The motivation for writing this article arose from my speech while chairing a session on ‘Wisdom Perspectives on Leadership’ at the First International Conference on ‘Igniting the Genius Within’ at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad in October 2008.
Leaders and teachers have always used stories to capture our interest and attention. So I am going to tell you a few stories and leave you to infer the lessons yourselves. One thing I assure you, all the stories are real.
Inspite of all the books written upon Leadership, it is not something that is learnt from books or by tuition. One recognizes it only by the extent of the change caused by that leadership and by the quality of that change.
Individual contributors like a writer, an artist, painter or designer produce something which bring in appreciation and pave the way for the contributor evolving into a role model for a new pattern or a new style of work. But a leader does not necessarily merit his leadership by any such material productions or contributions. What he or she does is to cause others to think out of the box, to act innovatively and to behave differently. The contribution of leaders is the change they cause among those who are influenced by them.
If this change rollerskates into further changes in future generations, that becomes a unique legacy, the leader’s legacy. From the point of view of such legacy for the longest period of time transmitted to the largest number of people there is none to beat Valmiki and Vyasa of ancient times, or for that matter, Gautama Buddha and Jesus of later times.
Acts of leadership occur surprisingly even from unexpected quarters. When you analyse these they turn out to be the results of internally inspired responses to certain challenges of the context and time. A challenge is not asking whether it is possible or not. It is about whether the mind is capable of freeing itself. To respond to it one must have the quality of intensity and immediacy.
A rare act of such genius, occurs in a narration in the fourth chapter of Chandogya Upanishad. Satyakama was one of the reputed Vedantic teachers mentioned in the Upanishad. But the birth of Satyakama was only of negative repute. His mother Jabali was a serving-girl, a parichArikA, serving for hire at various houses, “resorting to many” and was therefore unable to name her son’s father. Satyakama had therefore no gotra, no caste, no lineage. When he left for the gurukul, wanting to learn all the Shastras, she told him to announce himself as her son and therefore he should call himself Satyakama Jabala. He told his guru that very truth and that declaration earned him the approbation of his guru who concluded that this honest acknowledgement of a truth of such damaging nature could not have come from anyone who did not have the noble qualities usually associated with Brahminhood, and so he initiated the boy and proceeded further with his education. This decision of Jabali to acknowledge this damaging truth, transcending the cultural taboo of the times, must be considered a daring act of leadership.
Leadership turns out to be an art in the hands of the leaders; in fact it is the enabling art of progress. At the same time it is also a scientific process that may not have to be studied as a methodology but should be allowed to evolve over a period of time according to one’s personal traits of leadership. It is one’s nature that gets in the way of the fructification of leadership traits that may be dormant in one’s personality.
Ancient books like the Mahabharata have numerous lessons to teach us these personal traits of leadership. Just to take one example, in the Mahabharata we have the account of the divine sage Sanatsujata teaching the basics of philosophy to King Dhritarashtra, the blind father of the hundred Kauravas, who was blind not only physically but in terms of his stupid and passionate fancy towards his unprincipled sons. Sanatsujata, amidst his technical exposition, also hits the rock bottom of naivety in mentioning six elementary virtues as the most fundamental for any living being, and certainly are the gateways, for leadership. These are truth, straightforwardness, sense of shame in doing wrong, control of senses, purity and education (*satyArjavahrIr-dama-shauca-vidyAH*).
Among these I want to focus on the third, namely, the sense of shame while doing adharma. In Sanskrit, akArya karaNe lajjA. It is also known by the one word ‘hrIh’. The central problem in the morals (both in public and private life) of modern times is the absence of any sense of shame while going against the accepted norms of morality. For the health of the society it may be justified to question certain norms, but in all practice the sense of shame in doing wrong was the one sure insulation the previous generations had against a degeneration of morality. Without the virtue of hrIh, one goes down, by succumbing to temptations to do wrong. In fact in these days of fear of youngsters getting addicted to drugs or extremist fads, the one virtue that should be inculcated in them even as children is hrIh. Even if this means swinging the pendulum back towards a conformist approach our civilisation ought preferably to have this swing.
It was by sensing the all-round moral degradation that in modern times, Sir M. Visveswarayya, a visionary par excellence, before he accepted the prestigious office of Dewan of Mysore, called all his relatives and friends for a grand dinner and announced therein that he would accept the prestigious office only if they assured him that none of them would come to him for any favours! It may appear to be a quick-fix strategy but was indeed a daring act of leadership in the context. Such instances are certainly unique legacies that leaders are remembered for.
