It’s rather unusual that I’m writing on leadership. In fact, I had never intended to write on this particular topic, for I always felt I’m not knowledgeable enough in this particular area. Fiction is something that I enjoy reading and writing too. History, culture, language, music etc. are some of the areas of my interest. Perhaps that makes me irrelevant too for writing serious stuff on leadership. Accordingly, no one has ever asked me to write on this particular topic. I’ve been asked to write on quite a disparate range of things, from “No Shave November” (I didn’t even know such a thing ever existed) to “Post Truth” (which I personally found quite hypocritical though), but never on leadership or any topic relating to management.

Having got the chance to personally know Rakesh Godhwani (a very accomplished and popular writer of multiple self-help and management books and a professor at the IIM Bangalore) and having read his books, I realized I should never attempt this particular area of writing. Rakesh’s books are amongst the best that I’ve read in this regard and I know any attempt there would be disastrous.

Nevertheless, when I finally got a request to write a series on leadership, my first reaction was of denial. Later, upon some persuasion, I came up with a trick. In Bengali there’s a humorous concept called “Gorur Rachona”, which literally translates to “An essay on cow”. The background is that of a student who had prepared for an essay on cow for his Bengali language exam, and was shocked to find out that the topic was not cow but crow instead. Our student was first panicked, but then he came up with a novel idea. He started writing, “Crow is not a useful creature. It’s black and is often seen as a bad omen. It can’t be domesticated. It doesn’t give milk. Neither does it have any social or religious significance in our culture, unlike cow…” And then he went on talking about cow…

So here it is. I take inspiration from that smart student. I’ll rather get the topic of “Leadership” hijacked from the beginning by something which I’m marginally more aware of – Indian culture and history.

Let me talk about the idea of Leadership in our culture and investigate if the traditional ideas and concepts are relevant to the corporate world.

Let’s start with the definition of “leader”. English dictionary gives the definition as, a person or thing that leads; a guiding or directing head, as of an army or movement; a conductor or director, as of an orchestra, band or chorus; the player at the head of the first violins in an orchestra… The definition is quite explicit.

Let’s see what could be the best word for leader in Indian languages, a representative of which could be taken as Sanskrit. Loosely, the term “neta” is used widely for a leader in India. But “neta”, coming from the root “ni”, etymologically means an upholder of justice, nyaya, and hence may not be an apt word for “leader”.

Interestingly, one of the Sanskrit words for leader is agraga, which means, someone who goes into the front. That goes very well with the general meaning of someone who leads. So we settle for the definition of a leader as someone who goes into the front. It’s a rather simplistic definition, but it satisfies the necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for a leader. In popular imagery, a leader is always seen as someone who’s at the forefront. Leading from the back is something a matter of conjecture, and may be a joke too.

In Indian culture, perhaps the most decorated and unanimous leader is Krishna, who victoriously led the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. The most discussed aspect of his leadership is doubtless the role that he played as the charioteer, sarathi, of Arjuna during the battle of Kurukshetra. That has also been one of the most popular depictions of adult Krishna (the image of a naughty kid stealing buttermilk is perhaps equally popular in our minds) in any form of art in India, for centuries. Whenever we think of a grown up Krishna in this serious avatar (when he’s of course not playing flute with Radha and her girlfriends) the first image that comes to our mind is that of a hunk riding Arjuna’s chariot, driven by seven white horses. In this avatar, he is seen as a protector, friend, philosopher and guide of Arjuna. Being at the front, agraga, Krishna would have taken the first blow, had Arjuna been hit by an arrow. That talks everything about what a leader should be. A leader is a protector, savior, the first one to take the blow if anything goes wrong, the first one to die in the battlefield. A direct corollary to this is that, any manager who doesn’t protect her team, and who always blames her team for any failure, is surely not a leader, but a horrible manager. A good manager, like a true leader, should be like a shield to her team, facing the bullets, never running away from the front, and never blaming anyone for any failure.

Defining leader as agraga, someone who’s at the front, we can take a few other examples. In the modern world, one of the most popular leaders, doubtless, is Gandhi. And talking about Gandhi, the most popular imagery of his is that of a half naked old frail man with a stick in his hand, striding forward in firm steps, ahead of an ocean of people, the people of India, who had anointed him the undisputed leader of their fate, the leader of their heart, their bhagya vidhata.

This very definition of a leader, one who goes in the front, leads to a few identifying features of a leader too. The first and the foremost is that, a leader should have followers, not listeners.

