28 Jun 2021 20:14 IST

The path to leadership is through self-realisation

Leadership models tend to miss the self- realisation aspect without which a leader will not be able to lead

There are reams of research on leadership, yet it remains an esoteric subject. This is largely because research dominated by Western literature does not capture the real essence of leadership. Jack Welch was called a transformational leader although he himself described his ideal as boundary-less while Warren Buffett's style is termed Laissez-Faire. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg are all called transformational leaders; however, while all three are visionaries, Steve Jobs was autocratic, Bezos is task-oriented and Mark Zuckerberg is motivating.

Closer home, Ratan Tata’s style has been labelled as democratic, Narayanamurthy is called transformational while Mukesh Ambani is transformational but is not said to fit into any of the straitjacketed styles of leadership. Management literature has employed a plethora of adjectives and the semantics create an aura and render leadership esoteric. Some of these terms harp on the distinctive styles of leaders; while leadership models relate to overcoming information, emotional, motivation, ethical, political limitations.

Missing gaps

For instance, the situational leadership model which is effective in overcoming informational limitations, focusses on followers and requires leaders to adapt their leadership style to each follower. The boundary spanning leadership behaviours are effective to overcome political, informational limitations; Authentic leadership behaviours are effective in overcoming ethical, emotional, motivational and informational limitations; Transformational leadership behaviours are effective in overcoming motivational and cultural limitations; Post 1990s, ever since the seminal research of John Kotter, the ability to manage change has become the distinguishing characteristic of effective leaders. It is tempting to conclude that a blend of leadership behaviours is the key to understanding leadership, but the question then arises, in what proportion should the mix of behaviours be, under what situation, how do external variables influence the situation and behavioural mix?

If one looks at the contours of the modern societal landscape, what stands out are: (i) Most organisations lack a clear purpose (ii) Highly materialistic outlook with money being the key driver of status, power of individuals and corporates, (iii) Narrow, parochial outlook polarising communities and people by religion, caste, creed, colour, language (iv) Deep erosion of values with ethics severely compromised (v) Societal interests sacrificed by abuse of environment leading to climate change and disastrous consequences therefrom (vi) Many leaders are egocentric, aggressive and arrogant. Very few heads of government stand out as real leaders and in the corporate arena, a survey indicates that only 5 to 8 per cent of leaders are effective.

Thus, the existing theories and models are grossly inadequate as there is no common set of attributes that provides insights on leadership and offers a template for developing leadership. The moot point that is missed in the various leadership models is the aspect of self- realisation without which a leader will not be able to lead others.

Happiness factor

Self-realisation is a knowledge seeking process and an individual has to answer two questions (i) Who am I and (ii) What do I have? The self has no religion, caste, creed or colour. There are two perspectives to gaining knowledge (a) gaining knowledge already existing within oneself (b) acquiring new knowledge over a period of time such as in the process of pursuing a degree, MBA or PhD. Anything acquired in time can be lost in time and hence, such new knowledge acquired can be lost with time if not periodically nurtured and honed.

On the other hand, the knowledge of the Self (Atman) is timeless, and therefore permanent. However, self -knowledge is not apparent and has to be brought out through deep introspection and reflection. An incident that leaves a permanent scar on the self can be a trigger for soul-searching to realise oneself.

An outstanding example from history is the day of June 7, 1893, when 23-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was on a train heading to Pretoria, and a white man did not approve of him being in the first-class area even though he had a ticket and since Gandhi refused to budge from his seat, he was forcibly removed and thrown off the train. That was the moment of truth for Gandhi who realised that his life is meant for fighting against injustice and oppression. The seeds of fighting for securing natural rights were sown in Gandhi on that day and he launched civil disobedience in South Africa which later became a movement that was carried on in India to achieve Independence.

In the process of realising oneself, the individual has to find out what gives him/her happiness. While everyone craves for permanent happiness, they make the mistake of linking happiness with material objects or end result. Happiness cannot be conditional on an end result. One cannot say that “I will be happy if I become a CEO or I get x salary.” For Steve Jobs, happiness was imagining and designing new products, for Mukesh Ambani it is taking risks, and growing big to become the biggest in the world in whatever sphere he is operating; for Narayanamurthy it was mentoring, development and welfare of employees and colleagues; for Dr G Venkataswamy who started Arvind Eye hospital, it was “Giving eyesight to those who are needlessly blind.” Happiness is free, and one can choose different lifestyles and be happy.

Identity is a baggage

We are all given an identity from birth when parents assign roles for children based on sex or age or occupation as son, or daughter or homemaker or farmer or priest. This identity is a baggage that limits us and we do not comprehend our own abilities; hence it is all the more important to discover one’s real self. Role-based leadership is not universal, only truth-based leadership is universal.

As a leader one has to play different roles, be it a mundane non-descript role, a managerial role, a visionary or a mentor and one must be prepared for all the roles. Each individual in an organisation has a role to play and the leader’s responsibility is to bring out the best in everyone without being mindful of the superficial differences that exist in their external persona. This is similar to the functioning of the body which is composed of sub-systems and cells and even if one of these malfunctions, it will destroy the whole body.

The brain which can be considered as the leader in the body coordinates and directs all sub-systems without any bias or prejudice even though the parts of the body are differently designed. An organisational leader working with people have varying personalities and capabilities is required to similarly conduct himself which entails that he be self-realised. In the next part of this series we will dwell on the physical process for attaining self-realisation.

(Dr Jayasankaran was former Vice-Chancellor, Kanchi University, now Advisor, VIT University, Chinmaya Viswa Vidyalaya, and Rajagiri Vidyapeeth. Dr Suresh Mony is Professor Emeritus, NMIMS Bangalore.)