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What Indian Mythology Can Teach You About Leading

What do Steve Jobs’ and Lord Krishna’s leadership have in common? How can you tap into the ancient wisdom of Indian mythology to be a better leader? Amish Tripathi, renowned Indian author and columnist, translates concepts of leadership from Indian mythology to modern times. He talks about the importance of stories in cultivating balanced leadership, why context should be a key driver in decision-making, and why mythology (or Amish’s preferred Sanskrit word, Itihas, which is neither mythology nor history) favours change over rigidity.

GAIN ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO:

  • What the current education ignores that mythology can address
  • Why following the rules as a leader may not always be the best decision
  • How to use concepts of viveka and dharma to be a more well-rounded leader

MYTHOLOGY THROUGH THE AGES

Leadership as a concept is as old as time. If there are groups then there also are leaders of the groups; this is seen in humankind and exists in the animal kingdom. Leadership boosts productivity by harnessing collective effort, and the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. If we pit a lion against a human being, the lion will win hands down; or shall we say, paws down. Yet, if 100 lions went up against 100 human beings, there’s a high probability that the lions would lose. Why? Because humans have honed good leadership into a powerful tool.

English can be a limiting factor when discussing Indian mythology. Words have energy, and the word mythology has gathered connotations which are unfortunate. It often is used to deride Ancient ways and is suggestive of primitive fantasies. We prefer to use Itihasa (literally, thus it happened) or Pauranik Kathas (literally, ancient tales); and, as such, our Itihas and Pauranik Texts delve into several principles and possibilities on how human beings live and indeed work together under intelligent leadership. In this context, we will examine dharma and viveka, concepts that evade straightforward translation but are valuable lenses through which you can understand leadership.

VIVEKA

Viveka means the ability to assess a situation with wisdom and discernment. Your viveka will be different from my viveka. Indian mythology doesn’t impose absolute truths or rules that span across time. Rules and ethics are derived largely from context. Some leadership styles are suited to certain situations more than others. Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are two iconic leaders in Indian texts, but their leadership styles couldn’t be more different. Attempting to choose between the two leadership styles would be a fool’s errand, for both are valid in their situational context.

A “standard” leadership style that works across situations and circumstances does not exist. A leader must be flexible, adapting your leadership style to the context and the people you’re leading. This dynamism will make you effective and relevant. And, this is where viveka comes into play – the ability to dispassionately step back and understand a situation.

Let’s take the example of a team of doctors handling a high-risk, high-cost medical emergency like an epidemic or a terror attack. The stakes are high for the lead doctor. Mistakes are unacceptable when life is at stake. A leader would need to be a detail-oriented taskmaster, but also compassionate; a systems overhauler, but also rule respecting; much like Lord Ram. There’s less room for ambiguity in such situations.

Contrast this with a leader who manages sales teams across Asia, a continent in which each country has unique cultural nuances and styles of doing business. In this scenario, an attempt to implement across-the-board rules wouldn’t be wise. They would instead need chameleon-like flexibility like Lord Krishna, who can achieve objectives in diametrically differing ways and is not constrained by set templates and fixed behavioural boundaries. At the very least, this leader must know when to be hands-on and detail oriented, and when to step back and be hands-off.

Vishwakarma, the architect of the Gods was a detail-oriented leader. He oversaw the building of various cities. The details, you can imagine, needed to be well thought through, and he had to make sure the engineers were most diligent about following his instructions. You can’t expect Vishwakarma to not micromanage!

The people being led bring in their own perspective, which cannot be set aside. In a room full of creative geniuses, who would like creative directors who look over their shoulder and don’t allow breathing room? It’s important to establish clear ground rules and expectations that are fair but open to guidance. It brings to mind the sagacity typical of Lord Ram’s style of leadership.

In essence, Indian mythology rejects universal truth as a productive construct. Inspiration can be drawn from a palette of archetypes, with freedom to choose the one that matches the current scenario.