In the same Mahabharata, while Sanatsujata listed the six most fundamental virtues that any aspirant to leadership should have, the divine roving sage Narada, while meeting King Yudhishtira who had just been made Crown Prince in Indraprastha, asks the King some rhetorical questions one of which is whether as a king and administrator he has avoided certain six evils. Coming from Narada to Yudhishtira, the paragon of virtue, this list is of great importance. Here is the list of these six evils: sleep, indolence, fear, anger, softness, and procrastination. (*nidrAlasya-bhaya-krodhAH mArdavaM dIrghasUtratA*). No aspirant to greatness can ever afford to fall into any of these habit-forming evils.
Narada’s advice is a warning to all political leaders, scientific workers, project managers and administrators. All these people complain about lack of time to do his or her job. One’s time-organization comes not a little from the proper organization of how much one sleeps and when. Sleep and Procrastination are two of the greatest obstacles to greatness. Particularly the latter one is a too familiar scene in present day politics and beaurocracy.
‘Fear’ is understandably in Narada’s list. Ferlessness is a great virtue for a would-be leader. Gandhiji was able to bring to the Indian masses the quality of fearlessness, more than anything else, which alone led them to that great event of attainment of Swaraj. Before his time they were afraid of almost everything, of the Government, of the Police, of the caste system, of the rules of a tradition-bound society, of the westerner, of beaurocracy, of prison, and, most of all, of violence. That you can resist and fight all these non-violently was his teaching and in order to make the whole thing work he implanted into their minds the virtue of fearlessness by his own acts of self-sacrifice.
True leadership does not reside merely in techniques or in the discovery of new technologies. It exhibits itself in the integration of several experiences that carry authenticity, into one voice for the service of others. It is not the head alone or the heart alone. The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. What the heart knows today will be understood by the head only later. The heart might say: Don’t get lost in resisting and battling against things; but dedicate your energies to fight for something, instead of against something. Make it the most important habit of your life. Gandhiji fought for honesty and straightforwardness even when he appeared to fight against British Imperialism. That was why he, sitting inside the prison, stopped the ongoing civil disobedience movement which he himself had started, because the Champaran incident of violence failed to broadcast his wavelength of honesty and straightforwardness. He wanted every thought, every word and every deed to cherish and nurture the seeds of integrity and non-violence for that future independent India of his dreams. He not only wanted so, but made it a habit of his.
A transactive model of leadership only builds skills and competences. But great leaders like Gandhiji belonged to the transformative model of leaders which creates a fundamental shift in point of view, values and purpose. But it is not only such great leaders who do the transformations. Even an ordinary incident where one goes beyond one’s authority becomes the seed of a significant transformation. Rosa Parks, an elderly black woman went beyond her authority in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her behaviour distinguished itself as an act of leadership, because it was that spontaneous act of hers that was used by her and other civil rights leaders to focus public attention and responsibility on the issue of civil rights. The public response was to raise the necessary outcry of protest that catalysed the civil rights movemement of the 1960’s.
Here is one more example of something that emanated from a great leader, India’s greatest industrial giant of the early twentieth century, that taught his contemporaries a fundamental shift in purpose and perspective, of the ordinary act, known as charitable benefaction. Jamshedji Tata, in the twilight years of the nineteenth century donated his own house in Bombay to the cause of scientific research and development in India. His friends and relatives from the Parsi community pleaded with him to change his mind and donate it to the cause of the development of the poor in his own community. His reply to them deserves to be printed in gold: “What advances a nation or community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members as to lift up the best and most gifted so as to make them of the greatest service to the country. I prefer this constructive philanthropy which seeks to educate and develop the faculties of the best of our young men”. It is that farsight of this great visionary leader who gave a magnificent shift of perspective to a traditionally respected act of charity, that finally gave this nation the topmost research organization of science and engineering, the present Indian Institute of Science.
Talking of transformative model of leadership I cannot but recall the phenomenal transformation that my own institution, BITS Pilani, went through in the period 1970 to 1988, during which I was one of the two Deputy Directors, in addition to my duties as Professor of Mathematics. In that capacity we were responsible along with a few others for the entire innovative restructuring and developmental process of BITS, from its earlier run-of-the mill type of traditional Indian university to its modern style of a technological university.
We were pioneers in this total change. The epoch-making decision that we took as early as 1970 was to thrust forward all the way across the board instead of tackling one issue after another in isolation. In the growth of an organisation from its primitive state, without violent damage to its men and materials, such a strategy did make the path hard and long but it worked.
