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Mahakapi Jathaka: Essences of Bodhisattva leadership, golden circle of safety and Simon Sinek


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It is fascinating to observe that Peter Drucker, father of modern management, thought that it is the efficient management that is important and not the leadership to organisational success. However, in the last few decades, many management scholars and practitioners thought the contrary, and observed that failing organisations are usually over-managed and under-led. 

The corporate world has witnessed how great leaderships take their organisations into the zenith of the corporate Himalayas. Loads of theories and concepts are being introduced and discussed to explain the qualities and traits of true leadership. It is widely believed that successful leaders shall have charisma, visionary thinking, strategic focus, innovative and creative approaches and many more skills in their pockets. 

Ironically Simon Sinek’s best seller, ‘Leaders Eat Last’, proposes to the modern corporate world the leadership dichotomy one does not usually find in Western theories of leadership. His description on leadership elaborates as follows: “Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into unknown. They rush towards the danger, and they put their own interest aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would soon sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours. And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs. This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, headfirst towards the unknown. And we feel sure they will keep us safe. We will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life, and proudly call ourselves their followers.”

A wave of nostalgia swept over me when I read the description of Sinek’s leadership. His proposition is closer to our hearts and minds because over many millennia, we have been told of how a true leader behaves by the Jathaka Stories of the Bodhisattva. These Jatakas explain the unparalleled sacrifices made by a leader to protect his followers; how the leader suffers and bears many hardships to ensure betterment of followers; how the leader sacrifices his own comforts, luxuries and even his own life to take his followers into virtues and success in their lives. 

I am sure that Sinek would not have been inspired by Jathaka stories to expose his leadership description, but supported his concepts by many eye opening anthropological and biological research facts. One of my childhood favourites Jathaka stories of a great monkey called ‘Mahakapi Jathaka’ comes to my mind; where the essence of leadership traits resonate with Senek’s proposition. It provides many facets and perspective for leadership which our modern society is desperately expecting from the current corporate and political leadership.

The Bodhisattva, once was born as a monkey and led an eighty thousand clan. They lived in deep jungles of Himalayas, near the river banks of Ganges. There was a mighty mango tree which bares fruits of divine fragrance and flavour that the clan of monkeys dominated and enjoyed. The Bodhisatwa, the great monkey thought that one day danger will come upon their clan, if these divine fruits fall into waters and reach any outsiders. Farsighted and intelligent, the monkey advised his troops not to leave any fruits over the waters.

One day, a fruit, without notice of eighty thousand monkeys fell into the Ganges River and was picked up at Benares, where the king was bathing. The king tasted the divine mango and was amazed by the taste, fragrance and the texture of the fruit. The king, fuelled with great desire to eat more, had sailed the Ganges with a company of foresters. The king’s army found the great mango tree along the banks of the river. The king enjoyed the divine fruits up to his heart’s content and lay down at the foot of the tree to rest.

When the night fell as usual, the Bodhisattva and his troops of monkeys came and enjoyed their fruits. The king watched the eighty thousand monkey troop invade his new found mango tree, with a disturbed and angry mind. He ordered his archers to surround the monkeys and once the day breaks, shoot them down. The Bodhisattva foreseeing the danger upon his eighty thousand clan, immediately thought of ensuring their safety. 

The Bodhisattva, with stature and stoutness, ascended a strait growing branch and with one leap reached the bank. He then marked the distance and routed out a bamboo. Having cut off the bamboo shoot of the required length, fastened one end of it to a tree at the river bank and the other end round his waist. He leapt back, but found short of length, but with all his might grasped a branch firmly with both hands, signalling his troops to cross the bridge. All eighty thousand monkeys crossed and saved their lives. But one monkey with envy of the leader, saw a chance of destroying the Bodhisattva, and sprang into the air, falling on the back of the great monkey. The Bodhisattva with great pain and with fatal wounds fell down. The king who was observing all, moved by the great act, covered the Bodhisattva with a yellow robe and tried his best to save the monkey. 

The King of Baranasi with great respect and honour asked the Bodhisattva, “You made yourself the bridge for them to pass to safety through. What are you then to them and what are they to you?”

Hearing the King, the Bodhisattva replied his last words, “Victorious king, when they were filled with fear and danger of you, I guard the herd, because I am their leader. When I miscalculated the distance and could not reach the tree, I myself became the bridge for them and my monkeys passed across on my back. They are safe now. Therefore, I fear no pain of death and bonds do not give me pain. The happiness of those I used to reign wins over my pain. Dear king, if one is to become the leader, the happiness of kingdom army, steed and city must be dear to him.”

The acts and deeds of the Bodhisattva, speak itself about the qualities and traits of great leadership, which resembles with the description of “The Leaders Eat Last”. The Bodhisattva observing the dangers, ran towards the danger, headfirst towards the unknown. He put his own safety aside to protect his eighty thousand clan. Finally sacrificed his very life to ensure the safety of his troops. This is the leadership we all expect from our leaders; whether they are in the corporate world or in political arena. We do not want our leaders to sacrifice ours to protect theirs. We do not want our leaders to be rich while our organisations and societies remain poor. The leaders should not forget that people appointed them into leadership and let them enjoy the lion’s share of benefits, expecting them to run towards danger first and protect us than follow us. To lead us through the difficult times and safely across the dangers as by example of the great monkey. Protect us and ours even by sacrificing what is owned by the leaders. This is the true meaning of leadership. There are many lessons for the leadership in the light of the Jataka and Simon Sinek’s essay on leadership.

