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Epic leadership
Lessons from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

By Ramesh Rao

As the Indian economy grows, as globalization reshapes our lives, as Indian politicians actively try to undermine progress, as well-meaning “progressives” offer regressive panaceas, and as the world we live in is sought to be taken over or managed by jihadists and ideologues of all stripes, may be we could do with some soul-searching, some big picture taking, some careful unpacking of the dynamics that leads to healthy, and careful husbanding, of our human, material, and spiritual resources.

There was a time when America and American enterprise was all the rage. Look how dynamic the society is, and how hardworking Americans are, and how prosperous their lives pan out, we exclaimed. Bigger is better, and if something is good, more is better, was the American slogan. Thus Americans built big homes, big cars, big battleships, big shopping malls, and ate too many big meals. Now that too many Americans are obese, and there is too much disparity in incomes, and too much violence in American lives and hearts, there is some soul-searching. Well, actually, some kind of soul searching began in the late Seventies itself because of the oil-crunch and when Americans had to line up for expensive gas at the nearby gas station.

The Japanese then became all the rage. Tiny Datsuns began to wend their way into the deepest of even Southern, redneck territory, and Japanese management techniques were touted by American corporate leaders as the way out of the fat management, big union, behemoth sized, lugubrious American industrial slowdown.

Some have argued that the origins of Japanese style management and employment practices – which were characterized by lifetime employment, wages based on seniority, and company labour unions – were in fact borrowed from the US, but that the US system collapsed during the Great Depression of the Thirties.

As America recovered and grew after World War II, and American corporate leaders began wondering how to manage the fast growing behemoth industries, there came Peter Drucker, of Austria, who when he died last year was remembered as the “greatest management guru” of the twentieth century. As a Businessweek obituary explained, “Drucker understood that the job of leading people and institutions is filled with complexity” and that Drucker was responsible for teaching generations of managers “the importance of picking the best people, of focusing on opportunities and not problems, of getting on the same side of the desk as your customer, of the need to understand your competitive advantages, and to continue to refine them”. Drucker, the obit claimed, “believed that talented people were the essential ingredient of every successful enterprise”.

Then came Edwards Deming, with his focus on quality, and lessons to and from Japanese corporations. Now, there are many, many management gurus. A whole host of them, and they come at all prices. There are many of Indian origin too. There is C.K.Prahalad of the University of Michigan, Deepak Jain of Northwestern University, Raghuram Rajan of the IMF, and there are corporate leaders of the stature of Rajat Gupta and Vinod Khosla. Meanwhile, in India, after the era of the Tatas and the Birlas, the Modis and the Bajajs, there has emerged the Narayana Murthys. N.R.Narayana Murthy has epitomized for some the mix of the best in corporate governance.

But what has guided Indian corporate leaders, and is there something unique or special that Indian culture and civilization can offer the world in this time of new growth, new challenges, new dangers, and new opportunities? In the American context, now, the person who comes to mind first who says anything that is publicly powerful about India and the Indian cultural ethos is Deepak Chopra, who is hired by a number of corporations to help their leaders and their workers achieve some kind of modern bliss.

The well-known management gurus at top universities are not necessarily known to package their wisdom in any particular Indian garb. Recently, however, there was Srikumar Rao, adjunct professor at Columbia University, who offered a course called “Creativity and Personal Mastery” which has become all the rage among students, and he has compiled a book based on his course, which has had good reviews mostly from those students who have taken his class. The book, Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life, is more in the genre of “self-help books” rather than specifically management oriented.

In the book, Rao draws generously from Indian scriptures and texts, but does not confine to Indian sources. Thus, the lessons he offers students – which include objectively observing life to break free of bad habits, understanding that all of us act out of self-interest but acknowledging that at a deep level can be liberating, and that detachment from the effects or outcomes of one’s actions is liberating – are lessons we can identify in Indian epics, puranas, and folklore.

There has, however, till now not been any book that specifically focuses on traditional Indian sources, to provide both for the Indian and the international readers lessons about leadership and management. The first such commendable effort is by Harsh Verma, in a book, The Avatar way of Leadership: Leadership for the Twenty-first Century from Rama, Krishna, and Draupadi (Rupa & Co., 2006).

Verma’s challenge is to re-read and present the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in ways that are not traditionally done. One way that the Indian epics have been used is to teach the ordinary Indian (Hindu) about the great moral and spiritual quandaries we face in life. The traditional “kathakaras” (story tellers) have done a good job of picking and choosing stories from the epics to narrate to their audiences, incorporating music, the life and times of the great, epic heroes and heroines. There are myriad references in modern Indian films to various epic figures, and equally numerous references by political leaders to stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to make their partisan points.

