, a man whose professional life is dedicated to business and organizational development, detecting meaning in terms of group interaction, does bring about some closure. In McCoy’s mind, the message is not so much what did the individual do, but what did the individuals do in respect to the overall group.

Guiding a Group Down the Road Less Traveled

For McCoy (1997, p. 64), the lesson of the Sadhu is that without corporate support, the individual is lost. Says McCoy, “In a complex corporate situation, the individual requires and deserves the support of the group.” (p. 64) There is, I believe, a difference between the ad hoc group hiking to the mountain summit – four disparate groups who happen to be on the mountain at the same time – and a true group or team, an intentional organization. In McCoy’s scenario, there is no leader. There are guides, professionals who know the mountain, but they are not leaders of the entire group. There are likely formal or informal leaders within each national team, but there is no single person recognized as the overarching leader. And, perhaps understandably, no one steps forward. They are travelers headed in the same direction, voyagers with the same destination, but their coalition is not a coalition; merely coincidently do they travel together that early morning. To judge them against a notion of corporate responsibility or leadership is heavy handed. Where we dealing with a corporate – as in collective – group, the situation would be different.

We expect groups created intentionally – be it a club, a team, a corporation, an organization, or a community – to have shared values, to have a shared sense of purpose, and to have formal and informal leaders. As McCoy (1997) tells us, “It is management’s challenge to be sensitive to individual needs, to shape them, and to direct and focus them for the benefit of the group as a whole.” (p. 64) It is not our role to change the values of a group, but then it is also not our role to remain a part of a group whose values are in conflict with our own. McCoy asks “When do we take a stand?” (p. 60) For him, this is the basic question of the case. Our own values, our own moral principles must align with the organization’s values and moral principles. McCoy writes,

We cannot quit our jobs over every ethical dilemma, but if we continually ignore our sense of values, who do we become? As a journalist asked at a recent conference on ethics, “Which ditch are we willing to die in?” For each of us, the answer is a bit different. How we act in response to that question defines better than anything else who we are, just as, in a collective sense, our acts define our institutions. In effect, the Sadhu is always there, ready to remind us of the tensions between our own goals and the claims of strangers. (p. 60)

When we come upon a ditch we are willing to die in, it is time to dig in and attempt to change the values of the group. The question remains: how can we change the values of a group? Harter, Edwards, McClanahan, Hopson, and Carson-Stern (2004) suggest success in using “feminist principles of organizing as a backdrop” in changing values of individuals and groups. Barlow, Jordan, and Hendrix (2003) offer a focus on character as key in moral development of individuals within a group. Campbell and Dardis (2004) would join Barlow, Jordan, and Hendrix in relying on shared values as fundamental within any group. Humphreys, Weyant, and Sprague (2003) suggest leader behavior and follower commitment play a large role in organizational commitment, including adjusting values which drive choices. In short, there are a multitude of approaches a person can take. One key element in impacting the value structure of a group is the role the individual plays. A leader can approach a values discussion with more ease then a group member or subordinate. Key in any change attempt, however, is a need for the agent of change to act in alignment with the values. Actions and behaviors must align with values. When a leader or a group member’s actions are not in alignment with stated values, their credibility becomes nil and their impact on positive change falls dramatically. This is, perhaps, the most important lesson for anyone who wants to take responsibility to change the values of a group: let actions speak as loud as words.

In McCoy’s (1997) parable, Stephen acts in alignment with his values, at least so far as he is physically able. For him, the ethical purpose, principle, and consequence is clear, and he works not only conversationally, but through action, to attempt to bring the group around to his way of thinking. When he realizes he will not change the group’s value system, he does what he can for the Sadhu and then heads up the mountain, following his lifeline carried on the backs of Sherpas and porters.

In the “Parable of the Sadhu,” McCoy (1997) offers up a tale which provides a purposely ambiguous story, allowing for ample discussion about the ethical decisions made and not made by the characters. (p. 60) Knowing one’s greater purpose and role in life, aligning actions to a that purpose and moral principles, and performing actions which create the best positive consequences, are all important decision points in the Sadhu story. And, they are important in real life, also, providing a framework for each of us in our personal and corporate life.


Barlow, C. B., Jordan, M., & Hendrix, W. H. (2003). Character Assessment: An examination of leadership levels. Journal of Business and Psychology, 17, 563-584.

Brown, M. T. (2000). Working Ethics: Strategies for decision making and organizational responsibility. Oakland, CA: Regent Press.

Campbell, D. J. & Dardis, G. J. (2004). The “Be, Know, Do” Model of Leader Development. Human Resource Planning, 27(2), 26-39.

Elkins, J. R. (2000, February). Practical Moral Advice for Lawyers: Scene 4 – Sadhus we meet along the way. Retrieved July 3, 2005, from: West Virginia University Web site

Harter, L. M, Edwards, A., McClanahan, A., Hopson, M. C., & Carson-Stern, E. (2004). Organizing for Survival and Social Change: The case of Streetwise. Communication Studies, 55(2), 407-424.

Humphreys, J. H., Weyant, L. E., & Sprague, R. D. (2003). Organizational Commitment: The roles of emotional and practical intellect within the leader/follower dyad. Journal of Business and management, 9(2), 189-209.

McCoy, B. H. (1997). The Parable of the Sadhu. Harvard Business Review, 75(3), 54-64.