Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 7 Sept 2007
Hindu gods are distinguished from each other by the symbols they carry. Shiva, the ascetic, for example, is identified by his trident and rattle drum. Brahma, the priest-teacher, is identified by his books, rosary and pot. Vishnu, the leader-king, is identified with four symbols: conch-shell trumpet or shankh, discus whirring around his index finger or chakra, a mace or gada and a lotus or padma. Come to think of it a good leader also has only four tools to get his work done. His very own shankh, chakra, gada and padma. Only, one does not identify his tools using mythological vocabulary.
Vishnu’s shankh or conch-shell trumpet is blown to announce his presence on a battlefield. In Vedic times, this instrument was used by commanders to rally their troops. Warriors also used this to demonstrate their stamina before their enemies for blowing a conch-shell trumpet was a measure of lung-power and mind control. Every warrior in the Mahabharat from Krishna to Arjun had his very own conch-shell. One can view the conch-shell as an instrument of COMMUNICATION. The first rule of leadership is to be an effective communicator. Your team must know who you are, what your capabilities are, what your vision is and what you expect them to do, and why, and how this will help in achieving your final objective. Your competition also needs to know that you are powerful and they must avoid confrontation. Unless you communicate, nobody is aware of your presence. ‘Blowing your own trumpet’ and getting your thoughts across is necessary if anything needs to get done.
Vishnu’s chakra or discus which whirs round his index finger is both a weapon as well as a symbol of life that Vishnu sustains. As a weapon, it strikes a target, trims the unwanted and undesirable elements like an electric saw and returns to Vishnu’s finger like a boomerang. As a symbol of life, it indicates time (what goes around comes around in this life or the next) and space (the circular horizon of our worldview). One can view the chakra as a symbol of REVIEW. A good leader’s job does not end with communicating what he desires and what he expects from his team. He reviews their progress regularly by organizing daily meetings, weekly meetings, monthly meetings. In these meetings, he checks what has been done and what has not been done. He ensures that the team has not drifted from the goal. He discovers what has worked and what has not. He identifies new creative thoughts and anticipates possible hurdles. This he does again and again and again. Repetition is the key word. With each review, things get trimmed and the vision gets sharper and clearer so that a new horizon of possibilities emerge.
To keep your team on track, the traditional method is to use the system of reward and punishment discretely. Vishnu’s carrot and stick approach of leadership is represented through his mace or gada and his lotus or padma. The mace is like a teacher’s ruler, to punish those who do not do what they are supposed to do. The lotus rich with nectar and pollen, that attracts bees and butterfly, is for those who do what they are supposed to do and more. The one he uses to strike down the rule/law/system breakers. The other he uses to reward the rule/law/system followers. Thus he keeps his team on the straight and narrow, ensuring they achieve what they set out to achieve together. The one ensures that errors are not repeated. The other ensures that best practices are always followed.
In some organizations, the four tools generate fear and anxiety. When this happens, both the goal and the tools have to be relooked at. Is the goal driven by reality or falsehood? Is it motivated by greed? Is the conch-shell trumpeting or the rotation of the wheel excessive? Is the mace too harsh or the lotus too stingy? In some organizations, the tools serve no purpose. People continue to do what they are supposed to do, moving in different directions, with no alignment to each other. When this happens, the communication has to be relooked at. Has the message gone through correctly or is the message changing repeatedly confusing all or is there a message at all? The message often contains only the goal – what must be achieved. The conch-shell, however, must also communicate how it must be achieved.
The aim of the review is to focus on the how – if the prescribed methods are working or failing, the reasons for the success and failure. Often review meetings are not used for review what has been planned – they are used to generate new ideas and discard old ones. New whats and new hows to replace old whats and old hows. Review meetings can generate new insights but it must never be at the cost of the planned agenda. New ideas must be parked, reviewed later and then communicated accordingly. Otherwise, the review loses its purpose and the conch-shell only produces cacophony, with things going in every direction.
If all is well, if the what and how are clear, and if short term results show that they are achievable, then the only way to reach the ultimate goal is to make things happen. It is by using reward and punishment to drive the team. Reward need not be monetary; it can be a kind word, recognition, acknowledgment. Punishment need not be a public humiliation or a cut in incentive; it can be a simple awareness of failure. Good leaders typically reward the team in times of success but punish themselves in times of failure. By taking the ownership of failure, they generate a more powerful relationship with the organization. Mahabharat tells the story of Kuru who used his own flesh as seed and his blood as water when drought struck his kingdom. This suffering for the sake of his people earned him the admiration of the gods who declared that those who die in Kuru’s field (live as Kuru did?) would go to heaven.
Proof of optimal tool usage comes when Vishnu, the leader, creates Vaikuntha, an organization which is stable and harmonious, where every individual thrives, where the team works in alignment, and where organizational goals are achieved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.