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

8 comments on “Participative Leadership Originated In 4th Century BC In India

  1. There are numerous historical examples from Indian history to demonstrate the practice of collective-participative decision making by the Ruler or King. In the pre-Christian era, the court of King Vikramaditya comprised of “Nav-Ratnas” (Nine Gems), a term applied to a group of nine extraordinary people in a king’s court who served as the Kings advisory council and guide. The “Astadiggajas” (Eight Experts) were eight accomplished Telugu poets in the court of the Emperor Sri Krishna Deva Raya, who ruled the Vijayanagara Empire in early 15th Century, and who were regarded as the eight pillars of his literary assembly. The title Ashtadiggajas (Ashta + dik + gaja) means ‘elephants in eight directions’ which refers to the old Hindu belief that eight elephants hold the earth in eight directions. The court of poets were also called Bhuvana Vijayam (Conquest of the World). During the Mughal Empire in the reign of Akbar the Great, he also employed the services of “Nav Ratnas” to advise him on matters of the court, administration, war, etc. Clearly, over the centuries while the time period, ruler and dynasty changed, the embedded consultive-participative principle did not. The best example of ancient India that demonstrates the consultive-participative decision making in practice was in the area of women empowerment through the ritual of ‘Swayamvara’ (Self Choice or Desire) when a girl of marrigeable age would choose her husband from amongst a list of suitors. Such was the freedom of choice and belief in decision making involving multiple stakeholders to arrive at a collective and right decision for the greater good and benefit for all.

      • Thanks Sonia. The remnant of the ancient ‘consensus’ style decision making still survives in rural India in the form of the ‘Panchayat’ where the Panch (Five), a group of five eminent people, collectively engage with the whole village before arriving at a decision endorsed by the ‘Sarpanch’ (Head or Leader of Five). If we apply this to modern management, then the Sarpanch is the Chairman of the Board, the Panch are the Board, the prominent castes the Management and the farmers, tillers, labourers etc the rank and file staff. The Panchayat follows the customs and traditions prevalent, understood and accepted within the local village and does not seek to apply any ‘imported’ best practices from elsewhere that may not be the ‘right’ practice in the context of the social norms of that particular village. We do have a lot to learn about the management basics from our Ancients and rural brethren.

  2. It’s inspiring to see you praise your culture’s management principles, especially since the whole world believes this field was honed by the West. Traces of this participation style continued to be evident during the Mughal dynasty (we’ve all heard of Akbar-Beerbal, where the two often discussed political and social issues and reached wise solutions). The tide turned with the conquest of India by the British Army, when an authoritative management style was suddenly imposed. No one was allowed to question the rulers, and hence, we, as third and fourth generation, continue to often be subdued in front of our bosses 🙂

    • Fehmeen,

      Thanks for sharing your very candid views. Yes, the difference in culture came in British rule and started with Mughal rule. If you notice India was a rich country and didn’t invade other countries except in a few instances. Reason being, violence though accepted at a practical level of governance, wasn’t in the Hindu philosophy. So temperamentally we are comparatively non-aggressive than people from the west. The other aspect is that we are taught to be humble, not blow our own horn and fight for credit.

      The result is that we have allowed the West to walk all over us in thought leadership. We haven’t spoken up about our thoughts and have politely adjusted to others. So now in 3rd -4th generation we have developed the mentality of playing the victim and blame everything on the British. The situation is so dismal that with the education system the 3rd-4th generation doesn’t even know India was a thought leader in any aspect.

      Americans publish their thought leadership papers on a daily basis. How many are we publishing? Why are we not doing the needful to educate the west with our thought leadership. If they are doing a good job of developing thought leadership and advertising it, it doesn’t make them bad. It is stupid of us not to do the same. How can we expect the west to understand our views when we don’t bother to inform them.

      Education and communication is two way- we need to understand and be understood. And that is what is required of Indians in this global village.


      • Playing the victim is an easy defense for our lack of social and scientific progress. You’re right to say it’s stupid of us to not take the front seat in ‘thought leadership’, especially when we have such a rich tradition for it.

  3. Pingback: Accounting and Auditing in Ancient India | Sonia Jaspal's RiskBoard

Comments are closed.