Kautilya on the limitations of leaders

This article by U. Mahesh Prabhu is a part of The Kautilya Project

“Even great men are with their own limitations,” says Kautilya in the Artha Sutras, and, “Men of wisdom learn to annihilate them.”

All humans are born with limitations – there are things we can and cannot do. There are things we can and, yet, don’t do. There are things we don’t like and still do. All these signify limitations of mind. The mind plays a pivotal role in all that we need to do. Unless the mind is won, there’s nothing to be won. “Winning over our senses (vile temptations of mind) is the key to power,” says Kautilya.

For good reason, Kautilya didn’t write about ways to curtail the cravings of the mind. He recommends Vedic knowledge for this purpose. However, he does speak vehemently about hiding them from whom it matters – adversaries and enemies. Politicians, diplomats and military leaders, for whom Kautilya wrote his treatises, often find themselves in stress intensive situations. Stress can be unnerving. A person in position of power who cannot handle stress is susceptible to self-destruction.

Just like alcohol, power has its highs and hangovers. While highs are momentary pleasures, hangovers can be awful. Putting oneself together after every debacle and starting afresh, undeterred, is the key.

When debacles occur and situations of tension arise, people might sail through a few of them. But, after every situation, they are bound to be emotionally as well as physically affected. Even if you don’t tell people of your fears, a tense face and wary body language is not hard for many to read. People will never follow a leader who oft appears weak. Weakness could be momentary, but even a small show of weakness could be lethal.

“None can hide their weakness from relatives,” Kautilya says and adds, “Relatives can also be a source of weakness.” Axioms can come in handy if a leader desires to crush his opponent. Interestingly, he further says, “He who is with limitations searches for other’s limitations.”

“A leader must listen more and speak less,” advises Kautilya to leaders. “If you only talk, you’ll know nothing new – but if you listen, you will know more.” Further, “If you contemplate on that which you’ve known, you can know even greater.” And “To verify the assessment of contemplation, you could use your source.”

Other words of wisdom are: “Politics is a place where there are neither enemies nor friends – for long.” Also, “You’ve no great friend, but yourself.” “You are your worst enemy, too.” Seeking peace and comfort, we seek companionship. To start, or continue, a conversation with those whom we love and like, we bring up topics. Long conversations often lead to divulgence of crucial details, consciously or unconsciously.  This could lead to you becoming your own enemy. You will know your true friend within only when you give that friend a chance. Your own true friend is your conscience. He’s the only one you need to convince. He’s always around you. If you’ve done good or bad, it’d know. It’s not in your interest to wither away from your conscience. Why do you think people seek companionship? It’s because their mind is restless. “Boredom” sets in when your mind is “loose”. It’s also when the mind moves out of the grip of your own self-conscience. The mind doesn’t listen to your conscience naturally. This occurs only through knowledge, patience and persistence. To seek a long conversation with others while not facing your own true self could lead to many social, familial, as well as personal problems.

The mind cannot control the body when it is out of control. The mind can be controlled through your own true self – the conscience or consciousness. You need to know you are there and that what your mind seeks is a result of a desire of the senses. The body when hungry, through the senses, intimates the mind to give it food. The mind, through other senses, finds food. But it’s the consciousness that determines if that food is worthy of consumption – if it is poisonous, edible or inedible. The discrimination power of the mind is crippled without a conscience.

Your mind is not at peace when it craves for a thing or a person.What many people fail to understand is that nothing can convince you but your own self. The body cannot be healed by medicine. Others can only give you words – it’s your mind that interprets, or misinterprets those words. When you are ill, the body has everything to cure itself. At best, medicine can sooth your pain and aid in its healing. Words have no meaning when they come from the undeserving; medicines are of no use when the body is dead.

“A leader must often spend quality time with himself to identify and curb his weaknesses,” suggests Kautilya because, “like medicine can only aid in cure, counsellors can only aid in decision-making.” But, “it’s the king who has to make a decision by himself.”

Ask leaders of today about ambitions and they’ll speak about their likes, wants, dislikes and avarice. But ask them how much time they spend amongst themselves and they’ll go blind.

The mind is restless when you feed it information; consciousness cannot enable you to take the right decision when the mind is restless. The mind’s natural state is to be afraid, excited, lazy, pleased, and the like. It’s the mind that interprets or misinterprets things and makes decisions. The inability of the mind to make the right assessment is the true root of weakness. When leaders make the wrong decisions, it’s not just themselves but also their followers who face the consequences.

Warns Kautilya, “A king pays for the wrong of his people, a king’s mentor pays for the wrongs of the king…” It shows the intensity of consequences when wrong decisions are taken or wrong is done by the king. This occurs when the weakness of a leader isn’t identified and, thereby, not fixed.

Hiding weakness is achieved, according to Kautilya, in subtle ways: “He who doesn’t speak much and appears steady at all time can be confused to be a wise and strong man… No decision should be taken without substantial consultations and personal thoughts… Lust, anger, greed, infatuation, ego and envy must be shunned all the time, particularly during decision-making… Meditation in solitude is always recommendable before crucial decisions… Intoxication does more harm than good for a leader… Showing favouritism exposes a king’s weakness… Leaders must always remain impartial… Appreciation as well as criticism should be done without love or malice.”

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