If you’re in Singapore – a law abiding nation – Lord Ram’s style of leadership. It seems tailor made for this society. On the other hand, the US or India have a very different attitude. It is almost as if chaos is a part of an environment in which people are passion driven and freedom is cherished above all. Lord Krishna’s leadership style would seem more apt. It was fluid and dramatically changed form in keeping with circumstance.

Dwarka was an ancient Indian city renowned in our mythological canon, and it was overseen by Lord Krishna. In Dwarka, Lord Krishna involved himself with the details. Immersively. The city was under attack, and to be an effective leader, he needed to take control of the processes. However, in Hastinapur he was different. When Duryodhana and Arjuna sought Lord Krishna’s help to win the war, he offered them a choice: they could have his armies, or they could have him. Duryodhana chose the Yadav armies, which were amongst the most well-trained in the world. Arjuna chose Lord Krishna.

During the eighteen-day war, Lord Krishna’s leadership was by far worth more than his entire armies. He guided people at the right time, being the master of right timing. When required, he shared his insights. He didn’t enforce standard rules but kept adjusting his counsel based on the situations that arose.

Essentially, Lord Krishna adapted his leadership style depending on the situation.

BREAKING THE RULES

A good leader isn’t necessarily someone who follows rules all the time. There are times when new rules need to be established. Exceptions need to be accommodated and discretions exercised, within the bounds of intentional integrity. Lord Krishna and Shakuni both broke rules, but for very different reasons. Lord Krishna never broke the rules propelled by the ego and for selfish reasons. He exercised discretion to uphold dharma (in this context, dharma can be read as the overall good). However, Shakuni broke the rules for his own benefit (or if you read some of the interpretations of the Mahabharata, he did it for vengeance). When you’re in a leadership role, you may have to go against the rules at times, yet what are you aiming to get out of it? If you do it for the common good, rather than for selfish interest, breaking rules can also serve a purpose.

Today, leaders make their mark on the world by breaking convention. These ground-breaking CEOs build innovative organisations because they dare to challenge the way things have been done. Steve Jobs is an obvious example of such a leader. Compliance or process-driven leaders find it difficult to innovate. To do things differently, you must refuse to follow the beaten path.

However, there are leaders who are motivated purely by personal gain to break the rules. During the financial crisis of 2008, a few top banking professionals broke rules just to ensure they got their bonuses, and losses were passed on to the country’s tax-paying citizens. This selfish rule-breaking causes imbalance and Indian mythology would term it adharma. A leader who upholds dharma would break the rules only for the larger good; to create positive impact.

Indian mythological tradition would encourage a separation of a leader’s professional life from their personal life. Our judgement of leadership should be drawn from context. Steve Jobs was a phenomenal leader, but a lot of serious questions have been raised about his conduct in his personal life. On the other hand, many great individuals have failed terribly as leaders. Base your judgments of someone’s leadership abilities on their conduct within the company. Their personal life is of no consequence to those being led.

My favourite God, Lord Shiva, is unique. He is all about democratic leadership. And, he can lead all; as they say, Shivji ki baraat. He lets His followers be, and sets them on a path of self-discovery to uncover their own purpose or swadharma. He takes on the role of a coach, who helps you along a path you choose for yourself. Rather than feeding you with a vision, a goal, and the path, He provides you support as you figure it out on your own. He imparts you with the strength and sense of purpose to fulfil your destiny, whatever it may be. That’s why people of such different backgrounds and types find comfort in Lord Shiva. He is not the God for any “type” of individual. He is for all types.

Lord Shiva never discriminates among people. Whether high-born or low-born, in-community or out-community, believer or non-believer, men or women, He treats everyone equally.

ADAPTING MYTHOLOGY TO MODERN TIMES

The way people learn about leadership concepts today is different from how they’ve been traditionally taught. This isn’t necessarily a change for the better.

Historically, stories were the medium through which we made sense of the world, including various leadership models. Case studies are commonly used to understand leadership. And think about it, what are case studies but stories from the past that help us learn from what was done?

