Mentoring in Crisis

Business, Mahabharata 11 Comments

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.

  • Rashmi Nair

    Its a well written article. But such situations are possible only if the person is able to bring his / her ego down. Ego issues hamper many a growth.

  • Having tons of experience does not matter in todays situation…one has to be knowledgeable and continuously gain them to be a level above than peers of current.
    Undoubtedly, the education levels, quality study and technology have improved drastically over a period of time, the new gen would palpably would have a better dynamism and panoramic view than the old timers. Its time for the experienced lot to bridge the gap and to be in race amongst the “Survival of the fittest”.

  • Mahesh

    how true and relevant this article is. in the current organization that i work for , there are 2 Pradip’s. am going to share this article with them.

  • Sheelum

    Thanks Devduttji for confirming the belief I always had but never could share with anyone. The change in our attitude with the times is very important. I lost my Grandmother recently. While telling my Mother-in-law about my Granny I realised the reason she was respected and looked upon even at the ripe age of eighty was that ‘She had managed to change herself according to the times’. Hat’s Off to her!!!! I am proud to own her. My sincerest gratitude once again for this article.

  • Dear Devduttji,
    It was privilage and pleasure to meet you in Thimphu, Bhutan. The article is really enlightening. I would be grateful, if I can be put on your e-mailing list for all future updates. I will of course keep visiting your website for updating myself.

    Padam Talwar

  • Very nice article…But if you dont find such a Mentor in a Crisis situation…then what do you do???

    • Devdutt

      Take responsibility for your own life and figure out a way, I guess

      • Devdutt Ji,
        In absence of any external guide, mentor or “Sarthi”, indeed Man has to fall back upon himself in hours of crisis. The same has been brought out by Buddha, who said that ” Seek refuge in thyself”, that pretty much sums up your words :) !!

  • Pritesh Solanki

    Dear Devduttji,

    You always prove yourself in situation of crisis, though my journey in corporate started some months ago, but my mentoring did started when I stepped in collge with one being my friend who always mentors me whenever I might take a wrong step and other my Prof. who mentored me to show me my true potential and face the world. I am lucky to have them in my life. And this article reminds me of them.

    Thanks Devduttji.

  • CA Nitin Pahilwani

    hello sir,
    i want to know that “who decide”
    either Mentor decide his mentee or mentee decide his mentor…. and what are the qualities of Mentor??? and which is ideal mentor in indian mythology apart from Krishana..

    Thanks and regards
    Nitin Pahilwani

  • Vikram

    Hi Devdutt

    I’m a great fan of your videos in youtube. but in this case, i find the comparison of the uttar-arjun duo with the pradip-jairaj duo to be very unparallel.

    the traits of pradip which are established in the earlier paragraph are kind of nullified when you compare him with the rookie in Uttar… Uttar is like the son of a famous administrator who trembles when playing his first debut innings after his side has lost quick wickets… not like pradip who’s kind of ripe with experience.