Management lessons from Kumbh

There are management lessons for leaders in large gatherings and events. Look at an event like the Kumbh Mela in India and explore what makes it a success. This largest gathering on earth has naked sadhus to Wall Street bankers floating in a temporary city created every 12 years at the confluence of three holy rivers in Allahabad. The temporary city is laid out on a grid, constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks.

How does such a huge gathering emerge from nowhere and function harmoniously? How is it that people thrive in an environment that is densely crowded, intensely noisy and often unsanitary? Not to mention the cold, dust, pollution and overwhelming diversity of people.

Considering that these 100 million people that visit the banks of a river during six to eight weeks constitute more than the population of several countries, also considering that the law and order situation in India’s crowded cities is not something that we can be proud of, we still manage the Kumbh Mela, the mother of all gatherings on earth. It is just like the Woodstock Festival, where half a million people came together in 1968, happening every year, attracting millions of people creating chaos and a perfect order.

Interestingly, even though Woodstock is not happening, there is the Burning Man Festival that is held in a temporary city in Nevada, US, (built and erased within a month) where the event goes on every year; this year’s event had around 60,000 people attending. Not since Woodstock’s ‘3 days of peace and music’ over four decades back has a festival captured the attention of the US academia. Just as they did decades ago, scholars are asking whether Burning Man is a window to a new kind of community or a Utopian dream destined to crash and burn.

What can we learn from these gigantic gatherings that congregate seemingly effortlessly (though a lot of effort goes into making the gathering a safe one)? What lessons does the event offer for organisations and countries?

The event has a tendency to expand horizons, reveal possibilities, and question the assumptions that most of us make about how we’re supposed to live our lives. People from all walks of life participate in this festival dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, leaving no trace whatsoever.

When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity and a great variety of expression. I have heard about how people create great marvels during this one week ranging from great art installations to seminars on alternate healing. Google Inc. founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, festival veterans, have said they give extra weightage to job applicants who have been to Burning Man. It’s high time we sent our political leaders and corporate CEOs to Kumbh Mela.

Importance of having a shared big purpose:

Having a shared purpose and aspiration is the bond that connects communities together. Kumbh Mela and Burning Man have it and we need to create this shared purpose and dream in our communities and organisations. Every political leader and corporate CEO struggle to create a shared dream in her or his constituency or organisation. Companies that have imbibed the shared aspiration work like a strong networked and connected community.

Organisations that don’t create a shared aspiration are designed to fail. You must keep in mind that this aspiration needs to be a higher purpose, not the quarterly numbers that you are chasing. What would be really meaningful for everyone? How are you making a difference in this world? What is the legacy you want to leave behind? Answer these questions and find out what would be a bigger purpose that would connect everyone in your organisation. What would be a bigger purpose for India?

Touching the hearts:

Once the bigger purpose is articulated, there has to be personal freedom and freedom to express oneself. Organisations and communities are learning that the ‘command and control’ management does not work much in today’s world. A paradigm shift from controlling and accumulating power to a systems view of management is needed now. It helps us to see organisations and communities as living systems that are constantly changing.

Any pressure, any intrusion and change in one part of the system will have an overall impact. Combined with the networked nature of our community where Facebook took only two years to reach 50 million people, controlling personal freedom will not give any advantage to authorities. Build a culture of self-expression and accountability to the purpose. People’s behaviour is influenced by the culture we create. That’s why Kerala has a culture and behaviour that are different from Punjab’s.

Shared Leadership:

Once the higher purpose is defined and personal expression is encouraged, it’s about creating shared leadership. Leadership can be explored as a social process – something that happens between people. It is not so much what leaders do as something that arises out of social relationships. As such it does not depend on one person, but on how people act together to make sense of the situations that face them. At many events like Kumbh Mela, it’s not one person but a shared leadership that creates the ownership.

So creating a higher purpose, nurturing personal freedom and expression and developing shared leadership are the key to creating meaningful organisations and communities. Jai Ho to the Naga Sadhus!

– By Santhosh Babu

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