Book Reviews

Reflections on 'Leadership & Power'

Power is a mysterious, yet pervasive phenomenon. We experience it in some form or another, at each instant in life, and often wonder at the way in which circumstances either remain adamantly unchanged or change swiftly, no doubt in both cases, through the application of different kinds of power. 

In their book, Chakraborty and Bhattacharya have compiled a wide selection of perspectives on power. Twenty-nine diverse pieces, ranging from the use of power by characters from the Mahabharatha, to Gandhi's use of power, to modern day use and abuse of power in the corporate and political sectors, provides ample practical and some theoretical insight into the nature of power. The enriching material has been obtained from contributors from different parts of the world and from different fields and professions, including the political and the bureaucratic executive, the judicial, the press, economists, philosophers, teachers and practitioners of management. 

The editor's primary concern has been with the way power has been used by human agents and agencies in 'managing' or should we more appropriately say, in mismanaging the individual, social and environmental aspects of existence. This they have summed up in the following ' 'The accelerating spread of mammon worship, galloping commercialization of science, technology and the academia, along with the crumbling of traditional norms that upheld social conduct, have all combined to produce increasing evidence of worrisome abuse and misuse in all channels of life-flow. A dense pall of narcissism looms over our minds. The resultant clogged and contaminated life flow is hardly a worthy legacy to hand over to posterity. Here is a small effort to examine this global problem from multiple perspectives.' 

The editors have organized the book into four sections ' Secular Insights, Spiritual Insights, Applied Insights, and Sagacious Insights, which suits their goal of examining the use and abuse of power from multiple perspectives. 

This review, however, will proceed by first developing a framework for power, whose emergence has been stimulated by reading the materials in the book. It will then go on to examine a few of the pieces against the constructed framework, to thereby further refine the framework, which will in the end-analysis, stand as the image which has been glimpsed, through the study of the machinations and dynamics of power provided by these pieces. For, in reading the different pieces on power different questions arise, and in working through these questions, it is as though unique faces of power are being revealed, which in their totality begin to provide an in-view into the diamond that must be at the center. For what else can power be, given that all invention, all history, all present and future possibilities, seem to be determined by something of its substance? 

Emergence of a framework

In reading Hiten Bhaya's piece 'Management of Power in Government and the Corporate World' the reader is made aware that corruption is a reality in many corporate and government environments. Parties in power, so he describes, begin to throw their weight around before elections, in order to raise money to finance the elections. Hence, companies are forced by party officials to give contracts to those who will subsequently contribute a percentage of the contract proceeds toward party coffers. For this reason also, government companies are often required to have, or to transfer their headquarters to Delhi, so that these same politicians can exercise a 'tighter hold' over crucial financial resources. 

In reading this, the following chain of observations occurs: An environment exists. This environment has certain unwritten rules that largely determine its dynamics. They are unwritten, because the written rules dictate quite another and perhaps more ideal way that corporations and governments should act. These unwritten rules exercise their own power ' they influence and determine how things are done. The question is, is the following and enforcing of these unwritten rules, which we will have more to say about shortly, an exercise in power? If so, then how is this power different from the one that gets things done through abiding by the ideal rules, or through changing the unwritten rules? Are there different kinds of powers with different degrees of effectiveness? Are we suggesting, therefore that there is a gradient to power? 

Perhaps there is. Perhaps in constructing one, more sense can be made of the myriad views and manifestations of power. Let us experiment with a tri-level gradient to the manifestation of power. 

The first level is one in which the game is fixed. Perhaps we can refer to this level as the physical-vital conglomerate. The influence of the physical fixes the game in accordance with certain vital level dynamics. In other words the ego is the master and the game is played for self-aggrandizement, and those that are subject to it believe that it simply is, and therefore that it cannot be changed, unless of course one is the initiator of the vital-level play, in which case the game is still subject to dynamics characteristic of the unrefined vital level, and hence too, the notion of choice exists now only within certain less-restricted vital limits. 

At the next level, the mind becomes active, and hence the notion of questioning and choice, and individuality becomes more pronounced. A player can choose to accept the game as it is, or through force of personality can begin to play it differently by imparting something of who they are into the situation. In fact, the more differently it is played, in accordance with the uniqueness as opposed to the subservience of the player, the more the personality comes forward and the more the third layer, with its increasing display of diamond-like power, can begin to be entered into.

The third layer, in Mr. Dasgupta's view, octogenarian scholar of English literature and contributor to a brilliant piece in the book, would perhaps be described as giving 'poetry' to the situation. Seeing beyond the lines that have been etched out for us, recognizing that reverence is the master key to unlocking unforeseen potentialities, to truly make it other than it may commonly be held to be. Leadership at this level would imply that which invokes the sense of reverence, to awaken something lofty in those around.