Not to forget, there is now the very popular unpackings by sundry graduate students and assistant professors of Indian origin, in American universities, of the characters and of the stories in Indian texts and epics. They bemoan the “oh so horrible condition of women in ancient India”, and point out how Sita was the most obvious victim of the patriarchal and misogynist tendencies of Rama. They castigate Krishna as manipulative and tell their American students and colleagues about the fate of Ekalavya in the Mahabharata.

The either simplistic or far-fetched political, Freudian or feminist readings of Indian texts have now become par for the course offerings in “South Asian Studies” departments across Western, and especially American universities. No “South Asian Studies” conference is complete without another graduate student getting all hot under the collar about Rama or Krishna. Unlettered in Indian texts, uninformed about Indian languages, and ignorant about the traditions of Indian story telling, these otherwise bright Indians, eager consumers of feminist, post-colonial, Marxist, and Freudian theories, become crude interpreters of their culture and civilization for disenchanted and ignorant Western interlocutors.

Meanwhile, one finds no serious attempt by theorists and practitioners in the social sciences and business fields to re-read the Indian past to glean lessons for the present. Verma’s analysis, therefore, is a positive, practical and welcome contribution. Written in simple language, it allows the Indian reader to take a fresh look at what the great epics tell us about what Rama, Krishna, and Draupadi did when they were faced with challenges and/ or opportunities.

What motivated them to respond in the way they did? Who and what were they conscious of when they scolded someone, praised another, complained to an authority, led soldiers into battle, or provided counsel to wife, husband, friend, or parent? Verma draws upon his commendable knowledge of the Indian epics to explain to the reader how those actions or advice can be interpreted to gain knowledge about governing, leading, and managing people. He then provides some snippets and samples from modern Indian political and corporate life to highlight the lessons from the epics.

Krishna was a great leader because he was a problem solver, pragmatic, good judge of men, led by example, delegated to qualified people, let people make mistakes so that they could learn from their mistakes, and always kept the big picture in mind, Verma observes.

Draupadi was the epitome of feminine will and self-respect who challenged injustice, held her ground in difficult circumstances, was optimistic, egalitarian in her approach to men and women, was a confidante and a counselor, sensitive interpreter of people’s nonverbal communication, identified the right person for the right job, and most importantly blended passion/ emotion with reason to energize her kinsmen, her husbands, and her family.

Rama, we traditionally have been told, was a dispassionate, objective, and impartial man. He has been presented to us as a role model because he responded to misfortunes with fortitude and courage. Verma compiles a careful list of Rama’s qualities as a leader and a manager. He points out that Rama was independent and assertive but also respectful, was firm in his decisions, was open and frank, was both duty bound and honour bound, did not misuse power, delegated power to lieutenants, motivated troops honourably, and led from the front. Rama, he points out, did not bear grudges, did not play favourites, sought feedback from people, made common cause with people in similar straits, and identified enemies and challenged them directly.

While all this may seem a laundry list of the obvious, what makes Verma’s work interesting is the quick summaries of stories and examples from the epics that highlight the specific characteristic of leadership, and the equally interesting summary of incidents in and actions of modern Indian business and political leaders. One may quibble a little about the choice of some of the modern examples but one should also commend Verma for his non-partisan selection of people and life examples.

Another minor quibble is that there is an inconsistency in spelling of names. Why is it Rama and Lakshmana but Bharat, and not Rama and Bharata (as the original Sanskrit spells and South Indians prefer), or Ram and Bharat (as North Indians prefer)? Kaikeyi is idiosyncratically spelled Kekayi. A more careful copy editor would have noticed these inconsistencies and errors.

To sum, if the Indian Institutes of Management, which together graduate hundreds of MBAs every year, and whose curricula mostly dispense Western examples, models, and sources, can incorporate Indian texts and examples which may resonate well with students, it could well bring about a sea-change in how indigenous sources can shape both Indian and global leadership as well as provide Indians a renewed source of pride and wisdom. We can expect complaints from anti-Hindu fetishists and ideologues, but as long as the analyses and explorations are careful and nuanced we would find in the great Indian epics wisdom and practical guidance for our modern lives.

Harsh Verma has, therefore, made an important contribution to Indian studies spanning management, politics, history, and culture. The Avatar Way of Leadership should be on every Indian leader’s bookshelf, and should make its way into the offices of corporate leaders worldwide.

Ramesh Rao is Professor of Communications at Longwood University, Virginia, USA.

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