The reforms that were thus achieved included: A system of admissions based on an all-India merit index; an integrated four year degree programme in which specialisation follows a common broad spectrum of foundations; Science degrees linked with a professional dual degree so that both attract the top layers of the cream of the country; student involvement in every academic developmental and monitoring activity; intensive teacher training for all teachers through special on-the-job workshops; industry linked internship for every undergraduate for as long as six months which is duly evaluated by professionals; emphasis on mathematical-cum-analytical foundations for every programme; flexible academic regulations which gets continuous work done by students and also continuously evaluated by the concerned teachers; active production of text-books tested by course development and class use; and computerised development of all infrastructure.
All of these were started in the seventies from scratch. Scratch does not mean we started with a clean slate. We actually started with all the failings that all Indian universities shared in the educational milieu of India. It was certainly not an overnight transformation. We worked the hard way 365x24x7 for 18 years before we handed over the first phase of an almost finished product wherein all the educational ideals which had been talked about since 1947 but scarcely implemented in any of the universities, had been introduced, implemented, online corrections made and sustained and finally the legacy of this transformation was handed over to a team consisting of the next generation who were themselves trained by us. Participating in this gigantic process, we ourselves got transformed from ordinary class-room expositors, to leaders of transformation. We happily see already that these transformations are roller-skating into further transformations.
One other major quality of leadership that can be recognised in all leaders is an unwavering conviction and faith in the cause for which one is leading. In the case of Gandhiji this was his faith in Truth and Non-violence; in the case of Nehru it was his faith in the principle of democracy. In the case of Prabhupada, who in the sixties and seventies of the last century revolutionised thousands of the western world into adopting an Asian religion of devotion, totally new to them, it was a never-vacillating faith in divine help. He singlehandedly started, in 1959 or so, to write, print and publish the monumental volumes of his own English translation and commentary of Srimad Bhagavatam, a Purana of 18000 verses in Sanskrit, almost when he was nearing sixty years. This unique decision of his turned out to become, within the next ten years, a fantastic money spinner for the new world-wide organization called Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), which he founded. The remarkable challenge that he undertook and successfully accomplished was the transformation of the most materialistic youth of the times, the rebelling anti-conformist westernised youth who were products of the luxury, affluence and license of the West — not just a few, but literally thousands of them — into godly personalities with the loftiest of spiritual and ethical ideals. Till he was seventy he struggled alone to implement his master’s injunction of propagating the glories of Lord Krishna and transmitting the treasures of SrImad bhAgavatam. But even in the land where these had been held, without any doubt, in superlative esteem by one and all, he could not succeed. Till he was seventy, only three books were written by him, only one disciple was initiated and the worldwide society of Krishna devotees was only in his dream. But in the next twelve years, he wrote sixty books, initiated a few thousands and the society of his dreams came to fruition with more than one hundred centres all over the world. All this was a marvel of leadership in just the last twelve years of his 82 years of life, achieved by an unwavering conviction and faith in the presence of divine help.
Appayya Dikshita who lived for 72 years in South India in the 16th century is another monumental example of what a transformative model of leadership could be. He was the guiding spirit of a great movement in which he organised the services of a large band of volunteers trained by him to disseminate among the masses his great life mission of reconciliation of warring religious groups, particularly Shaivism and Vaishnavism. He was born in a very hot age of bigotry and vigorous proselytism. The adherents of the creeds were mostly cantankerous persons who mistook acrimony for devotion. It was in this dark atmosphere that Appayya Dikshita rose to such heights of fame by propagating, through his ambassadors of tolerance, that the religious books of the rival schools of thought did not proclaim mutual exclusiveness or hostility. His massive scholarship and spiritual wisdom provided him the seeds of authenticity – one of the most important requisites of leadership –for this legacy of his.
I shall wind up by mentioning one more name, that of V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, (1863-1911) whose prodigious achievements within a life of 48 years are a bagful. Starting as a lawyer in the Madras Bar, he became a judge of the Madras High Court and later served as a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He played a significant role in supporting the move to send Swami Vivekananda to the Parliament of Religions. He founded the Ayurvedic College of medicine and a free Dispensary in Mylapore. He was pivotal in starting the Madras Law Journal on the lines of critical Law Journals in Europe. In 1906 he started the Madras Sanskrit College and provided for free education to students therein. In the same year when there was the sensational case of the crash due to bankruptcy of Arbuthnot Bank it was he who was responsible as the contending advocate for bringing the culprit to justice. And as a consequential contribution to posterity he played the key role in the founding of the Indian Bank soon after. The 1907 session of the Congress Party was held in Madras mostly due to his efforts and he was instrumental in striking a rapport between the moderates and extremists in the Party, particularly after the Surat split of 1907 in the party. He was responsible for introducing a number of educational reforms in the University of Madras. During the minority of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi he was the foremost to see that the Mutt did not fall into wrong hands. In all these instances the silent unconscious unseen influence of his own spotless character backed up by a spiritual conviction was the one thing that surely contributed to his achievement of leadership.
