Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Leadership & Swamigal

For the uninitiated, Swamigal (or Swamiji) refers to a holy man in the Hindu religion who has renounced earthly desires and leads a pious life. They act as a spiritual leader to followers who look upon them for such guidance, and weild a powerful influence in society around them. Perhaps, the best known example in recent times is the Paramarcharya of Kanchi mutt. We have read leadership and influencing books written by many CEOs, Presidents and such people who wielded immense authority. However, I think there are lessons to be learned from the leadership and influencing skills that the Paramacharya demonstrated, with no real power to mandate, nobody reporting to him, a simple image that consisted of a saffron clothing, not even any foot wear. Yet, people all over the world, regardless of their social standing would simply prostrate before him on sight, took his word as final and bent backwards to oblige to his wishes. Why so much respect for someone who can hardly control your destiny? I think it is beyond just the culture or religion - even if so, one wonders why such culture came about:
  1. Swamigal derives his power from knowledge. The mastery of scriptures, and being able to interpret and teach others is a virtue that is valued and respected, especially those that need the spiritual guidance. This is indeed similar to some great professors influencing minds of students.
  2. Swamigal earns trust from almost anyone through renunciation of material desires - we know such renunciation is extremely difficult, and that establishes the basis that there is no personal agenda of any kind. It is easy to influence when such trust is established. The rigor of their food habits, that none should make physical contact etc, contribute to keeping their mind and body controlled toward renunciation.
  3. Swamigal is a great out-of-the-box thinker, since he is detached from the world we are caught up in - that includes family, job, politics, environment, whatever. This makes his opinions a possibly unique and different perspective, and when some of them come true, people think of them as prophecies come true (a.k.a "Gnana Drushti" which is usually meant as divine foresight, but the sanskrit word literally translates to "knowledgeable view"). Such a perspective provides hope and confidence to the common people caught up in difficult situations, who are not willing nor have the mindset, or just not able to take a step back and look at things holistically or differently.
In my view, it is not so much about a god-send or having a divine blessing that is generally touted, nor because of culture or religion that swamigals are able to lead and influence masses, but it is more about the way the swamigal concept is designed and structured. A swamigal for the Kanchi mutt is typically chosen carefully from among young boys that potentially demonstrate the ability to learn, think differently and follow the rigor. And when everything falls in place, we end up with a great leader for decades that benefit society. So, lesson on leadership & influencing for B-school students - it is about knowledge and trust, folks, not about power and position!

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