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Leader – 50 Insights from Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik

Some books carry messages that remain relevant across time. Devdutt Pattanaik is a well-known name and highly respected scholar who has shown the modern world the relevance of mythology in the current times. Digging deep into India’s rich treasure trove of legends, myths and stories he fleshes out eternal truths. He outlines ideas that we can successfully apply today to our lives. His book, Leader – 50 Insights from Mythology (Harper Business and Indus Source Books) carries these pearls of wisdom. 

Leader was published in 2017 with this title and format, and continues to guide readers on lessons on leadership that one can get from ancient texts. While the focus is more on epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, there are references to Greek mythology as well. 

The ancient meets the new 

Leader is loaded with examples from mythology. However, it is not just these accounts from our ancient knowledge but also modern incidents and examples that makes one connect to the themes and principles mentioned in the book. So, on reading the book you may across an ancient tale from Indian epics or Greek mythology, and then a modern-day corporate situation exemplifies the theme of that specific story. 

The East and the West

One of the most fascinating strands of thought that I caught on to in Leader has to do with the juxtaposition of the philosophies of the East and West. The Western world has been influenced by Greek mythology. As Pattanaik explains, the point of the Greek heroes was to win with their bravado. The point was to outlast the competition. However, the story is different when it comes to Indian mythology. Here, what is cyclical is revered. The very measurement of what constitutes success is different! Hence, the question that he poses is very pertinent- Why do we assume the western model as a universal model? 

And thus, there are a few chapters in the book that look at leadership from this prism of Indian philosophy. As he put it, “The answer will create a workplace that is less paranoid, less aggressive, less stressed and more at peace with itself,”. These stories help modern leaders view their roles from a different perspective and with added nuance. 

“A true leader is able to harness the various forces around him to create an effective and efficient wealth-generating churn”

Glimpses of the lessons 

You’ll find some fascinating insights in the book. And some really interesting analogies. How does the ‘ashwamedh yagya’ link to the initiation of a new corporate head? What are the lessons that mythology has for aging leaders who will relinquish their roles? Or for the “Vishnus” that is, the leaders, who want to ensure that Laxmi stays with them? Yes, we live in a world where we chase Lakshmi. But she is “chanchal”, and can be quite fickle minded in who she chooses to bestow her good fortune on! But she is attracted to Vishnu? How can the leaders of today, to use the analogy, become Vishnu, to attract Laxmi? 

Not every question has an obvious objective answer. Many questions demand subjective answers- a call. And the man who makes the call is the leader. 

Leader – 50 Insights from Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik 

Would the ‘vanvas’ or the forest exile of Rama in Ramayana and the Pandavas in Mahabharata hold lessons for corporate heads? Would it have implications on them having to endure ‘corporate wilderness’ so that they hone their skills and emerge as better leaders? Can we see the link between the tenet of charity in Islam and the CSR initiatives of modern companies? What are the laws of the jungle as explained by ancient wisdom and how can they be relevant in the corporate jungle? There is juxtaposition of different truths and ideas here! 

Each chapter is short and crisp. Each one talks about one specific insight. As the name suggests, there are fifty such insights. The reader could read the book chronologically or read specific chapters in isolation. 

Leader is a classic. Years after it was first published it is a tome that holds many lessons. Leaders and those who aspire to leadership positions would do well to read it and understand it, and then do some soul searching by actually thinking of how these stories and inferences apply to their unique context. It is quite possible to make this book truly your own! 

Probably, the essence of the book is found on these lines from one of the chapters, “A true leader is able to harness the various forces around him to create an effective and efficient wealth-generating churn”.

Dhanishta Shah

Dhanishta is a Counselling Psychologist and a freelance writer. She is the Founder of Bookedforlife.