Monday, May 24, 2010

Chaturashrama as a metaphor for personal and professional management

Chaturashrama, an ancient Hindu subtext (part of the Manusmriti) describes the four ideal stages of a human's (man's) life. Indeed, Chaturashrama has received a lot of flak for being patriarchal, for being the source of much determinism in modern Indian society, and for being But this post is not about such existing debates.

The four stages (or ashramas) are Brahmacharya (the stage of learning and preparation for life), Grihastha (the stage of taking responsibility and acquiring material, and emotional wealth, thus performing one's core evolutionary duty), Vanaprastha (the state of learning to let go of wordly comforts and spreading wisdom) and Sanyasa (the stage of isolated contemplation). Implicit in the Chaturashrama is that the path to each stage is through the previous. For instance, one cannot learn to let go in the right way unless one has been in complete control. Thus, these four stages represent four key functions of a person's journey through life: learning, taking control, letting go, and reflection.

While the four stages are prescribed for different periods in life, the modern world is seldom so linear. I'll proceed to claim that each stage is constantly present in our lives, and further, that each stage individually can provide both positive and negative feedback on the other. I'll argue that mastering the balance between these constraints or tensions can result in unprecedented success (spiritual, emotional, and or financial).

To be successful in the modern world, any entity (be it an individual direct the course of his/her personal life or a large organization) must continually cycle through these four functions every waking moment. To elaborate, one must continually
  • learn (update oneself about the state of the world)
  • take control (make decisions based on the knowledge gathered and take responsibility for the consequences)
  • trust and let go (be able to delegate responsibilities to those who step up and trust them to do it, as well as move on from unexpected failures)
  • reflect (create new knowledge through reevaluation and contextualization of own experience and state of the world).
Seen thus, experiences from personal life have direct parallels in management. In fact, several management functions can be (and have been) organized according to these criteria. Given that one is always playing the balancing act between these functions, it is worthwhile asking when they are in conflict with each other, and when they reinforce each other.

The G-V Balance, or how to DO well. Lessons in executive excellence
Mastering the tension between taking control and letting go (Grihastha-Vanaprastha balance), is a trait that can be seen in the best leaders of the world.

The B-S Balance, or how to THINK well. Lessons in strategic excellence
Likewise, closing the loop between learning and reflection (Brahmacharya-Sanyasa balance) can been seen in some of the world's best thinkers. Here learning refers to casting a wide net for ideas and knowledge and having the humility and curiosity to learn from anyone, while reflection refers to the courage to think on one's own reject good ideas at times, the vision to separate bad ideas from good ones, and the capacity to synthesize new knowledge.

[Footnote: Couldn't resist, but excellent thinking is mostly about knowing your way around B-S!]

The D-T Balance, or how to THINK by DOING and DO by THINKING
While the G-V balance deals with the issue of how to be a good doer [in management world, an executive; in the scientific world, an experimentalist], the B-S balance deals with how to be a good thinker [in the management world, a strategist; in the scientific world, a theorist]. And doubtlessly, acquiring each balance is a lesson in acquiring the other. By extension, it is possible to imagine that one always pursue excellence in thinking through excellence in doing and vice versa, leading us to study a third balance: the thinking-doing balance.

Mastering each of these balances is a book in itself and may be the subject of future posts!

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