Around 1.2 billion Indians of the Hindu faith worldwide observed Deepavali this past week.
While I have been celebrating the festival with my family for as long as I can remember, this year I spent some time reflecting on whether there was any deeper significance that I could glean from the festival that may be relevant to my work as a leadership coach.
I did, and perhaps I will start with a quick recap of the “what and why” of Deepavali.
Deepavali or Diwali is the Festival of Lights that is celebrated every year. In many parts of the world, like Fiji, Guyana, India, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the Sindh Province in Pakistan, and of course in Malaysia, it’s a national holiday.
Spiritually, it signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Symbolically, lights are lit outside homes, around temples, and other buildings in the communities where it is observed.
The religious connotations for Deepavali vary regionally within India, and around the world, depending on the school of Hindu philosophy you belong to, and on regional mythology.
One of the most commonly held beliefs is that it is celebrated in honour of the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Lakshmana, together with Hanuman to Ayodhya after King Ravana was defeated. To rejoice their return from Lanka where they had triumphed over evil, and to illuminate their path home, villagers lit ‘Diyas’ or oil lamps made from clay, with a cotton wick dipped in ghee.
That’s my simplified narrative. For a more detailed account, you will need to read the epic Ramayana, where the complexities of life are ostensibly revealed.
Every year, the festival passes with people celebrating change and happiness. For most, it is a week-long festival with revelry that involves lots of food, drink, new clothes, exchanging of gifts, and much joy with their families.
But what can be learnt from the meaning of this festival that may be useful for work-life? I did some research, and can offer three lessons for personal management from Deepavali.
The first is about organisational leadership.
By all accounts in the history books, the defeated King Ravana was a master tactician. But despite the strategies he engaged, and the enormous amount of military, and human resources at his disposal, he lost the war. And, this is purely attributed to his leadership style.
He was reportedly an egotistical maniac whose leadership brand was fear. King Ravana operated on the assumption that he was always right. He made his own rules, used people thoughtlessly, and disregarded common courtesies of war.
He was the epitome of a leader who never allowed anyone to give feedback.
If you want to be an accomplished leader, you must learn to accommodate alternate views. You have to become welcoming, and open-minded. And, have the humility to consider the views of each member of your team. This also means you must be willing to admit your short-comings, and be prepared to work on rectifying them.
So, please remember that even if you are hugely talented, technically; if you lack the ability to empathise with your team, you will ultimately fail in any leadership role.
This is the first lesson, if you aspire to achieve excellent personal results.
The second noteworthy lesson I learnt from the root of the festival is the value of surrounding yourself with people who believe in you.
Hanuman was a great disciple of Lord Rama, and part of his crew. But Hanuman struggled to realise his full potential. It is another character, Jambavan, who counsels Hanuman to grasp his tremendous potential as a warrior, and leader. He makes him understand his massive abilities, and encourages him to fly across the sea to search for Sita, in Lanka.
Personally for you, it is vital that you surround yourself with people like Jambavan, who will inspire, and help you connect with your full potential. Drop people who disempower you, for people who truly recognise your talents.
The third and final lesson is the value of being purpose driven in any endeavor.
When Lord Rama went to Lanka to avenge the kidnap of his wife Sita, he had no army. His brother Lakshmana was with him together with Hanuman, and a cadre of monkeys. But, he was able to defeat King Ravana’s professional warriors.
They were able to do this simply because his fleet of monkeys led by his devotee Hanuman was hugely empowered, and fuelled by purpose. When you are purposeful, you become thoughtfully strategic. This is how the amateur taskforce beat the highly skilled combatants.
The lesson I learnt from understanding this part of the epic is that if you empower your team to make decisions, and if they are connected with purpose, they will be able to achieve even seemingly impossible tasks.
Mythology, and spirituality, offer subtle lessons for how we should lead our lives. But they also are equally applicable to the workplace. Happy Deepavali, to all who celebrate.
Shankar R. Santhiram is a managing consultant and executive leadership coach at EQTD Consulting. He is also the author of the national bestseller “So, You Want To Get Promoted?”