Valluvar on Leadership
Who is a leader? With the advent of the political parties during the late 1600s and the industrial revolution during the 18th century, human society has undergone major changes and consequently more opportunities for leadership have emerged. Today, we have hierarchies of leaders in government, military, politics, labour unions, corporations, non-profit organizations, religious groups and in other organized groups. The role of a leader varies from one group to another. Do all these leaders have anything in common? What exactly is leadership? Warren Bennis, an American scholar, organizational consultant, author and an expert in the field of Leadership Studies, defines leadership as the capacity to translate vision into reality. Peter Drucker a well-known management consultant and author defines leadership as the ability to do the right thing. Others define leadership as the ability to organize a group of people to achieve a common goal. Although the definitions vary, it is generally accepted that leadership is the ability to achieve the right goals by organizing and motivating other people to work to accomplish those goals.
What are the essential qualities of a leader? Is leadership an inborn quality or is it something that anyone can learn and become a leader? These questions have received the attention of the researchers only during the past two centuries. However, there is no consensus among the researchers regarding the answers to these questions. For example, John C. Maxwell, an American author who has written many books on leadership contends that charisma is an essential quality of a leader. Generally, charisma is defined as a special charm or appeal that causes people to feel attracted and excited by others. Peter Drucker claims that charisma is not an essential quality of a leader. He cites the examples of US presidents Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman who according to him had no charisma whatsoever. In spite of this disagreement between John Maxwell and Peter Drucker on the need for charisma as an essential quality of a leader, there is no disagreement on the fact that a leader must have several distinguishing qualities that make him a leader. The controversy is only about the set of qualities that are really essential for a leader. What one researcher considers as an essential quality is not considered as essential by others.
During the days of Valluvar, other than a king there were no others who could be considered as a leader of any significance. Valluvar deals with many topics in the Kural. Of all the topics, the one that gets most of his attention is Kingship. Out of the 133 chapters in the Kural, twenty-five of them deals with the qualities necessary for a king and how he should govern his country. While Valluvar considers some of the qualities as essential, he treats few other qualities as desirable for a king in order to be recognized as an outstanding king. These ideas of Valluvar are very similar to those of many modern-day researchers regarding the qualities for a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation or leader of an organization.
Valluvar’s ideas on the essential qualities for a king
In the section on Kingship, Valluvar lists several qualities as essential for a king to be an effective ruler. The following two kurals contain a total of seven qualities which are considered by Valluvar as essential for a king.
Never to fail in these four things, namely courage, liberality, wisdom and energy, is the kingly character. (kural 382)
Alertness, learning and bravery are the three virtues that are necessary for a king. (kural 383)
In addition to the above two kurals, some of Valluvar’s other ideas on the essential qualities for a king can also be found in several chapters in the section on Kingship. For the sake of presenting a coherent summary of Valluvar’s ideas, the related qualities are grouped together in the following paragraphs. Also, the ideas of modern researchers on leadership are presented so that the reader can appreciate the ageless wisdom of Valluvar and its relevance to the contemporary period.
Courage: Courage is the ability to face fear, pain, danger and uncertainty and to take action in spite of them. Nelson Mandela, the South African revolutionary who fought against apartheid and who later became the president of his nation said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” It was not uncommon in the past for a king to be involved in combats and confrontations with enemies foreign and domestic. Therefore, a king should always be alert and courageous to confront his enemies. Valluvar considers courage as an essential quality for a ruler (kural 382). As seen from the following kural, Valluvar is in favour of courage that is tempered by discretion. For him valour without discretion is foolishness.
Not to fear what ought to be feared is foolishness; the truly wise will fear what should be feared. (kural 428)
Just like a king, a present-day leader could face ideological clashes, differences of opinions, rivalry and jealousy from within the ranks of his organization or from his competition. The leader should be able to anticipate these situations and carry out his plans in spite of the unfavorable situations and uncertainties that confront him. There is always a possibility that he may not succeed in his attempts to confront the adverse situations. There is always a chance of failure. Those who can overcome their fear of failure and not afraid to take calculated risks have a better chance of succeeding against adverse situations. Eddie Rickenbacker was a famous fighter pilot during World War I and he later became the CEO of a major airline (Eastern Airlines). When he was asked about his courage in combat, he admitted that he had been scared. “Courage,” he said, “‘is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.”
