Management Lessons from Thirukkural

by Ashok Bhatia





Thirukkural (திருக்குறள்), also known as the Kural, is a classic Tamil ‘sangam’ (3rd century BC to 4th century AD) literature composition. It has 1,330 couplets or ‘kurals’. It was authored by the renowned poet Thiruvalluvar.

The Thirukkural is one of the most important works in the Tamil language. This is reflected in some of the other names by which the text is given by such as ‘Tamil marai’ (Tamil Vedas); ‘poyyamozhi’ (words that never fail); and ‘Deiva nool’ (divine text).

Just like ‘Ramayana’, ‘Mahabharata’, ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ and other scriptures, Thirukkural is also replete with words of wisdom. It is simple and contains profound messages.

Thirukkural has 133 chapters, each containing 10 couplets. Broadly speaking, all the 133 chapters can be divided into three sections: Righteousness, Wealth and Love. In the text below, the serial number of each couplet appears on the top, followed by its Tamil text and then by its near-literal translation in English.


Practising as well as aspiring managers could draw quite a few lessons from Thirukkural. Here is a modest attempt to capture a few of its facets.

Leadership

Leadership is more of an attitude and a way of living and behaving. It is about opening one’s heart. It is about inspiring those around one. It is about leading others by example. It is about standing up for others and shielding them from harm.

770

Of what avail is the army of heroic warriors if there be no general to guide them?

388

He is a God among men who shields his subjects.

A good leader is an avid listener. He encourages dissent.

416

Listen to wholesome counsel however meagre; for out of it springs great good.

389

The world is under the sway of the monarch who puts up with bold and bitter counsel.

529

Reject none on the score of disagreement. Men who have become estranged will flock to you.





A leader’s life is not easy. Following ‘dharma’ (righteousness) is his/her foremost trait. Being impartial and just is another.

33

Avail yourself of all opportunities. Do not cease from practicing Dharma on all possible occasions to the best of your ability.

111

An equity which knows no partiality is in itself a unique virtue.

432

Niggardliness, empty honour, blind favouritism, are all the faults of a king.

541

Strict enquiry and impartial justice mark the rule of a just monarch.

Intuition plays an important role in the life of a leader. Steve Jobs’ life is a living example of this trait.

429

Men of foresight who guard themselves against coming events know no distress.

Leadership is about human experiences and not about processes.

578

The world belongs to a king who can do his duty and yet be courteous.

Mergers and acquisitions often follow the rule of tying up with a former adversary in business. Google acquired Android, YouTube and Motorola Mobility, so as to extend the reach of its business as also to diversify into related verticals.

679

It is much more urgent to secure the alliance of one’s enemies, than to do good to one’s friends.

Brand Image of an Organisation

Thirukkural has chapters which are intended for developing and managing kingdoms. The attributes of an ideal kingdom mentioned in the ancient text are equally applicable to the contemporary corporate world.

738

Five are the ornaments of a kingdom – absence of disease, wealth, fertility, happiness and security.

This can be interpreted to mean that a great company is one which has a strong brand image amongst all its stakeholders. Healthy and vibrant employees form the backbone of a company. By generating a surplus for its shareholders, wealth gets created. A culture which enables fertile imagination and innovation ensures its long-term survival and well-being. A result-oriented but relaxed culture results into greater happiness of its employees. Guarding the company’s assets – material as well as intellectual – ensures survival in a highly competitive environment.

Management

Managers need to be resolute, decisive and action-oriented. Loyalty to the management and operating within the company policy paradigm are two of the several qualities they need to have.

668

What you have clearly decided to do, do it without hesitation and delay.

766

Heroism, honour, tried policy and fidelity to the king, these four are an army’s shelter.

Stephen Covey has spoken of the habit of ‘sharpening the saw’. The poet also emphasises the need to keep upgrading our subject knowledge, so as to do well in our careers.

401

Entering an assembly without sufficient knowledge is like playing at a dice board without its knowledge.

444

To follow in the footsteps of those who are greater than oneself is the crown of one’s strengths.

Planning, and thinking ahead, needs to be given a high priority. Want to beat the competition? Know its strengths and review your plans accordingly.

461

After much deliberation over profit and loss and the final gains, launch on a task.

471

A king must act after measuring the strength of his plan, his own resources, the strength of the enemy and that of the ally.

Restraining anger is important. Anger is also an important weapon in a manager’s arsenal. It can be used to put in place a team member who might be getting too big for his boots. When held back and allowed to simmer within, it can be used very effectively. Patience and forbearance are recommended. We also need to have the knack of getting our timing right!

305

If a man were to guard himself, let him restrain anger. Otherwise anger gets the better of him.



487

The wise will not fly into a passion when assailed; they allow their anger to smoulder within till the right time comes.

