Dialogues and Leadership

Dialogues and Leadership

by Sanjoy Mukherjee - Wednesday, April 8, 2015 08:16 PM IST
Dialogues and Leadership

A millennia-old conversation between Alexander the Great and an Indian sage carries a powerful message for today’s business leaders.


In september 2002, the flagship Seminar of Aspen Institute was being held high in the mountains of Aspen Meadows, Colorado. I happened to be the only participant from Asia in this weeklong event. The attendees were all leaders of thought and action—academics, business leaders, entrepreneurs, NGO personnel and so on. The theme of the Aspen Seminar was “Great Conversations” and lessons from them for modern leadership. The sources of wisdom ranged from the Bible and Greek philosophy and travelled down history to Tolstoy and Gandhi.

Throughout the week, the participants were kept intensely engaged in exploring selected portions from pieces of world literature and culling out pertinent insights and wisdom for modern leadership. The pedagogy followed in the Aspen Seminar kindled the spirit of Dialogue among participants in all their discussions. For me, Seminar opened up a new vista of learning for enhancing leadership competencies—how to learn from Dialogues and how to engage in Dialogues for facilitating collaborative learning. This also prompted me to embark on my personal voyage with Dialogues and Conversations.

In the last issue, I had delved separately into literature from the West and the East. This time I look at a cross-cultural conversation from about a millennia ago. The story goes like this.

Alexander the Great with his mighty army had reached the western part of the Indian landmass—the final destination in his journey from Macedonia to conquer the world. The Greek contingent was camping on the bank of river Jhelum in Punjab and gearing up for the impending battle with king Porus. Every morning, Alexander himself would be on horseback, leading his army’s drill. The camp was on a vast field at the end of which there was a deep forest.

While patrolling his troops, a very strange sight caught Alexander’s attention. Under a tree where the forest began, he spotted a “weird-looking Indian”. The man had long hair with matted locks, an unkempt beard and wore only a loincloth. He would sit under the tree for hours in a particular posture staring at the horizon. The Macedonian was deeply intrigued. One day he approached the man and began a conversation with the help of local people.

“We see you every day sitting under the tree for hours looking at the horizon. What are you really doing?” asked Alexander.

There was no answer.

Alexander started getting impatient but asked again: “While we are gearing up for battle, we find you sitting here and doing nothing. What are you up to?”

The man did not reply.

Alexander managed to control his temper with some difficulty, walked up close to the man and asked: “You can at least tell us what your purpose in life is, that you sit here for hours day after day doing nothing?”

This time the old man looked up and responded, but with a question: “What is your purpose in life?”

“I am Alexander the Great and I am out to conquer the world.”

“So what will you do after that?” asked the man.

“I shall take all the elephants and horses from the vanquished lands to my country.”

“Suppose you achieve that, King. After that?”

“I shall take all the men, the prisoners of war from these countries as our slaves and all the women to entertain us in Macedonia.”

“What an ambition! All the men as slaves and women as entertainers!” remarked the man.

Then he asked gently “Supposing you achieve even that, what will you do after that?”

Alexander was quiet for some time. Finally, he said, with a sigh: “After that, probably I shall sit on my throne and relax.”

“That’s what I am doing,” said the “weird Indian” with a smile.

This is a classic example of an encounter between two different cultures with some powerful messages for all leaders and teachers of today, especially in the context of globalization.

Modern organizations operate in a world where there is a confluence of myriad cultural entities, each with unique characteristics and values, which may often conflict with one another. The story throws light on the mood, mode and tenor of conversations across cultures so that communication may flow smoothly without any deadlock.

Dialogues and Leadership

Alexander is the embodiment of an outgoing aggressive tendency dominant in certain elements of the Western culture who is out to acquire, conquer and possess. Just like modern corporate leaders with a compulsive drive “to kill” and “to win”. They are characterized by a single-point focus on the bottom line at any cost with an eye only on financial parameters like profits, turnover, sales and market share. Any input on ethics, values, cooperation or sustainability sounds irrelevant and demotivating to these go-getters. Like Alexander, they are the repository of surfeit energy which is exteriorized and acquisitive in nature, with no time and space for reflection.

Now, attention to issues like values and sustainability, goodwill and social responsibility, ethics and quality of life will demand some moments of reflection that most “dynamic” leaders are unable to appreciate or practice because of their one-directional thrust on numbers and results with a short-term window. In this scenario, how does one inculcate a sense of enduring values for the individual and the organization?

The Indian sage is the manifestation of human energy drawn inward, which opens the doors of inner perception through contemplation and reflection.

This provides insight not only into how to see the world in depth and totality, as it is, but also how to engage with the world even when it is hostile and different. The approach adopted by the sage is important to study and consider in this regard.
Right in the beginning, the sage had noticed that the king was impatient to know about him. So, he chose to remain silent to the initial questions which were superficial in nature and asked in a hurry. Then he found Alexander getting close to him and asking a deeper question about the purpose of life. The nature and very tenor of the question had changed radically and the sage chose to respond but only with a counter question.

Alexander’s first responses were symptomatic of his aggressive, acquisitive and externally directed energy and mindset. What is interesting to note is that never during this conversation did the sage stop this outward flow of energy but actually fuelled it to get the full steam out of the galloping king. He did not intervene with sermons on Right and Wrong from the Indian point of view. That would have led to confrontation, and the conversation would have come to a deadlock. Soon enough, Alexander was stuck with no way ahead. The final answer came with a sigh; he had his back to the wall. The sage had consumed the entire energy of the king so that he was compelled to spell out the answer. The sage merely endorsed the same: “That’s what I am doing”.

This is the approach of a true Indian Master who never blocks the energy of the opponent or hostile force but uses the energy of the rival power to his own advantage and plants the seeds of transformation in the other. He achieves this by asking deeper questions, but never dilutes the conversation by giving answers to superficial queries. He keeps the conversation alive and flowing and helps the other in discovering his own answers. This is Transformational Leadership par excellence!

Sanjoy Mukherjee teaches Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at IIM Shillong.
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