Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times supplement, 4 April 2008

Hanuman plays an important role in the Ramayan, yet in the epic itself, he does not hold any great position. He is just one of the many monkeys Ram encounters in the forest. He is not Sugriva, leader of the monkey troop. He is not Angad, who is told to lead the band of monkeys searching for Sita. He is not Jambavan, the bear or Nila, the monkey, who are given the responsibility of building the bridge. He is projected as an obedient follower who, through his intelligence, strength and courage, wins the admiration of Ram and emerges as one of the most revered characters of the tale and a god in his own right. But at no point does Hanuman make any attempt to steal anyone’s glory; while in his own temple he stands powerful with mountain in hand and feet on a demon, in Ram’s temple he is most content sitting at the feet of his master, hands in supplication.

Who would not want a Hanuman in his team? One who is very good at his work, one who will do whatever he is told to do, one who will never seek either reward or recognition and one who finds validation in obeying his master.

If we go to Raju’s auto repair shop, we will find that all the work is done by his Hanuman: Amol, a young boy, who has been working with Raju for three years. Amol is a natural, able to fix the most complex of problems. Raju knows he can totally rely on Amol. No job is too big or too small for Amol. He is as happy changing a tyre, as he is fixing the brakes. He does not boss over the juniors and does not feel slighted if the seniors ask him to fetch tea. If there is a problem that eludes a standard solution, everyone knows that leave it to Amol – he will, like Hanuman crossing the sea, find a way.

Yes, it matters greatly to have a Hanuman in our team. One who will not question you. One who will do exactly what you tell him to do. One who delivers no matter what the odds. One who is loyal and devoted. But is that really good?

The following is a folk story of Hanuman: Hanuman once narrated the entire Ramayan to his mother, Anjani. After the narration, an impressed Anjani sought a clarification. “You are so strong that with a flick of a tail you could have destroyed the whole of Lanka, killed Ravan and rescued Sita. Why did you not do so? So much effort and time would have been saved – you would not have had to build a bridge to Lanka, you could have avoided the war. Why did you not do that?”

Hanuman replied, “Because Ram never asked me to.”

And suddenly we wonder if this was opportunity lost. Hanuman was asked to discover Sita’s location; he did that. Hanuman was asked to fetch the mountain of herbs that would save Lakshmana’s life; he did that. No one asked him to destroy the Rakshasas and rescue Sita. So he did not do that. One common explanation given for why Ram never asked Hanuman to kill Ravan and rescue Sita is that it was Ram’s duty to rescue Sita, not Hanuman’s. Ramayan is about Ram, not Hanuman. But it is not so in the corporate world; the story is about the entire organization, not just about the leaders.

In the entire epic, Hanuman proves his capability time and time again. On his way to find Sita, he displays his extraordinary power (crosses the ocean), brain (outwits the snake-demon Surasa), brawn (kills Simhika) and integrity (not resting on Mandara mountain). And yet, while everyone admires this, no one seems eager to take full advantage of it. Was this refusal to take advantage of Hanuman’s abilities a divine decision or merely a oversight? Is the same being done in the corporate world?

Yes, Raju loves Amol’s work. Yes, Raju admires Amol’s work. But is Raju harnessing the full potential of Amol? Is his contentment with Amol’s obedience preventing him from seeing all that Amol can do, proactively, creatively, independently, if he is given the freedom to do so? Ask Raju and he will say, “But I don’t stop Amol from doing anything.” He does not stop Amol from doing anything, but he does not encourage Amol to do something else either.

The greatest danger of having Hanumans in our team is that his actions are limited by our directions. Maybe we fear that if Hanuman thinks for himself, there will be chaos – he is a monkey after all. Maybe we fear that he will overshadow us. Hence, ultimately, only we decide the goals, we define the vision, we declare the mission and state the objective. Our Hanuman will help you realize all this. But, maybe, the goals could have been greater and grander, if we had let Hanuman do more than merely obey.

Amol once had given Raju a suggestion. “Sir, if we park our cars perpendicular to the wall rather than parallel we can keep more cars in the garage?” Raju ignored this suggestion. “Do you work,” he snapped at Amol without giving his words much thought. But the message he implicitly gave Amol was that – ‘I only want your obedience, not your intelligence.’ Amol immediately complied. And that marked the end of Amol’s creativity that would have perhaps made Raju’s auto repair shop a much greater success.

This is the danger of over compliance and extreme obedience. We prevent followers from thinking and contributing. It makes business sense therefore to take a closer look at the Hanumans in our team; we just might find in their hearts a Ram waiting to be coaxed out.