Leadership Lessons from the Ashokan Edicts

Some 250 years before Christ, which roughly translates to about 2250 years prior to today, there lived a king so great that his greatness was etched in stone from Srilanka to Afghanistan and from Bangladesh to Pakistan.

From Sindhu to Ganges to Godavari to Krishna, there was no river left untouched in this country that did not carry with it some essence of his Dhamma (Dharma).

Here was a Chief Executive who chose to run his organisation by the sheer force of Values, who transformed a Minor religious off shoot (Buddhism) into a world religion of peace and service.

Here was a man, by all accounts pot-bellied and short of stature, hardly imagery suited to the alpha-male most of us expect leaders to be. He was not good looking, nor had a loud voice, nor the will to conquer the world, but conquer the world he did, for his was a conquest borne out of more humble desires. Primarily, three desires. Be ‘good’, do ‘good’, and ensure ‘good’ is done. Surprisingly, another tall “short” leader said something similar almost 2000 years later and possibly with similar impact. Don’t utter ‘wrong’, don’t see ‘wrong’, don’t hear ‘wrong’.

This is the story of Ashoka’s Leadership, as traced from the Rock and Pillar Edicts that survive the vagaries of time, and the smallness of human enterprise.

Lesson 1: A Culture based on rituals or rites of passage and which may involve cruelty to the less fortunate will not survive under my leadership.

Lesson 2: Welfare is the prime concern of a Leader. Respect, generosity, moderation and harmony are hallmarks of good governance.

Lesson 3: As Leader of people, my prime responsibility is ensuring that the values are not compromised, values are well communicated and that values survive me. Values-deprived individuals cannot be trusted with good governance. Glory and fame devoid of Values are not something I desire. Actions without values are evil. My job is to reduce evil. It is not an easy job. 

Lesson 4: It is difficult to be good and very easy to be evil. My job is to ensure that I and my successors remain committed to good although evil may be easier achieved and hence attractive as a proposition.

Lesson 5: Business needs to have a structure. Reports should be well written, delivered on time and acted on time. As earlier said, welfare remains my prime concern and I am available for the same at any time. Welfare is a debt I pay to my people in return for their happiness and consequent productivity.

Lesson 6: We are all different people and it is important that differences are respected. Self-control, purity of heart, gratitude and devotion are hallmarks of great leader.

Lesson 7: A leader must reach out to his people, either directly or through other leaders. This reaching out is both to seek and to serve and also to instruct and inform.

Lesson 8: Proper behaviour towards employees, respect for mentors, restraint towards living beings and generosity are hallmark of a great culture. A Leader must say, “This is good, so this is what I’ll do, this is the only thing of lasting value. Rest all is momentary. Some of my actions might bear fruit beyond my time, so be it.”

Lesson 9: Sometimes as a leader I repeat myself. The subjects I repeat are sweet enough to be repeated often. I also repeat myself so that you know exactly what is it that I desire. I repeat myself to communicate my vision, my goals and my actions in full and transparently.

Lesson 10: The job of bureaucracy is to communicate vision well; this is why bureaucracy exists. Cascading vision is their job. My direct reports know best what is it that I desire and they have been appointed to communicate this well to people so that people deliver what I desire.

There are many amongst us who aspire for greatness, build artefacts that will proclaim our greatness to the world, and dress up our greatness in fineries. How often does our greatness include people as the prime mover? How often does our greatness have very little to do with us and almost everything to do with others? Why is it that greatness looks us in the eye, shouts in our ears reaffirms itself in the actions of many great men and women and still leaves us untouched? Greatness is a conquest of hearts. Actions that set out to conquer hearts will ensure greatness. Rest everything will not withstand the test of time.


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