Column: Freedom Fighters & Bhagavad Gita – Defining Leadership (Part -1)

Friday, August 05 2016, 10:36 AM
There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept. There is a continuous debate whether leadership is different from management?

Abraham Zaleznik of Harvard Business School argues that managers tend to adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitude towards goals, whereas leaders take a personal and active attitude towards goal. While, John Kotter, a colleague of Zaleznik at Harvard, also argues that management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, in contrast, is about coping with change. No wonder that leadership literature is voluminous and much of it is confusing and contradictory.  

One of the important approaches to leadership has tried to find Universal Personal Traits, the second tried to explore the leadership in terms of behavior, the third looked to contingency model; and now researchers are trying to identifying the set of traits that people implicitly refer to when they characterize someone as a leader. 

The researchers' effort at isolating these traits resulted in a number of dead ends. For instance, a review of twenty different studies identified nearly eighty leadership traits, but only five of these traits were common to four or more of the investigations.  

The inability to strike 'gold' in the trait mines led researchers to look at the behavior that specific leaders exhibited. Two most popular studies were Ohio State Group studies and University of Michigan Group studies. There were other studies also, but all of them faced the same problem, they had very little success in identifying consistent relationships between patterns of leadership behavior and group's performance. General statements could not be made because results varied over different range of circumstances. What were missing were the situational factors that influence success or failure.  

The failure to obtain consistent results led to a focus on situational influences. It was one thing to say that leadership effectiveness was dependent on the situation and another to be able to isolate those situational conditions.  Some of the models were: Fiedler Model and Hersey and Balanchard's situational theory. 

The first contingency model was Fiedler model which proposed that effective group performance depends upon the proper match between the leader's style of interacting with his or her subordinates and the degree to which the situation gives control and influence to the leader. He argues that leadership style is innate to a person – you can't change your style to fit changing situations. Field studies fell short of providing full support to this model. 

Hersey and Balanchard's situational theory focused on the followers. They concluded successful leadership is achieved by selecting the right leadership style and which is contingent on the level of the follower's maturity.  Some researchers provided partial support for this theory while others found no support for these assumptions.  

The topic of leadership does not lack for theories. But the theories of these traits to predict leadership success are just not that strong.  

Some of the more recent approaches to leadership have been:

  • Attribution theory of leadership: Leadership is merely an attribution that people make about other individuals,
  • Charismatic leadership: Followers make attributions of heroic or extraordinary leadership abilities when they observe certain behaviors
  • Transactional versus Transformational leadership: 
  • Transactional leaders guide or motivate their followers in the direction of establishing goals by clarifying role and task requirements.  

Transformational leaders provide individualized consideration and intellectual stimulations and who possess charisma.  All these theories deemphasize theoretical complexity and look at leadership more the way the average 'person on the street' views the subject.  

As we see in West, there has been a transition in approaches to the study of leadership from the simple trait orientation to the increasingly complex and sophisticated transactional models. A major breakthrough in the understanding of leadership came when the need to include situational factor was recognized. Now the study of leadership has expanded to include more heroic and visionary approaches to leadership. As West learns more about the personal characteristic that followers attribute to charismatic and transformational leaders and about the conditions that facilitate their emergence, West will be better equipped to predict better when followers will exhibit extraordinary commitment and loyalty to their leaders and to those leaders goals.   

Now, West is, slowly, realizing that leadership can be put into a matrix as it is a far more complex subject and parameters involved are too many. The subject of leadership needs to be looked very differently. There is an Indian definition of leadership called "Krishna", which can solve the leadership definition problem.

Morden philosopher and spiritualist Osho has said: "There are thousand statements about who Krishna is and Krishna belies all the statements. How does one understand a man with so many sides to him? No statement however severe and astute can wholly encompass Krishna's wholeness lies in the fact that he has no personality of his own, that he is not a person, an individual – he is existence itself. You can say that he is like a mirror; he just mirrors everything that comes before him…and when you see yourself mirrored in him, you think Krishna is like you. But the moment you move away from him, he is empty again. That's leadership. One wants to see in Krishna what one wants to see in him. Nothing more nothing less." That's why says Osho, "there are a thousand commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. Every one of the commentators saw himself reflected in the Bhagavad Gita. There are hardly any commentaries on other religious personalities…." This is because Krishna is not definite, conclusive. He does not have a system, a structure, a form, an outline. Krishna is formless, incorporeal.  

