On a chance visit to the Swaminarayan Temple in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta, India) recently I heard an interesting anecdote on the importance of taking the long view, a really long view.

The temple is beautiful and large, set in nearly 33 acres. It has a serene atmosphere and offers expansive areas for visitors and devotees to rest and for a family outing. The architecture is traditional Hindu and the method of construction ancient. Richly carved sandstone blocks placed one upon another and locked in without using any cement or steel.

It is an impressive edifice but what was most remarkable was the story associated with its construction. It offers rich lessons for managers and business leaders.

An unexpected problem
The temple had taken nearly eight years to build. Just four months before inauguration was due in 2009, an unexpected structural fault was observed. A crack had developed on a load-bearing wall near the base.

The matter was reported to Pramukh Swamij Maharaj, the global head of BAPS Swaminarayan sect, in Gujarat in the west of India where he was based.

Risk and consequence
Swami asked what consequences could be foreseen. They said nothing much may happen. When Swami persisted they said a few blocks of stone might be dislodged and fall to the ground but they assured him it was an extremely unlikely event. They emphasised that nothing may happen for a hundred years and strongly recommended the inauguration be held on schedule.

A century later….?
The prudent Swami said he would not be around a hundred years hence, nor would the architects, engineers, and others involved in the project. If anything untoward did happen no one would blame them. Indeed no one would remember they had been around. But the temple would. If an accident occurred, if one or more person was injured, they would hold the temple and the Swaminarayan organisation responsible. It would be a blow to the Institution’s reputation.

A question of trust
Further, he said, the temple had been built with donations and hard work of devotees and well-wishers. Ignoring the risk of a mishap would belie their trust. Others would think twice before reposing their faith in God’s work.

He asked that the entire wall be taken down and rebuilt after carrying out necessary reinforcement of the foundation and structural elements. The inauguration was postponed indefinitely. Reconstruction took five years. The temple was opened to devotees in February 2014. Today the temple lives on as a resplendent mark of devotion of millions. And as testament to the Swami’s compassion.

And in business?
In business we face similar situations from time to time, and we decide differently. A product launch goes ahead in spite of defects because delay would cause millions of dollars in opportunity cost. A plant is commissioned when process is not optimised. Tall buildings are constructed without due regard to safety of workers because time is money. And the list goes on…..

Good reasons are cited but expediency lies at the heart of these decisions. Short-term benefits weigh heavier than long-term costs. Those who decide know well they may not be around to bear the consequences. And there are incentives, large sums usually.

The Swami had none. He saw far beyond the immediate. He recognised his role as das, a servant of devotees, donors, and well-wishers. He acknowledged his responsibility and that of his Institution. He was not only constructing a remarkable edifice but also building a legacy of trust that would endure long after him.

Managers and business leaders must too.