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 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.
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.
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