Insecure Mentors

Business 14 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, 7 May 2010

Rishi Ashtavakra was called Ashtavakra because his body was deformed and twisted in eight areas. This was the result of a curse uttered by his own father, Kahoda. While he was in his mother’s womb, Ashtavakra had overheard his father converse with his mother on the nature of Vedic truths as expressed in various Vedic hymns. Even before he was born, he had understood the secrets of Vedic hymns. So good was his understanding that, one day, from his mother’s womb, he spoke and corrected his father. “Perhaps,” he said, “the same hymn can be interpreted in this way, father.” Rather than being appreciative of his son, the father was annoyed. “May this oversmart child of mine be born deformed with eight twists in his body,” said the father.

Before his son was born, Kahoda went to the court of king Janaka to participate in a public debate. The condition of the debate was that the loser had to die. Kahoda, who thought greatly of his wisdom, participated in the competition but he lost the debate to a sage called Bandi and was forced to kill himself. When Ashtavakra grew up and learnt about the fate of his father, he decided to participate in the same public debate in Janaka’s court. He won the competition and Bandi was forced to kill himself. “Forgive me,” said Bandi. “Only if you can bring my father back to life,” said Ashtavakra. Bandi managed to do so. Thus Ashtavakra not only avenged his father’s humiliation, he also brought his father back to life. Janaka commented that Kahoda was lucky to have a son as brilliant as Ashtavakra. To this Ashtavakra said, “While you, Janaka, appreciate my wisdom, that very same wisdom had made my father insecure.”

This ancient story draws attention to the envy of the father for his son, or the envy of a teacher for his student. Kahoda is the boss, the coach, the mentor, who nurtures talent under him. Ashtavakra represents that unusually bright subordinate one sometimes get to coach or mentor. It takes a lot of self-assurance for a mentor to admit that the student is better than him. By the law of averages, such brilliant students are few and far in between and when they make themselves known they usually face great hostility from those around them and especially the mentor. Few mentors can handle a student who is better than them.

Manohar is a senior partner in a law firm. He has nurtured many young attorneys under him. But he nurtures only those who are inferior to him. As a result his team is full of rather mediocre lawyers who look to him for direction. He is the sun; the rest are the planets, reflecting his glory. The moment Manohar sees talent he feels threatened and he kicks them out of his team, often without even a good reference. As a result, over the years, he has lost out on the best people who could have made his practice the best in town.

Manohar is like Kahoda threatened by his own son, Ashtavakra. By contrast, Jacob, who also has a law practice in the same city believes in attracting talent. He believes, one must hire people who are better and bigger than oneself otherwise one will end up with a company of dwarves. He knows he is not the best and believes there are better talents out there. He wants to provide a ‘womb’ where such talent can be nurtured, for the benefit of his own firm, and if they leave his firm, for the benefit of the industry. Jacob is like Janaka. The best minds come to his court and thrive.

In a dog-eat-dog world of corporations, when a junior can overtake his senior, coaches and mentors are often threatened by team members. The result is an organization which is full of many more Kahodas than Janakas, to the detriment of Ashtavakra. Organizations have to constantly keep an eye to ensure that leaders are more like Janakas and less like Kahodas because the future fate of the organization depends on the brilliance of Ashtavakras.

  • Amit

    Dear Doc,

    Once again a brilliant article!

    An avid follower,


  • Muskaan

    Very Nice Post. This also reminds me of Telugu Movie – Swathi Kiranam ( The movie is about an egoistic music teacher unable to tolerate the extraordinary talent of his prodigious young disciple.

  • Neeraj Panchal

    Dear Dr Devdutt,

    You have written very nice article. This feeling of insecurity has been there since ages in insecure mentors. Very beautifully captured.

    Thank you!

  • Sarika

    good one

  • farhan khan

    awesome msg..i wonder not many think like this

  • D Balasubramaniam

    May be the fallacy lies in the reward system designed by corporations. A leader able to room his successor should have enough room for growth himself, if not the feeling of insecurity seeps in to the detriment of the organization. Most reward systems however, are designed to suit individual achievements with a disproportionate share to the team behind the achievement.

  • Gauri

    Nice Article! Very few people accept the TRUTH as it is and not the way they want it. Self EGO does not allow us to overlook ourselves and see the brighter side. Brighter side here can be you learn something new from the juniors, that’s a gain and not a loss.

    The feeling on insecurity kills the talent a times. How many Ashtavakra do we see, very few! Many give up after the curse.

  • Hari Prasad

    Dear Dr Devdutt
    While ur story is an explanation of the Ideal world it need to be, Can u also pl enlighten me on the fate of the mentor who lost his job because he has trained a brighter assistant. What should he be doing for his own survival particularly in a small and medium organizations..

    Example could be drawn from a real life.. An Enterprenure running a consultancy business. He works very hard to develop new clients and brings in business after spending lot of time, money and resources. And then hand over the account to one of his bright assistants to handle. In due course of time the bright assistant who has gained the experience, starts his own business taking out contacts acquired from his employer without incurring any cost, time and money!! This has been rampant in several small and medium service oriented organizations particularly in India as we, Indians are too enterprising.

    This may be the precise reason, the Leader in a small and medium organizations cannot afford or not willing to risk his own lively hood by training and mentoring bright assistants! Appreciate ur feedback and the fate of the leader who has to face with this situation!

    Hari prasad.

    • Devdutt

      somewhere the student grew and the mentor stopped growing….and now the mentor begrudges the student for outgrowing him….growth is ultimately about taking decisions and responsibility, not blaming

      • Hiren

        the mentor has to start looking at something even bigger than what he/she had started…the idea is to mentor people who ultimately takeover …Than the issue pointed out by you will never arise..To me he/she is a true leader

  • Rajiv

    Thanks Dev! I loved the story and I fully felt this view when I read it as a child but couldnt bring it our so lucidly.

    I love to be challenged by my subordinates and this frees a lot of my time for better things.

    My only problem is in retaining these minds as the pay scale between SSIs and MNCs are huge.

    Do write on retaining talent within means also. That would be a great eye-opener for small businesses like mine.

  • Vikram Singh

    Brilliant example of participative/facilitative Leadership drawn from mythology but directly relevant in our work area today.


  • Subhasis Pujapanda

    Hi Dev
    Once again a brilliant article on the leaders, but a message for mentors too. I have been an enthusiastic reader for leadership articles always. This article is just a fantabulous one indicating the leaders to grow along with the disciples to avoid the fear of insecurity. The current conglomerate world is so full of Kahodas that talents like Astavakras are not being nurtured and becoming scapegoats.

    Hats off!!! Please do spread knowledge and make us knowledgeable too…

    Subhasis Pujapanda

  • jasmine suri

    This is a reality in todays corporate world. I see a lot of Kahodas ruling and terribly insercure of their position. I’m still wondernig who will be the winner Kahoda or Astavarka..