Indian mythology is full of stories about leadership, but also about life. Oftentimes, people forget that leaders are also human beings. If they cannot manage their own personal suffering (there is nobody in the world who can escape grief), they can unleash their own suffering on their team. While some people are very good at managing their personal struggles, it is very difficult to lead a team when there’s a fundamental dissonance in your own life.

To be an effective leader, you must learn how to live life in a holistic way, and not just pick up lessons in leadership. The current education system devalues this kind of learning. Instead, it has piecemealed learning into separate, watertight compartments. Philosophy, an essential life skill, is confined to the humanities. There is this subtle bias that philosophy is for those who’re not smart enough to study engineering, medicine, science, or commerce.

In the ancient Gurukul system of education, philosophy was taught to ALL students. If education failed to impart tools to help you live a balanced life, your life itself would be the source of your unhappiness. In which case, leadership skills would be the least of your problems.

A LIFE OF MODERATION

Today, our primary relationship is with our smartphones! The smartphone is essentially a tool: it can help you boost productivity and access information; it can connect as well as disconnect. However, most people today are addicted to their phones. From being pressured to showcase our life on Instagram, to being dragged into cesspools of negativity as you exchange words with strangers on Twitter, there is a distinct lack of control and equanimity. We live in a great deal of negativity in times when humanity has never had it better.

The last sentence might seem presumptuous. But data supports this claim. On average, our lifespans are longer than they’ve ever been, our basic needs are largely fulfilled as a species, more people have greater access to the comforts of life than ever before, and per capita violence is at its lowest in human history. Humanity should really be at its happiest. The reality though, is we may be at our unhappiest. There could be many reasons for this; most of them to do with our own minds rather than reality. And perhaps one reason for unhappiness being so widespread is that we’ve stopped valuing philosophy – love of wisdom - as much as we used to.

So, as you look for tools that will help you become a better leader, don’t forget to dip into ancient stories that can teach you deep philosophies. You should be able to foresee challenges that lie ahead and communicate this with your team. You should be able to give guidance to those who look up to you without glossing over the tough stuff. Mythology teaches not just how to be a successful leader, but also a balanced human being.

Interestingly, the word ‘evil’ doesn’t find an equivalent in Indian mythology. Adharma is not it. Adharma is imbalance. In mythological tradition, life does not dwell in black and white, but in shades of grey. Ati Sarvatra Varjayet –that is, anything in excess isn’t good and should be avoided. You should seek to be balanced as a leader. See the world for what it is, but still work in accordance with dharma, for the greater good of the team.

And dharma itself is complex. It has been debated for millennia by our ancestors. A key point in understanding dharma is that it depends on the context, and you must have the wisdom to distinguish and make up your own mind. It is the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

For example, the Mahabharata says “Ahimsa Parmo Dharma,” which roughly means non-violence is the greatest good. However, there is also another line that says “Dharma Himsa Tathaiva Cha,” which means violence in the cause of dharma is fine. Are these teachings at odds with each other? Or is there something to be learned at the meeting point of these two concepts that seemingly contradict each other?

For example, what if an act of violence defends large groups of people? As private citizens, you and I don’t have the right to take the law into our hands. But imagine a scenario where a leader who sees things in black and white calls all soldiers to put down their arms. What if these soldiers are attacked by terrorists at the border? Should they continue to adhere to non-violence or pick up arms and defend their nation? A soldier’s dharma is to protect the people who depend on him/her.

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Viveka will assist you in making the call on when to break the rules. As a leader, you must see the situation clearly for what it is. You cannot view things from a simplistic, black-and-white lens. There is no set of rules that is hardbound for ALL times to come. Lord Krishna was not about following a life of rules. He was about living a life of passion and beauty, and would advocate breaking the rules for the sake of dharma. But even Lord Ram, who believed in the value of rules maintained that you could change the laws if they were irrelevant or outdated.