Modern writers like John Maxwell and Peter Drucker insist that the leader sees leadership as a responsibility rather than a rank or a privilege. According to Peter Drucker, “Effective leaders are rarely permissive. But, when things go wrong – and they always do – they do not blame others.” They take responsibility for their failures. A leader needs to have the courage to accept his failures and to take responsibility for them. It is interesting to note that the leaders like Nelson Mandela, John Maxwell and Peter Drucker are in agreement with Valluvar that courage as one of the essential qualities for a leader.
Bravery: Although sometimes courage and bravery are used interchangeably, they are certainly two different things. Courage involves the presence of fear and acting in spite of the presence of fear. Courage involves fear, while bravery lacks it. Courage is a means to achieve an end. On the other hand, bravery is the end as well as the means. When a mother jumps into a burning house to save her child, she is aware of the consequences and afraid of being burnt alive along with her child. Her act is in spite of her fear. It is an example of a courageous act. In the biblical story, where David fought against Goliath and won in spite of Goliath’s advantage of size, David was merely motivated to fight and there was no fear involved. That is an example of bravery. Courage entails a cause such as love, passion, compassion, concern, etc. Bravery maintains its essence even without a cause.
From the point of view of Valluvar, bravery refers to the ability of the leader to carry out and implement his decision fearlessly once it was made after due considerations of the pros and cons of the issues involved.
Liberality: Valluvar lists liberality (kural 382) as one of the essential characteristics of a king. Liberality is the quality of being generous. According to Valluvar, liberality is a virtue that everyone should practice. In particular, helping the poor without expecting anything in return is the true hallmark of liberality. A king has virtually unlimited resources and his liberality would be immensely beneficial to the destitute and the people in need. In his book on “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader”, John C. Maxwell says “Nothing speaks to others loudly or serves them better than generosity from a leader. True generosity isn’t an occasional event. It comes from the heart and permeates every aspect of a leader’s life, touching his time, money, talents, and possessions”. Another well-known author, Steven Covey refers to liberality as “abundance mentality” in his book on “Principle-Centered Leadership” and considers that as one of the three important qualities of a leader along with integrity and maturity. The habit of being generous reflects a leader’s concern for others and his ability to add value to others. That is the reason, liberality is considered as an important quality for a leader. Here again, we notice the amazing similarity between Valluvar and modern writers in their thinking about liberality as an essential quality for a leader.
Knowledge through Learning: Learning is the act of acquiring new information about various things. When we use our intelligence to understand the relationships among the various pieces of information, we gain knowledge. The more we understand about the information we have learnt, the more our knowledge increases. Valluvar considers that learning and improving our knowledge is necessary for everyone.
Water will flow from a well in the sand in proportion to the depth to which it is dug, and so also knowledge grows in a man in proportion to his learning. (Kural 396)
Learning is the true imperishable asset of excellence for a man; all other assets are not real assets. (kural 400)
The above listed two kurals are from the chapter on Education (chapter 40). Although, Valluvar is of the opinion that learning is important for everyone, by including the chapter on Education in the section on Kingship, he emphasizes that it is an essential characteristic of a king. In order to emphasize the importance of education, Valluvar complements the chapter on Education with a chapter on the undesirable consequences of Ignorance (Chapter 41). In fact, he condemns the uneducated ignorant people by saying, “There is as much difference between the learned and the ignorant as between human beings and beasts (kural 410).”
Knowledge through Listening: Apart from gaining knowledge through education, there are other ways to acquire knowledge. For example, our own observations and experiences augment our knowledge. Additional knowledge can also be acquired by listening to others. Valluvar elaborates on the benefits of listening (Chapter 42) as a means of gathering knowledge from others. The following kurals from that chapter point to the merits of listening.