Greater the inclusiveness, greater the circle of safety

Whether it is in the Stone Age or modern digital era, the world around us is filled with many dangers. It challenges the very existence of us. Era of Stone Age danger came from the wild animals such as tigers and mammoths, but in the modern digital era our organisations and business are constantly threatened by destructive technologies, creative business models and competitors who are relentlessly working to outperform or wipe out others from the market. There are many dangers inside our organisations too. Employees are threatened by downsizing, office politics, manipulations by leaders and risk of experimenting on innovation. Intermediation, humiliation, isolation, feeling dumb and useless and rejections create unparalleled stress inside an organisation. All of these are dangers for the employees as well as the organisations. 

True leaders create circle of safety around the entire team, while eliminating the threats inside the organisation. Weak leaders restrict the circle of safety to a chosen few or to ‘the inner circle’. It is obvious that those outside the inner circle are forced to work alone or in small tribes to protect themselves. This leads to paranoia cynicism and self-interest to pop up and undermine the cooperation, productivity and progress of any organisation. 

The Bodhisattva extended his circle of safety to include the entire eighty thousand monkeys in the clan. The more the inclusiveness, the more the trust being built. Harmony prevailed. Cooperation created. The team pull together as one united team. Such leaders build trust among the team. No one worries about his left, right or back. They trust each other. It is obvious that in such organisations or societies, strength, endurance and sustainability do not come from products, service or resource richness, but from the unified people who pull together.

Integrity; the 

bedrock of leadership

Employees of an organisation or masses in a society without distinction expect their leaders to tell the truth. They do not expect leaders to manipulate the facts and tell one thing and do something else. Integrity is not only about being honest when we agree with each other, but also when we disagree, make mistakes, being true to the people. How many corporate leaders tell the truth, when they are dealing with their boards, employees and customers, without manipulating the facts? If the leaders take missteps how many tell the truth? How many tell the real truth of their products and services to their customers? When arbitrary increases of prices and charges how many tell the truth? When internal politics destroy employees’ careers, how many leaders tell the truth? That is why in corporate world many employees do not trust their leadership. Customers do not trust companies. Critical mass does not trust politicians.

The Bodhisattva, foresaw the dangers and kept the clan informed. When the real danger hit on the face, he kept the clan informed. But he has built the trust, that every one of the eighty thousand clan believed he would safeguard them. He ran towards danger and relentlessly worked to ensure the safety of his troops. Even when he miscalculated the distance from one side of the river bank to the mango tree, he never failed them. He became the bridge himself to overcome the misstep. Eighty thousand monkeys would have felt the trust! By his great sacrifice, the monkey would have left a legacy for many generations to inspire.

Lead the people, 

not the numbers

Today many leaders think that their primary duty is to maximise profitability and shareholder value. They focus on numbers. Many of them forget that they are in-charge of looking after the people, who are responsible for profits, customers and sustainability of the company. Many corporate leaders fail to understand the old concept of maximising profitability and shareholder value do not guarantee organisational sustainability in the longer run. They fail to understand that creativity and innovation and longer term sustainability totally depend on its people. By focusing on numbers, they undermine the very source of success and sustainability.

It is a common observation that at times of macroeconomic down turns, these leaders betting on downsizing, cost cutting, restriction on training and development and cut down employee benefits to maximise the profitability. This breeds uncertainty and unrest among employees. They feel their leaders are not concerned about them, their families, but only the numbers. It is human that when people are in uncertainty their productivity and contributions tend to be low. These employees would not love their companies. In such a scenario it is a myth to believe that customers will love a company that the employees do not.

The Bodhisattva, being well aware of the life threatening danger, never tried to protect the mangoes nor his life. He never thought of sacrificing his critical mass and escaping with a chosen few of the clan. But he being a true leader sacrificed his own life and ensured the safety of his entire eighty thousand, including the one who betrayed him. This is the leadership we all expect from our leaders whether in the corporate world or the political arena. 

So the leader, so the culture

The great leaders always put “we” before “me” and “you” before “I”. If a leader creates a climate only to preserve him and his inner circles’ power and wealth, people in the organisation “feel” it and distance is created. Under such leadership empowerment, delegation, teamwork and common purpose become mere words and lose its true meaning. Great leaders know that empowering people who are closer to information and customer leads to create stronger business relationships as well as sustainable business organisations. These leaders do not give orders, they direct and the others will figure out what to do and how to reach the destination.

The Bodhisattva, by example and his leadership qualities would have created such a great culture to carry on his legacy for many generation and the future leaders to be inspired by the same. Such true leaders inspire even an average follower to become extraordinary.

The way forward

Today the corporate world as well as our nation, desperately demand a Bodhisattva leadership, where the golden circle of safety is broader enough to include each and every one; where the critical masses can trust their leadership and feel the trust in their hearts and minds; where the leaders are truly concerned about their people rather than play magic with number crunching; where the strong culture of true team spirit is created instead of “me” culture. Then only critical mass of people will wake up every morning inspired to go to work, feel safe at their organisations and come back home as happy and content individuals. The day such Bodhisattva leadership emerges, people do not expect their leaders to eat last!


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