The Palki

palkiPublished on 17th October, 2015, in the Economic Times

Imagine a palki, or palanquin, and those carrying it. It’s a good symbolic representation of a team or an organisation. The leader sits on it and wants his followers to take him where he wants to go. He gives the directions. He gives the motivation. He gives the reward. The followers carry him around. He is the head and they are the arms and legs. This is the classical model of leadership, popular among many.

The opposite is also true. Those who glamourise the ‘servant-leadership’ model often imagine the leader carrying the team on his shoulders or on his head, enabling them to reach their goals. This romantic model is essentially a reversal of the power structure assumed in a classical organisation but rarely presented so.

These models work on the assumption that workers don’t think — they just do. Even in a knowledge economy, what matters is the task and output of the worker, which are measureable. These models function very well on the physical plane, where behaviour can be measured.

But there is another plane in which people function: the psychological plane, where anything is possible. You can carry the palanquin and still disobey the boss. You can make the boss carry you and still feel he is in charge. And this is what happens in most organisations.

This is especially true in India, where since ancient times, great value has been placed on the psychological plane (manas in Sanskrit). Western management models, based on Abrahamic and Greek mythology, which are highly behavioural in nature, find this psychological approach highly disconcerting as it defies control and seems to be perennially disconcerting. In fact, all union problems and acts of subversion in organisations emerge only in the psychological plane. It is the invisible root cause.

Let’s take the case of Nahusha. He asked seven sages to carry him on a palanquin to the abode of his queen. They agreed reluctantly, out of respect for his kingship though they felt this was not the way to treat a sage. They were philosophers, not labourers.

On the way, Nahusha became impatient as the sages were moving very slowly. He noticed that the short sage Agastya was slowing the pace. So he kicked Agastya on his head and asked him to move faster. An angry Agastya cursed Nahusha: ‘May you turn into a snake and carry yourself on your own belly.’ Nahusha immediately turned into a snake, no longer carried by sages, but carrying himself on his own belly. The story shows the power of the palanquin-bearers and how they can subvert the process if they so wish.

Subverting bosses on a psychological plane is rather easy. Method 1 involves agreeing with them and doing your own thing; often the boss forgets to follow up and even forgets what he had asked. Method 2 is pretending not to understand. This forces the boss to continuously edit his comments and simplify them until what he says is what you understand, or rather, what you want to do. In the first method, there is defiance, hence the danger of retribution. In the second method, the boss feels good about himself, not realising that he has been duped.

Nahusha managed to get the sages to serve him as palanquin-bearers and he would have surely reached his destination had he not been impatient and tried to control them. Leaders must never forget that they are riding a palanquin borne by employees. The relationship is fragile and delicate. Too much of screaming and you may end up cursed. And if you try to be too nice, you may end up carrying them on your head and feeling good about yourself as the ‘servant leader.’