Wealth of knowledge gained through listening is the wealth of all wealth; that wealth is the chief of all wealth. (kural 411)
When there is no food for the ear, give a little also to the stomach. (kural 412)
Learning is necessary, but even those who are not formally learned should learn by listening to the wise , for such a learning acquired through listening, will serve as a staff of support in times of distress. (kural 414)
Wisdom: It is true that a king can gain significant knowledge through formal education and learning by listening to others. But, is knowledge alone sufficient for a king to make the right decisions? Valluvar is of the opinion that in addition to knowledge, a king should also have wisdom. What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? As already mentioned, knowledge is the collection of information that someone is aware. On the other hand, Wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is the ability to make correct judgments and decisions. It is needless to say that wisdom has always been considered as a sine qua non for a leader of any organization. Therefore, it is not surprising that Valluvar should include wisdom as an essential requirement for a king. He has dedicated a chapter on the Merits of Wisdom (Chapter 43). The following kurals (from Chapter 43), highlight the significance of wisdom for a king:
Wisdom is the ultimate and impregnable defence for protection against destruction; it is an inner fortress which enemies cannot destroy. (kural 421)
No terrifying calamity will happen to the wise who foresee and guard against potential
evils. (kural 429)
Those who possess wisdom possess everything; those who have no wisdom, whatsoever they may possess, have nothing. (kural 430)
According to Plato, the Greek philosopher, philosophers are the ones who possess the cardinal virtues like wisdom, courage, temperance (discipline) and justice and therefore they are the only ones who should become the rulers. But, Valluvar is realistic and he knows that in a monarchy, kingship is attained either through heredity or through sheer might where one overthrows the prevailing king of a country and establishes a new dynasty of his own. Therefore, instead of trying to make a philosopher as a king, Valluvar prefers the king to gain knowledge and wisdom through education, training, association with wise counsellors and become an effective ruler.
Energy: Energy is the strength and vitality required for sustained physical and mental activity. It is the energy that enables one to achieve one’s goals. In addition to mentioning energy as a prerequisite quality for a leader (in kural 382), Valluvar has dedicated a chapter (Chapter 60) for energy and its importance for one and all. According to Valluvar, energy is the ideal possession that one could possess and all other possessions are not real possessions (kural 591). In other words, one with energy can obtain and retain his wealth and other things of value under all circumstances. He adds that success and wealth will seek their way to the one with inflexible will and unfailing energy (kural 594). In addition to having energy, he also advises that a king (as well as others) should always think lofty thoughts.
Think lofty thoughts always; even if they fail to materialize, it is still as good as having materialized. (kural 596)
In the above kural what Valluvar really implies is that the combination of energy and lofty thoughts will lead to persistent hard work which will result in success.
A practical application of Valluvar’s ideas on energy can be seen in the management philosophy of Jack Welch, the legendary Chief Executive Officer of the General Electric Company (GE). He had devised a system of 4E’s and followed it meticulously to achieve phenomenal success at GE. According to Jeffrey A. Krames, the author of “Jack Welch and 4E’s of Leadership”, it all begins with energy. Leaders must have other strengths such as intelligence and decision making ability, but it is energy that converts good ideas into measurable performance. Jack Welch’s 4E system consists of the following four basic principles: 1) leader has energy; 2) leader energizes others; 3) leader has the competitive edge and 4) the leader executes. Jack Welch’s successful application of the system of 4E shows the wisdom of Valluvar in espousing energy as an essential quality for a leader.
Alertness: Alertness on the part of a king makes it possible for him to identify opportunities and to be on the lookout for potential threats to his country as well his own authority. An effective ruler cannot afford to be idle, slothful or forgetful. He should be ready to act without much delay. The absence of forgetfulness and laziness helps a ruler to be alert and watchful. Alertness along with the absence of forgetfulness and sloth lays the foundation for a ruler’s success. In order to emphasize the need for alertness, Valluvar has dedicated a chapter on the Evils of Forgetfulness (Chapter 54) and another chapter on the Importance of Avoiding Sloth (Chapter 61). Valluvar’s ideas regarding the need for alertness and avoiding laziness and forgetfulness are always valid and essential qualities for a leader in the modern era also. Nowadays it is customary for the CEOs of corporations and national leaders to use sophisticated technological tools to monitor the threats and opportunities and get daily or weekly briefings from their subordinates regarding issues that require immediate attention. Of course, it is up to the leader to take advantage of the information he receives and to remain alert.
Valluvar’s ideas on the desirable qualities for a king
He is the beacon among kings who has these four qualities: beneficence, benevolence, rectitude and concern for the citizens. (kural 390)
The whole world will dwell under the umbrella of the king who can bear bitter criticism.
If the ruler is easily accessible and is not harsh in his speech, the world would shower high praise on him. (kural 386)
Let the king cherish the friendship of wise and accomplished persons (wise counsellors), for solving the present problems and preventing the future ones. (kural 442)
If you encounter adversities, laugh at them. There is nothing like that to overcome them.
