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True Leadership




Ever since the great financial meltdown taking down the likes of Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and many more, capitalism has been in search of a social context.

Closer to my home (India), the Satyam embezzlement and greed of Ramalingam Raju, shook the collective consciousness that obsessions with valuations, ever increasing and predictable quarterly results and stock market bubbles - symptoms of corporate greed - had infiltrated Indian shores.

Now after the meltdown and downturn, comes soul searching to keep capitalism relevant even by those who were able to wash the sins with government dole.

However the corporate introspection has not been an altruistic exercise but rather forced by voter anger, growing income disparity, jobless growth and the failures to reach out to the last man in the queue. The sudden inclusion of `inclusiveness' in economic policy making in India is also a realization of the perils of continuing business as usual.

Companies, owners and managers are refashioning their entire eco-system, searching for guiding principles that will not alienate their businesses from society and people. Elaborating his priorities, the newly appointed CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman said, "I do not work for shareholders, to be honest. I work for the consumer. I discovered a long time ago that if I focus on doing the right thing for the long term to improve the lives of consumers all over the world, business results will come. I am not driven and I don't drive the business model by driving shareholder value."

One can only speculate the welcome Polman would have received on the Wall Street, if his appointment had been a couple of years ago.

William J McDonough, chairman of Public Company Accounting Board that was set up by the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002, quotes Kofi Anan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: " ... at the centre of all great religion is each person's responsibility to the other."

"Does a CEO making 400 or 500 times more than the average employee not consider fellow workers to be neighbors? When we think of the community around us, are not those less fortunate then we - the homeless, the orphaned, the uneducated - our neighbors? What, after all, is the biggest difference between a homeless person on a windy corner and you and me? My answer is that I was luckier," says McDonough.

These thoughts pass my mind as I ruminate on Vaisakhi - I am strangely reminded of the greatest event that occurred on Vaisakhi Day in 1699 - the birth of the Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib.

One might wonder what strikes my mind that has not already been penned. However, it is a belief that has dawned on me that
events that took place more than 300 years ago continue to be relevant even today when corporate leadership is searching for a guiding principle that will help them avoid the mistakes of the past.

The story of the creation of the Khalsa is the story of Guru Gobind Singh. I would want this piece to be a humble tribute to an extraordinary person who also happens to be my hero. And in my hope that more and more corporate leadership, aspiring managers and new generation entrepreneurs are inspired by the great Guru Gobind Singh's life and teachings. This only can lead to best business practices that will not only be sustainable but equitable and relevant to the society which ultimately is the raison d'etre of business.

Guru Gobind Singh as we all know was born in Patna (bihar) to the ninth Guru of the Sikhs, Tegh Bahadar, and Mata Gujri in 1666. He was a time of great political, social turmoil and exploitation. In his autobiography, "Bacchittar Naatak", he states that he came into the world after performing meditation at Hemkunt Sahib. He stated that he was born to advance righteousness, to emancipate good and destroy evil doers.

In 1675, a group of Kashmiri Brahmins came to his father asking for his help in escaping the orders of the then Moghul emperor Aurangzeb requiring that all Brahmins convert to Islam. Guru Tegh Bahadar suggested that someone wise should go and try to persuade the emperor to see reason. It was a nine year old Gobind Rai who pointed it out to his father that there was no one wiser than him.

Guru Tegh Bahadar realized that he will have to lead by example and proceeded to Delhi where he was eventually martyred. On the death of his father, 13-year old Gobind Rai became the Tenth Guru.

For nearly 20 years, the tenth Guru immersed himself in building the panth. He mastered Persian and Sanskrit and wrote several hymns and poems. He wrote his autobiography and also the famous "Chandi di Vaar" which is a tribute to Almighty God, who is symbolized by the Sword of Justice - 'Chandi', in Sikh parlance.

In 1699, on the day of Vaisakhi he invited volunteers from among his followers who would be willing to sacrifice their life for the panth. Five came forward.

Daya Ram from Lahore, Dharam Das from Delhi, Mokham Chand from Dwarka, Himmat Chand from Jagannath Puri, and Sahib Chand from Bidar.

These five were baptized by the Guru in an Amrit ceremony and were called the Panj Pyaras or the Five Cherished Ones. They in turn baptized the Guru.

Henceforth they would all be called Singhs or Lions.

Thus was born the Khalsa or the army of the Pure.

The Guru underwent untold hardships because of his rising popularity and that of his Panth. In the battle of Chamkaur in
1705, his two elder sons, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, were martyred. They were still in their teens. At the same time, his family consisting of his two other sons and mother were imprisoned by the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan.

