Published in Corporate Dossier  ET, November 26, 2010

When Virata, king of Matsya, learnt that that his cows had been stolen by the king of Trigarta, he rode out of his city with his army in hot pursuit of the thieves. Taking advantage of his absence, the king of Hastinapur attacked his city. There was no one around, except women and children, to defend Matsya. Everyone was frightened. “Do not worry, I will protect you,” said the young prince, Uttar, confidently, “I only need a charioteer for my chariot.” A eunuch called Brihanalla, who served in the women’s quarters, offered to help since he had some experience. Though not happy to have a eunuch as his charioteer, the prince, armed with a bow, rode out to face the army of Hastinapur in battle.

But when Uttar entered the battlefield and saw the enemy before him, he trembled in fear. Before him were great warriors, archers and swordsmen, on horses and elephants and chariots. “There are so many of them,” he squeaked. The eunuch-charioteer nodded her head and whipped the horses to gallop faster. “No, no. Don’t go so fast. I did not realize that is how a hostile enemy looks like.” The horses kept moving faster and closer to the enemy. “Stop,” cried the prince, “Please stop.” But the eunuch-charioteer kept going. In panic, Uttar, jumped off the chariot and began running back  towards the city. On realizing this, the eunuch-charioteer turned the chariot around, caught up with the prince, picked him up and drove him out of the battlefield into the forest near the city, where she revealed that she was no eunuch but Arjuna, the great archer, in disguise. Arjuna/Brihanalla promised that he would defeat the enemy and protect the kingdom of Matsya but warned Uttar never to reveal this incident or his identity, not until the time was ripe.

And so, the enemy was pushed back, and Uttar returned to a hero’s welcome. But the prince was not carried away by the praise; he knew the truth about himself. He was grateful to Arjuna for revealing to him the truth about his martial abilities, without taking away his dignity or reputation.

This story from the Virata Parva of the Mahabharata provides an important lesson in mentoring. Arjuna is the mentor. Uttar is the mentee. Arjuna is mature enough not to humiliate the young, inexperienced prince, focusing instead on his growth. Uttar imagines his capability and is ignorant about the true identity of his eunuch-charioteer, until he is faced with a crisis.

Crisis is good. In the absence of crisis, most people assume, overestimate or underestimate their own capability and capacity and those of others. People move around either with an overinflated sense of themselves or a sense of inadequacy, looking up to colleagues or looking down upon them. In the absence of crisis, all that exists is speculation, assumption and imagination.

So everyone thought that Pradip was the smartest leader in the company. He always calmed people down with a sermon or a wisecrack. He listened to all problems and always offered pithy solutions that made others feel they were rather stupid. He always smiled and never broke into a sweat. He had been in the company for over 20 years starting as a management trainee and rising up to be Senior Manager. He had seen the company grow. He knew everyone and everything about the company.

Pradip’s car-pool friend and colleague, Jairaj, had joined the company five years earlier and Pradip always made it a point to remind Jairaj that he was a senior. Jairaj did not mind. He knew this was Pradip’s way of ensuring his status in the relationship. Jairaj was hired laterally to bring in new thoughts and ideas into a company that was finding it difficult to transition from the old to the new economy. Jairaj recognized that Pradip was a misfit in the new world order and unless he learnt new skills and changed his attitude, he would be left behind. Every time Jairaj broached the subject, Pradip would mock him. “What do you know?” he would tell Jairaj dismissively, “You just joined five years ago. I have been around for twenty years.”

And then one day, the newspapers announced, that the company had been bought over. It had been done quickly and secretly and no one really knew of it. The new owners were known to be ruthless, preferring performance over seniority. Suddenly Pradip panicked. He could no longer pretend all was well. His worst fears had risen to his conscious mind; he could not turn away. Luckily, Jairaj came to his rescue and reassured him. Crisis had provided Jairaj the window of opportunity to mentor Pradip into shape. Now Pradip was willing to listen to Jairaj. Like Uttar, he realized that the one he treated as an inferior servant was actually a great warrior. With Jairaj guiding him, he was able to look at himself honestly: identity his strengths and accept his weaknesses. Complacency had gone and wisdom had dawned, thanks to crisis. And somehow, Pradip knew, that with a little help from Jairaj, he would survive.