When a task seems impossible, do not be disheartened. Persistent efforts will help you to achieve greatness. (kural 611)
Benevolence and Beneficence: Although sometimes the words benevolent and beneficent are used interchangeably, they mean different things. The word “benevolent” is from the Latin word velle which means “to wish” and therefore benevolent refers to the desire “to do good”. On the other hand, the word beneficent is derived from the Latin word facere which means “to do” and hence beneficent implies the action of doing good. Obviously, one who has to be benevolent in order to be beneficent.
In the case of a king, benevolence implies helping his citizens, conducting his judiciary as well as administrative duties with compassion. According to Valluvar, “Gracious compassion is the unique great quality, because of which the world exists (Kural 571).” The fact that Valluvar has included the chapter on Gracious Compassion (Chapter 58) in the section on Kingship implies that Gracious Compassion is really a highly desirable quality for a king.
In the context of kural 390, beneficence really refers to the ability of a king to recognize people with knowledge and talent and reward them appropriately. The people whom he rewards may be his citizens, staff, scholars or artists. Beneficence is different from liberality mentioned in kural 382. Liberality is being generous and offering help and assistance to poor and deserving people.
The modern-day CEOs are expected to be cognizant of their social responsibilities and provide support and assistance to deserving social causes. The CEOs are also responsible for establishing fair and equitable policies and enforcing their practices to reward the employees with salary increases and other benefits based on their talent and performance. So, benevolence and beneficence are considered equally important for the modern day leaders as well the kings during the days of Valluvar.
Rectitude: In the Kural, Rectitude is considered as a highly desirable quality for a king. Rectitude means just rule. During the days of Valluvar or for that matter, even before and after Valluvar’s days, the kings had judiciary, legislative as well as executive powers. In other words, the king had the authority to make laws and to enforce them as well. As a result of this monopoly of power, a king might be tempted to be indiscriminate and partial in judicial matters. Valluvar lays down a very significant principle on jurisprudence. He says, “A fair-minded king takes cognizance of all the offences and does not show favours to anyone while rendering justice. Where necessary, he consults men of law and awards the penalty (541).” This principle of fairness is considered to be applicable to all aspects of the king’s administration. Valluvar condemns the practice of excessive taxation or any other imposition of financial hardship on the people as a highly undesirable quality and that it will lead to the king’s ruin. He says, “The sceptred king demanding illegitimate gifts or extorting excessive taxes is like armed robbery. (kural 552).” He also warns, “The tears of the oppressed people who are unable to endure the sufferings are the sharp weapons that destroy the king’s riches (kural 555).” Of course, history has several examples of dictators who were overthrown because they subjected their people to cruel and unusual punishments and imposed an enormous tax burden upon them.
In the modern era, the governments stipulate the rules by which the businesses and other enterprises should operate and if they fail to operate according to the law of the land, the businesses are liable for punishment. It is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that his organization is compliant with the law of the land. Besides being compliant with the laws, it is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that fair practices are followed in all aspects of the administration.
Concern for the Citizens: It is wise for a king to have the utmost concern for his citizens. If the king is indifferent towards his citizens and if the citizens are unhappy, then he will not enjoy the loyalty of his citizens and that may result in lack of support for him in case of an aggression or war against his country by his enemies. In the case of the CEOs, they have no counterpart for the citizens of a king. However, in order for a CEO to be successful, he has to have concern for his employees and also for the consumers whom his organization serves.
Although the form of government has changed over the years, Valluvar’s thesis that it is desirable for the rulers and leaders to be impartial in their judgment and being fair in their administration and having concern for their citizens, staff and consumers seem to be another example of his ageless wisdom.
Tolerating bitter criticism: It is unusual for a king to encounter direct criticism. Kings and leaders are usually surrounded by sycophants who shower false praises and rarely offer any criticism. But, listening to the sycophants and ignoring those who dare to criticize is detrimental to a king or a leader. Valluvar considers that it is very important for a king to listen to his advisors who are bold enough to offer bitter criticism. In fact, he says, “A king without the courageous counsellors who can rebuke him will destroy himself even if there is no enemy to destroy him (kural 448).” Of course, it is not enough to have the counsellors who can offer criticism. The king should listen to their criticism however harsh and bitter it is and analyze the merits of such criticism and follow their advice whenever they deserve consideration. By way of encouraging the king to listen to his advisors’ criticism, Valluvar says, “Who is there strong enough to destroy the king who has counsellors who would reprove him when he errs (kural 447)?”
