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What Ancient Indian Mythology Can Teach You About Leading

Mar 17, 2020 | 14m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • 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 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.

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