There is no doubt that the business landscape is continuously evolving in an unprecedented speed since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Governments, corporations, society, and individuals are all grappling with the new reality, new preferences, new behaviour, and new aspirations in their pursuit to prepare for the post-Covid world. While some organisations are still be holding on to the leadership behaviours that helped them achieve success in the past, time has come for them to reassess and change their ways of working to succeed in the post-Covid world.
The topic of leadership behaviour is very close to my heart. It reminds me of the story of Shwetketu, a character from the Chandyoga Upanishad, and his leadership journey from ignorance to knowledge.
Leadership Journey from ignorance to knowledge
Shwetketu was the son of sage Uddalaka who sent his son to a gurukul for studies. Uddalaka wanted his son to be a learned and wise person. Shwetketu was a quick learner and he studied all available written scriptures at that time. While he was coming back to his village, his friends from the village saw him and informed Uddalaka that his son is returning after completing the studies. Uddalaka saw him from the window of the hut and could sense a kind of arrogance in Shwetketu’s gait.
On his arrival, Uddalaka asked Shwetketu two questions — how had his learning experience been, and what were his future plans? Shwetketu replied that he had studied all the scriptures and had learned all that he could learn at the gurukul. His said he planned to participate in King Janaka’s shastrarth (translated as philosophical debate) and win over all the learned people of the world.
Hearing Shwetketu’s answer, Uddalaka realised that his son’s education was still incomplete. He told his son that while he had learned all that were written in the scriptures and known at that point of time, he was yet to learn things that were not available in written form and unknown and may unfold in the future. He advised Shwetketu to go back to the gurukul and request his guru to educate him on these aspects.
Following his father’s advice, Shwetketu requested his guru accordingly. Hearing his request, his guru mentioned that whatever his learning was so far has been a direct training. Now as he has to learn about the unknown, he will have to undergo a remote training — different in nature from the training thus far. The guru explained that now he would be more of a coach, mentor, and facilitator. Shwetketu was then given a task of looking after a herd of 400 cows and bulls. He was advised to come back to the gurukul when the herd grew to reach 1000.
Shwetketu was a bit apprehensive of the task as he had to ensure that these 400 cows and bulls (his assets) don’t die from sickness or predation, and that they multiply in numbers. It was a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world for him and he didn’t know how to communicate with the herd, something never taught in the gurukul.
In the first two days, he started fencing the area to ensure that the assets are not depreciating. He soon realised that his knowledge of the scriptures had no influence on the herd, and that he must bring about certain changes adapting to the situation. He understood that he needed to learn the language of sounds, not the words, and thus he adapted to the requirements of his task with resilience. In a few months, the number of cows and bulls reached 1000.
As instructed, Shwetketu then shepherded the herd to his Gurukul. On his way to the Gurukul, his friends, critics, detractors, caught sight of him and they started shouting and claiming that they had counted the number of cows & bulls in the herd, and it was equal to 1000. To this, his guru mentioned that it was not 1000, but 1000 + 1, as Shwetketu had adapted himself to the situation and had become one of them.
This time when Shwetketu reached home, his father noticed a sense of pride, humility, and calmness in Shwetketu’s behaviour, instead of naïve arrogance. Uddalaka again asked him the same set of questions as before: how had his learning been, and what were his future plans?
This time, Shwetketu answered differently. He replied that while he had learned a great deal, there are still many things he needs to learn about. Hearing this, his father assigned him a task to get a seed from a particular tree. Shwetketu did as instructed and brought back a seed. Uddalaka told him to break that seed. Curious Shwetketu crushed the seed into pieces, observed it and replied that he saw nothing after breaking the seed into pieces.
To this, Uddalaka said that from this very small seed in which you saw nothing, a big tree had emerged and we both are sitting beneath the tree. Similarly, things that you might initially perceive as insignificant may eventually transform into something big. The concept of tat-tvam-asi (translated as that you are) was introduced to Shwetketu by the sage.
Communication, collaboration in post-Covid world
The concepts from Shwetketu’s story are relevant to the modern business management practices, especially in the post-Covid world. The concept of tat-tvam-asi signifies that a company or an organisation is just its promoter, but every individual who works there and is an interface to the external world. Organisations select bright stars much like Shwetketu who are expected to not only fulfil the current job requirements, but also to take leadership positions in future.
Covid has brought to fore many challenges and we all know that challenges also bring opportunities. We will see a greater shift towards digital intervention in business processes of many companies in the post-Covid world. It also made us realise that we should not cling to any technology forever. It essentially must disrupt, transform, reform and change. It reminds me of the popular couplet of famous poet Ahmad Faraz –Tu apni sheesha-gari ka hunar na kar zaaya, Main aaina hun mujhe tootne ki aadat hai. Leaders who have practised resilience during troubled times have been successful in leading organisations effectively.
I believe communication will play a key role and this is one area which everyone needs to pay extra attention to. In today’s digital world, when people log on to platforms for discussions and meetings, the moot question is — are they connected and engaged? Leveraging communication to drive engagement and achieve desired outcome will require focused approach. We generally listen to respond and not to understand. Listening skills need to be honed for more effective communication.
The prevalence of remote learning in the post-Covid world has enabled several specialists in their own areas. One of the key areas would be open and free collaboration. Collaboration within and outside the organisation, collaboration with the start-up ecosystem, industry and academia connect will be of great importance for attaining the required organisational objectives.
To conclude, the pandemic has shown that while skills like communication, collaboration, adaptability and resilience are incredibly valuable, it is also important for employees and leaders alike to leverage today’s new experiences as a source of learning for the the post-Covid world.
(Pankaj Satija is Chief, Regulatory Affairs at Tata Steel Ltd. This article is a reproduction of his presentation at a webinar organised by Policy Circle.)