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by Harsh Verma. Rupa and Co., 2006. Paperback, 237 pages. Rs. 195”.

“Your sons are so close to each other, I want mine to be like them too, like Rama and Lakshmana,” said my neighbor, an Indian Muslim from Hyderabad, to me. It is testimony to the fact that Puranic and folklore figures have a powerfully embedded place in the collective Indian conscious and subconscious. Harsh Verma, in his new book The Avatar Way of Leadership says that while patriarchal and matriarchal role models from fast-disappearing joint-family social institutions might start losing relevance, the heroes of epics and folklore will never lose their appeal or relevance.

With India bursting into the global business world, there is a need to understand Indian culture, its epic and folk heroes, and historic role models from the perspective of management practices, especially within the context of human resources development and management. This is not only to better serve Indian businesses but also to provide new ideas, idioms, and insights to globally standardized management studies and mores. Several initiatives have been taken in this direction. For example, the Indian Institute of Management at Calcutta has started the Management Centre for Human Values (MCHV) to promote “contemporary adaptations from the perennial corpus of Indian psycho-philosophical wisdom.” The Avatar Way of Leadership is a valuable addition to this genre of thought.

Verma compiles an interesting repertoire of success and leadership stories from contemporary and historical India drawn from a vibrant cross-section of society that includes politicians, rulers, bureaucrats, businesspersons, philosophers, entrepreneurs, social workers, activists, artists, and scientists. His chosen personalities range from well-known names like Vivekananda, Abdul Kalam, and Rukmani Arundale to lesser-known heroes like Sanjay Singh, D. Ashis and Sangeeta Aggarwal. He uses their stories to illustrate the leadership qualities displayed and strategies deployed by the “avatars” he analyses.

It is possible to engage in debate on whether Draupadi can truly be called an “avatar.” Since Verma concentrates more on leadership traits of the personalities rather than on the divine aspects, such a debate will be both unnecessary and distracting. He also does not touch upon the ethical and philosophical issues of caste and varna as featured in the epics—for the liberal in me, this omission is good enough as a demonstration of the separation of wheat from chaff.

Verma makes a clear distinction between heroes and leaders, using T.N. Seshan as an example. This important difference often eludes Indians. The book makes several such simple yet important and often neglected observations.

For a first-time author, Verma puts forth a well-researched book, one that resonates with confidence and passion. Whether it is in linking Rama’s stiff stance on ethics to the qualities demonstrated by J.R.D. Tata; or Krishna’s convinced challenge of conservative and established norms with the actions of ICIR’s Raghunath Mashelkar; or seeing Draupadi’s resolute preservation of self-respect under the most daunting and humiliating of circumstances as reflected in the wrongly convicted Briton, Satpal Ram, Verma’s novel and forthright perspectives will surely generate much reflection and debate.

—Sugrutha Ramaswami