Participative Leadership Originated In 4th Century BC In India

My last post on Indian Management Model generated a common comment – “India already has a management model where obedience to the boss comes first!” That is the common perception so I decided to delve deeper into the subject. Where did the authoritarian style of leadership come from in India?

The common perception of modern day CEO was that a CEO had all the answers. He was all knowing same as the prior period kings. In this century, the management mantra is that CEOs don’t have all the answers and should have the ability to ask the right questions. They need inputs from all to form decisions. Therefore, the shift clearly is towards participative leadership style.

After some research, I found that authoritarian leadership style originated from the Greek terminology “autocratic leadership”. My view is that Indian history is full of examples of participative leadership. Let me explain this viewpoint further.

In Ramayana, the main characters considered obedience a virtue. However, Buddha propagated the view – question everything, don’t take anything at face value. Subsequently Mahabharata is full of characters doing exactly as they please, breaking all the rules and getting into a lot of trouble. In it, Krishna asks Arujuna to fight his teacher Dronacharya, his elders, most of his relatives and friends since they were supporting unethical Dhurypdhana.

kautiliyaFurther, Kautilya’s Arthshastra gives a full process for the king to take decisions after consulting his ministers, officials and public where required. He discussed participative leadership in 4th century BC. Surprised! Let me share his thoughts with you.

1.     Discuss with ministers and employees

The king shall deliberate over matters with a number of people as required. It states that “No deliberation made by a single person will be successful; the nature of the work which a sovereign has to do is to be inferred from the consideration of both the visible and invisible causes.”

2.     Obtain outside counsel

It further mentions that discussions should not be restricted to ministers and their direct reports. The king “shall sit at deliberation with persons of wide intellect.” Hence, it discusses the concept of consultation from people outside the ministry.

3.     Encourage constructive confrontation

Next, the Arthshastra mentions that the king should hear all opinions even contrary to his. It states – “He shall despise none, but hear the opinions of all. A wise man shall make use of even a child’s sensible utterance.”

4.     Selection of advisers

Then Arthshastra states that king should not select people on a random basis or those who have no clear idea of the execution of work required. It states -“He shall consult such persons as are believed to be capable of giving decisive opinion regarding those works about which he seeks for advice”. Hence, qualification and knowledge of advisers is a prerequisite.

5.     Opinions of competitors

Kautilya does not suggest that advice should be sought from friends and allies alone. He states – “nor shall he (king) sit long at consultation with those whose parties he intends to hurt.” Hence, getting competitive information and viewpoints hasn’t been ruled out.

6.     Number of advisers

Kautilya advises that in the normal course of business the king should discuss with 3-4 ministers. He states that discussing with one minister is useless, as he will advise “ willfully and without restraint”. Discussing with two would not help as “the king may be overpowered by their combined action, or imperiled by their mutual dissension”. Discussing with too many minsters will cause a great deal of trouble and slow down the process.  I think Kautilya has adequately covered modern day challenges of selecting advisers.

7.     Method of discussion

Last but not the least, Kautilya defines that the king should choose to hold a collective meeting or individual interactions depending on the situation. In his words – “The king may ask his ministers for their opinion either individually or collectively, and ascertain their ability by judging over the reasons they assign for their opinions.”

Closing thoughts

Kautiliya comprehensively covered most of the aspects of participative leadership in his Arthshastra.  Authoritarian leadership appears a western concept and not an Indian concept as is commonly believed. The style took major hold during industrial revolution. With globalization and increasing complexity of business, participative leadership is gaining ground. Concepts of collective intelligence and crowd sourcing are garnering strength.

Moreover, the main concept of Hinduism is – everything that is created is destroyed and everything that is destroyed is recreated. If it is true, then history repeats itself. Then isn’t it better to understand the historic management concepts and learn from them.

Lastly, in the creation of new world order, nothing is sacrosanct. In words of Jalaluddin Rumi – Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own truth.


1. Arthshastra by Kautilya