Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 14 Sept, 2007
The ultimate goal is profit. Call it anything you want: bottomline, topline, market share, capitalization, equity, dividends, incentive, growth. It is what ultimately counts. It is why leaders are sought by organizations. Leaders are the ones who are able to mobilize the organizational resources to generate wealth. They are Vishnus engaged to churn out Lakshmi, the mythological embodiment of profit, from the ocean of milk.
Lakshmi, the bejewelled goddess of wealth and fortune who sits on a lotus, is the most popular goddess in India. Her image can be found gracing most households and business establishments. Everybody wants her. Her footprint is often painted on doorways pointing inwards because everyone wants her to walk towards them. Leaders exist to make this happen.
Unfortunately, Lakshmi is Chanchala, the fickle one. Few can predict where she plans to go. Sometimes her movements are predictable. Often it isn’t, confounding the most astute of analysts. Exasperated by her whimsical ways, some have concluded that Lakshmi is cockeyed – she looks one way but often moves the other.
But there is one thing scriptures are sure of: Lakshmi will always move towards Vishnu. She is drawn to him. Vishnu is Shrinivas – ‘where Lakshmi resides’. He is Lakshmikanta – ‘beloved of Lakshmi’. What is it that he does that makes him attractive to fortune? If leaders can discover this, they too can become Vishnu; they too can become magnets of Lakshmi.
In all of Vaishnava literature, Vishnu is never shown chasing Lakshmi. Two groups of minor deities chase Lakshmi. They are Devas and Asuras.
Asuras live under the earth and Lakshmi is addressed as Patala Nivasini, a resident of the subterranean reasons because the ancients realized long ago that wealth in its most primal form – minerals and plants – comes from under the ground. Asuras are deemed demons because they cling to Lakshmi and will not let her go. She is Pulomi, their daughter and their sister.
The Devas, who live above the ground, as fire and wind and sun and sky, have to fight to release Lakshmi. Observe how all primary wealth generating activities are violent – the tilling of soil, the harvesting of crop, the threshing of grain, the smelting of metal. This ‘value generating violence’ is described in mythology as the war of Asuras and Devas, the hoarders and distributors of wealth, the demons and the gods.
Devas transform Pulomi into Sachi, the consort of their king, Indra. But Indra, in his recklessness, knows to enjoy Sachi but not retain her – the fickle one moves away rapidly, leaving Indra’s paradise shorn of all life and beauty. Indra begs his father, Brahma, to help, who in turn directs the gods to Vishnu, who advises them to take the help of the Asuras for only the Asuras possess the magical Sanjivani Vidya that can regenerate what has been lost.
Thus Devas can draw, distribute and spend wealth but they cannot create wealth. Who are the Devas of the corporate world? Could it be the flashy marketing and sales guys who go around getting the business, generating demand for products and services? In that case who are the Asuras? Are they the product makers and the service providers? Can production/service exist without marketing/sales? Can the sky-gods exist without earth-demons?
No, they cannot. Vishnu, the leader, knows this and therefore sides with no one in particular. He knows that the two make up the force and counterforce that will churn Lakshmi out from the ocean of milk. The trick is the ability to balance the two sides of the team. A tilt one way or the other will be disastrous. It will cause the churn to collapse.
Devas are guided by Brihaspati, god of the planet Jupiter, who in astrology is associated with logic, rationality and mathematics. The guru of the Asuras is Shukra, god of the planet Venus, who in astrology is associated with emotion, creativity and intuition. Brihaspati’s logical approach makes him balanced; he is therefore visualized as having two eyes while Shukra, whose intuitive approach makes him imbalanced and unpredictable, is visualized as having one eye. Like the Devas and Asuras, even Brihaspati and Shukra are pitted against each other. It is the battle of logic and intuition.
The corporate world is full of Brihaspatis and Shukras, the logicians and the magicians. The former prefer excel sheets, the latter prefer power points. The former usually have a finance background, the latter are part of sales and marketing. People with a business school or science background are encouraged to become Brihaspatis but people with an arts background and in creative fields are encouraged to stay as Shukras. Brihaspatis are often preferred in corporate organization because their language can be understood, controlled and predicted. Not so with Shukras. They are shunned until one realizes that survival depends on that wild and crazy ‘out of the box’ idea.
One can understand why Devas led by Brihaspati are deemed ‘gods’: they live above the ground, are bathed in light, are clear, transparent, logical hence understandable. Asuras led by Shukra, by contrast, lived under the ground, are unseen; their intuition and creativity is unpredictable, unfathomable, uncontrollable, making them mysterious and magical. Asuras threaten us, make us insecure. Therefore they are demons. Please note that in Hindu mythology, unlike in Biblical mythology, demons are not evil creatures – Hindus have no Satan. They are children of Brahma just like Devas. The divide between them is not moral or ethical. They are complementary forces of nature.
A true leader is able to harness the various forces around him to create an effective and efficient wealth-generating churn. He makes them complementary, not antagonistic. He works with both Brihaspati and Shukra, logic and magic, objectivity and subjectivity, He is able to get the best out of Asuras and Devas, product-creators and value-givers. He is sattva guna – the principle that balances the two other extreme principles: inertia/tamas of the Asuras and the agitation/rajas of the Devas. He is both rational on one hand and intuitive on the other. He respects flashy presentations but also knows the value of a robust excel sheet behind it.
While doing all this, , Vishnu never bothers with Laskhmi. He is almost indifferent to her. And that is why, perhaps, she chases him. She becomes his crown, his throne, his parasol and footstool. She makes him the king by serving as his profitable kingdom.
One must be careful though. Lakshmi is not a faithful wife. Leaders often forget that success is drawn not to them but to their action. The crown follows the position not the person. To keep Lakshmi walking towards them all the time, it is important that a leader always stays a Vishnu– always balanced, always focussed, always impartial, always detached.