158

Conquer with forbearance one who has done you harm and caused you anguish.

484

One can succeed in the attempt to conquer the world if the right time and the right place are chosen.

Management is all about getting things done. A smart manager would know what needs to be done, who is the best person for doing it, and the right time to get it done.


516

The thing to be done, the proper person for it and the appropriate time for doing it, must all be duly weighed.

Meetings

Here are some guidelines on when to speak, how to speak and what to speak.

711

Men should weigh their words in speaking when addressing an audience.

714

Before brilliant people, be brilliant; before plain people, be as plain as white chalk.

715

The humility to maintain silence before superiors is the best of all good qualities.

Planning and Execution

The poet exhorts us to avoid procrastination.

674

An unfinished deed and an unfinished fight will, like a half-extinguished fire, cause ultimate harm.

675

Do a thing after carefully deliberating on five things – resources, means, the time, the nature of the deed, and the place.


677

The manner in which a thing should be done is to be determined after consulting an expert.

Getting Hired

Whether we are hiring a chartered accountant or an engineer, the cultural fit with the company is of great importance. People who sound the same based on their CVs are all different. Their value systems are determined by the family they belong to and the environment they have grown up in. Their personality traits are not the same.

Would they fit in with their immediate team members? Would they vibe well with the culture of the organisation? These are some of the questions to be asked so as to ensure that we make better hiring decisions.

960

Out of modesty springs one’s greatness. Out of humility rises the honour of the family.

951

Probity and a sense of shame are virtues innate only in men of noble lineage.

The poet also exhorts us to make a hiring choice with due diligence.

509

Let men be chosen with deliberate care; when once the choice is made, let no suspicions crawl into your soul.

632

A minister should have five qualities: tenacity of purpose, birth in a respectable family, welfare of people, profound learning and perseverance.

Managing the Self

Like all spiritual texts, Thirukkural also extols the virtues of connecting with one’s inner self.

Being amiable and speaking positively helps.

93

To welcome one with a pleasant look and loving words is righteousness.

Helping others in a self-less manner may result into long-term loyalists getting developed. However, help rendered to an ungrateful person could be a waste of one’s time and efforts.

103

Help done expecting no return, if weighed, will be vaster than the sea.

105

Help rendered is not in terms of the return but its value depends on the receiver.

Forgetting and forgiving helps us to reduce our own stress levels.

108

It is not good to forget the benefit received; but it is good to forget then and there the injury done by another.

Self control is the real treasure. So is walking on the right path.

122

There is no greater wealth than self-control; treasure it as your wealth.

132

Strive hard to walk in the right path. One finds it one’s surest ally.



Loose talk, inane gossip and back-biting happen to be some of the tricks of making enemies and losing friends!

187

Those who alienate friends by back-biting may have forgotten the art of making friends through suavity of speech.

200

Speak profitable words; avoid nonsense.

Gems of General Wisdom

Renown

234

The wise are not favoured by the gods; but the renowned on earth are adored by them.

Compassion

250

Oppress not the weak; remember your own fate in stronger hands.

Truth

298

Water cleanses the body; truth cleanses the soul.

True knowledge

352

Men of pure vision are led from darkness to light.

Will Power

595

The greatness of a person is proportionate to the strength of his will power.

Challenges

621


Laugh over your obstacles; nothing like it to push them further and further.



When it comes to cautioning leaders and managers against amorous advances within the confines of their place of work, Thirukkural is silent. However, it is interesting to note that in the Love section, it does deal with matters of romance, sex and lust. If there are observations from the view-point of the so-called sterner sex, we also find insights from the delicately nurtured amongst us. To that extent, the text may be held to demonstrate a decent level of gender parity. Chivalry is far from being dead!

Each ‘kural’ is complete in itself. It deserves to be meditated upon, one at a time, and imbibed in our day-to-day lives. One wonders at the keen observations of the poet, his sagacity and the effort he has taken to collate and compile this beautiful work, replete with words of wisdom which continue to be as relevant today as they were in the days of yore.

(My sincere gratitude to various persons and texts which enabled this compilation)

Ashok Bhatia is an occasional author, a speaker, a regular blogger and content creator on such topics as Management, P G Wodehouse, Bollywood and life in general. Based on his 35 years+ experience in the corporate world, he is acutely aware and conscious of the need for high values and ethics in business. Almost all his articles and books have an underlying current highlighting this very theme. In him, one finds a fierce critic of any kind of compromises on this front. He believes that business ships which are built on a keel of sound values end up not only having a better brand equity but also yield better returns to their stakeholders. When businesses are broad minded and give back to the society at large, they serve a higher purpose. His blog posts can be accessed at ashokbhatia.wordpress.com.

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