These thoughts jostled in my mind at the end of the big festive season in India. I was peacefully perched on my chair at my balcony, adequately supported by my smiling teapot, an accepting ashtray, fresh evening air and my laptop – what else does a man need when alone with his mind? I thought of catching up with my thoughts for my next book, possibly on the different buoys that could guide leadership.
The week dying out had Good trouncing the Evil marked by celebrations in the form of festivals all over India as Dussehra, Durga Puja, Ayudh Puja, all different interpretations from different parts of Hindu mythology. The same week also paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation on his 145th birthday followed by Bakr Eid or Eid-ul-Adha, the big festival for Muslims worldwide. One may say this week was a robust manifestation of the religious faiths while some like me see these as cultural festivals re-joining families and friends with fun and feast stealing the show everywhere in India at least. In another few weeks we will have the entire country lit up again in lamps and bursting with crackers as we celebrate the delightful festival of Deepawali. But it does not end with that, India will again get decked up for the last time in the year during Christmas. That’s India, a land for all religions but ever busy celebrating them as festivals. India is probably the only country in the world that celebrates more than two festivals almost every month!
With all that and yet the necessity to work, produce, lead and develop our GDP per capita, I don’t know why I never thought of religion when writing about leadership. It was as if, the two words could not co-exist in my mind. It was probably like either you are religious or a leader – one can’t be both! I know that sounds blasphemous to many but that is how my mind got programmed as I grew up. The graphic below does say something I find alignment with.
In my twenties, leadership to me was about decisions and action. Growing up as an urban Indian in Delhi, religion as practiced and seen by me was an impediment, a corruption to be avoided in the process of taking decisions and action. I saw more people suffering because of practiced religion than gaining happiness or peace. I saw people needing religion as a support system but rather using it as a refuge one found shelter in when in trouble or an excuse for not using the knowledge that was taught in schools. Religion epitomized everything that led to ghettoism, divides, narrow perspectives, helplessness, and dependence on something out of reach – fate. The chasm was filled in by unscrupulous brokers masquerading as priests of all hues and communities selling hope to the weak at a price they could ill afford. On the other side was a pseudo socialist government very similar in what they offered, both in wares as well as the resultant wear and tears.
In my thirties, leadership demanded that I explain to those around me why I took the decisions. I needed to do this for my own conviction as well as to provide the rationale to others for them to join me in what we needed to actualise as a family, team or group. I looked for rationale in religion but failed to find much. I picked up the writings of Swami Vivekananda and found philosophy not religion. Albeit, I was mighty impressed by his writings particularly about Karma Yoga, probably because I was deeply engaged with my kartavya and dayitwas or duties and responsibilities, the nearest english cousins. Yet, religion evaded me although it conspired all around.
In my forties, I realised consciously the need to make choices and again the rationale of the choice was paramount for staying on course. With increasing control over my basic needs, I could raise my head and look ahead a bit. It was like looking up after being chained to assigned homework for hours and staring longingly at the nice books you always wanted to read but forced to first finish the task at hand. Homework or immediate responsibilities under relative control, I could now see a few options dancing temptingly at some distance. But, a Choice had to be made. Again rationale raised its boring head and asked for justifications. A new paradigm matured when the distant gaze looked for where to reach or what to end up with, beyond the dancing options. In time, I realised I had to define the Purpose and then only could make my choices. Rationale combined with the pull of a distant Purpose became the tightrope to walk upon. Religion still remained in the periphery as there was nothing I could not decide and act upon based upon rationale and purpose.
Set foot into the fifties only to discover options multiplying with glee. They were like naughty friends alluring me into different intoxications. Heady days and weightier decisions became the order of the day. Situations and contexts varied, with no respite either in the personal or the professional spheres. For each decision I had to take, various options buffeted the mind. Different roles had to be fulfilled. At times, as a manager, a parent, spouse, son and rarely as a mere individual. Whether it is good leadership or not, decisions had to be taken for actions to ensue and results to mature. Rationale for the decision lied in resources including time, people and knowledge, security of results, but most significantly in the purpose I believed in and wanted to lead towards.