But this tri-level gradient only depicts the outer play in some settled formation. The motive forces, resident in each individual, and which through expression and repetition or lack thereof, it can be opined, give the outer play its settled characteristics, is perhaps what power is all about. At the physical-vital end of the spectrum the play of this power is restricted by the nature of the physical-vital substance. Acting like a filter, only that which reinforces its essential principle can freely come forward. At the mental level, and even much more at the level of 'poetry', more of the unique substance resident in each person is allowed to come forward, which in turn shapes the reality of things. 

This book, in fact, opens with a line from Sri Aurobindo's Synthesis of Yoga ' 'All power is really soul-power'. Keeping this in mind then, perhaps it would be fair to say that the soul and its powers more easily manifest themselves in accordance with the development of the instrument ' be it the individual, the corporation, or the environment. At the physical-vital end of the spectrum therefore, perhaps it can be said that the instrument being relatively less developed, allows only established, repetitive patterns to come forward. Game-changing initiatives, dynamics that transcend the notion of self-aggrandizement, dynamics that represent poetry in the making, would therefore not really find the substance necessary to express their possibilities. 

At the mental level, and even much more at the level of 'poetry', however, the soul-powers are perhaps more able to ride and even shape the corresponding instrumental substance to create astounding new possibilities. 

But what really is meant by soul-powers? S.K. Chakraborty, in his wide-ranging piece on Wisdom Power, refers to a framework developed by Sri Aurobindo, which 'enables a why-centered mind to perceive wisdom, power, harmony and work ' the principal qualitative ingredients of human affairs ' in their unified Cosmic setting'. Wisdom and knowledge, he points out, conceives order and principle. Power sanctions, protects and enforces. Harmony relates and arranges the parts, and work implements, guided by the preceding three. These then, are the stuff of soul-power, and if 'All is Atman', must surely be the means by which all around us is arranged and organized. 

The primary soul-power at the physical level must then be that of work, with the other three being present in whatever way possible. The primary soul-power at the vital level must be that of power. The primary soul-power at the mental level must be that of knowledge, and the primary soul-power at the level of poetry must be that of harmony. At each subsequent level more of the other three are able to express themselves, so that in contrast to the physical level where knowledge, power, and harmony perhaps exist in carefully designed and narrow grooves, at the level of harmony, all the four exist more fully and freely, and obviously with a greater degree of mutuality and integral coordination. 

We return then, to the original question: how is the power obtained from 'submitting' to the rules different than the one obtained from 'changing' the rules? We are now perhaps better equipped to answer this, and therefore to make sense of the different descriptions and notions of power as they arise in this book. Power obtained from submitting to the rules, as in many corporate and government circles as described in Hiten Bhaya's article, is of a qualitatively different substance than that which operates from the level of poetry, as referred to in Dasgupta's article. It reinforces existing dynamics. It suppresses individuality. It enriches a few and that too only in very narrow and ultimately self-destructive ways. In its essence, it is the reinforcing of yesterday and its ways, that which has already made its way into the physical and vital layers of existence, and therefore, by the very notion and observable fact of progress, must sooner or later yield to another way of being. Power at the level of poetry, on the other hand, is creative, involves more of the stuff of the soul, and brings forth widening, deepening, heightening possibilities that substantially enrich humankind. In its essence it is futuristic, with its insights, intuitions, and inspirations, changing the very stuff of life, so that the progress that it points at becomes the road-sign to gradually spell the reality at the levels below.

Application and further insight

With the aid of this lens, let us now look at a few selected pieces from the book which perhaps can help to refine the framework of power that seems to be emerging here.

Let us look at Pradip Bhattacharya's insightful analysis in 'Management of Power: Insights from Mahabharatha', where he examines the use of power by several key characters in the Mahabharatha. 

The author makes the point that Bhishma is the representative of the old dharma and must be removed in order that the new dharma may manifest. In our context then, Bhishma is the holder of the matrix of past life, with its physical-vital norms of yesteryear. The author points out that these norms were essentially loyalty to the clan, which overrode all other claims, and fidelity to one's own word or vows as the be-all and end-all of all matters. Bhishma thus, was trapped by these primarily physical-vital dynamics, which he in turn upheld to the last, as is perfectly characterized by his inability to say or do anything at the time of the brutal de-clothing of Draupadi in court. 

Never did he freely step into the mental level, to truly question as to what would be necessary from the point of view of statesmanship to insure the good of all. Or if he did do this, his enslavement to the existing order of things was so strong, that he either trivialized it as being less important than the existing balance of things, or chose to willfully ignore it. In either case, it is clear that Bhishma was not a free-thinking individual, but the quintessential summary of a vital-physical order that sought to prolong itself beyond its useful time. His power derived from the automaticity of this lower physical-vital layer seeking to prolong its reign. 

