How Relevant Are Leadership Lessons from an Ancient Indian Classic?

With iconic corporate leaders like Rajat Gupta, former managing director of consulting firm McKinsey & Co., being convicted of insider trading, notions of leadership and corporate ethics are once again in the spotlight. In his recent book, Timeless Leadership: 18 Leadership Sutras from The Bhagavad Gita, Debashis Chatterjee, director of the Indian Institute of Management in Kozhikode, has tried to glean universal principles of leadership from the ancient classic.

The Bhagavad Gita, also referred to as The Gita, comprises about 700 verses and is part of the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata. While The Mahabharata centers on the power struggle between two groups of royal cousins and their battle in Kurukshetra in North India, The Gita is a conversation between two of its main characters, Arjuna and his mentor Krishna, in the battlefield. Faced with the dilemma of waging war against his kin, Arjuna is paralyzed into inaction and turns to Krishna for counsel. Responding to Arjuna’s confusion, Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a warrior and a prince and also expounds on a range of practical and philosophical issues. The setting of The Gita, in the midst of a battle, is widely considered as an allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of human life.

Chatterjee has taught leadership classes at Harvard University and at the Indian Institutes of Management in Calcutta, Lucknow and Kozhikode for nearly two decades. He says the lessons from The Bhagavad Gita continue to be very relevant in the boardrooms of the 21st century across the world. In a conversation with India Knowledge@Wharton, Chatterjee notes, “The idea of The Gita is fundamentally a global idea. It just happens that it originated in India.”

An edited version of the transcript follows:

India Knowledge@Wharton: In the introduction to your book, you have said that it is an attempt to “trans-create” rather than to translate The Bhagavad Gita for insights into leadership. Can you share your thinking on this?

Debashis Chatterjee: The Gita was written in Sanskrit a few thousand years ago. Actually, it wasn’t written — it was a spoken text, and it was in a particular context, which is The Mahabharata and the battle of Kurukshetra. If I had just translated the work, most readers would find it very difficult to connect. The point of conveying the truth of the work was to recreate the context in the corporate world. So I’ve looked at Kurukshetra as a corporate battle…. There is a land grabber, and there is a tragic hero, who despite all of his capabilities has a performance breakdown in the field. [The Gita] is a timeless classic, but it has to be revisited for each generation, for each context…. Trans-creation became very important because it tries to rescue The Gita from the religious connotations.

India Knowledge@Wharton: How much, and in what way, is the idea of leadership that is adopted by a community or country impacted by its culture and history?

Chatterjee: Anybody who is in a leadership role is [shaped] by his or her history and culture and in turn [also] creates the culture. It’s not an either/or process. My research tells me that someone who evolves out of a certain milieu carries the nuances of that milieu or that culture and, in turn, he will trans-create, he will impact the culture. If I look at The Gita, it is a universal principle expressed in a cultural context…. What has happened in the Rajat Gupta [insider trading] case in the U.S. is precisely the Gita playing out [in a different context.]

India Knowledge@Wharton: In an increasingly globalized world, how does one reconcile the different attitudes — shaped by history, culture, economics and other factors — toward leadership and justice? Also, how relevant are lessons of leadership from The Gita for the rest of the world?

Chatterjee: You are looking at globalization largely from the American economic perspective. There are many different kinds of globalization. There was a globalized world when there was no demarcation between countries and when there were no passports…. Ideas have no geographies. Jagdish Chandra Bose in India invented the radio around the same time or even before [Guglielmo] Marconi invented it in Italy, but Bose did not get the credit for it while Marconi did. Just because the motor car was first put in motion in America doesn’t mean that the technology belongs to America. It belongs to the world. Or take gravity, which was discovered by [Isaac] Newton…. Any discovery process is just putting a name to what already is. The idea of The Gita is fundamentally a global idea. It just happens that it originated in India.

If anybody wants to do business in India, they have to study The Gita because most Indian CEOs swear by the book. Starting from Mukesh Ambani [chairman and managing director of Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries] down to virtually any CEO, if you ask them what is the one leadership book that has made the deepest impact, they will say it is The Gita.

India Knowledge@Wharton: But do they actually follow the principles of The Gita? There is so much corruption that one sees in the corporate world.

Chatterjee: Well, I can ask a counter question: The Ten Commandments have been around for such a long time. Do people follow them? The Gita is the deep structure of any Indian corporate leader, whether he follows it or not. One expression from The Gita — be committed to your work and not the results — is universally accepted in India. Every household in the country has read about it. And while the terminology of The Gita may be specific to India, the principles are universal. That was my work in the book; to glean the principles.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Globally, what are the most critical aspects of leadership at present? How are these different from earlier decades?

Chatterjee: There is an extraordinary amount of information overload that we carry in our heads today. Never before has the swarm of information hit us so badly. And alongside that, there is emotional turmoil. We are constantly in the “watch” mode. As a result, the pressure on the human psyche is huge…. For leaders to make sense of this overload and see what is critical becomes the number one global skill. You also need to look at the rapid discontinuities that are taking place in technology. Leaders need greater adaptability skills to gear up and change themselves and their organizations. Arjuna [the protagonist of The Gita] is the corporate CEO, who is taking on turmoil [of] the proportions of a battle and is not able to handle [the pressure.]. He requires another kind of consciousness. So, leaders of today need to adapt to another kind of consciousness where they are able to take in a lot more. Their neural architecture has to be reshaped differently. This means that their consciousness of their world has to amplify. This requires another stage of evolution and I think The Gita is a book of evolution. People should look at this book again very closely.

India Knowledge@Wharton: As a society, are we across the world becoming increasingly driven more by economic considerations? Is there also an increasing lack of work-life balance in our lives? What role can our leaders play in bringing about a balance and, also, what is the role of the business schools that are developing our future leaders?

Chatterjee: The point is that there is nothing called “work versus life”…. Life does not present itself in compartments, as the mind does. The mind is constantly preoccupied. So when we talk of work-life balance, you are fundamentally talking about your preoccupation with work when you are at home and your preoccupation with home when you are at work. The Gita’s solution is that if your occupation is clouded by your preoccupation, you are not really doing your work — whatever work it may be. The challenge is how you deal with your preoccupations. The Gita shows [how you can] take away your preoccupation from your occupation, which means that you deal with your emotional overload and integrate your life well. Then the balance will be automatically restored in your life. The Gita is a phenomenal text in terms of attitude shifts that you need to have, that one needs to see life in its unity and not compartments.

India Knowledge@Wharton: You have said that The Gita is very relevant in the boardrooms of the 21st century. But corporate executives from other religions may have a mind-block against adopting the lessons based on a religious book. Do you see this as a barrier to wider acceptance of your book? And how do you propose to overcome this barrier?

Chatterjee: That’s the reason why the title of the book is Timeless Leadership and not The Bhagavad Gita. The subtext is 18 Leadership Sutras from The Gita and not The Gita. Stephen Covey has taken the Mormon tradition and written the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I am looking at universal principles — like for instance, E=MC2. And that’s where the first point we discussed comes in — my book is not a translation, it is a trans-creation. Anyone who has a block against the Hindu religion or India should not find it preventing him from appreciating the principles that cross geographies, cultural frontiers and also time barriers.

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