I still did not need to dabble in any religion!
I wondered if I was just a blessed being, plain lucky or foolishly ignorant. Lest arrogance took over, I tried to empathise with all I came across. I asked myself if they knew something that I was missing. More I interacted with people who practiced religion in some form or other like praying, going to their religious sanctuaries like temples, mosques, churches, etc. I realised that they somehow had a need for such engagements. I had learnt that a need is a reality for one who feels the need. Hence, I found the rationale again to not interfere with their choices, rather look at them shorn off their religious practices. I found almost none who did not take decisions based on their discovered rationale or their own sense of purpose. At the workplace, I found most doing things governed by basic human elements, be it motivation theory or habits that one grows up with. But, religion as dictated or written in books held holy, did not have much to do with their decisions or actions. Yes, people from different cultures owing to different geo-climatic circumstances did differ in their approach to the same context. I find that as a fantastic variety of behaviors that the world offers today due to urbanization, globalisation and the society being dependent more and more on knowledge workers.
If the society that we live in today is a combination of Work, Workers and their personal lives, we are bound largely by the work life and environment we go into every day. We all come from some specific knowledge domains that find development and value in our work lives. At the same time we come from certain habits of thinking and action developed over our foundation days from our families largely influenced by our parents and their habits of thinking and action. That is when our religious practices seep in as part of our daily habits and dependencies. We do not acquire these practices through the route of rationale or purpose of our lives. In time these practices become part of our habits and a few even form part of our displayed self. Be it the cross, the beard, the headgear, the food choices, the sacred thread or the way we smear the vibhuti on our foreheads. All these become part of our identity, the way we see ourselves every day and make room for such manifestations and practices in our homes and our bodies. The poor mind hardly played a role in acquiring them but has to live with all such inheritances and gifts since it was born at a certain time, in a certain family and a certain place on this earth.
Our identities and religious practices are like the ancestral home and its furniture we are possessed with when we have to shift to a new apartment. Just as we struggle to preserve and pack our old belongings into the dainty little new home, we carry on in our leadership roles as parents, managers, spouses, politicians and social interlocutors burdened with not merely the weight of all we possess but all that we did not choose to acquire. Thankfully, a minority – maybe the leaders of every tomorrow – do decide to get rid of those belongings that cannot be or should not be used in the new apartment of life as we move on.
It does appear to me that this burden of unchosen acquisitions is what we call religion. I may be more ignorant than most, but I do see these possessions muddling our leadership responsibilities in making decisions or choices. The rationale in choosing our purpose gets corrupted by our habits or practices that we call religion. If religion has to be about wisdom, values, principles and choices one makes in life then the teachings we receive from the same parents and teachers on our way forward is good enough. We are taught irrespective of our GDP per capita or where or of whom we are born, how to differentiate between good and bad, right and wrong, respect and sycophancy, rote and knowledge for use, music and cacophony, enjoyment and intoxication, adventure and addiction or subtlety and crudeness – the stuff that forms the basic principles of a human life. Yet, we readily make compromises in these basics but find it so difficult to give away the religious practices or habits that have lost its relevance in the world we live in today. Probably because they become so much of our psyche mixed with our identity, filial loyalty and community that we feel rootless without these religious symbolisms. The basic principles of human understanding remain more in our intellectual self. We find it easier to commit adultery with our intellect rather than our community identity. After all, we humans are social animals. The need to belong to a known herd is natural to most of us. Sadly, leadership could mean breaking away from the herd, of course with the potential of leading it!
As opposed to being a mere animal, a human being or an individual is bestowed with superior intellect that makes it possible to acquire knowledge that one can put to use, make choices that lead to a distant but overarching purpose like growth & happiness and influencing others to do well in their lives. If that is not leadership, it must be religion for me!