Carl Djerassi, Jim Collins, and Elon Musk are modern-day polymaths, or people who hold a high level of expertise across diverse fields.

Polymaths have ushered a lot of progress over the ages. During the Renaissance Era, polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Archimedes, and others fueled progress in mathematics, science, astronomy, philosophy, and more.

One of the most ancient polymaths was Chanakya, the teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist, royal advisor, and author of the Arthashastra, the treatise on statecraft, military strategy, and economic policy, which is highly relevant even today. Chanakya was also the teacher of Chandragupta Maurya, a boy from humble backgrounds who became a king and built one of the largest empires on the Indian subcontinent.

We have been connected to Chanakya through eons by lessons like “saam, daam, dand, bhed” and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” No matter who you are, the amount you can learn from him is limitless because the teacher’s wisdom is eternal.

In a recent masterclass for the University of Maryland – Robert H. School of Business, corporate coach and expert on Chanakya’s philosophy and author of the bestselling Chanakya management series, Dr. Radhakrishna Pillai, shared some insightful lessons he learned in 20 years of research on Chanakya.

Here are the three biggest lessons Dr. Pillai shared from Chanakya’ philosophy:

1. Think like a leader

We often confuse a leader and manger to be the same, but they are not. According to

Stephen Covey, a manager learns to climb the ladder fast, but a leader checks whether the ladder is against the right wall.

Management is all about productivity, efficiency, and targets. But even if a team achieves them, it’s not necessary that they’re in the right direction. Leadership, on the other hand, is about the vision that focuses on direction before anything else.

In the modern era, information is abundant. In fact, information pollution is a problem, which means too much information can blindside us. This is why we have to think like leaders instead of managers to truly create long-term value for our customers, stakeholders, and society at large.

Chanakya believed each of us has the potential to be a leader, but that the potential alone is not enough.

Sachin Tendulkar was a born cricketer and had the potential to be a great leader. But we all know how much he struggled as the captain of the Indian Cricket Team. On the other hand, Alex Fergusson was an average soccer player but turned out to be one of the most prolific managers of all time for the English football club Manchester United.

Thus, merely thinking like a leader isn’t enough. That’s just the first step. The next step is to get trained as a leader. Take up courses. Study history, science, and different fields. And then land yourself in a position of leadership so that you can learn on the job.

Chanakya identified leadership qualities in Chandragupta Maurya, trained him to become capable enough, and then put him in a position of leadership as the king of a united Bharat.

2. Perform as a leader

People get into positions of leadership through various means. Some of them earn those positions by merit, others sneak into them with luck, and yet others get handed those positions because of nepotism.

But regardless of how one gets there, the chair decides who is worthy. If you’re not worthy, it won’t let you stay. This means staying in power is more important than getting into power. And the only way to achieve this is by performance-driven leadership.

Dr. Pillai elaborates on three ways to perform as a leader.

a. Surround yourself with experts.

Chanakya was an expert, but didn’t claim to know everything. Instead, he sought out vriddha sanyogaha – or wise company – all his life. He engaged with experts in diverse fields to expand his horizons.

As a leader, your job is to be an expert in your industry. But it’s also to connect with experts from various dimensions like legal, marketing, financial, customer centricity, and government policies. When you collaborate, you create a much larger pie whom everyone can enjoy a piece of.

b. Arrive at decisions.

As human beings, we assume we make rational decisions. But that is not the case since many times, emotions cloud our judgment. As a result, we make poor or incorrect decisions unknowingly. And when a leader makes an incorrect decision, the ripples are felt throughout the community.

This is why it’s important to arrive at a decision instead of taking it. This means you must examine the data presented to you and then share your insights with expert advisors in brainstorming sessions and boardroom discussions. When you get inputs from various sharp minds, the quality of your decisions will become better.

c. Continuous research and learning.

Lifelong learning and education is a critical function for any leader. The world keeps evolving, technology keeps upgrading, and it’s important for leaders to upgrade their knowledge as well.

The most effective way to upgrade our knowledge is to focus on continuous research. Keep an eye on trends of the future and on things happening in adjacent fields. Think different with the long term in mind. If you merely think big, you’ll get stuck in the numbers game. If you think different, you will create long-lasting value for the world which, in turn, will create wealth for you.

3. Leaders create more leaders

History is rife with examples of kingdoms and companies that deteriorated after visionary kings or leaders died or retired. But the truly sustainable kingdoms and businesses passed the baton from one generation to another.

Chanakya didn’t just train and advise Chandragupta Maurya, he did the same for Ashoka, the king’s son who took the strategies of Bharat to the world. Likewise, the oldest company in the world, Kongō Gumi, has existed since the year 578, or almost 1,500 years, and each leadership entity remains strong.

These entities thrived because they focused on empowering the future generations, which is the true definition of sustainability.

So how should leaders plan succession and create more leaders? By focusing on making the next generation better than them, by building systems and processes to teach and enable the next generations to take up the batons and carry them into the future.

Summing Up

No matter how wise anyone is, he or she can always learn more from Chanakya. And according to Dr. Radhakrishna Pillai, the biggest learning from Chanakya is the importance of being a leader.

The three biggest lessons for Dr. Pillai from Chanakya are:

  1. Think like a leader. Gauge whether the direction you and your people are heading in is the right one before you focus only on productivity, efficiency, and targets.
  2. Perform like a leader. Staying as a leader is tougher than becoming one. And the only way to achieve this is to obsess over performance and constantly deliver on expectations.
  3. Create new leaders. Empower the next generation to be better than you and to take up the baton and carry it into the future. That’s how your organization or community will outlive your legacy.

Which was the most powerful lesson for you? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

By Manish Bansal

Manish is the Managing Director of SME Value Advisors, a platform that connects businesses with curated professionals who can deliver solutions. You can connect with him on

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