Smritis are the books of law in the Indian tradition; the Constitutions of the successive societies of the past, in a manner of speaking. When times changed, so did the Smriti. No Indian sage or ruler of the past argued that the Smritis are the unchangeable laws of God that must be followed till kingdom come. Rather, when situations changed, so were the Smritis; the rules were changed to make them more relevant.

If your company is in a fast-changing, innovation driven industry, then, as a leader, this is something you can champion in your own company. You could put policies in place that serve you at this point in time. Yet when the market situation changes, you should be open to adapting and changing your policies. Innovative leaders build a culture of continuous improvement and rule-breaking, but within a broad set of guidelines.

But as I said earlier, dharma is always context-dependant.

Some companies should be very careful about breaking rules though. Banks, for example, must have a rigorous culture of compliance. We have seen the impact on the global economy of some banks which sought to get too creative. India is grappling with the fallout of runaway NPAs that were built with impunity over decades.

GUILT AND OBSESSION

A preoccupation with guilt (and its natural by-product, obsession) is common in the West, but doesn’t relate to Asian traditions. Guilt and obsession are essentially two sides of the same coin, both stemming from a lack of balance.

Purushartha, an ancient concept, translates to the meaning of life, or the object of human pursuits. A well-rounded life consists of four vital elements: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. When you achieve harmony in these four aspects of your life, you escape the cycles of rebirth. Dharma isn’t religion but life’s guiding principles that lead to balance. Artha is wealth, power, and fame. Kama refers to the finer pleasures in life – the arts, beauty, sensuality. Lastly, Moksha is release from the cycle of rebirth and union with the Divine. It is interesting that artha and kama are bound by dharma at one end, and moksha at the other; Economics and Pleasure within the bookends of Balance and Liberation.

So, there’s no negativity or struggle associated with wealth and pleasure in Indian traditions. These aspects of life are important, and a balance between them leads to an enriched life. If so, then there would be no place for guilt or obsessions about anything. You should encourage this sense of variety and balance as a leader.

A bizarre disconnect from our roots in India today makes Indians view wealth, and more importantly the wealthy, with suspicion. An evangelical romance with poverty makes us see the wealthy as in some indefinable sense, wrong; or absent of nobility. Hindus worship the Goddess of Wealth, so why do people feel guilty about seeking it? Neither should you be obsessed with wealth. As a leader, do you identify this imbalance in yourself? Try to notice whether you’re gravitating towards guilt or obsession and take corrective action immediately.

A good guiding principle that you can apply is dharma. If you’re earning the wealth or power that comes with leadership positions in a dharmic way, you’re doing fine. Earn with dharma, and use your wealth for dharma as well.

Vidur, the wise one, said it beautifully in the Mahabharata. He claimed that there were two ways to waste money: first by being charitable to the unworthy, and the second by not being charitable to the worthy.

So, when it comes to CSR (corporate social responsibility) your task as a leader shouldn’t be limited just to signing cheques and getting your name on press releases. Use the resources afforded to you by your position towards the greater good.

Lord Krishna said that change is the only constant in the universe. So when something doesn’t change, it runs the risk of becoming obsolete. Mindsets change, the environment changes, and as a result, what is expected of a leader also changes.

You should never stop adapting and responding to the changing landscape as a leader. You will need to constantly use viveka to assess what is expected of you in a situation and make decisions based on dharma. Never make the mistake of imagining you know all there is to know.

STEPS TO TAKE IN 24 HOURS

1. Cultivate Viveka

Try to respond to a situation by understanding the unique context and variables at play. Don’t resort to the standard protocol you’ve always followed without assessing the situation for what it is.

2. Make Learning a Habit

Set time aside every week to read outside your immediate field of work. Consume stories and keep abreast of trends. In these fast-changing times, knowledge will help you adapt and stay relevant.

3. Judge a Leader Based on Their Work

Make a clear distinction between a leader’s personal choices and the work they’re doing. Know that your personal life is your own and shouldn’t come in the way of your decisions as a leader. However, also remember, dharma will not be practiced piecemeal. Every aspect of your life is connected to the other. It is Indra Jal, the net that knows no separation.

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