And, most of all, seizing the opportunity at the right time even if it means taking a risk, is important. I will give you the most ancient example for this. In the Upanishadic times there lived a great towering personality in the field of spirituality, by name Yajnavalkya. That he was not only great, but great as a leader with conviction and confidence, came to light in a much-talked-about seminar in the court of King Janaka. King Janaka himself was a royal householder-philosopher known for his scholarship as well as his adherence to philosophical insights. Janaka arranged this seminar in which he announced an on-the-spot-competition. Having invited all the stalwarts in Vedanta for a yajna, Janaka provokes them into a discussion by announcing that he has earmarked one thousand cows, each with a bag of ten gold coins and all these constitute the prize for the one among them who can declare himself to be the most erudite in vedas and its accessories. The entire assembly is stunned at this announcement, stupefied by the challenge of the occasion and the seriousness it demanded and kept silent. But after a little period of silence, Yajnavalkya rises up and with his assistant makes preparations to take possession of the cows. Then it is that the assembled scholars begin to challenge him one by one. Each one asks him several questions about the subtleties of the Knowledge about the Absolute. Yajnavalkya shoots forth his answers without any hesitation or confusion and with such clarity that every one had to withdraw and sit down. Finally one lady, Vacaknavi Gargi, announces that she is going to ask just two questions of Yajnavalkya and the questions will be of such nature that if he answers them well, there should be no more doubt about who carries the day. And that is how Yajnavalkya carries the day. The technical text of the discussion described elaborately in Brihad-Aranyakopanishad is beyond our subject today. But what is relevant to us in the context of the topic of Leadership is the style of the leader who rose to the occasion irrespective of the august nature of the assembly and the serenity that was demanded.
The last quality that I shall emphasize is a confidence in oneself. It expresses itself in several ways. I shall only give three examples from three different perspective. A filial assurance of perspective came from the mother of the astrophysicist Dr. S. Chandrasekhar when she alone decided, against the recommendations of all the rest of the family, that her son, inspite of her own serious illness, should accept the offer to go abroad for his higher studies, when he was around twenty.
A perspective from a logical reasoning was shown by Prof. G.H. Hardy who took a bold risky decision after several deliberations with Prof. Littlewood, on the matter of what appeared to be a cranky freak technical letter from an unknown unheard-of clerk in distant Madras Port Trust.
A third perspective of confidence in one’s own out-of-the-box thinking was shown around 1920 by the budding music maestro Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar who adopted and persisted with the then-unusual style of slapping the palm on one’s thigh to keep the Tala. The orthodox brahmin elite of Madras did not particularly like this because according to them this kind of slapping is what is prescribed as a cremation ritual that a son does when he circumambulates his father’s dead body at the cremation ground. So they protested with one voice. And there was also a second kind of protest from another quarter of the public because according to them this slapping is against stage manners and constitutes an insult to the long Tamil tradition of musical genius which should sense the rhythm purely orally. These protests from two complementary quarters did not shake the resolve or the wisdom of the budding maestro but they however posed such a challenge to his closest friends and well-wishers that they finally sought the opinion and verdict of the Kanchi Mutt. The then new head of the Kanchi Mutt, the young Chandra-sekharendra Saraswati, was being given scriptural education by the Pundits of the Mutt and they gave the verdict that the slapping of the thigh while in the sitting posture did not constitute a sacrilege. There ended the matter, Ariyakudy’s star was rising and a new era started in the history of Carnatic music.
Before I wind up I should tell you the story of how in my own life I was once sucked into a certain leadership position that unexpectedly turned out to be not so enviable at the time, though at this distance in time I can talk about it with pride.
