Challenging Loyalty

Business 5 Comments

Published in First City, October 2010

Ramayana speaks of two brothers, Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna. Vibhishana refuses to support his elder brother Ravana who abducts the wife of Ram. Kumbhakarna, however, stands by his brother, even though he does not agree with Ravana’s actions. Vibhishana is a disloyal defector while Kumbhakarna is a loyal brother. The scriptures celebrate Vibhishana. While every year, during festivals, the effigy of Kumbhakarna is burnt alongside his brother.

In the Mahabharata, Karna owes his meteoric rise in station, from charioteer to warlord and king, to Duryodhana, who refuses to return the land of the Pandavas. Karna stays loyal to Duyodhana till the very end, refusing the most tempting bribes offered by Krishna. For this he is ruthlessly killed under instructions of Krishna.

The scriptures challenge the traditional notion of loyalty. Loyalty is not seen as an end in itself. It is seen merely as a means. If the end is not noble (as in case of Karna and Kumbhakarna) it is not venerated.

In the modern corporate world, what matters more: talent or loyalty? What affects the balance sheet?

During the annual appraisals, Madhukar was furious. He had received the same bonus as Champaklal. But he had done so much more work. He had turned around a loss-making unit into a profitable one in less than a year. He had cut costs and acquired new customers. Thanks to him, the company was on an accelerated growth curve. In comparison, Champaklal had done nothing but sustain running a marginally profitable unit. That unit had so much potential that Champaklal refused to tap. Why couldn’t the owner of the company see that?

But the owner of the company saw things differently. He told the CFO as they were finalizing the bonus, “Madhukar is an MBA, a professional. Sooner or later, he will leave us and go to another company where he will be paid more. We will never be able to match up the competition. Champaklal will never leave us. He may not be a great stallion but he is a dependable donkey. Horses will come and go, adding bursts of success, but donkeys grant us sustainable slow growth. We must reward both equally.”

In the uncertain world of business, loyalty offers comfort to owners. This is an emotional need whose value is not understood by professionals. Champaklal will never be as smart as Madhukar but he is able to satisfy an emotional need of the owner. Madhukar’s brilliance makes the owner insecure. Retaining talent is not easy. In Madhukar’s case, the owner has to make active efforts to retain him. In Champaklal’s case, the owner is passive; he knows that Champaklal’s mediocre talents ensure he will never look out for another opportunity. Champaklal’s low returns are compensated by the high assurance he offers. And this matters in the owner’s strategic long-term balance sheet.

The owner sees Madhukar as Vibhishan and Champaklal as Kumbhakarna. Some of the practices that the owner follows are not quite ethical. He knows that Madhukar will shy away from these practices or at least demand a hefty pound of flesh in exchange. Champaklal, aware of his low-market value, will do the unethical tasks quietly and will ask for no extra reward. Champaklal may not be as talented, but like Karna he will not be tempted by any Krishna and like Karna he will be ready to die in the battlefield. For this he needs to be rewarded.

  • Quite a revelation :-)

    What a horse can do cannot be done by ‘n’ donkeys.However,
    it is unfortunate but true that smarter guys make leads/supervisors/managers insecure.

  • G.Vijayakrishnan

    Shri Devdutt,

    As I started reading your article ‘Challenging Loyalty’ and the examples used of Karna and Kumbhakarna in the initial paragraphs, it seemed to me as if you are about to conclude that loyalty will be punished with both Karna and Kumbhakarna being killed. I feel that these examples are in contrast to the conclusion of the article that the loyalty will be rewarded.

    It is my belief and understanding that Loyalty should be towards what you believe in, good or bad is subjective. If I take Vibhishan’s or Hanuman’s example or Arjuna’s towards Krishna. It was deep belief and love towards what Rama stood for and Krishna stood for which created the ‘Loyalty factor’. In modern times, followers of Mahatma Gandhi were loyal, it was because of the faith and trust in what Gandhiji stood for developed the loyalty factor, not just the persona of Gandhiji.

    What I mean to say is that, Karna and Kumbhakarna stood by the side of Dhuryodhana and Ravan but didn’t believe in what they stood for, hence they perished. When there is a contradiction of what you believe in and what you stand for….you perish.


    G.Vijayakrishnan | Assistant Manager – Research | Aditya Birla Money Mart Ltd, Sheil Estate|2nd Floor |158 |C.S.T. Road|Dani Corporate Park|Kalina|Santacruz East | Mumbai – 400 098 | Tel: 022 – 42333469 | Mobile: 9833393057

    • karthik anum

      “When there is a contradiction of what you believe in and what you stand for…”
      The minute this conflict begins, I think you are already struggling within..
      How your end is pervcived by the others is not relevant anymore as the person is dying every minute.

      Loyaltiy should be towards the idea or thought and not the person with who leads the thought.

      Kumbhakarna and Karna must have had peace at death if they believed that no matter what I will support my brother/friend.

      • Haresh

        It is not the difference between “What you beleive and what you stand for” which decides the fate. It is difference between “what is good for you against what is good for society”. Karna knew that though Duryodhana is good to him, he is bad to society. Similarly, Kumbakarna stand for Ravaana who was good to him but bad to society. At the end, a person who is loyal to “good for society” will win. In our life also we take favours from some influential persons (e.g. politicans, local gundas)who are bad to society. But we forget that one day our association with these people will put us in trouble in future.

    • Hitesh

      I must say inshort about this story as i belief.

      Vibhishan and Kumbhkaran both are follow there Dharma. In any Veda, holy books everywhere DHARMA override anything. As Vhibhishan was molested/thrown out of lanka by ravan, his karma and dharam both are loyal wrt his self-respect. As far as kumbhkaran considered, he is also a follower of loyalty to his dharam and he followed.

      My answer is liitle bit out of track er this article and your comments too but i would say that we can imagine this on pillars of Dharam, kartavya.

      Here no body is challenging the loyalty each other perhaps they are just follow the dharam

      Hitesh Sharma