Leadership in western and Indian perspective


The story goes that the emperor of the Egypt had enslaved innumerable men and women for building his great pyramids. The emperor was not compassionate towards the needs of his slaves and they were suffering. With no freedom, and of course, no trace of equality and dignity. They were waiting for a miracle to happen. They were waiting that someone will arrive and rescue them from the slavery and the sufferings. And the messiah arrived; in the form of Moses, the saint who liberated people from slavery. Moses promised that he will take them to a land where there will be no slavery, no lack of food, no scarcity of resources, and there will be ‘equality’. The people, convinced with his vision, followed him towards the Promised Land, the heaven. A land ruled by the word of God where everyone would be equal in front of the eyes of the God. This story forms the ideological basis for the idea of the ‘leadership’. A messiah who comes to liberate people from their present sufferings and takes them towards a promised land,which will be free from the sufferings. The idea is, clearly, contextualized in Abrahamic faiths where various messiahs come to earth carrying the word of the God to take people towards the Promised Land, or heaven.

In various western mythologies, especially the Greek, a leader is often seen as a masculine warlord hero who is born to conquer and make his life spectacular. The hero,having his bag full of achievements then can claim his due position in the Elysium, a special heaven made for the heroes, and enjoy his afterlife forever. Here, the leader is a masculine individual who will/can defy the constraints of life put on him, will rise in the most unfavorable situations and change the world. One can see this pattern in the Greek stories where various heroes like Hercules and Oedipus face every challenge put forth to them and ‘become’ an extra-ordinary individual who has achieved far more in his life than everyone else. One can also sense the same pattern getting repeated in the legend of Alexander – the great, when he went on conquering the world. In other words,this leadership focuses on individualism and heroism, where only the leader reaches Elysium.

In case of the Indian worldview, the idea of the leadership in this sense is very rarely presented. One of the most important historical figure from ancient India who spoke about liberating humans from sufferings was ‘Gautama Buddha’. However, he didn’t spoke of taking people towards a promised land, but he spoke of ‘Nirvana’. Nirvana is a state where an individual liberates himself from the sufferings by changing their own view of the world as the individual learns that everybody’s life is a full of sufferings. And sufferings and pleasure both are perishable, not permanent. The Individual learns that one can’t escape from the sufferings permanently. Hence, there is no point in striving to go towards a promised land, but one can create one wherever they are. Hence, there are no messiahs coming to rescue one from the sufferings, but one liberates oneself from the sufferings at the place where one is. The various Bodhisattvas described in Jataka Katha of Buddhist literature are the stories of how Buddha or Bodhisattva showed his compassion towards the suffering people and gave them solace, but he doesn’t promise them a position in heaven. This forms the fundamental difference between the ways of dealing with sufferings between the western way and the Indian way.

In the Ramayana, we find different types of leaderships shown by different characters in various stories. In the chapter of Sundar Kand, the Vanaras of Kishindha are instructed by Sugriva to go in the search of Sita. The leader of their troop is a vanara named as Angad, who is junior to Hanuman. Here Angad is taking the role of the ‘frontline leader’ who decides the direction to which the troop will move. Hanuman, as we know, is more senior and more capable than Angad. And yet the Hanuman is comfortable being at the backseat while allowing the comparatively young Angad to lead. This is a role of what we call as a ‘mentoring leader’, who is guiding Angad about where to go time to time. Hanuman allows Angad freedom to make decisions and mistakes, but is there when Angad needs support from seniors.

Hanuman can also be termed as a ‘super leader’, an idea became much popular during 1990s with the works of scholars like H P Sims (Junior) and P Loranzi. This theory propounds that the super leader is someone who is leading others to ‘lead himself’. They are the leaders who not just give back what their followers desire, but also inspire their followers to figure out what is their own path. Superleaders were also known for having the ability to create many other leaders like them. One can also extend this quality to the other puranic figures such as Rama and Krishna who created the new leaders like them. Rama reignites the potential in Hanuman, which in turn make Hanuman a deity in his own right. Krishna makes the Yudhishthira, a perfect king who rules the Hastinapur after defeating Kauravas in the famous Mahabharata war.

Heavens and hells are not permanent, neither do the residents of these realms as per Indian scriptures. This is why Ram, Krishna or Hanuman do not strive for a place in heaven for themselves, neither do they take anyone to heaven because no one can remain there permanently. Rama, Krishna, Hanuman and Buddha are known as ‘Bhagwan’, one who makes people see of the bigger picture (Darshan in Sanskrit) of the jigsaw puzzle called ‘life’ by joining the smaller pieces (Bhaag in Sanskrit). Hence, here the leadership is more about kingship and governance and expanding the minds of the followers.

One must differentiate the super leadership from the classic western idea of leadership,bearing in mind that the Super leaders are not taking their followers towards the Promised Land. They are inspiring their followers to discover their own paths towards the Promised Land as Rama inspires Hanuman to discover his potential, Krishna inspires Yudhishthira to discover his potential to be a good king. They also make their followers
aware that the Promised Land is not a permanent destination. Thus, we find that the Indian way of the leadership has broadly two styles. One where the leader encourages their followers to create their own promised land around them like Gautama Buddha,or the one who inspires their followers to find their own path towards their own Promised Land. Both styles having empowerment of the followers by expanding their minds as the most important feature of the leadership. And at the end, the leader sheds his responsibilities by creating another leader capable of taking the responsibilities of the super leader – who created him.

Pattanaik D (2016). Leadership Sutra: an Indian Approach to power. Aleph book company, New Delhi

Tharoor S. (2018). Why I am a Hindu. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company

Sims Jr, H.P. and Lorenzi, P., (1992). The new leadership paradigm: Social learning and cognition in organizations. Sage Publications, Inc.

About Ajinkya Kulkarni 6 Articles
A trained engineer from IIT Madras now working in the field of Organizational Psychology. Have deep interest into Indian culture and traditions, and wants to understand the meaning behind it. Aspires to be the C V Raman of Organizational Psychology one day and make India proud. Always open to civil dialogue. I often give contradictory opinions; in that case, my latest opinion is the corrected one.