Ninety of us Indians travelled to the United States in August 1962 as Fulbright Travel Grantees. Our sponsors for the entire trip was USEFI, Delhi. We had a four-day orientation in Mumbai (then called Bombay), at the end of which we were divided into three batches of 30 each, each batch having a different travel itinerary. However, in the first lap of our journey by boat from Bombay to Naples we were all together. At Naples the batches separated and went their different ways. At Bombay itself at the end of the orientation, leaders of the three batches had been elected. I was elected leader of my batch. There were 25 men and five women in my batch. Most of them were headed for a graduate education in the U.S. Five of them including myself were going to take up faculty positions in different universities in the U.S.
At Bombay they gave our tickets upto Naples and further told us that at Naples a representative of the Council of Student Travel (with HQ in Paris) would give us necessary money as well as tickets for the onward journey. Our itinerary was to alight at Naples, travel by train to Rome, and again travel by train from Rome to Rotterdam from where we would take another boat to New York. A student representative received us at Naples but he and the taxis at his disposal were not prepared for our 90 pieces of luggage for the thirty of us. By the time we could find a bus for us to carry our luggage and reach the trainstation, our train had left. We left by a later train and arrived at Rome in the evening.
One Mr. Marconi, also a student, took care of us for the evening and night, gave us just one fourth of the money we expected to get, and the next morning put us in a train to Rotterdam. Only after he put us on the train we came to know that no reservation had been done for us but actually we had been shoved into a compartment which was completely reserved from Milan onwards. So all of us, thirty Indians along with 90 pieces of baggage had to alight in Milan, around 5 PM, completely stranded. When the train was departing from Rome Mr. Marconi had signalled to us that he would send a telegram to Milan station master and set matters right; but obviously this must have goofed up somewhere. We had no idea of when our boat was to depart from Rotterdam the next day. The Station Master at Milan tried to help us by suggesting that we could go by the next train, leaving around 11 PM but it would reach Rotterdam only late evening the next day and even in that train there might not be accommodation enough for so many of us!
In the meantime our group of 30 had several different opinions (some of them as crazy as you can imagine) as to how to meet this crisis situation. I could get constructive help and advice from four or five in our group of whom I cannot forget Dr. A.M. Vaidya, Dr. Gautam and Joseph Edwards. But it was an eye-opener to me that even in such an adult population of well-educated youths, about half a dozen in our batch were so upset at the turn of events as we left Rome, that we had to treat them almost as children lost in a mela. There were another two or three who were so argumentative that they almost threatened to break from the group and run away in Milan.
We needed all our wits to keep them in the group with the rest of us. There were a few others who cared the least, whatever might happen; and so this was the other extreme, namely, total indifference! Well, in about 24 hours I learnt a lot, by the hard way of course, about the hazards of leadership! The five of us who could keep our cool took an unusual decision to immediately contact the US Consul in Milan (whose office we learnt was within half an hour walking distance from the Station). As our good fortune would have it, he had still not left the office and he promised to stay till we arrived at his office. He made the necessary phone calls to Paris and Rotterdam and made some arrangements the exact nature of which was not then clear to us. But he asked us to go back to the Station and be ready to board the 11 PM train.
What actually happened at 11 PM was very Indian! The train was to start from Milan so as it was backing into the platform from the yard, we noticed that thirty towels had been used to ‘reserve’ thirty seats for us in the very familiar way in which we Indians used to appropriate seats in trains in those days when every seat was free for all!. At Rotterdam the next day our boat, the Waterman, had been made to wait five hours for us, and as soon as all of us got on the boat around 7 PM or so, it whistled off. We found our baggages had already arrived for us on the boat, thanks to the excellent logistics that must have been charted out by the Consul at Milan.
The point of this story is the leadership part that was put to the severest test during the fire-fighting and trouble-shooting and I must say this much in fairness to the story – the majority was always positive and helpful. Even the simple problem of loading and unloading the 90 pieces of luggage presented challenging leadership problems of coordination and discipline. Incidentally, the luggages were really very heavy, because we were all scheduled for travel by boat and we had to tranship them six times in two days ourselves, at Naples, Rome and Milan!
Summing up we may list the qualities all of which, I think, are fundamental characteristics of Leadership. Truth, straightforwardness, sense of shame in doing wrong, control of senses, purity and education – the six fundamental positives of Sanatsujata; Avoidance of six fundamental negatives as advised by Narada, namely of sleep, indolence, fear, anger, softness, and procrastination. To the list of positives should be added: authenticity, a fundamental shift in purpose and perspective where necessary, a spotless character, a mind that can free itself from the shackles of the past and the present, an impeccable confidence in oneself, and most of all, an absolute conviction and faith in the ideal, along with, if I may add, a self-negating humility.
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