Monday, May 30, 2011

Leadership Lessons From Chanakya

Most leaders today in our country are familiar with Sun Tzu and his book ‘Art of War’. Perhaps because most book stores in the country have derivatives of his book on their shelves. But sadly not many people are familiar with another great man and his works which were produced more closer to home.

2300 years ago a man walked amongst the now ruined city of Taxila ( or Takshilla, as it was originally known). He taught at the greatest university of this region and was single handedly responsible for changing the course of history for the sub-continent. That man was Chanakya. A man who spurred on by the threat of Alexander the Great’s ever growing ambitions to conquer the world, envisioned a unified India or ‘Akhanda Bharat’. Till that time India was divided into several kingdoms and most of them were at war with each other, thus weakening their power to resist being conquered.

The manifestation of his vision was Chandragupta Maurya, the first person to rule over an empire which stretched across India and into parts of Afghanistan and Persia. But all that came about due to the vision and tutelage of Chanakya.

Chanakya also known at times as Kautilya wrote one of the earliest books on the subject of governing called ‘Arthashastra’. It outlines the details of the duties of a king and the means by which he can maintain the balance between power and keeping his subjects happy and prosperous.

When I read the Arthashastra, I was struck by how some of his concepts of kingship were still relevant for the modern leader. I have selected some of these concepts and have made an attempt to interpret them for our modern leaders, who rule not over countries, but organizations.

“When in the court, he shall never cause his petitioners to wait at the door, for when a king makes himself inaccessible to his people and entrusts his work to his immediate officers, he may be sure to engender confusion in business, and to cause thereby public disaffection, and himself a prey to his enemies.”

In organization after organization we hear the same story – leaders get ensnared in the entrapments of their titles and entitlements. The higher they are in the organization, the less accessible they become to the very people who at the end of the day are responsible for delivering results. Leaders need to understand that sending people to a communication skills workshop does not improve communication in the organization. Communication improves when the channels of communication are kept open both vertically and horizontally. When leaders are willing to answer people’s queries and take the time to explain the deliverables – that’s when people learn the value of good communication and practice it themselves.

In training after training I keep hearing the same complaint from people – their leaders or managers do not listen nor do they take out the time to explain why something needs to be done a certain way. I usually ask participants if their managers do not volunteer the information why they don’t take the initiative to ask questions themselves? Invariably the answer is – “most of them do not like it when we ask questions”.

It is no wonder that only a handful of managers enjoy the respect and admiration of their team members. Just like Chanakya said most managers suffer the disaffection of their people. There is a distance between them that can only be bridged through direct contact and better communication. No matter how many corporate initiatives the organization embarks upon or how many training sessions they may hold, nothing can replace the direct communication between leaders and team members.

“All urgent calls he shall hear at once, but never put off; for when postponed, they will prove too hard or impossible to accomplish”.

The most malignant of corporate diseases is delayed decision making. I have yet to figure out the mysterious source of this malaise, but it does seem to be a pandemic ravaging most organizations. There are several reasons why decision making is slow in so many organizations.

1. A lack of empowerment down the line is one reason why all decisions seem to get passed up the hierarchy which results in a bottleneck. People who are supposed to solve the problem are held accountable for it but the corresponding authority is not given to them. I can understand that there is an argument here for checks and balances but does the problem understand that argument and wait patiently for its resolution? Of course it doesn’t! It usually compounds in its complexity as time goes on.

2. Processes are at times followed more in letter than spirit. I’ve always maintained that good processes make a good organization. But processes need to be re-visited from time to time. If certain issues are cropping up again and again within a process then it is time to redesign it. We make a process and train our people to follow them but we fail to teach them how to deal with the deviations of that process, hence when a problem arises most process operators have no choice but to look up for solutions.

3. Decision making is centralized or rather in the custody of key personnel in the organization and these people are always busy. The priorities of the people down the line who face a problem may not always be the priorities of those who take the decision.

“In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good”.

Wise words indeed. Many a times I’ve heard the helpless HR manager complain that what he/she recommended got pushed to the side because the CEO had a completely different opinion on the matter or the CEO had a sudden flash of inspiration, perhaps it was a book he/she read, or an initiative he/she heard about or worst of all because this was something that was practiced in their last organization (even though that organization may be completely different to the one they are currently leading) etc. regardless of the source of this inspiration, that’s what gets initiated in the organization.

Each organization is different and though an intervention may work in most of them the timing of initiating new interventions varies. A good leader realizes that his/her whims and preferences come secondary to the real needs and issues of the organization.

“Whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among hermits and ascetics dwelling in forests, not to speak of householders”.

Holding people accountable for their results is one of the most important tools of a leader. Unfortunately we see time and time again that performance becomes punishing and non-performance becomes rewarding. Those who perform well are burdened with more and more responsibility and by contrast those whose performance is not up to the mark seem to get away with minimal work – simply because we do not trust them enough with the responsibility. But what it does is create resentment in the high performers, as they see themselves being laden by more and more work while the non-performer seems to be slacking off.

The modern day kings and queens do not reside in palaces but are found in boardrooms across the globe and just as the words of this ancient wisdom were relevant thousands of years ago, they still resonate true in this present day and age.

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