The two young ones,  Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, were bricked alive in the walls. His mother, Mata Gujri, died of grief on hearing of the deaths of her grandsons.

If you now see the course of events, Guru Gobind Singh sacrificed his father, mother and his four sons for the cause he believed was just.

Throughout human history there has been no other individual who has sacrificed so much of his own for others and suffered so much personally . It was this inspired leadership which gave rise to the Khalsa and the battle claim that "If I can make a sparrow fight a hawk,  get each of my Singhs to stop a legion of the enemy, only then will I deserve to be called Gobind Singh."

This is truly great leadership which has never been seen in human history. In those difficult times, it resulted in the overthrow of the oppressors by ordinary citizens.

What are the lessons we learn here? - the leader has to lead by personal example and sacrifice, the leader has to accept the supremacy of the followers.

The Guru himself bowed before the Panj Pyaras. That there is no hierarchy in a noble cause. The first Panj Pyaras were all 'commoners' and came from all parts of India and backgrounds. This reflected the universal appeal of the Guru.

The leader has to create a greater noble cause for inspiring his/ her followers. As a practitioner and student of management, I perceive these with even greater relevance now when global business is stressed.

If CEOs are to evolve as leaders and leave a legacy that embodies a society with virtuous entrepreneurship, they have the choice to emulate Guru Gobind Singh's leadership by personal example, create a culture of equality where the lowest member of the hierarchy has the right to express his views and the CEO would bow to such people just as the Guru had bowed
before the Panj Piyaras.

Then, the teams that would form would be in the footsteps of the Khalsa of the pure and the team members could strive to be lions who would not flinch from any challenge in the attainment of the goals. Such organizations would endure all competition and continue to flourish and rule.


[The author, Udayan Dravid, is a manager with a leading business conglomerate. The views expressed here are personal. He lives in Gurgaon, India.]

August 13, 2010


Conversation about this article

1: Amardeep (U.S.A.), August 13, 2010, 3:16 PM.

In some management books, this type of leadership style has been wrongly credited to Gandhi. In fact it emanates from Guru Gobind Singh.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 13, 2010, 5:36 PM.

The story of mankind itself starts with the struggle between good and evil. This is the greatest anomaly in the world - the inconsistency of man, whose species produces a barbarous murderer and at the same time kindliness that is akin to godliness. Let's take some brief examples: When Buddha was preaching the doctrine of tenderness toward all who suffer and declared war against a) maladies of the bodies; b) ignorance of mind; c) evil passions of the spirit. This was the time when in Europe empires were being built and destroyed. Let's fast forward to the time of Guru Nanak and Babar, and the former's poignant eye witness account - Babarvani - enshrined in the Guru Granth as an indictment of Babar and the graphic account of human misery perpetuated b the invaders. Come to Guru Arjan in the time of Jehangir when the former was made to sit on the hot plate and had burning sand poured over him; he remained in perfect equipoise with no ill feelings or any trace of rancor, and uttered "Tera bhana meetha laagey" - "Sweet is Thy Will, O Lord!" This was to devastate and neutralize the power of evil forces. Let's move on to Guru Teg Bahdadar's supreme sacrifice to save the Hindu religion - a sacrifice that Gobind Rai - then a child - bravely endorsed. He himself in time went on and offered everything, nearest and dearest, his four sons and countless Sikhs to fight tyranny, and did it by setting his own personal example. Has there ever been a leader like him?

3: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), August 16, 2010, 8:22 AM.

Leadership requires great sacrifice, zeal, inclination and much, much more; Guru Gobind Singh was a Saint-Soldier with great vision, clarity, courage and confidence. He lived his life in accordance with gurbani. He knew the Guru Granth by heart, added the bani of Guru Teg Bahadar in the appropriate raags. He did not include his own bani, but declared The Guru Granth as our Eternal Guru. Modern Leaders take pride in usurping the achievements of their subordinates as if they are their own accomplishments ... Mohandas Gandhi is an example of this.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 18, 2010, 5:44 AM.

The current leadership is like what a French General once said: "I want to see where the people are going so that I can lead them." This is seemingly a painless path to fame until you come to the finish line. The shabad says all that beautifully: "Nav khandan ko raaj kamaavai ant chaligo haaree" [GGS:712.1] - "One may rule over the nine regions of the earth, but, in the end he shall have to depart, losing the game of life."

5: Devinder Singh (India), April 25, 2011, 6:00 AM.

"I want to see where the people are going so that I can lead them." It occurs to me, S. Sangat Singh ji, that Udyan Dravid is saying much the same thing when he says, "the leader has to accept the supremacy of the followers."

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