Dharmic Leadership for Tackling Grand Challenges

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Monday, January 15, 2024
By Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
Illustration by iStock/DNY59
In a world marked by war and ecological degradation, we need leaders who are conscientious, other-centered, and committed to making societal impact.
  • Dharmic leaders understand the ideal way something should be done and they do it; their team members are autonomous, selfless, and guided by their own consciences.
  • By contrast, feudalistic leaders demand obedience and misuse power, dysfunctional leaders promote loyalists and do the bare minimum to create the right impressions, transactional leaders deliver results but are slow to adapt and implement innovations.
  • To help students become dharmic leaders, business schools should teach holistically, display core values, and embody the very values they espouse.

The ignorant work for their own profit.
The wise work selflessly for the welfare of the world.

That Sanskrit verse 3:25 from the Indian Vedic text of the Bhagavad Gita gives excellent guidance on how we should approach management—and management education—today. While theories about leadership have evolved over the centuries, many of them come down to the notion that leadership is shaped by human nature.

For instance, in The Republic, Plato suggests that a philosopher king creates a just society due to his wisdom, virtue, and selflessness. But in De Cive, 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes states that human nature is essentially self-centered. Hobbes’ ideas formed the basis for theories of neoclassical economics, which still influence management education today and reinforce the notion of a directive style of leadership. Although self-centered leaders can be decisive and appear productive, they also can exhibit greed, which has a deleterious impact on the society and environment.

Contemporary Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman has a more optimistic outlook. He views human nature as cooperative and believes that people care for the well-being of others. Under this model, human beings practice shared, distributive, and servant forms of leadership.

At business schools, one of our responsibilities is to ensure that the leaders of the future are equipped to tackle the grand challenges of our current times. In my opinion, we can only do so effectively if our theories of management conceptualize human beings holistically. We must help students develop higher levels of consciousness so they will be prepared to create a significant and positive impact on society. To do this, I believe that we must teach them dharmic leadership—but what is dharmic leadership and how do we instill it?

Consciousness and Impact

Drawing on my varied experience as a business school researcher, teacher, expert for national accreditation, and educational consultant, I have developed a framework that measures leadership along two dimensions: consciousness and impact.

In simple terms, consciousness means awareness. Individuals with higher levels of awareness will be more other-centered. They will care more about society, the environment, and other people, regardless of nationality, gender, or religion. Individuals with lower levels of consciousness will manifest self-centeredness and greed.

To ensure that the leaders of the future are equipped to tackle the grand challenges of our current times, we must teach management theories that conceptualize human beings holistically.

Impact can be viewed in terms of both expanse and depth. It measures how many people are affected by any action and in what ways.

Depending on their levels of consciousness and impact, leaders can fall into one of four categories on my framework: feudalistic, dysfunctional, transactional, and dharmic. The word dharmic derives from the Hindu belief of dharma, which relates to justice, balance, and an underlying sense of social order. I believe that business schools should design their curricula to turn out dharmic leaders who will act according to these concepts and be committed to making positive contributions to society.

Styles and Attributes

Before business educators can focus on creating dharmic leaders, it’s important for them to understand the key attributes of all four types of leadership:

Feudalistic. This form of leadership mirrors the power structure of the medieval ages and the agrarian economy, which were characterized by a class of landlords who exploited a class of servile peasants. In today’s corporate environments, landlords have been replaced by members of the C-suite and peasants have been replaced by obsequious managers and staff. Driven by a desire for self-preservation, feudalist leaders misuse the power of their positions, insist upon unquestioning compliance, and promote uncritical thinking. They view suggestions from others as threats to their own power, and they create deterrents by publicly victimizing staff members who present alternative ideas.

Unfortunately, feudalistic leadership can be found even in the halls of management education. Under such a model, a flurry of disconnected activities displaces coherent, mission-led initiatives to create a “buzz” in the institute. Academic leaders selectively favor a few professors and forge personal loyalties with faculty who display high servility. A massive gap opens between the values the business school claims and those it practices. For instance, I am aware of a business school that lost national accreditation, but continued to display its accredited status in all its communications while publicly espousing values of honesty, integrity, and transparency in governance!

Dysfunctional. Under a dysfunctional leadership model, loyalists who have been in the system for years are promoted to top positions at the expense of more meritorious employees. The sole motive of many loyalists is to create the right impressions of efficiencies and thereby falsely influence the perceptions of board members and other stakeholders. While loyalists brag about their long association with their organizations, they often stay so long because their poor credentials mean they would have trouble securing employment elsewhere.

In a dysfunctional company, no new ideas flow and few improvements take place. Merit and talent are downplayed, resulting in a massive talent drain as competent workers leave and new ones do not accept employment offers. The resulting poor work culture and harmful practices create bad word-of-mouth that adversely affects the organization’s reputation and recruitment activities. Dysfunctional leaders quickly become leaders interested only in self-preservation. Unless they’re able to course-correct, dysfunctional leaders slide into the repressive feudalistic style of leadership.

graphic showing different leadership styles according to their levels of consciousness and impact

Transactional. This form of management exhibits low consciousness but delivers high impact. Leaders who have little awareness compensate for that lack by relying on robust processes that were either designed by consultants or by high-awareness leaders who previously held the job. In organizations helmed by transactional leadership, a well-established management system drives superior performance that is linked with fair and differentiating rewards.

