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The Round Table of Andher Nagari

First Published in Corporate Dossier, December 2008

Jacob was very upset. Two months after the appraisal bonus was announced, his best draftsmen, Kevin, put in his papers and moved on. He was furious with Kevin. He tried to reason with Kevin but Kevin had made up his mind. Enough was enough! Kevin wanted a higher raise – it had not been given to him. He had got what everyone else had received. Earlier in the year, he had requested for a particular corner in the workshop which had better lighting. It was refused. Jacob’s reason was, “We are a team. You must sit with the other draftsmen.”

The reason for not giving more to him in the bonus was, “I don’t want others to feel that I am favoring you.” “But I am your best draftsmen,” argued Kevin. “You are good,” said Jacob, “But don’t let it get to your head. The others work so hard. They spend hours and hours….” “Doing mediocre stuff,” snapped Kevin, “Just because they work long hours you cannot equate them with me.” Kevin had no doubts about his caliber and he refused to be humble about it.  “I want you to be matured about this,” reasoned Jacob, “I have to run a team. I cannot play favorites. Besides, your benchmark is different from theirs. They are meeting their benchmark – you can be so much better. I want you to be a team player but you refuse to rise up to that challenge.”

Kevin was furious. Everyone acknowledged that he was a better draftsman than the rest. He also knew that he was rude and obnoxious. “Why should my personality matter to Jacob?” Kevin wondered, “My work is great. It gets the business. Is that not what he wants? Jacob cannot link my personality development to my bonus.” The problem here lies in the different worldviews inhabited by Jacob and Kevin.

Jacob is trying to be king Arthur of Camelot. He wants to create a round table of knights where everyone is equal and he is the first amongst equals. Some are appreciated for their personality, some for their skill, some for their knowledge, some for their hard work. In sum total, each one is equally good. No one is better than the other. And so, Kevin, one of the knights, the best draftsmen in the team, gets the same bonus as the rest. Jacob is trying to be the fair king. And he expects his team to understand. Isn’t this the noble thing to do?

Unfortunately Jacob’s concept of nobility is exactly that – Jacob’s concept. It has no takers in the rest of the team. The rest of the team want differential treatment. Some want more bonus, some want more attention, some want the best corner in the office space. Jacob argues, “If I create differentiation, then someone will be at the bottom of the pile. In a pyramid, there are always few who benefit and many who don’t. That’s not fair.” No pyramid for Jacob, a round table it must be. The result, Kevin leaves. Jacob’s beliefs do not give him the desired outcome. His idea of perfection remains on the design board – in reality it leads to the collapse of Camelot. And he blames Kevin for it. For not aligning for what he believes is a nobler (and right) worldview.

Jacob’s friend then told him a folktale from India based on a famous verse: Andher Nagari Chaupat Raja, Takey ser Bhaji, Takey ser Khaja, which loosely translated means ‘In the dark kingdom of a flat king, you can get a measure of vegetables for a rupee and the same measure of sweets for a rupee.’ Is that good or bad?

One young man thought this was a very good thing. “Let us stay here,” he told his guru when they were passing through the dark kingdom of the flat king. “No matter what you buy here, it costs a rupee per measure. A measure of gold costs the same as a measure of rice as a measure of cloth as a measure of hay. It is wonderful! Paradise indeed!” As soon as he said this, the guru said, “Lets get out of here immediately. Run!” The student did not understand. He felt this was the best place on earth. Everyone, even the poorest man here, can live like a king. He fought with his guru. In the end, he refused to leave the dark kingdom of the flat king and the guru proceeded without him.

Life for the student was good. Despite earning a very low salary, he could afford all the luxuries of life. All for a rupee per measure. He could not understand his guru’s behavior. Months passed. Then one day a murder took place in the kingdom. After an intense search, the murderer was caught. The king ruled that the murderer must be hung by the neck from a tree till he was dead. The whole kingdom gathered to witness the punishment. Unfortunately, the rope for the noose turned out to be too short. “Get a longer rope,” said the king. The whole kingdom was searched. But a longer rope could not be found. Everyone turned to the king for a solution. The king said, “Simple, get a taller man.” Scouts were sent out and they brought the student before the king. “Sir,” said the soldiers, “He is tall enough.” “Hang him for the murder,” said the king. The student protested, “How can you do that? I did not commit the crime.” The king replied, “A crime has been committed. A punishment must be given. Since the murderer is too short, we must find a taller man.” “But he is the murderer, I am innocent,” shouted the student. “We know,” said the king sounding impatient, “But he is short and you are just the right hand. Can’t you understand?”

As the student was being led to the gallows, he saw his guru in the crowd and the guru said, “If the king finds no difference in value between a measure of vegetables and the same measure of sweets, then he finds no difference in value between a murderer and an innocent man. Everything has the same value in the dark land of the flat king. That is why I asked you to run.”

Jacob wants to create a world of equals. A noble thought. But do the knights want to be equaled? A Kevin does not. And there are many Kevin’s out there.