A leader’s gaze

gandharigazePublished on 13th February, 2015, in The Economic Times

The Mahabharata tells us the story of a princess who lived in the country of Gandhara located in the region we now call Afghanistan. We don’t know her name. We only know her as Gandhari, princess of Gandhara. She is told that she would be marrying the powerful prince of the Kuru clan, but on the eve of her wedding she discovers he was blind. So she decides to tie a cloth around her eyes, blindfold herself. Why does she do that? The official reason: she wants to share her husband’s suffering. The unofficial reason: she wants to express her rage at being tricked so. She bears the king a hundred sons, the Kauravas. They grow up in the shadow of a blind father and a blindfolded mother, one parent who cannot see and the other parent who will not see. How does it feel to grow up unseen by one who can see you? Did it play a role in the insecurity of her sons, an insecurity that was amplified by the talent of their cousins, the five Pandavas?

The epic tells the tale of what happens when Gandhari finally removes the blindfold. She does this twice in her life, once just before the war at Kuru-kshetra, and once only after. Both these stories come from folk retellings of the Mahabharata.

The sages said that after years of covering her eyes, the first thing Gandhari would gaze upon would become invulnerable to all weapons. Determined to save the life of her firstborn son, Duryodhana, Gandhari told him to appear before her naked. Duryodhana obeyed but covered his hips with a banana leaf out of modesty. So when Gandhari saw him for the first time, she wept. She could save him, but not entirely. She realised he would die as was fated, with a blow to the hips.

After the war, according to the Odia Mahabharata written by Sarala Das, when the Pandavas came to visit the old parents of the Kauravas, Gandhari expressed her desire to see Yudhishtira. Krishna asked the only surviving Kaurava, Durdasa, who had sided with the Pandavas, to open the blindfold. So the first thing Gandhari saw was not Yudhishtira but Durdasa and he was instantly burnt alive and reduced to a pile of ashes. In other versions, she simply glanced upon Yudhishtira’s toe angrily and it turned blue. The story of Gandhari is all about the leader’s gaze. What happens when they see and what happens when they don’t see. What happens to that which they see. And what happens on how they see. Imagine working in an office where no one connects with you — to use the new management catchphrase — authentically. Where you hear people giving you jargon filled, pre-approved, management speeches and standard answers. Where every conversation is like you are talking to an interactive voice system deployed through real human beings. Where your problems are communicated only via forms and answered using software algorithms, where no human being cares about you, where you are just a number on a database, a row in an excel sheet.

This is the reality of many corporations. We are becoming Kauravas as our managements turn into Gandharis. They are not Dhritarashtras – they can see, but they don’t want to. The cost of seeing is too high. It will mean dealing with people’s emotions. Modern management is designed to wipe out all emotions by reducing everything to numbers: to tasks, targets and templates.
And yet culture in an organisation is determined by what a boss sees or does not see. If a boss likes cleanliness, then the office becomes clean. If the boss enjoys punctuality, the office becomes punctual. If the boss enjoys marketing, then marketing thrives in the organisation. If the boss enjoys sales, then sales gets the most importance in the company. The boss, like the blindfolded Gandhari, sees things very selectively. What she wants to save will be saved, provided we present ourselves truly (with no fig or banana leaf covering us). What she wants to destroy, will be destroyed.

In institutions, leaders are controlled by a whole set of systems and processes, so that individual agendas do not overshadow corporate ones, which is why institutions lack nimbleness and agility and personal touch. Entrepreneurs have no such burden and so see things in the office and respond rapidly, which is why entrepreneurs are good at evoking passion in their teams, something that paid CEOs struggle with.

But everything depends on what the entrepreneur pays attention too, what he can, or will, see. If an entrepreneur likes branding and enjoys branding, he looks at branding and marketing with a positive lens but if he does not, it shrivels despite outsourcing, for the energy of the leader is not there. This entrepreneurial gaze suffers once the business expands and gets institutionalised.

In the jungle, predators keep looking for the prey. And the prey keeps a lookout for the predator. Predator and prey, neither wants to be seen; but humans do. CEOs yearn for the gaze of the board of directors, just as entrepreneurs yearns for the gaze of the investment banker. In corporations, we are told to observe the customer keenly. But sometimes, it feels good when the leader genuinely looks at you, not your job, and appreciates you for what you are, not what the company wants you to achieve.