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The highest level of leadership

Devdutt Pattanaik

Jain mythology refers to Shalakapurushas or worthy beings who regularly appear on earth to inspire and direct man to live a noble and fruitful life. There are three types of Shalakapurushas. The first is the Vasudeva, a warrior who, advised by a wiser brother called Baladeva, overpowers a villain known as the Prativasudeva. The second type is the Chakravarti, a great king whose dominion extends to every corner of the world. Finally there is the Tirthankara, a sage of the highest order, whose wisdom bridges the material world with the spiritual world. While all three impact life on earth, they do so very differently.

The Vasudeva impacts the world through physical force. He fights and defeats demons and villains. Rama and Krishna are put in this category. The Chakravarti impacts the world impersonally through his laws. Chakra or wheel refers to the circular horizon, making him the lord of all that he surveys. Since he cannot be present in every corner of his empire, he ensures stability and order by instituting a code of conduct, rewarding those who follow it and punishing those who don’t . Bharata was a great Chakravarti after whom, say the Jains, India came to be known as Bhaarat, the land of Bharata.

The Tirthankara is the silent one. He wears no clothes has no possessions yet has the maximum impact. He transforms people from within so that, even in his absence, without the aid of any law, they become gentler and more compassionate. The Tirthankara is therefore the most revered of the Shalakapurushas , adored by all. The sacred concept of the Salakapurushas perhaps holds a valuable key to leaders who find that their span of influence diminishing as the size of their enterprise increases. Take the case of Sriram.

Twenty years ago, when Sriram started his business, he had a team of ten people. He spent hours with his team, working out with them the details of the strategy and the business plan. He oversaw every plan and reviewed every performance. He interacted with customers and was sensitive to every feedback. His commitment and vision reaped rich dividends.

Ten years later, his company has grown in size: seven cities and over 100 employees. He no longer has the time to interact with each and every employee as he once did. He needs ten managers, each with a team of ten people, to manage the show. He wonders how he can maintain the quality that his once small enterprise delivered . So he works out a set of guidelines and rules and benchmarks . Through a quality control cell, overseen by him, he ensures that compliance is rewarded and deviation challenged.

Now, twenty years later, Sriram’s company has spread to 37 cities, including six abroad. His organisation employs 6000 people. He barely gets time to meet even his ten directors. He has no time for his field staff and wonders if his customers are getting the level of service he promised to deliver two decades earlier. Market research shows that the customers are not as happy as they once were. He cannot intervene personally, so what must he do? Create more rules, more quality control cells, more manuals, more business processes, more measurements ? Must his organisation become an community of soldiers where no one is allowed to think — where everyone must do what the rule book says?

Sriram realises it is time to reach the third level, way beyond the hands-on Vasudeva-type of leadership, beyond even the impersonal rule-making Chakravarti-type of leadership. But how? The answer is the toughest and the softest aspect of leadership, one that many leaders avoid because it involves giving up control. Sriram has to let his team go. He has to empower everyone to function independently. Even in his absence, without any remote control, he must be able to get them to willingly do what he expects them to do. How does he do that? By investing time and energy to make his vision, their vision. This needs to be enthusiastically and energetically cascaded down the organisation.

Can this happen? It did, in a small government office in a small district headquarters. The visiting minister noticed that the toilets were exceptionally clean. “Is it because the supervisor keeps a close watch over them?” he asked. “No,” said the head clerk. “Is it because the incentives are good?” “No,” said the head clerk . “How then did it happen?” asked the curious minister. The head clerk replied, “Because they are internally motivated to keep the place clean.

Many months ago we began the practice of having tea together, everyone from the chief to the watchman, taking about everyday things, until we realised that this is not merely the office of the government, it is the place where each and everyone of us spends a quarter of our life. Suddenly cleanliness of a place where we spend a quarter of life became important. Since the day of the realisation, we all, not just the sweepers, work towards keeping every part of the office clean.” Who made this happen? Who organised the first office meeting over tea? The head clerk does not say. He does not remember . Does it matter? A Tirthankara functions far beyond the desire for personal glory.

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