Now the real test of leadership - does Krishna lead any one after Mahabharata? Yes, he did. The Independence movement produced maximum leaders in India. So, it is an ideal testing pad for looking at Krishna as a leader would be checking out his influence on these leaders in terms of their action and influence on masses. From the beginning of Independence movement to India's independence, leaders cutting across their school of thoughts had followed the teachings of Krishna and Bhagavad Gita. 

Let us start with the tallest leader of Independence movement Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. To Tilak, Bhagavad Gita was not a mere subject for academic interpretations but it was a perennial source if inspiration for him. His lifelong struggle for the country's freedom was firmly based on knowledge acquired through the Bhagavad Gita which enabled him to strive for his goal, without any certainty of seeing its fulfillment. Impact of Bhagavad Gita is best evident in his letter to Gandhi, where he wrote, "Politics is a game of worldly people and not of sadhu's and instead of the maxim 'Anger should be won over with love' as preached by Buddha, I prefer to rely on the maxim of Shri Krishna who said, 'I treat humans equally when they seek refuge in me'. That explains the entire difference and also the meaning of the phrase 'responsiveness co-operation'. Both methods are equally honest and righteous, but one is more suited to this world than the other. Any further explanation can be found in my Geeta-Rahasya." 

This is a perfect case of Transformational leadership and what follows now is the ideal example of Transactional leadership from Tilak and Bose. 

Tilak saw in the Bhagavad Gita his reflection of the Karmayoga, as practiced by him throughout his life.  Tilak supported Shankaracharya's view on metaphysics but differed from him as far as the ethics were concerned. Shankaracharya considered ethics from the point of view of individual emancipation and therefore advocated Sanyasa, while Tilak viewed ethics in the context of social action and therefore advocated Karmayoga.  His association with Bhagavad Gita was from the age of 16 and his understanding came out in two forms, one academic i.e. Geeta-Rahasya and, second professionally in the form of freedom fight. Tilak's philosophy of life had it's root in the Bhagavad Gita and he received inspiration to carry out his fight against a mighty opponent. He believed that once the people accepted his interpretation that action without reward was the message of the Bhagavad Gita they would be prepared to fight against injustice. Tilak thus addressed the people through the Geeta-Rahasya and appealed to them to free themselves from the bond of slavery. Thus, making Bhagavad Gita and Krishna the leader instead of himself. 

Bose was also heavily influenced by Krishna, in one of his letter to Dilip Ray he wrote, "I am torn…between my love for Shiva, Kali and Krishna. Though they are fundamentally one."  But this inspiration must have given him the courage to say, "It will be a fatal mistake for you to wish to live and see India free simply because victory is now within reach. No one here should have the desire to live to enjoy freedom. A long fight is still in front of us. We should have but one desire today - the desire to die so that India may live - the desire to face a martyr's death, so that the path to freedom may be paved with the martyr's blood. Friend's, my comrades in the War of Liberation! Today I demand of you one thing, above all. I demand of you blood. It is blood alone that can avenge the blood that the enemy has spilt. It is blood alone that can pay the price of freedom. Give me blood and I Promise you freedom."  

Looking at the support and followership that both Tilak and Bose got from common masses as well as other leaders it is clear that they met the leadership criteria of Fiedler Model and Hersey and Balanchard's situational theory. 

There was a common behavior that freedom fighters, leaders exhibited. Damodar Chaphekar, Khudiram Bose and thousands more went to gallows, calmly holding  Bhagavad Gita their his hand.  

These leaders had seen death like Sudarshan Chakra of Krishna. Sudarshan, a Sanskrit word, means that which is good looking. It is amazing that a weapon of death and destruction can be beautiful. But Krishna does the miracle; he turns death into a blessings. As Osho says, "Even death is beautiful if it is in the hands of Krishna." These fighters had seen dying for country as a beauty and that's why they were not scared of death but in the process scared the Britishers.  

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari who also translated Bhagavad Gita into English and he used to say : "The Bhagavad Gita, is like a railway bridge. You should travel with its help, not just commit it to memory". By saying this Rajaji had settled the dispute between leadership and manager. 

(To be continued as part 2)  

The author of this column Sandeep Singh is a graduate from Rourkela Ispat College, Rourkela and post Graduate in Rural development from XISS, Ranchi. He later pursued an Executive General Management from IIM Banglore. After working in corporate sector for over a decade, he is now pursuing research and writing in the area of Indian Management Thinking and Practice. Published in March 2008, his first book 'Business of Freedom' explored management lessons from India's freedom struggle. It was published in 2008. His next book 'Indian School of Management – in Practice' aims to explore the 'elements' of business as practiced by Indian entrepreneurs spread across industry in India and put them in points, grids, matrix, charts etc.