The four-element postulate for leadership
The elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air have roots in multiple belief systems. A unique hypothesis that these are still relevant to the tenets of modern leadership.
Since time immemorial, the four elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire have found reference in almost every belief system in existence. Even today, this philosophy continues to be relevant in our lives and even at the workplace!
My personal postulate endeavours to connect this ancient doctrine with the management styles of modern-day leaders:
- Earth: Grounded and solid. The voice of wisdom coming from hard-learnt experiences. A gravitas built over time. The charisma to attract people – employees, customers, shareholders, analysts, press… High on compliance with the law. Consistent, dependable and rabid about integrity. The solid leader! Dharti-Putra
- Water: Widely networked, water connects people, continents, cultures and ideas. Always finding a way to make the connection, even if it means creating a new path by cutting through rocks and mountains. Adapting to nature’s contours, water springs life wherever it goes. Motivating action, stimulating growth and germinating new ideas. Staying composed in lakes, thundering down waterfalls, moving swiftly over riverbeds and swaying the waves of the ocean – much like any business environment. Water, with its highs and ebbs guaranteeing the euphoria of success and the learnings from failure! The networked, solution-finding leader! Jal-Devi
- Fire: That burning zeal which generates the energy required to exceed expectations, pushing people and organizations ahead and driving them to perform. Fire brings in a positive aggressiveness. The kind required to repulse competition’s moves to corner market share and poach talent. The kind that makes decisions on the fly to capitalize on opportunities before someone else does. Fire has no qualms about annihilating the old in order to make place for the new. The decisive leader! Agni-Putra
- Air: The unfettered creativity that inspires out-of-the-box thinking, transcending borders and spinning the giant turbines of the mind. Generating electrifying thoughts and ideas that transform products, people and organizations. The ability to attain a vantage point of vision, then to think ahead and develop workable strategies for future growth, and greater profitability of the organization and its people. The strategic leader! Vayu-Putra
From the descriptions, doesn’t it seem that the four elements are simulacra of modern day leadership? And, that every leader has all four elements in her/his professional DNA?
However, effective leaders are those who have developed a balance in how much of which element is required in a prevailing situation. Employees appreciate it, so they work harder making better products. Customers feel happier and buy more. The organization grows, people’s careers look brighter and the resulting profits please the shareholders.
That’s the ideal situation. Leaders, however are human too – even at the highest level. Some allow certain elements to dominate sometimes. Others develop a dominant element that shows up in most situations they handle, while assuming the other elements cower in the background. They actually don’t! It’s just that people perceive the ‘big one’ more clearly. Sometimes, they nick-name the leader with it…
Too much of anything isn’t good. So, if leaders overuse their dominant element, it becomes counter-productive – at times, out-and-out destructive. For instance, an over-dominating Earth element (often positioned as erring on the side of caution) is actually policy paralysis! Nothing moves, nothing grows, other than the rot within. Similarly, the other three elements have their flip-sides too. Selfish, shortsighted and hugely vicious:
- Uncontrolled Water has often breached its boundaries, bursting its banks, causing tsunamis and floods, going all over the place and drowning everything getting in the way.
- The devastating nature of Fire is well known. A value destroyer, reducing everything to ashes, unmindful of feelings, emotions, not resting until everything is burnt out.
- Invisible, except to the senses of touch, hearing and smell, Air has a demonic side too, in the form of cyclones and tornados, blowing away people, assets and buildings that have taken time and investments to put together.
So, there are two sides to everything. Now let’s put this hypothesis to test. Can the description of these four elements be applied to the workplace? Look around the leadership team of your organization. Which elements dominate the behaviours of individual leaders? Don’t be surprised if every element finds a place on the team! Chances are, even their flip-sides would have shown up during weaker moments – or when someone was having a bad hair day!
This postulate of the four-element philosophy does not in the least, endeavour to replace the well-researched inventories of leadership styles. For them, it’s respect! This one’s an alternate point of view, with roots in our history and heritage, and relevance in our workplace.