Under such a scenario it becomes necessary for an authentic personality, outcome of the flowering of the soul, to reverse this natural arrestation and spur society on to the adoption of a truer dharma. In the context of Mahabharatha, Krishna was just such a personality. Svarat, master of himself, fully aware of the play of physical-vital-mental forces in himself, in those around, and in the game of life, he could play at the level of the existing order of things, by the rules of the existing orders of things, to shape the outcome in accordance with the unstated goal of moving all to the next level. His source of power thus, was not solely the vision of the future stated in ideal terms. 

He stands, thus, as the ultimate leader. Ultimate, because, he is not building castles in the air, or relying on empty words to instigate action, but takes action where and when necessary to ensure that the vision embodied by the words is fulfilled. Ultimate, because, the vision of what is to be done is always present, even if guiding from behind, to seize on the stuff of the lower levels of being to compel them to execute in a fashion absolutely faithful to the working out of the presiding vision. In our context, it is perhaps fair to say that the soul-powers, even able to run along the narrow grooves and circles of the physical and vital levels of being, find expression, even if in diminished form, at all the levels of being. 

This then, brings out an important notion in our framework, whereby the integrality of power is important. Integrality in the sense of both, letting the highest vision become the anchor around which the lower levels are organized, and letting the guiding soul-powers exercise themselves freely, albeit perhaps in diminished form, at whatever level necessary.

With this insight, it is now perhaps sufficient to turn to the figure of Gandhi, who has featured eminently in several articles in the discussion of power, and in fact has been referenced close to 50 times in this book on Leadership and Power. A full-analysis that encapsulated all these references would require am independent study. Here, however, a representative reference drawing on Gandhi's own words is used instead. 

In thinking of Gandhi, it is not the figure of Krishna that seems to flash forth, but more the figure of Bhishma. Protector of an old way of being, fashioned by admirable dharmas no doubt, though of questionable value in the modern context of life. Chakraborty, in his article on Wisdom Power, elaborates on Gandhi'ssatyagraha.

'Speaking on the code of conduct for governors, ministers, parliamentarians, etc., he offers practical elaboration of the theory of satyagraha:

  • His private life should be so simple that it inspires respect, or even reverence. He should give one hour to productive physical labor.

  • Bungalows and motor cars should be ruled out, of course.

  • The other members of his family, including children, should do all the household work themselves; servants should be used as sparingly as possible.

  • Plain living and high thinking must be his motto, not to adorn his entrance but to be exemplified in daily life.

  • The seat of power is a nasty thing. You have to remain ever wakeful on that seat.

  • They may not make private gains either for themselves or for their relatives.

  • They must be humble. People often think nothing of not keeping their word. They should never promise what they cannot do.'

In reading through these statements one gets the impression that it is not authentic personalities, resplendent with the full and free play of any and varied combination of soul-powers, that are being called forth or asked to exercise themselves, but men and women carved into brittle images of what is considered to be ethical and moral. Further, these would-be-leaders are not being asked to embrace life, the world, with its various developments, and integrate them into a self where integral power is the master-key, but to clinically abstain from anything that it has been known in the past as being tempting, and therefore likely to bring about downfall. It is not therefore a race of men that is being invoked in the above notion ofsatyagraha, but one of puppets. This would curtail rather than increase possibility.

We are thus led full-circle to the original concern of the editors epitomized in the statement ' 'the accelerating spread of mammon worship, galloping commercialization of science, technology and the academia, along with the crumbling of traditional norms that upheld social conduct, have all combined to produce increasing evidence of worrisome abuse and misuse in all channels of life-flow.' The crucial question we are faced with is how do we move beyond this into a saner yet progressive milieu? Do we, as Gandhi suggests, return to the simple life, follow a strict code of conduct whereby our every interaction with the world has already been assigned a positive or negative value and therefore determines what should and should not be done, or do we invoke purushartha, to become Krishna-like masters of ourselves, using the very stuff of life to shape and express our individualities?


The articles in the book are thought-provoking, and deal with real issues we are faced with on a day to day basis. On several levels the materials in the articles are rich. Many of them represent the life-experience of people and hence have a high degree of authenticity about them. Others capture the views of well-known figures. There is also a high degree of scholarship in many of the articles with myriad references from many renowned sources and personalities spanning mythology, history and geography. In this sense the articles are a rich source with which to glimpse many aspects of power. 

Beyond these obvious perspectives, in reading these pieces many questions arise which when worked through facilitate the emergence of a framework for power. Perhaps this framework can itself become the starting point in a further iteration, in which all the individual pieces are reexamined for their position and play within the emergent framework. Such an exercise in synthesis will likely provide immense practical insight into the nature of power, and may even hint at fruitful pathways by which to move beyond this present era characterized by 'galloping commercialization' and 'mammon worship' to one which is a 'worthy legacy to hand over to posterity'.   


More by :  Pravir Malik

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