Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, 4 June 2010

Krishna had a childhood friend called Sudama. While Krishna grew up to be a great warrior and lord of the city of Dwaraka, Sudama remained a poor priest. Desperate for some wealth, Sudama paid Krishna a visit in Dwaraka. But on reaching there he felt too embarrassed to ask for anything. He simply gave his friend a packet of puffed rice, which was all he could afford, and claimed he just wanted to see his old friend. Krishna sensed his friend’s need and very silently ensured that when Sudama returned home he found his house overflowing with wealth, much to his delight and surprise

The same Krishna had another friend called Arjuna, who had to fight a great war against his cousins. Just before the fight, he lost his nerves. The thought of killing his own relatives, however justified, horrified him. He did not know what to do. It was here that Krishna sang the song now known as the Bhagavad Gita. The words of the song addressed Arjuna’s core issues, cleared his mind, clarified his doubts, enabled him to raise his bow and fight the enemy with conviction.

Neither Sudama nor Arjuna were explicit about what they wanted. But Krishna sensed what they needed. This sensitivity is something leaders must possess. A retired army Colonel joined a cosmetics companyas their admin manager. All his life he lived a cushioned life in the army, not realizing the expense of some of the perks he received; so when he joined civilian life he was quite satisfied with the salary he was offered by the company until he had to pay for some of the things he took for granted in the army. He realized his salary was not enough to support his lifestyle. He also realized that had he been aware of these expenses he could have negotiated a more appropriate salary. But he had missed the boat. Too proud to ask for more, he kept quiet. The owner of the cosmetics company, however, sensed something was amiss. He noticed that Colonel took the company bus instead of his car several times a week. A few inquiries and he figured out what was happening. Very discreetly, the Finance Department was told to make changes in the Colonel’s salary structure. A smile returned on the Colonel’s face. Just like Sudama’s.

More importantly, Krishna knew what to give to whom – wealth to Sudama and wisdom to Arjuna. Imagine what would have happened if he sang the Bhagavad Gita to Sudama! Or gave wealth to Arjuna! When people enter a leader’s room, they come expecting to receive something. And leaders have to be sensitive enough to figure out what exactly they are seeking and respond accordingly. It is not always what they are asking!

When Mukul entered his CEO’s room to check if the presentation to be made before the board was in order, the CEO, Rajnikant, went through the presentation and said, it was okay. Mukul left the room unsatisfied. He knew it was in order, but he wanted something else from his boss, a few words of validation and even, praise, to soothe his nerves. He was terrified of the presentation. He feared that if things went wrong his reputation would be ruined. He wanted Rajnikant to comfort him, but was too embarrassed to state it. He wanted to know if Rajnikant would support him if things went wrong. He wanted the feeling of support, not a curt ‘it is ok’.

Sensitivity to what people want is not something that can be taught in business schools. It has to be developed. It is an implicit expectation from leaders. Rajnikant expects everyone to state their needs in a checklist, preferably an Excel sheet. Modern businesses often talk about transparency and stating what one needs very clearly. But humans are usually not transparent. It is embarrassing for people to openly admit that they have financial issues. It is awkward, even beneath one’s dignity, for a senior director to admit that he is nervous. What is apparent is usually not the truth. What a leader’s need to focus on is what lies beneath the apparent.