18 Jan, 2008, 0608 hrs IST

Two childhood friends, one the son of a warrior, the other the son of a priest, promised to share all they possessed even in adulthood. Fortune, however, favoured only the warrior’s son. In desperation , with hesitation, the priest’s son, reduced to abject poverty, decided to approach his rich friend. This story has two endings.

In the Mahabharata, the pauper Drona, is insulted by his friend, Drupada, king of Panchal, for assuming that promises of childhood matter in adulthood. He is asked to beg for charity rather than demand a share of the royal fortune in the name of friendship. A furious Drona leaves the palace determined to become Drupada’s equal – a decision that leads to a spiral of vendetta that culminates in the bloody carnage at Kurukshetra. In the Bhagavata, however, the pauper is Sudama and he is warmly welcomed and showered with lavish gifts by his friend, Krishna. So how must a leader behave – like Krishna or Drupada? The answer is not as simple as one assumes.

Drupada is doing what a king is supposed to: laying down the law, telling Drona not to curry personal favours, and advising him instead to behave in keeping with his role in society. As a priest, Drona can either ask for a fee (dakshina), if services are rendered, or for charity (daan), if no services were rendered. Drupada is doing the right thing. Unfortunately, he does so rather nastily, without empathy . His actions do not display the spirit of generosity and that is his undoing.

One often forgets why laws and rules and codes of conduct exist. They exist to ensure fairness. If there were no laws, anarchy would reign, might would be right, the meek would be at the mercy of the strong, favouritism and nepotism would breed, and only the fit would survive. Through laws, a leader overpowers the law of the jungle and creates a space where even the weak can thrive and grow to their fullest potential. Laws ensure that the urge of the strong and the loud to dominate is restrained so that the weakest can breed and the meekest are heard. Thus the ‘spirit of generosity’ underlies every ‘rule of restraint’ . At least it is supposed to.

One manager in a public sector company believed in an open door policy. Anybody could walk into his cabin anytime with any issue. This made him highly popular. But over time, he realised that this prevented him from giving people who came to his room his full attention. There was always someone entering the room, ignoring the one already in the room, distracting him with some other agenda. So he put down a rule: meetings ‘by appointment only’. His popularity dipped, until everyone realised this policy ensured that all those who went to him got full attention in the time allotted to them.

The rule had ensured fairness — no single meeting dominated other meetings. Months passed. The appointment rule became rigid. No one could meet the manager without appointment, even if there was a crisis. The secretary started enjoying the power he got in defining who got to meet the boss, and when. He enjoyed reminding the boss that it was time for the next meeting.

Sometimes, the manager really wanted to extend the meeting, but rules, his rules, were rules and had to be respected. The manager started being perceived as a rigid man who lacked the personal touch, because somewhere along the line he forgot the purpose of his own rules. He had become Drupada. When rules do not generate fairness, then it is time to bend them, or break them, as Krishna does repeatedly in the Bhagavata and the Mahabharata.

The story of Karna in the Mahabharata draws attention to how we often overlook the very principle that underlies laws. Karna was a generous man; anyone who came to his door never left empty handed. And yet, he abandoned the spirit of generosity when it mattered most — when a helpless woman, being publically disrobed by her own kinsmen , begged for help. The woman, Draupadi, ironically the daughter of Drupada, questioned the men about the appropriateness of their actions.

Everyone felt sorry for her, but not one of them raised a finger to help because everyone agreed no rule was actually broken : her husbands had gambled her, she had been won fairly and her new masters had a right to treat their new property as they wished. Here was an opportunity to challenge the law, bend it, change it, appealing to humanity, so that the law served its primary purpose — to help the helpless , to reverse the law of the jungle.

Unfortunately, everyone , Karna included, hid behind the letter of the law and forgot the spirit of the law. For this oversight, the gods never forgave Karna; taking advantage of his charitable nature, they stripped him of his divine armour and left him vulnerable in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Understanding the purpose of a law helps the leader bend it or change it as and when the situation demands it. A young executive wanted permission to leave his office early, 4 pm instead of 5 pm, so that he could attend his MBA classes at 6 pm. In Drupada’s world, this would not be allowed, for fear that others would demand a similar flexibility. This would have only bred frustration and created an executive who would have spent all day looking at the clock and sprinting out whenever the clock struck 5, leaving his work half done.

In Krishna’s world, the executive would have perhaps been allowed to take leave at 4 pm without being asked to compensate for time. This would have created a very happy executive but also an organisation where rules would never be respected. Luckily for Krishna, beside him sit his many wives, each one a form of Lakshmi. When he kept offering Sudama gifts, they caught hold of his hand and said, “Leave some for us,” reminding him that, while generosity is fine, restraint is good too if one wants to run a household, and an organisation.

In a world where Krishna rules and Lakshmi matters, the young executive would have been told why the rules of time were in place. A compromise would have been reached and the student would have been asked to compensate for the time lost by perhaps coming earlier to work or by working through lunch hour. This would have generated an enthusiastic and indebted employee, and not threatened organisational order. This is what the scriptures call a ‘win-win ’ situation.