What would lord Krishna and Vishnu have done in your boardroom?

The Indian way.
The Indian way.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Mythologies often act as signposts of human behaviour and interaction. Years after mythological stories were born, people continue to interpret and re-interpret them to suit the current. In his book The Leadership Sutra, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik has sought to draw lessons from such ancient stories for modern management, particularly in the Indian context.

Following are two examples from the book of how such parallels can be drawn.

We would rather change the world than ourselves

Shishupala was born deformed with extra limbs and eyes. The oracles revealed that he would become normal the day he was picked up by a man who was destined to kill him. That man turned out to be Krishna. Shishupala’s mother begged Krishna to forgive a hundred crimes of her son. Krishna promised to do so.

At the coronation of Yudhishtir, Shishupala insulted Krishna several times. Krishna did not say anything and kept forgiving him, but eventually, after the hundredth insult, Krishna was under no obligation to forgive the lout. He hurled his Sudarshan Chakra and killed Shishupala.

While Shishupala’s mother got an assurance from Krishna, at no point did Shishupala’s mother tell her son never to upset Krishna. Shishupala’s mother gains Durga from Krishna but does not invoke Shakti in her own son. She relies on external powers for protection and has no faith in internal power. The burden of invoking inner power is too great. It demands too much effort. Like Indra, Shishupala’s mother seeks external intervention to save her during crisis.

In the Puran, Indra never changes. Despite crisis after crisis and the repeated attacks of asuras, he does not change. He keeps asking for help from his father Brahma who asks Vishnu for help. When Vishnu solves the problem, Indra returns to his indulgent ways. We want problems to be solved, but we refuse to develop divya-drishti or realize that we want to change only the objective world and are convinced the subjective world needs no improvement.

Unquestioned loyalty

When Atul resigned and moved to another firm, Derek was furious. He raved and ranted about Atul’s lack of loyalty and his betrayal. “We should never hire professionals,” he told his son. In his rage, he gave more powers to those who were loyal to him, not realizing that it was precisely this behaviour that had alienated the very talented Atul.

Derek’s insecurity meant he was always suspicious of people who did not demonstrate loyalty. He wanted to hedge his bets and so gave equal value to those loyal as well as those who were talented. He wanted the world to be loyal to him, but did nothing to evoke loyalty in men like Atul by giving them the freedom and space they needed to perform.

He believed, like Shishupala’s mother, that the problem was with the world.

When the context changes, we have to change

Vishnu is at once mortal and immortal. Each of his avatars goes through birth and death, yet he never dies. The avatar adapts to the age. Jaisa yug, vaisa avatar (as is the context, so is the action). With each avatar his social body undergoes a change. He is at first animal (fish, turtle, boar, half-lion) and then human (priest, warrior, prince, cowherd, charioteer).

When Hiranayaksha dragged the earth under the sea, Vishnu took the form of the boar Varaha, plunged into the waters and gored the asura to death, placing the earth on his own snout, raising it back to the surface. This confrontation was highly physical.

Hiranakashipu was a different kind of asura. He obtained a boon that made him near invincible: he could not be killed either by a man or an animal, either in the day or in the night, neither inside a dwelling nor outside, nor on the ground nor off it, and not with a weapon or tool.

To kill this asura, Vishnu transformed himself into Narasimha, a creature that was half-lion and half-human, neither man nor completely animal. He dragged the asura at twilight, which is neither day nor night, to the threshold, which is neither inside a house nor outside, and placing him on his thigh, which is neither on the ground nor off, disembowelled him with his sharp claws, which were neither weapons nor tools.

This complex confrontation was highly intellectual, a battle of wits if you will.

Then came Bali, an asura who was so noble and so generous that his realm expanded beyond the subterranean realms to include the earth and sky. To put him back in his place, Vishnu took the form of the dwarf Vaman and asked him for three paces of land. When Bali granted this wish, the dwarf turned into a giant and with two steps claimed the earth and sky, shoving Bali back to the nether regions with the third step.

This battle involved not so much defeating the opponent as it did transforming oneself. A study of these avatars of Vishnu indicates a discernible shift in tactics. From Varaha to Narasimha to Vamana there is a shift from brute force, to brain over brawn and, finally, an exercise in outgrowing rather than outwitting. The demons become increasingly complex—Hiranayaksha is violent, Hiranakashipu is cunning and Bali is good but fails to see the big picture.

Each one forces Vishnu to change, adapt and evolve. There is no standard approach, each approach is customized as per the context determined by the other. At all times, Vishnu’s intention does not change.

Management avatars

Narsi knew that some problems could only be solved by force. So he hired a security firm known for strong-arm tactics. He also had a team of powerful lawyers because he knew many problems could be prevented by watertight contracts and fear of litigation.

When the head of his marketing department was being too impudent, Narsi decided to change the proportions of the business relationship. He appointed a senior group marketing head to oversee the marketing operations of all his businesses. Suddenly, the marketing head, once a big fish in a small pond, found that he had become a small fish in a big pond, and stopped being an upstart and creating too much trouble.

Some people think Narsi has multiple-personality disorder. Sometimes he gives people complete freedom. Sometimes he controls every aspect of the project. Sometimes he is kind and understanding. Sometimes he shouts and screams.

Narsi told his nephew, Vishal, that he changes his management style depending on the situation and the person in front of him. “Some situations demand creativity and others demand control. Some people need to be instructed while others can be inspired. We need to change as per the situation and the people around us in order to succeed.”

Narsi is Vishnu who knows every context is a yuga and every yuga has its own appropriate avatar.

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company. We welcome your comments at