The Wisdom of the Ages, with Exceptions!

Kautilya (lower left) with his King

  

      Last night at a holiday party for local consultants, I enjoyed a dialog with a Jew, a Hindu, and a Christian. The subject: there’s little new under the sun. Specifically, the Jew was remarking that his study of the Kaballah, an ancient tradition of esoteric teachings, was yielding remarkably current insights. To wit, the Kaballah’s teachings about the nature of humans sounded very much like what we know today as the Big Five. My retort suggested that human nature has never changed, but rather how we talk about it has. Basic temperament is primarily genetic, and our individual levels of capacity for handling stress (which we call Need for Stability, or “N”), Extraversion (E), Originality (O), Accommodation (A), and Consolidation (C) have defined individual differences since humans diverged from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee (and likely even earlier, as chimps also exhibit these five behavioral dimensions).  

      A good example of the Big Five being imbedded in ancient wisdom pops up in the writings of Kautilya (4th  c. BCE). Also known as Chanakya, this master strategist and North Indian Brahmin effectively supplanted the Nanda dynasty and placed Chandragupta Maurya as King of Magadha (321 BCE). His written record, The Arthashastra (Iiterally, “On Prosperity”), today comprises 800+ pages in translation (Penguin, 1987, ed. L.N. Rangarajan). It is the most comprehensive treatise on statecraft from classical times.  

      I read parts of this document last year while traveling and teaching in India with our partners in Pune, Jayant and Chatura Damle. I was struck by the passage in which Kautilya discussed what to look for in selecting department heads, or, “Investigating Ministers before their Appointment.” Here is the excerpt that caught my attention:  

     “The king shall thoroughly investigate all the qualities of anyone whom he is considering for appointment as a minister. Of these qualities, nationality, family background and amenability to discipline shall be verified from reliable people. The candidate’s knowledge of the various arts shall be tested by experts in their respective fields. Intelligence, perseverance and dexterity shall be evaluated by examining his past performance, while eloquence, boldness and presence of mind shall be ascertained by interviewing him personally. Watching how he deals with others will show his energy, endurance, ability to suffer adversities, integrity, loyalty and friendliness. From his intimate friends, the King shall find out about his strength, health, and character (whether lazy or energetic, fickle or steady). The candidate’s amiability and love of mankind (absence of a tendency to hate) shall be ascertained by personal observation.” (1.9.3)  

      I reread this passage several times, then proceeded to identify the terms used in specifying the qualities for a “minister.” I used the traditional five letters N, E, O, A, and C, indicating high levels of the behavior with a plus (+), low levels with a hyphen, or minus (-). I was particularly interested in determining whether Kautilya employed the same profile for the ideal leader that we use today: N-E+O+A-C+ (calm, outgoing, visionary, aggressive, and focused). Here’s what I found—the same passage, now with some trait labels:  

     “The king shall thoroughly investigate all the qualities of anyone whom he is considering for appointment as a minister. Of these qualities, nationality, family background and amenability to discipline (C+) shall be verified from reliable people. The candidate’s knowledge of the various arts (O+) shall be tested by experts in their respective fields. Intelligence, perseverance (N-C+) and dexterity shall be evaluated by examining his past performance, while eloquence, boldness (N-E+) and presence of mind (N-) shall be ascertained by interviewing him personally. Watching how he deals with others will show his energy (E+C+), endurance (N-E+), ability to suffer adversities (N-), integrity (N-A+C+), loyalty (A+C+) and friendliness (E+A+). From his intimate friends, the King shall find out about his strength, health, and character [whether lazy (E-C-) or energetic (E+C+), fickle (N+C-) or steady (N-E+O-A+)]. The candidate’s amiability (E+A+) and love of mankind (absence of a tendency to hate, E+O+A+) shall be ascertained by personal observation.” (1.9.3)  

      This morning I was describing last night’s conversation, and Kautilya’s passage, to participants in a Skype-based conference call with the Damles in Pune, India, and our associate in upper-state New York, Patti Kinz, a research psychologist with Performance Partners in Williamsville, NY. I commented to them that Kautilya’s ancient wisdom was consistent with our contemporary ideal leader profile with one exception, and it reflected Kautilya’s deference to the monarch’s preference for lackeys. Where was the exception, I asked? Patti piped up, “Service!” Yes, the “A” (for Accommodation, or Agreeableness) dimension. While Kautilya himself, as well as his boss, were clearly both low in A, Kautilya knew how his bread was buttered (or, how his nan was gheed). Showing good sense in identifying ideal ministers as calm (N-), outgoing (E+), visionary (O+), and focused (C+),  Kautilya departed from accepted, traditional wisdom and tagged A+ characteristics that would support the practice of deferring, or submitting, to the wishes of the monarch. Kautilya was not a tenured professor who could speak the truth without fear of dismissal. Instead, he gave the boss what he wanted!  

      In conclusion, I suspect that Kautilya knew that his boss, Chandragupta Maurya, expected high A behavior (i.e., deference) in his presence, yet expected low A behavior (i.e., toughness) when his reports dealt with their underlings and the public. Have we ever had anyone like that in the White House?   😉

One thought on “The Wisdom of the Ages, with Exceptions!

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  1. Interesting insight. I agree with most of what you said. Just one correction in terms of historical facts. It was Chanakya who identified the potential of young Chandragupta who was a village boy playing with his firends. He mentored him and taught variety of things.

    The A plus comes out due to the then prevalent idea of monarch. A monarch was supposed to be an avatar( reincarnation ) of god etc. Chanakya was not born with the modern values of french revolution.

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