The participation-direction debate in leadership: insights from Ramayana.

AuthorAlok, Kumar


"Leadership should be more participative than directive, more enabling than performing"

Mary D. Poole

Leadership theorists tend to prefer participation over direction as an attribute of effective leadership. Participation and direction refer respectively to high or low follower involvement in decision making (Northouse, 2010; Yukl, 1999). Some of the theories restrict this general trend with contingencies. For example, the path-goal theory suggests that followers with low technical know-how may prefer directive leaders, whereas those with high technical know-how may prefer participative leaders (House, 1996). Nevertheless, the underlying belief is that leaders preferring participation or direction are different in kind. Yukl (1999) challenged this belief with the assertion that participation and direction are attributes of leader choices rather than leaders themselves. Leaders may not be effective if they opt for participation or direction as a matter of habit rather than a need-based choice.

There is a lack of strong and consistent empirical evidence for the effectiveness of participative leadership (Yukl, 1999; 2009). This may mean that participation weakly or moderately influences leader effectiveness; however, this may also mean that conceptualizing it as a leader attribute is itself a mistake. The problem may not be resolved by simply conceptualizing participation and direction in terms of leader choices. It may still not be possible to empirically show that these choices significantly influence leader effectiveness because that may be a function of their effective use rather than the choices as such. Ramayana, the celebrated epic of India, portrays many decision situations that can be analyzed to gain some insights into this matter; however, for the purpose of this article, we will focus on one particular episode portrayed in the 17th and 18th chapters of the Book 6 (Yuddha Kanda) of the Valmiki Ramayana (VR).

The Story in Nutshell

Prince Rama accepted the 14 year exile to honor his father's words. While in exile, the demon emperor Ravana abducted his wife Sita. Rama resolved to protect righteousness. He made friendship with the monkey emperor Sugriva and attacked Lanka, the kingdom of Ravana. In the meanwhile, Vibhishana, the youngest of Ravana's brothers advised him to return Sita to save the country from an impending war; however, Ravana preferred to exile him instead. Vibhishana came to join Rama's side and conveyed his prayers. When Rama came to know about it, he asked his advisors for their opinion in this regard. Demons had earned an unblemished reputation for chicanery and Vibhishana was the younger brother of Ravana himself. Therefore, the question of whether to accept him as a friend assumed particular significance.

The advisors were generally skeptical about Vibhishana's intentions and suggested either to treat him as an enemy or to examine his true intent by various means. Hanuman, the most learned and intelligent of them all, opined that such suggestions may be wrong. He suggested that Vibhishana may be desirous of gaining the kingdom after Ravana. In that case, it would be perfectly right for him to approach Rama given that Rama has already helped Sugriva to gain kingdom. However, Sugriva remained vehemently against accepting Vibhishana. It was clear that a resolution was not in sight. Finally, Rama gave his firm decision to accept Vibhishana and...

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