Leadership lessons from the oldest book on management

Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

C. Vijayakumar
Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, HCLTech
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

More than ever before, we are living in a world that is being transformed and disrupted. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here and while people across the planet enthusiastically embrace the new convergence between the physical, digital and biological worlds, there is also uncertainty and apprehension. Businesses find themselves trailing in the pace of change. Not surprisingly, business leaders are searching for new rules, new mantras of success.

Watching this transition up close and personal, from the eye of the technological storm, I believe we need to look deeper, deeper into ourselves and possibly into our past. Could the rules and mantras we seek be the old ones we have left behind? As we pick up the debate on Responsible and Responsive leadership today, there are lessons on leadership in India’s rich heritage of timeless scriptures that seem worth revisiting.

According to Vedic philosophy, business is as an integral part of society and should create wealth for the society through the right action. The Arthashastra, and Chanakya Sutras written by Kautilya (also known as Chanakya) around 300 BC, address the biggest conundrum facing us today: the apparent contradiction between being responsible to our people and being responsive to the tearing transformation taking place around us. Surprisingly as per the tenets of what is considered the oldest books on management, there is no contradiction.

These books were written as guidelines for running an empire, for Emperor Chandragupta, the first ruler of the Mauryan Empire. A copy of the treatise, written on palm leaves, was discovered and translated to English a century ago. Since then, several researchers have drawn inferences from the rich scripture, covering the subjects of statecraft, governance, economic policy, politics, military strategy and leadership, in particular.

One of the basic tenets set in today’s context indicates that responsiveness without responsibility is ineffective and responsibility without responsiveness is inefficient.

Sukhasya Moolam Dharma, meaning that happiness stems from doing the right things;

Dharmasya Moolam Artha, meaning that doing the right things (on a larger scale) requires wealth;

Arthasya Moolam Raajyam, meaning that the means to wealth is a profitable enterprise.

So how does one do the right things while simultaneously nurturing a profitable enterprise?

The three powerful leadership lessons from Arthashastra that reinforce responsible and responsive leadership are:

  • Responsibility towards all stakeholders
  • Keeping the employee first
  • Developing a culture that can learn, unlearn, re-learn
Responsibility towards all

At the very core, the scripture takes an inside-out view on leadership and rather than offering guidance to leaders on how to inspire others to follow, it lays down principles for the leader personally. The Arthashastra asserts that an organization can profit as well as sustain long-term advantage if its leader conducts business in an ethical and socially responsible manner, with responsibility towards all stakeholders. If a leader were agile and responsive to change without keeping in mind the responsibility for all stakeholders, the benefit to business would be short-lived. In turn, if a leader would be cognizant of this responsibility but be heavy-footed in response to change, it might result in loss of profits and therefore a lack of resources necessary to undertake responsibility.

Being responsive and responsible to all stakeholders is not easy, and this brings us to the next lesson...

Keeping the employee first:

Amongst all stakeholders, keeping employees first is the choice a leader needs to make to be responsive and deliver responsible outcomes to all stakeholders. The scriptures dictate that the satisfaction of a leader lies in the welfare of his people, and needs to be observed as a fundamental principle in a leader’s decisions. I have seen this at close quarters for the past two decades and it has always delivered superior business outcomes. Chanakya stresses that the satisfaction of a leader lies in the welfare of his people, and needs to be observed as a fundamental principle in a leader’s decisions. As today’s leaders struggle with the right way forward in adopting new technologies, this principle could offer a simple but powerful guide.

Being employee centric to deliver value to all stakeholders requires us to take another look at how we identify and nurture our employee strengths.

Developing a culture that can learn, unlearn and re-learn

To be successful in the long term, the scripture goes on to emphasize, a leader and his teams need to consciously take time out for continuous learning. They should learn new things and familiarize themselves with those already learnt, and listen repeatedly to things not learnt. In today’s furious pace of change, there couldn’t be a better time for leaders to think on this principle.

I find a strong analogy between the teachings of Chanakya and Alvin Toffler’s quote: “The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

What I reinforce within my teams is the constant need to learn and re-learn in our disruptive business because knowledge, coupled with a belief in the greater good, is what helps us channel our apprehensions into an inherent strength and our challenges into opportunities.

The applicability of these ancient learnings in today’s changing times is being increasingly recognized, not only in business but also across the spectrum of leadership. These teachings remain relevant today because what is unchanged is our human nature.

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