But there are risks in this style of management: It lacks dynamism and has little ability to adapt quickly to a changing environment. Unless the internal talent includes professionals with high levels of consciousness, the organization slips into the feudalistic category and eventually becomes redundant or obsolete.

Dharmic. Idealism infuses this form of leadership and percolates through all levels of the organization. All employees understand how they should ideally fulfill their roles and act mindfully as a result of that realization. Their actions are not inspired by narrow considerations such as loyalty to a supervisor or the institution. Instead, these workers are guided by their own consciences, as well as by an understanding of science, art, and values that transcend national boundaries.

Under a system of dharmic leadership, employees understand that they must work autonomously, selflessly, and impactfully to articulate and deploy the institution’s values and achieve a higher societal impact.

Key Attributes of Different Forms of Leadership

Attribute Feudalistic Leadership Dysfunctional Leadership Transactional Leadership Dharmic Leadership
Prime motive Self Self and selected others Organization Idealism, conscience, science, art, humanism
Principal beneficiary Self Self and selected others People and organization People, organization, society, and environment
Time horizon Very short Short Medium-term Long-term
People engagement Very low Low Satisfactory High
Culture Toxic Poor Satisfactory Energizing
Impact/results Very poor Poor Satisfactory Very high

As illustrated by the table above, different types of leaders are driven by different motives, which means they have different effects on their organizations and the world, ranging from toxic to energizing.

Three Recommendations

Due to the immense benefits dharmic leadership offers for all stakeholders, business schools should find ways to instill its qualities in their students. I would suggest they take three steps:

Develop a holistic conceptualization of human beings. Management theories predominantly conceptualize people as rational economic creatures, but this approach has many limitations. The rational economic viewpoint depicts people as selfish and unreflective. It overly emphasizes cognitive abilities while undervaluing all other human dimensions. An alternative and more effective approach is to conceptualize humans through a systemic economic lens that recognizes that each person’s physical, emotional, social, cognitive, cultural, and spiritual faculties are inextricably connected.

Professors can help students understand the systemic economic viewpoint so graduates can employ it when they’re in the working world. But professors also can embrace it in their own classrooms by taking a holistic approach to teaching. When instructors mindfully design pedagogy that appeals to all faculties, they create a heightened sense of engagement among learners.

In my own classrooms, I take a few minutes before skill-building sessions to play high-quality music that focuses the attention of learners and makes them receptive to new ideas. As learners articulate their own creative interpretations of the music, they embark on an enriched learning experience that they both own and steer.

Business school administrators also can employ a systemic economic conceptualization approach in their human resources development processes. While administrators might not open staff meetings and tenure reviews with music, they could certainly take a holistic approach to dealing with faculty and staff.

Formulate and deploy values. To infuse a sense of dharmic leadership throughout every level of the business school, administrators should focus on values. Values include idealistic elements that influence behaviors; they promote normative behavior and enable the achievement of the mission. When administrators clearly articulate the institution’s values and deploy them through innovative mechanisms, faculty are more likely to internalize the values and manifest them in their own teaching.

Nothing can be more damaging to business schools than leaders who do not embody the very values they espouse. Nothing can be more useful for promoting dharmic leadership than leaders who practice what they profess.

One creative way administrators can promote the school’s values is through artistic mediums. For instance, when I was chair of the doctoral program at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management in New Delhi, I used our mother tongue, Hindi, to write an anthem around the values of the doctoral program. The anthem resonated deeply with the faculty—a few even mentioned that they knew it by heart!

Additionally, I wrote a theatrical production in Hindi about the values of the doctoral program. Students enacted the play during the inaugural ceremony of the second batch of scholars. These are just a few of the multiple innovative ways a school can deploy its values.

Walk the talk. Nothing can be more damaging to business schools than leaders who do not embody the very values they espouse. The powerful corollary is that nothing can be more useful for promoting dharmic leadership than leaders who practice what they profess.

When embarking on any activity—be it leading, designing courses, writing lesson plans, or designing learning experiences—leaders should visualize the ideal way to do it and then do it that way. This creates a spiral of positive energy and results in very high performance. The key is to aim for perfection and deliver excellence.

A Need for New Theories

Psychologist Kurt Lewin tells us that there is nothing so practical as a good theory—that initiatives guided by the right theories can create impact. However, over the centuries, management theories inevitably change. Three hundred years ago, philosophers subscribed to a Newtonian worldview that believed in a scientific universe governed by rational laws. Today, we have made an inevitable paradigm shift to a more quantum-mechanical worldview in which consciousness plays a major part in the interpretation of events.

As evinced by our current wicked problems such as war and climate change, our current leadership practices are fast leading us to an unsustainable future. We need new theories that we can put into action. While we cannot be certain of the outcomes of our initiatives, we can increase the probability of success by taking care of the right processes.

I believe that dharmic leadership is the next management theory we should embrace. We should train leaders to visualize what they should be doing and to mindfully act upon this understanding. Such an approach could help us correct our course and might hold the key to creating a sustainable future.

Vikas Rai Bhatnagar
CEO, Hyperspace Action Research Services, and Former Professor of General Management and Chairperson of the Doctoral Program, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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