Blog: Walk the talk and look forward– Leadership lessons from Classic Texts


Walk the talk and look forward– Leadership lessons from Classic Texts

Arthashastra, Upanishads, Vedas and many other classic texts hold invaluable advice on leading from the front. This blog draws parallels between ancient wisdom and modern business paradigms.
Walk the talk and look forward– Leadership lessons from Classic Texts

Once there was a poor woodcutter, whose wooden axe fell into a lake. There appeared a fairy, who brought a golden and a silver axes from the lake one by one. The poor woodcutter refused to accept because these axes did not belong to him. Finally, she brought the wooden axe, which the woodcutter accepted. The fairy presented the poor woodcutter with all the three axes as a reward for his honesty. How relevant are these age-old stories to current times? Do you think honesty is still the best policy at work?

Ancient texts like the Upanishads, Vedas, Arthashastra, Manusmrithi etc, have often intrigued me. They have repeatedly spoken about “Satyam” or “Truth”, which is considered as a highly respected virtue. I have tried to connect some of the teachings of our ancient scriptures to modern business.

“Business houses being under the constant pressure to deliver results are caught between the crossfire of shareholders demands, cut-throat competition, disruptions etc.Sometimes companies find it challenging to stay on the path of truth and righteousness when they find themselves trapped in a dilemma of profit vs profiteering.” 

We have some instances where companies too big to fail, have steered away from the path of truth and have bitten the dust. A director of a very large mobile manufacturing company was sentenced to 75 months in prison for embezzling more than $1 Million. In Jan’18, capital market regulator, SEBI banned a famous global auditing firm from auditing listed companies in India for two years. This was for its alleged role of collusion with the directors and employees of a large software services company, which raked up the country's biggest corporate accounting scandal worth Rs.7000 crores. 

Ancient Indian philosophies have always given importance to truth and righteousness. The word Satyam means truth. It is derived from the Sanskrit word “Sat” or “Sattya", which is also described as a character. The character of “Sattya” is that of being true and consistent with one's thought, speech and action. These are thoughts of goodness, purity and positivity. The same holds good in business as well. Business or “Vanijya” has been an age-old phenomenon. Ancient Indian methods have always emphasized on “Sattya” in business leading to righteousness and social welfare. Any belief or act that strays away from truthfulness or righteousness leads to bad Karma (deeds) which in turn would have their negative repercussions. It is quite evident from the above examples that corporate businesses had to face the consequences of bad karma i.e., not following the paths of righteousness.

Let us look at the connection between ancient scriptures and modern business. 

It is mentioned in the Taittareeya Upanishad“Speak the truth; follow the path of righteousness…”

Contemporary management Guru Peter Drucker says, "It is not enough to do well; it must also do good to others. If we want to know what business is, we have to start with its purpose. In addition, the purpose must lie outside the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since a business enterprise is an organ of society”.

“There are no moral shortcuts in the game of business or life. There are, basically, three kinds of people, the unsuccessful, the temporarily successful, and those who become and remain successful. The difference is a character. "Jon Meade Huntsman Sr., Executive Chairperson of Huntsman Corporation 

How well aligned are these thoughts with our ancient wisdom of “Truth and Righteousness” i.e.,“Sathyam and Dharmam”? We need to reflect upon this question.

Similarly, you will find many such parallels of ancient wisdom to modern paradigms. 

On the basis of this, here are some suggestions for leaders:

Be open, reward frankness

The leader should create an environment of openness and frankness by allowing people to speak the truth. The leader should create a culture that rewards honest feedbacks. On the contrary, an environment where people are afraid to speak is not a progressive workplace. Leaders who are not ready to face the truth would end up being surrounded by “Yes” people who will say only what the boss wants to hear and not the truth. One should celebrate victory when honesty is upheld!

The same thing finds a mention in the Mundaka Upanishad, or "Truth alone triumphs” (3.1.6).

Walk the talk

Values of truth and righteousness need to be a part of our belief system. Believe in it fully before you preach to others. Any value, when shared without conviction falls flat. What do you think, when it comes to the following honesty, do leaders have a have a choice? Well, you are right there is no choice. It is the ONLY thing that one should follow. This means that truth should be engrained in our thoughts. We all would have heard of this proverb “Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character and our character becomes our destiny”.  A leader who “WALKS THE TALK” and is congruent would also create a team that emulate his/her values. 

In another classic text, Arthashastram, Kautilya says, (3.1.43) i.e., “A King who administers justice in accordance with ‘dharma’, evidence, customs and the written law will be able to conquer the whole world”. 

Look ahead; do not be disillusioned 

Previous experiences often cloud the current view of the business. Leaders need to create a high standard of values that would leave a legacy behind. Be unique, because you will have many others around you who do not follow the path of truth. Watch out for pitfalls, where one is not cognizant of ethics and morals and is drifted away from the path of truth and righteousness. 

As mentioned in the Bhagavath Gita,(14.17)

“From ethical & moral conduct comes wisdom (Sattwa); passion leads to greed (Rajas); lack of knowledge and idleness leads to delusion.”

Contrary to the earlier examples, we also have instances where leaders have stayed true to their principles even during testing times. There are companies, which have accepted their mistakes and in turn, actually helped them to win back their customer confidence. Apple replaced Google Maps with their own Apple maps on its iOS devices. Sadly, Apple Maps was heavily criticized on its launch. Apple CEO Tim Cook realized his mistake. In an interview with The Washington Post, Cook said, "Maps was a mistake, Today we have a product we're proud of. We had the honesty to admit that this was not our finest hour and the courage to choose another way of doing it. That is important. If you are honest, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. But if you have your head stuck in the sand and you just keep doing it, I think you lose your employees and your customers as well."

For the business leaders of the millennium, there will be testing times. This is a digital world where leaders are under continuous scrutiny. During these times, let us not forget to uphold the values of truth and righteousness as our beacon of light. 

As mentioned in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

“Lead me from falsehood to truth; Lead me from darkness to light!” (1.3.28)

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Topics: Leadership

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