First Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 11 July 2008

With ten heads, twenty arms, a flying chariot and a city of gold, Ravan is one of the most flamboyant villains in Hindu mythology. He abducted Sita, the wife of Ram, and was struck down for that. Ravan is the demon-king of the Ramayan, the lord of the Rakshasas, whose effigy must be burnt each year in the autumn festival commemorating the victory of Ram.

Yet, there is much about him to be admired – he was a poet who composed the Rudra Stotra in praise of Shiva, the ascetic-god; he was a musician who used one of his heads and one of his arms to design a lute called  Rudra Vina, in honor of Shiva. When Hanuman entered Lanka, in search of Sita, he found the demon-lord lying in bed surrounded by a bevy of beauties, women who had willingly abandoned their husbands drawn by Ravan’s sexual prowess. Rishi Agastya informed Ram that Ravan was only half-demon: his father Vaishrava, was a Brahmin whose father was Pulatsya, one of the seven mind-born primal sons of Brahma himself. So after killing Ravan, before returning to Ayodhya, Ram went to the Himalayas to perform penance and purify himself of the sin of Brahma-hatya or killing of a Brahmin.

Ram, by comparison, seems boring – a rule-upholder who never does anything spontaneous or dramatic. He always does the right thing, whether he likes it or not, and does not seem like much fun. It is natural therefore to be a fan of Ravan, to be seduced by his power, to be enchanted by his glamour, and to find arguments that justify his actions.

In the corporate world, flamboyant CEOs do get a lot of attention, especially if they also happen to be successful CEOs, with their very own city of gold built on rising stock markets. One is dazzled by the cars they drive, the lives they lead, their swagger, their confidence, their individual aura that makes them giants amongst their peers, powerful men like Trilochan-ji who command authority and demand allegiance. Trilochan-ji’s team admires the way he can pick up the phone and get things done. He has the money to buy anybody who stands in his way. And the political clout to get all the clearances. He has, in a short while, managed to grow his business at a rate that his predecessors could only imagine. Trilochan-ji’s organization is in awe of him. And everyone fears him.

By contrast, Asutosh-ji, Trilochan-ji’s cousin, is a very mild man. His business has grown rapidly too, but no one knows about it, because he does not push his public relations department too much. Why? “Because press coverage has no impact on my business.” He meticulously gathers data, plans his strategies with his team, empowers his directors to implement them thoroughly, keeps a hawk’s eye on deviations, and ensures the numbers are met. Few would notice him in the office. He dresses like others do, uses the same toilet as his employees, loves spending his Sundays only with family, and is happiest when he can give his employees a good bonus and his shareholders a good dividend. Not the best results in the market, but much better than last year. The point, he says, is not show spikes of brilliance but a steady sustainable growth. His speeches are boring, too accurate and lacks the glamour of Trilochan-ji. And when in crisis, Asutosh-ji will not pick up the phone to call a politician nor will he look for people he can buy out; he will meticulously plan his action to solve the problem without looking for short cuts. “Because,” he says, “Short cuts always have long term repercussions and I will not risk it while I am the custodian of my company’s future.”

It is simplistic to call Trilochan-ji a Ravan and Asutosh-ji a Ram simply because the former is flamboyant and commanding while the later is boring and task-oriented. What makes Ravan villain of the Ramayan is not his heads, or arms, or flying chariot or city of gold. It is his strategic intent.

What does Ravan stand for? He never built the city of gold – he drove out his brother, Kuber, and took over the kingdom of Lanka. He went around the world killing sages and raping women. Why? To establish his dominion – to generate fear. Why did he abduct Sita? Avenging his sister’s mutilation was but an excuse; it was the desire to conquer the heart of a faithful wife. And during the war, he let his sons die and his brothers die before entering the battlefield himself. His desire for victory over Sita, and Ram, mattered more than the lives of his people.

Ravan lives only for himself. His pleasure matters the most. Ironically, he is the devotee of Shiva – the ascetic, the god who demonstrates his disdain for all things material and sensuous by smearing his body with ash and living in crematoriums and atop a desolate icy hill. Ravan may sing praises of Shiva and bow to him, but despite having ten heads is unable to internalize the wisdom of Shiva. Maybe he does understand Shiva’s ascetic philosophy intellectually, enabling him to compose potent hymns, but he is unable to follow Shiva’s way in spirit. For all his prayers and poems, he remains attached to power and pleasure and wealth – all things material, and all things transitory. He is no nihilist; he is simply a weak man, a talker, not a doer.

In Hindu mythology, a leader is not one who rules a city of gold or travels on a flying chariot. It is one who lives to make a positive impact on the lives of others. Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. It is about creating a society where people can live a full life. Ram is hero and god, not because he is a boring obedient son, but because by being an obedient son, he demonstrates his commitment to ‘others’. He lives not for his pleasure, as Ravan does, but for the pleasure of those around him. And the journey is not easy – for one can never please everybody. Trilochan-ji’s empire is a by-product of his desire to dominate and be feared while Asutosh-ji’s establishes businesses to satisfy his internal and external customers to the best of his ability. It is the difference in strategic intent that makes one Ravan and the other Ram.