Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

September 23, 2007

First published September 22, 2007

Deeds for leaders

21 Sep, 2007, 0525 hrs IST,Devdutt Pattanaik, TNN

So it’s your first day of work as the new leader of the team. Is it your appointment letter that makes you a leader? Or do actions make you a leader? What actions must you take to establish your leadership? Is there any step-by-step approach by which a leader can be made? While everyone agrees leaders are born, not made, scriptures do refer to a series of ‘yagnas’ or rituals that can make a king of a man.

The first of these is undoubtedly Vivah or marriage – marriage between the king and his kingdom, the leader and the organisation. In epic times, a man could not be king without a queen by his side because the queen represented the kingdom. Just as a husband has to love, protect, nourish and delight his wife, the king was expected to love, protect, nourish and delight his kingdom.

This connection between the leader and organisation is critical. He has to believe in the organisation , its goals and its values, or he cannot be a leader. In the absence of vivah , a man is not leader, just an employee doing a job that gives him salary and status. Don’t expect him to be proactive , creative or enthusiastic.

After Vivah, ‘Rajasuya’ has to be performed. In the Mahabharata , when Yudhishtir expresses his desire to be a king, Krishna advises him to do something spectacular like killing the mighty Jarasandh before organising the Rajasuya or coronation ceremony.

“Only then will they respect your kingship and acknowledge your sovereignty.” Before a man is promoted to a senior position, it is critical that he be accepted by his peer group – the other kings. To justify this rise, he needs some tangible achievement, a proof of concept, without which he remains a wannabe, a dreamer . In many tribes, for example , the future king was encouraged to kill a lion or tiger or wolf. Only this would make men follow him into a battle.

Part of the coronation ceremony involved ‘Abhishek’ , when in the presence of all; water was poured over the king. This ‘public bathing’ was a transformation ritual. It put a man on a pedestal, made him special, the first among equals, greater than the rest.

Often, and this is typically seen in sales companies, a field manager is sent to his headquarters without any attempt by the management to ceremonially crown him king in front of those he is supposed to manage. He lands up in the city alone and has to spend weeks asserting his managership.

The transition is not always smooth or successful. A simple meeting or meal where the management introduces the manager formally to the executives who are supposed to follow him gives the manager a much needed validation. It tells the team that the manager has the blessings of a ‘higher power’.

After the crown has been publicly placed, managers often face hostility from their team. He is a stranger, a new boss. Relationships have to be established. Hierarchies and processes have to be put in place. The worst thing to do is to add value or impose authority without connecting with the team.

For this connection, an ‘Upanishad’ is required – a discussion, a debate, a hearing of everyone’s views before the leader declares his vision. This ‘hearing’ must be genuine. There are clever leaders who hear but never listen. This is soon discovered and the leader ends up losing the connection with the team.

After the Upanishad, the king had to define his Dharma — his vision and how he expects this to be realised. Dharma had two components: ‘varna’ or station in the organisation and ‘ashrama’ or stage in the employee. Varna-dharma means defining the roles, the rights and the responsibilities of every employee.

Often , this is never clarified. When roles overlap, there is chaos. The vision is forgotten and personal rivalries drive the organisational agenda. This can be seen as a measure of leadership failure. To lead, one must be clear what one wants and what each member of the team is supposed to do to make that happen.

Ashrama-dharma means knowing which member of the organisation is in which stage of his job or his career – learning stage, delivering stage, teaching stage or retiring stage. If a person has outgrown his job, it is time to give him a new job. If a person has outgrown his responsibility, it is time to give him a higher responsibility . Otherwise he will wither away and sap the organisation of its strength.

The most spectacular of royal yagnas in ancient times was the ‘Ashwamedha’ , during which the royal horse wandered freely followed by the king’s army. All the lands the horse traversed unchallenged became part of the king’s dominion . Those who stopped the horse had to answer to the king’s soldiers.

A king’s Ashwamedha helped identify those who submitted to him and those who challenged him. Ashwamedha was a dangerous ritual: it could lead to a king’s defeat and humiliation. In the corporate world, there are no horses. But every leader has an agenda, a vision he seeks to realise.

This is his horse. The information, facts and arguments that he has to back his vision is his army. The power-point presentation, one could say, is the horse; the excel sheet with all the research data justifying the numbers presented is the army. Without a strong army, the horse will be challenged. To stay leader, the horse must traverse unchallenged or the army must be strong enough to overpower any challenge.

Once the conquest is complete , and the idea has been planted in the organisation, the king must do his ‘Digvijay’ yatra. Digvijay means conquest of the sky or the directions . In ancient times, kings traversed the length and breath of their kingdoms in ceremonial processions.

In the corporate world, the leader must travel through departments and ensure he is seen and that his vision is known to all. Often leaders let their team do the talking. This creates an impression that the king is a puppet or has no mind of his own. A true leader needs to do Digvijaya to assert his authority and to tell the world where he plans to lead them and how.

Finally, there is the ‘Vajapeya’ , a yagna of regeneration . This was done by kings from time to time to reinforce their authority. Make a head roll to tell the world who is the boss, for people’s memories are often short.

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