When Krishna is leading Arjuna, as his charioteer, he is actually following Krishna, and not merely listening to him. Krishna has evoked a sense of security and trust in the mind of Arjuna, and hence he has become a follower. Krishna’s words are not just mere instructions or advices or commands of a boss to Arjuna. Krishna’s words have become Arjuna’s inspiration, his life energy, prana. Arjuna follows Krishna, not because he has ordered or asked him to do so, but because Arjuna feels like following him, out of his love and devotion for Krishna.

Millions of people followed Mahatma Gandhi, not because Gandhi had ordered or instructed them to do so, but because they all felt like doing so. The whole country followed him out of love, and not out of any compulsion.

A true leader is she, who is followed, and not merely obeyed or listened to.

Most managers we see in office are actually obeyed, not followed. That’s where they all fail to become leaders. They remain managers. They remain as mere instructors, order givers, and people listen to them out of fear and obligation.

This leads to the next question: when should be someone followed and not merely listened to?

G B Shaw gave the answer to this question, though in a different context altogether. He had said, “One who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.”

People generally follow a Doer. A leader never says, “You do.” Leader always does, and people follow. Gandhi didn’t order anyone to go to Dandi and make salt. He himself went, and the country followed him.

A manager who has evolved into a leader never says, “Do this.” He always does. His employees follow.

In this regard, I recall a discussion with a taxi driver in Delhi I had had a few years back, just after AAP had won the Delhi election very decisively. I had asked the taxi driver what he felt about Arvind Kejriwal. He answered, “woh humesha kuchh na kuchh to karte hi rehta hain… (He always keeps on doing something or the other…) There has to be something about him.” So it’s very clear what actually had endeared Arvind Kejriwal the most to the taxi driver, whose fraternity had heavily backed him: it was Kejriwal’s unanimous image as a “doer”. Whether he always did the right thing is an altogether different aspect, but the very fact that he was seen as a Doer, rather than a preacher, made him a perfect leader of the mass.

The same can be said of Narendra Modi too. His biggest strength as a leader is his image as a Doer. People like him because he always does something. He is seen as a Karma Yogi.

A good boss has to be first an undisputed Karma Yogi, a Doer, and not a mere preacher. And a boss who’s a Doer would seldom blame her team. She would herself take the blame, as that’s also something she can’t resist doing. A preacher boss, on the other hand, can’t resist herself from blaming her team, as she never wants to “do” anything. Blaming is another form of preaching, or rather, “teaching”, in G B Shaw’s parlance.

A good boss knows. She does.

A bad boss doesn’t know. She teaches.

So now there can be a pertinent question: if the leader does everything, then how would she make her team work and follow her? That brings us to perhaps the most important aspect about leadership: Inspiration.

We’re used to hearing that the team should be motivated, that the job of a manager is to motive her team. How wrong it is. Did Krishna motivate Arjuna to fight the Kurukshetra Battle against his kin? Did Gandhi motivate the entire nation to endure the penance of nonviolence? Did Mao Tse Tung really motivate the million Chinese to join him in the arduous Long March? Did Hitler motivate the Germans into the heinous crimes of killing the Nazis? Of course not. They all had in reality inspired the people. A closer look at the words “motivation” and “inspiration” will tell the difference between the two. Motivation is just a cause or reason to act; and inspiration, like respiration, is related to the Latin spirare, meaning “to breathe”. In Sanskrit, one of the words for inspiration is prana, the life energy. So simplistically, when you inspire someone, you’re actually making her breathe, arousing her prana, her life energy. When you try to motivate her, she may not agree to a reason you provide to act. But when you inspire, she doesn’t care for any reason. You’re actually giving her the life energy and not just a reason to act, but the means to live. Like how she breathes, involuntarily, she follows you too. In such a case, she may be even manipulated into doing the wrong things, like in the case of hapless Germans. But, when done in the right way, inspiration can do wonders.

A leader is she, who inspires, not motivates.

If a manager can’t inspire her people, she’s no manager. And that’s the case with most of the managers in the world. They are just not inspiring. Uninspiring managers can be disastrous in organizations. Having failed to inspire their teams into delivering, they would resort to all sorts of ways to push them hard, often ridiculing, humiliating or even intimidating. All their ways or management styles would then become the manifestations of their frustrations, their limitations.

That brings us to the next question: how do you inspire people? We’ll see that in the next in the series.