The man Chanakya kept for himself

Updated: May 19, 2019, 08:07 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan

He may have died in 283 BC in Pataliputra, but this king-maker's legacy lives on in author-bizman-academician Radhakrishnan Pillai, who has already dedicated 20 years and 15 books to him

The man Chanakya kept for himself

He once ran a business in spiritual tourism. The wish to expand the business led him to Chanakya, the ancient Indian teacher, philosopher, economist who brought down the mighty Magadha empire and placed Chandragupta Maurya, a disciple he had groomed, on the throne. Chanakya died in 283 BC, but when Radhakrishnan Pillai met him - through books and videos and his ancient text Arthshastra - Kautilya, as he is also known, decided to appropriate Pillai for himself instead.

The study of Chanakya, initially meant for personal ends, led Pillai to Kerala where in 2004 at the now Chinamaya University he studied a course in Indology. He was taught Chanakya in 6,000 Sanskrit sutras, a language he barely knew. Later, he did a Masters in Sanskrit from the University of Mumbai, topping it up with a PhD in Arthshastra. Today, he does what Chanakya would have done, had he been alive. Pillai has authored 15 books that translate Chanakya's leadership and war-winning strategies from a king's court to the boardroom. Pillai also enters the boardrooms of companies across the country and world - he names the Tata, Aditya Birla and Mahindra groups as those who have sought his services - and shares how firms can follow the Chanakaya model and create leaders that hunger, not after power, but the good that can come of it. And to those who may not find him in their offices or Kindles, Pillai is ready to meet and instruct while taking classes on leadership at the University of Mumbai.

And if he has become a vehicle for this ancient strategist, the favour, says Pillai, has been paid back in kind. His latest book, Chanakya and the Art of War (Penguin Random House), speaks of how war-rooms strategies can be used in real-life scenarios. Pillai, for instance, is a great believer in collaboration. "War is about collaboration. Never do it alone. Bring together an eco-system where everyone has a common vision. Look at the process of writing a book. Most people see it as a struggle between a publisher and the author. There are hundreds of authors who hate their publishers and feel they are not doing enough to promote their books. I have worked with five publishers and all five have been bestsellers. I know that my publisher has several other authors and can't give all their time to me. So, I promote my books. I have collaborated with a friend who heads the marketing department at Flipkart, and now they are promoting my book in a different way. Similarly, the academies I teach at, have recommended my books to their students and several libraries have stocked my books." But not all solutions are simple.

What do you do when faced with a crisis of leadership - companies make it to the Rs 100 crore turnover mark only to realise they don't know how to go further? Typically, says Pillai, companies are sold off, shut down or handed to the next generation of leaders. And typically, these are within the family. This is a go-to solution in India whether it's the boardroom or politics, where the progeny is brought in whether or not they are trained to do the job. Chanakya would have spotted leadership potential early on, whether in the royal family or on the streets. He would, as Pillai will tell you, train the new king or queen, give them smaller projects, testing their ability to lead, until they are finally groomed to become the ultimate leader. And that's when empires expand.

The best process, both advise, is to follow the practice by the Indian Army. Have a selection and training process, and for one position, train 10-15 leaders, picking one at the end of it. "If one Army leader retires, there's no leadership crisis in the force, because everyone is trained and ready. They have the maturity, experience and potential to do the job." And the most important leadership lesson: detachment. Remember you are merely serving the ship. Be ready to move on, when time comes.

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