In the modern era, in the democratic forms of governments, the role of the opposition party is to offer meaningful criticism to the rulers. In the corporate environment, the Board of Directors, as well as the shareholders, have the right to criticize the CEO. So, Valluvar’s idea regarding listening to bitter criticism has now become a routine practice in the organizations of the present era. Of course, it is an entirely different matter whether such criticisms are being accepted and acted upon by those in power.
Ease of access and not using harsh words: The kings have the privilege to act as wish and generally they are not subjected to any punishments for their obnoxious behaviour. The occasional outbursts of anger by a king may not have serious consequences. However, if a king is routinely abusive in his speech and not easily accessible for his citizens and staff, people will avoid meeting him and that will result in his not getting the right information at the right time and the king might eventually be surrounded by sycophants who are willing to tolerate the king’s behaviour in return for some anticipated benefit. In the long run, the king will suffer from isolation from and alienation by his staff and citizens. He would lose their loyalty and support in case of a war and that will make it easy for his enemy to win over him. The advice regarding ease of access and not using harsh words is equally applicable to the present day rulers of nations and the leaders of business enterprises also.
Company of Wise Counselors: Valluvar considers that it is also desirable for a king to keep the company of wise counsellors who are truly interested in his welfare and who can offer him valuable advice. He discusses the merits of the company of wise counsellors (Chapter 45) and complements that with a chapter (Chapter 46) on the evils of associating with the mean people. The following kurals from Chapter 45 describe the importance of counsellors for a king.
Let a king ponder well its value and secure the friendship of men of virtue and mature knowledge (wise counsellors). (kural 441)
It is the rarest of all rare privileges for a king to have the wise and the great men as his counsellors. (kural 443)
Throughout history, we can find several examples of counsellors offering valuable advice to their kings and the kings being immensely benefitted by such advice. Akbar the great ascended the throne of the Mogul empire of India at the young age of thirteen. It is said that Akbar could not read or write. But, he had an extraordinary group of nine distinguished men who served him as his counsellors and with their help, he could rule his empire very successfully. Other examples of great emperors who came to power and depended on their advisors would include Peter the Great of Russia, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Alexander the Great of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and so on. So, the contribution of the counsellors to the kings and monarchs of the past cannot be underestimated. In the modern day democracies, the ministers and various other advisors keep their leaders well informed with up-to-date information and intelligence and offer them timely advice. So, Valluvar is giving due recognition to the vital role of the wise counsellors by acknowledging its importance.
Being undaunted by adversities: A king is likely to encounter any number of adversities and setbacks. He cannot afford to be succumbed by the thought of failure. His staff would be looking to him for leadership and guidance to overcome the adverse situations. Without being undaunted by adversities, he should consult with his advisors, analyze his options and forge ahead with courage to combat the adversities. In order to act with determination and courage, Valluvar suggests that one should laugh at the adversity because that is the best way to overcome them. This is similar to the comment made by the Scottish philosopher and poet Thomas Carlyle who said, “Wondrous is the spirit of cheerfulness and its power of endurance.” Of course, this advice by Valluvar is applicable not only to the kings and leaders but to everyone. However, in view of the grave consequences that might result from a king or a leader’s inability to triumph over adversities, this suggestion by Valluvar is certainly more relevant to kings and leaders.
Never giving up: According to Valluvar, one should not become disheartened and give up persistent effort because the task at hand is daunting. Although this advice is general and applicable to everyone, in view of the importance of the responsibilities of the kings and leaders, the quality of “never giving up” or tenacity is more relevant to them.
The political, social, economic, scientific and technological developments that have occurred during the past two millennia have completely reshaped the world. For example, in many countries monarchies have disappeared giving room to democracies; theocracies have been replaced by secular governments. The societal values have changed considerably. People recognize the need for the elimination of discrimination of all kinds based on caste, race, language, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin etc. Such a Utopia may never exist, but people are at least thinking on those lines. In the case of the economy, the modern day trade, commerce and worldwide markets are a long way from the rural economy based on a barter system of the past. Science and technology have been constantly evolving and reaching new heights which could not have been even by imagined by our forefathers. In spite of these evolutionary and revolutionary changes undergone by the world during the past two thousand years, Valluvar’s ideas are still valid and are valuable even today. Valluvar’s ideas on leadership are examples of his ageless wisdom and its universal and eternal applicability.
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