Published on 7th November, 2014, in The Economic Times
The Mahabharata tells the story of Arjuna, third of the five Pandava brothers, who was a great archer. Once, during archery training, Arjuna’s teacher Drona pointed to bird on the branch of a tree and instructed him and his brothers to aim for its eye. ‘Describe what you see,’ asked the teacher. ‘A bird on the branch of the tree,’ said Yudhishtira, his eldest brother. ‘A bird on the branch of a mango tree,’ said Bhima, his elder brother. ‘A bird on the branch of a mango tree that stands in front of a banyan tree,’ said Duryodhana, his cousin, the eldest of the Kauravas. Arjuna only said, ‘I see only the eye of the bird, nothing else.’ Drona ordered his students to release their arrows. Only Arjuna’s struck the target! Arjuna’s focus is what makes him the greatest archer in the world.
But, later in life, when Arjuna enters the battlefield of Kuru-kshetra he loses this focus. For the first time in his life, he looks beyond the target. The sight that greets Arjuna filled him with despair, for he realizes he would be fighting his granduncle, Bhisma, his teacher, Drona, his cousins, the Kauravas, and other members of his extended family. He is overcome with conflicting emotions.
He had to fight to get back the land that belonged to him and his brothers, which the Kauravas refused to return the land. But he wanted to withdraw because he did not want to fight brothers, brothers-in-law, nephews, uncles, sons-in-law, cousins, and friends. He had to fight to avenge Draupadi, his wife who he shared with his brothers, who Dushasana dragged by the hair into the gambling hall and publicly disrobed on Duryodhana’s orders. But he wanted to withdraw because peace he was always told is a much better option than violence. He had to fight because as prince and member of the warrior community it was his duty to uphold justice. But he wanted to withdraw because the price of achieving his goals seemed too high. He had to fight to prove to everyone, Karna especially, that he was indeed the greatest archer in the world. But he wanted to withdraw because his reputation would be forever contaminated by the inevitable bloodshed.
Here we see a focussed man unable to handle perspective. Focus is about targets and ambition and achievement. Perspective is about cause and context and consequences. Focus is about attention. Perspective is about awareness. Focus is about action, about doing. Perspective is about knowledge, about thinking. A focused man does not let his mind waver with thought. A man of perspective is fully aware of the consequence of all his action. The former can make one a thoughtless actor. The latter can make one a paralyzed thinker. Each in extreme is detrimental.
In Patanjali’s yogasutra, after the practice of dharana (awareness) great value is placed on the practice of dhyana (attention). One is designed to expand the mind to see the big picture. The other is designed to focus the mind on the small things. One takes one towards infinity. The other towards zero. The one takes you towards mindfulness, the other towards mindlessness. In the state of tamas, neither is valued. In the state of rajas, either is valued. In the state of sattva, both are valued.
Often in organisations, leaders are trained to be so focussed that they often lose perspective. The sales guy spends all his life selling and so is unable to appreciate the value of marketing. He is so immersed in the nuances of distribution that he simply does not appreciate the complexities of demand generation.
Or the CEO is so obsessed with the balance sheet that he spends more time with the CFO and excel sheets and less time with the business development team trying to secure the long term goals. Often this obsession with focus is the result of design: contracts made only for 2-years. The leader then does not care for the long-term vision and is consumed by short-term results.
Or HR experts are so consumed by their functional roles that they fail to appreciate that they exist in a context of an industry and they have to adapt to the context of that industry. They remain such generalists unable to win the hearts of entrepreneurs who seek comrades for their battles.
Every function is part of a business. Every business is part of an industry. Every industry is part of an economy. Every economy is part of society. Everything is part of a whole. Focus is about focussing only on the part. Perspective is about focussing on the whole. For many professionals perspective follows focus: the job and role becomes more important than the business and the organisation. This is the cause of many problems in today’s workplace. To be truly successful, it is important that focus follows perspective: reality of business and organisation needs to locate our role and our jobs