The end of hypermasculine leadership, the beginning of ‘shakti’

Nilima Bhat. Photo: Vivek Bendre  

On a mellow, rainy afternoon in Mumbai, the façade of the iconic Taj Hotel is put through a structural spruce-up – a nail hammered in here, a pipe welded into place there. It’s probably a routine maintenance job, but the supervisor, who is precariously balanced on a ladder, eggs on a worker, his tone firm yet gentle. “ Dil lagaake karo [put your heart into it].”

The hotel has rebuilt itself inside-out, weathering many storms along the way. In 2008, six explosions in a terror attack on the hotel left nearly 167 people dead.

The stories of the hotel staff’s heroism is the stuff of legend. But more than that, something else moved in those horror-filled nights of the siege and the months thereafter.

At an award function a few years ago, Ratan Tata, the chairman emeritus of the Tata Group which runs the Taj Hotels, reportedly said the attacks made him more “sensitive”. “If I rewind my life, the terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which many lost their lives, was a life changing moment for me,” he is reported to have said.

Eight years later, sitting in the Sea Lounge of the hotel, with its magnificent view of the harbour, the past seems to have faded into the distance. The pianist picks out a jazz tune, gentle laughter and conversation fills the room, and the waiters glide from table to table with practised ease.

“The Taj is a great starting point to talk about conscious leadership. Only in a crisis does it come out,” says Nilima Bhat, once a high-flying corporate executive, now a director of a leadership training firm, yoga practitioner, dancer and author.

The crisis is also the beginning of what she calls the journey, a critical component of leadership. “Till then we’re happily coping with business as usual. But when the call to adventure comes — there will be a violation, a loss, a death; something terrible happens — you have no option but to go into this deeper place to find healing.”

The crisis or trauma makes the leader go through a meeting with their deepest fear. “And only when they face that, on the other side of it they come into some power, or true shakti. And then they have to bring that back as a gift to the world they left when they went out on the journey.”

This is what Bhat calls ‘Shakti Leadership’, and it’s also the title of a book she has written with Raj Sisodia, co-chairman of Conscious Capitalism Inc. “It’s not like, ‘Look at me, I’m CEO.’ Who am I because I have become CEO? How do I now wield my power? Is there humility, graciousness? An achievement can inflate the ego. But this is the true test,” she says.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, had her “call to journey”, when her husband died suddenly in 2015. At a recent university commencement speech, she put it simply: “You will be defined not just by your achievements. You will be defined by who you have become because of them.”

The process of getting there is gradual, it involves learning and growing every day. And the leadership model that Bhat proposes is in stark contrast to the ego-based power play we know so well: “I’m okay, but you are not”. That power is based on privilege, which is vested in certain positions. “Just look around you. People are polarised into ‘more power’ and ‘less power’. And that’s how they trade in power.”

Bhat’s model of power is gender-agnostic, but has a critical feminine element woven into it. Patriarchy has diminished, devalued and suppressed all things feminine, and these values have effectively become invisible. The current ‘hypermasculine’ model of leadership is a “hierarchical, top-down model. A kind of win-lose model. We need both men and women to dial up.”

Shakti leadership, she says, is about becoming a conscious leader in a way “that leverages feminine values, feminine energy and the qualities that women represent.”

It also means men have the same qualities inside themselves.

So, if the masculine says, get the task done, focus on the job, the feminine would say, take the relationships along. “If the masculine is about more clarity about your direction, the feminine is about having compassion. It’s very beautiful. For every single thing that is positive about the masculine, there is a complimentary feminine dimension.”

Besides the business case for having more women in leadership, she says, we now face a ‘double crisis’ of consciousness and leadership. If there was a time to change the paradigm, it is now. “It is no longer tenable, not just because it’s not fair and just, but it is the cause of all the crises we find ourselves in, whether it is environmental degradation, corruption in political places, or just the greed for profit in business. If you understand it from the diagnostic lens of masculine and feminine energy, it’s basically hypermasculine and the missing feminine.”

If we don’t find solutions, in short, this planet and our species are headed for disaster. “We’re either going to break through or we’re going to break down.”

To Bhat, Ratan Tata is one leader who is in touch with his feminine side. The facts bear this out: in the aftermath of the terror attacks, Taj Hotel employees were paid their salaries despite the hotel being closed for reconstruction. Mr. Tata visited the families of all the affected employees, and their relatives were flown into Mumbai and accommodated for three weeks. He also ensured compensation for railway employees, police staff and pedestrians, and took on the education of 46 children of the victims. “After all this, Tata was asking, ‘What more can we do?’”

Barack and Michelle Obama personify the qualities too. As do Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and John Mackey, co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and author of ‘Conscious Capitalism’.

Mackey, to her, has been a huge influence. Bhat has been associated with the Conscious Capitalism movement, and the book attempts to build on its tenets. At its core, conscious capitalism says business is a force for good that can elevate humanity and bring about real, positive change.

Besides the journey, the other four elements of the Shakti Leadership model are: cultivating presence, getting in touch with the Shakti within, and achieving wholeness, flexibility and congruence.

“When I can step back from my ego, I step back from my gut, heart and head where I have nothing to defend, promote and fear. I can stand in the pure now of this moment. I then become aware of a flow of energy that is moving things anyway, without me trying to fiddle with it. That power is Shakti. When I’m in touch with my own Shakti, now I access three capacities: wholeness, flexibility and congruence.”

Part of the piece is becoming psychologically whole, where instead of giving your power away to someone, you caretake, parent and love yourself. And flexibility is what she refers to as the ‘Holy Family Reunion’: “The parent, child and the inner man and inner woman come together in yourself and you’re comfortable.”

A leadership moment, involving a choice, comes to each of us on a daily basis. “In that moment if you’re present instead of coming from your default mode every time, you know how to flex,” she says. Congruence is the last piece, where everything you do is aligned with a greater goal.

The inspiration for her model of leadership comes from India’s ancient traditions. Shiva and Shakti are the core aspects of the higher or divine self. If Shiva is the aspect of awareness, which is conscious, sees and understands, it is inert. “If you have to effect any change, you’re going to need the power, the fuel. That power or agency is Shakti. Shiva may give you understanding, but if you want transformation, change, growth, you have to worship at Shakti’s feet.”

The only way to change the world is to change yourself, she says. “It all begins from there. Even if you have to create some change in your team or your circle of influence, be the change.”

In her organisational behaviour and leadership workshops, Bhat counters possible scepticism to these concepts by what she calls, “going in through their door in order to come out through yours.” She uses the word, ‘presence’, and helps people get in touch with the experience of the moment through exercises, which she outlines in the book.

The model, she says, is aspirational. “People are on the path, I don’t think you ever arrive.” And the book is “a reconciliation”. “It’s a book to reconcile very deep-rooted conflict areas between men and women, the haves and the have-nots, the East and West, by going all the way down to understand the root cause of power plays.”

The idea is to move from scarcity to self-sustenance. “We say, there is enough power, Shakti is infinite. But we’re all trading in power. It’s like a fish dying of thirst when it’s swimming in water. It’s because we’re looking in the wrong place for what we need.”

The article has been edited post publication.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 1:30:16 AM |

Next Story