Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, Nov. 26, 2010

Most stories in the Puranas, ancient Hindu narrative chronicles, begin with the defeat of the Devas by Asuras, and end with the defeat of the Asuras by Devas. Devas are described as gods and Asuras as demons. But they are both grandsons of Brahma, the creator. Brahma’s son, Kashyapa, has two wives, Aditi and Diti. Devas are the sons of Aditi; they live in the sky. Asuras are the sons of Diti; they live under the earth. The two sets of half-brothers hate each other. Devas are forever insecure about Asuras and Asuras are forever jealous of the Devas. Naturally, neither Devas nor Asuras are worthy of worship. There are no temples for Devas or Asuras.

Devas and Asuras represent two primal fears seen in the animal kingdom. Devas represent the fear of the predator; they constanty seek reassurance. Asuras represent the fear of scarcity; they always want more. These two emotions are widely prevalent in most organizations and can in different situations be either obstacles or levers.

Ramesh works as the manager of a bookshop. He is very happy with his job. Regular timings and not much pressure. He tends to be rather lazy and hates doing anything more than what his boss asks of him. He does not believe in being proactive. He is not a bad guy, just a simple guy with no ambition.  In meetings, he refuses to come up with new ideas in case it adds to the burden of work. He simply nods his head and complies. For him job security is the most important thing in the world. He expects what is due to him, not more. Naturally, he resists any change and feels threatened every time there is a new boss. He hates new policies and new ideas. He likes things to go the way they did in the past.

Senthil is the very opposite of Ramesh. He is hungry for growth. He too is a manager of a bookshop but he wants to be area manager in the next two years and works very hard for it. He is restless and aggressive. He looks down upon Ramesh. And Ramesh views him with suspicion. Senthil considers Ramesh a loser and a roadblock to progress. Ramesh considers Senthil to be dangerous and disruptive to stability.

Ramesh is a Deva, yearning for stability, trapped in insecurity with a tendency to be complacent. Senthil is an Asura, yearning for growth, trapped in ambition with a tendency to be arrogant. Both have values that are good for the company and both have values that are bad for the company. During consolidation phase, companies need Devas. During growth phase, companies need Asuras. Managing the two groups is critical to churn success.

When Sandeep’s factory was facing high attrition and severe market pressures, he ensured that old loyalists were put in senior positions. They were not particularly skilled at work. They were in fact ‘yes-men’ and not ‘go-getters’ who yearned for stability. By placing them in senior positions, Sandeep ensured that a sense of stability spread across the organization in volatile times. They were his Devas who anchored the ship in rough seas. When things stabilized and the market started looking up, Sandeep hired ambitious and hungry people into the company. These were Asuras, wanting more and more. They were transactional and ambitious and full of drive and energy. Now the old managers hate the new managers and block them at every turn. Sandeep is upset. He wants the old guard to change or get out of the way. But they will not change and they will not budge. Sandeep is feeling exasperated and frustrated. He needs to appreciate the difference between Devas and Asuras. Each one has a value at different times. They cannot play in the same team but are very good as force and counterforce in different phases of the organization. Sandeep must not expect either to change. All he needs to do is place them in positions where they can deliver their best.

Many people start as Asuras and end up being Devas. Ramesh, early in his career, was growth-seeking. Once he became manager, he became stability-seeking. Senthil is today an Asura but eventually may turn into Devas. To accept this reality and work with it is the hallmark of a leader.