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The 'yin' of management

Gouri Shukla in Mumbai | December 21, 2004

Northpoint Dean Rajeshwar Upadhyaya He is well named. Rajeshwar Upadhyaya (Upadhyaya is the Sanskrit term for learned teacher) may teach mundane subjects like leadership and change management, but he turns for inspiration to more esoteric themes like poetry and world literature.

The 40-year-old professor is gearing up to teach a course on "Leadership lessons from world literature" at the Wharton Business School next year. Around the same time, his book on the same theme -- Leadership Insights from World Literature -- will also hit the stands.

For now, though, Upadhyaya is the dean of the Northpoint Centre of Learning, ad agency Lowe's executive development centre at Khandala, Maharashtra.

He is also part of the visiting faculty at Hyderabad's Indian School of Business and Thunderbird: The Garvin School of International Management at Arizona (ranked among the top 50 American B-schools by BusinessWeek).

And when Upadhyaya is not teaching management students at B-schools, he imparts leadership training to executives from multinational corporations and other large organisations for nearly six months in a year.

"Leadership, as most people now know, is not a B-school monopoly. Often the best leaders surprise us by coming up from nowhere," he comments.

Upadhyaya's choice of specialisation is unusual -- after all, while you may have the odd B-school student quoting Kafka, you won't find too many spouting Kalidasa. But the professor believes there's a lot the great tragedies can teach about leadership.

"Failure is a great teacher," he says. Which is why his workshops include screenings of Shakespearian tragedies such as Hamlet and Macbeth and, at times, even a more modern film like Satya.

Failure apart, there are other lessons to be learnt from tragic heroes, says Upadhyaya. Each of them -- whether it was Julius Caesar, Hamlet or Macbeth from Shakespeare or even Ravana from our own Ramayana -- was guilty of ignoring their yin sides (Chinese philosophy posits that any entity is composed of two opposing yet interrelated forces: the passive, female or yin, and the active, male or yang).

"From the tragedies you can find the framework for exploring the psychology of leadership failure. All the "masculine" (yang) organisations have failed," he says.

Upadhyaya cites the example of Enron. The problem there, he says, was that the company went bullish on revenue and acquisitions but did not focus on individuals working for it.

"Masculine or yang characteristics represent assertiveness and desire for material gains and power. But that didn't help Enron in the Indian market at all," Upadhyaya adds.

His advice to companies: don't be aggressively revenue-driven, listen to the yin side -- nurture and mentor the talent base, let individuals grow. In fact, individual growth and development is Upadhyaya's key area of focus when it comes to training. "Organisational excellence is a myth -- it's actually the sum total of individual excellence," he says.

Upadhyaya's analysis of Shakespearean plays carries the message that the ability to communicate, persuade, see through deception and decipher the deeper motivations will be critical to be successful manager and an effective leader.

According to him, successful leaders are increasingly going to be of the humble, yet strong-willed variety, rather than the conventional, chest thumping over-achievers.

He swears by individualism -- a western way of life. Western countries are strongly industrial nations. So the western way of life is more practical -- people look at things as a cause-and-effect equation.

Contrarily, the Asian society is ridden by collectivism. Particularly the Indian approach to life is influenced by a deep-set agrarian mentality (sow, nurture and blame it on the rains) and a feudal past (take orders from the zamindar).

So the work approach of Asian subordinates is seen by many, as fatalistic and lacking in initiative. "These employees need to trained in techniques of opportunity harvesting and getting rid of risk-aversion," says Upadhyaya.

This is a common issue faced by multinationals when they branch out in culturally different markets. And that's where Upadhyaya comes in. "Often, companies are confronted with the problem of culture shock. They expect their employees all over the globe to conform to the global corporate culture," he points out.

Culture differences affect the equation of an organisation with its employees. What complicates the issue is strong historical and socio-religious differences which influence corporate culture differently in different markets.

He cites the issues of "power distance" (equation and attitude to seniority) that differs from country to country. For instance in the US, the company culture is typically informal and employees even address their CEO by their first name.

However, in India, the culture is much more formal and it takes employees time to get issues across to seniors. So American companies may find company culture slower in the Indian market.

That's why Upadhyaya says that his toughest training assignment till date was training 14 country heads of a south -east Asian company. "Since all the company heads were Asian, easing the power distance with me proved to be a tough challenge," he explains.

Upadhyaya's interest in two seemingly unrelated subjects goes back a long way. In his twenties, he dabbled in poetry and journalism -- he even published two volumes of his poems Urnful of history and Faking realities. But he'd rather remain an anonymous poet, if his poetry overshadows his training exploits in the conversation.

After all, poetry happened before moving on to consulting in human resources at a major financial institution and then later into training.

That's when he discovered how classical and medieval literature could hold the beacon to current management and leadership issues.

But the world literature references aren't reserved only for the leadership training sessions. Upadhyaya's got in good practice for the Wharton course next year by designing his own elective this year at ISB.

The programme -- "Management lessons from world literature" -- starts with chapters on the Ramayana and Odyssey and goes on to cover the works of Francis Bacon, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"The course has opened up the insight that there's actually only a thin line between life and business and management," says a student at ISB.

If Cervantes' Don Quixote seems an incongruous choice for a leadership lesson, Upadhyaya is quick to remove doubts.

"Don Quixote is an exemplary novel where the two mutually exclusive points of view -- the rationalist (Sancho Panza) and the idealist (Don Quixote) -- try and synergise their efforts. Their success lies in the final disillusionment of both," he explains.

Similarly, he feels, genius and excellence lies in the ability to hold two mutually exclusive points of view simultaneously.

"Just as Quixote was no match for the monstrous windmills, the modern executive is in the grips of the forces of technology he never started," he says.

He adds that both Sancho Panza and Quixote are not different, but complementary aspects of the same psyche.

"Individuals, especially corporate executives, are in a constant conflict between personal aspiration and corporate compulsion. It would seem that Quixote will have to be sacrificed at the altar of Sancho Panza, but Sancho by himself cannot be an adequate rationale for existence." Will leaders absorb that?

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