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Essential Leadership lessons from Bhagavad Gita

Leadership affects everyone. As a leader, or a follower - we all have to deal with it.

It is an art perfected to the level of science as our understanding of leadership, people, power dynamics, professional and social interactions changes. That said, there is no denying the fact that leadership is most seriously studied in the context of goals to achieve, whether they be organizational or societal.

While the latest research in Leadership combines some of the most diverse studies of human behaviour, there’s also a lot to be learnt from the conventional literature or what may even be classified as scripture.

The Srimad Bhagavad Gita- one of the most revered and a 700 verse long and extensive manuscript is one such book. It serves unique lessons on humanistic and inclusive leadership. The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna before the commencement of the pre-historic Kurukshetra war, that claims to have taken place over 5,000 years ago.

Some of the very significant lessons that the Bhagvad Gita offers in terms of Leadership are:

1. People First, Goals Next – The very opening verse of the Bhagvad Gita is about King Dhritarashtra asking his charioteer and seer Sanjay, about what did his sons - the Kauravas and his nephews – The Pandavas do in the battlefield. On the other hand, somewhere in the middle of the chapter, Arjun asks Krishna in the middle of the battlefield, if this war between cousins, relatives and extended family even worth fighting?

Dhritarashtra and Arjuna have clearly very different priorities. The old patriarch is more focussed on the ends than means and the young prince is centered around the cost and the people. The prince is addressing a far more significant issue of – Is the risk even worth the cost people, both mine and that of the rival will pay?

2. Focus on the Action and not on the result – In the following chapters, Krishna explains to Arjun how to balance the action and the desire for the result. In chapter 2 he tells about how can a leader be grounded in his role and how his mind functions. In chapter 3, he explains how to identify those who are secure in their self-awareness.

Also, he explains the importance of knowledge, renunciation, devotion and discipline, how to attain it with proper discernment. Chapters 4–6 also talk of knowledge, discipline and the next few chapters talk of discernment.

By the time the text reaches Chapter 16, Krishna explains how to discern between different kinds of leaders. This includes healthy as well as toxic leadership styles and the characteristics that help one identify between these kinds of leaders.

3. Going Beyond the Obvious – Krishna closes the text by talking about how one should look beyond the obvious. In chapters 16 – 18 for instance, Krishna emphasizes on the characters of the Sattvik, Rajasik and Tamasik tendencies – including how goals, actions, resources, wealth, creation, families etc. can be classified as good, passionate and evil.

The result is that by the end of the text, Arjuna has all his doubts answered, his vision clear and his dilemma resolved. He is finally ready to fight and do his karma (execution) according to his dharma (ethics) and lead his army to deliver the shared goal.

The text doesn’t only have lessons about leadership and leaders alone, but also about things leaders should know in order to get better at their understanding of their people, their teams and how to lead them towards the shared vision.

The Bhagvad Gita is a treasure of immense leadership wisdom and when analysed and understood in context, each of these verses can lead to a lot of practical, applicable wisdom. In the next few articles in this series, we look forward to exploring more of these verses. We would love to hear from you your insights as well!