First Amongst Equals

Business, World Mythology 14 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier ET, September 24, 2010

British mythology is famous for one character: Arthur, the famous king who united a fragmented land, and got all warlords to sit as knights around his famous round table. The round table was chosen strategically. Everyone who sat around this table was regarded as an equal. And Arthur was the first amongst equals.

What made Arthur first amongst equals? It was not birth. He was a product of rape. His father had used magic to dupe and sleep with the wife of a rival. It was not talent. There were other knights, like Lancelot, who were better warriors. It was not virtue. There were other knights, like Perceval, who was more virtuous, worthy of holding the Holy Grail. What made Arthur special was that he was chosen by God himself.

Before Arthur, as the warlords fought amongst each other for overlordship of the isle, there appeared before them a sword stuck to a stone. On the stones were the words: “He who pulls out this sword is the true king.” Every year a fair was held where the warlords gathered and tried to pull the sword out. Everyone tried. Everyone failed. Until one year, many years later, a young boy accompanying his uncle pulled out the sword with ease. This was Arthur. And this one act, made him the true king. And all knights were bound to bow before him, for his authority came from God. And why did God choose him? No one knows for mysterious are the ways of God..

In modern management, the head of a business house, whether MD or CEO, is considered the first amongst equals. Or at least he is expected to be. He is supposed to consider members of his leadership team to be his equal, even though they report to him. He is not supposed to consider himself superior. That reeks of feudalism. The ‘team’ of the modern management is supposed to function like the knights around the round table.

But there is one big problem. There is no God in the corporate world. So where does the leader get his authority from? Modern management has found the answer. It is the Board! The principle is that the Board functions logically and impartially without bias and so its judgments are for the good of the organization as God’s judgments are good for the world.

But even Arthur’s knights had a problem with Arthur, divine blessings notwithstanding. They often disagreed and fought. In the modern corporation, this disagreement with the CEO often manifests in corporate warfare – manifesting in silos and a general reluctance to function as a team. One finds inter-departmental warfare manifesting as outright defiance or minimum cooperation after much coercion.

When Rajesh took over as the Head of Corporate Communications, and member of the leadership team, he was horrified to find that the CEO has no real powers. He had to use force to get anything done. His word was not law. Everything he said was argued vehemently making it very difficult for him for him to function smoothly. He later learnt that four members of the seven member leadership team were in contention for the post of CEO and when the Board selected Mr.Seth, the rest accepted the decision grudgingly. They were bound to the decision of the Board, but only in letter, not in spirit. And they made sure the CEO did not succeed so that they could tell the Board, “Look, we told you so!”

The modern corporation attemps to create a world order that is objective and transparent and free of bias. In the mythic realm, this manifests through the word of God. Modern management struggles to replicate this through rules and processes but fails miserably.. This is because every aspiring leader believes he has the divine right to be the leader, no matter what the Board says, and so he refuses to bow before another.


    Nice explanation of the modern management scenario. Well your comparision looks nothing less than the Parliament and the political system of India???

  • Mohit

    Sir,What is the solution to the above said problem??
    Do we have to be diplomatic to everyone,from the start??

  • CEO has to earn Godship, just like Arthur pulled out the sword, he has to pull the company out of a danger. Not that it is a common or standard way, but not infrequent as well.

    Whenever more than two people are involved, Polity plays an extremely important role.

    It would be great to read your take on Lessons from Kautilya.

  • Kishan Vasekar

    Very Good Analysis.One more thing , you add that Praja -employees and other stakeholders are at mercy of this Board. some organisations have Operating Board -only to confuse and compound the issues.Independent Directors are supposed to be Watch Dogs but Alas–I am yet to hear of a Company where they have played any role.The whole Corporate Governance is becoming farce like our parliament.There are few Guiding Lights -Pandvas in this War .However Krishna Avatar seems to be long way as yet.We can only PRAY and PRAY.Thanks Vasekar Kishan

  • who is Kautilya? Want to know about him Dev, please.

    • Devdutt

      Thats history not mythology

      • Mittal Homesh

        dear dev,
        Kautilya in my view is as mythological as he is a historical persona.

    • Maanav

      Chanakya is Kautilya!!!

      • Mittal Homesh

        Chanakya or Kutilya is the author of old indian text on political economy known as arthshastra. And also the hero of the play known as Mudrarakshas an great story needs to be retold.

  • How wonderfully do you connect mythology with the corporate world. Looking forward to more such connection(s).

  • Padmanabhan

    Dear Devdutt,

    I have been reading your articles for a couple of years now. There are times when I have been deeply impressed with the knowledge, diversity and story telling capacity which you possess.
    But, of late, there are certain articles, like this one, which is trying to connect the current corporate boardroom to history/mythology. People like me come to this site to escape the corporate boredom / culture which we are part of. When I see that here again, instead of escape I have to read corporate stories, I am somehow not able to enjoy them as I used to enjoy your previous stories.

  • Balaji

    Dear Devdutt,

    So, How should Mr. Seth have handled this situation? Should he have found out if he had the support of the leadership team before he even contested for the post?
    I work in the software industry where the leader is not always selected or approved by his/her team but thrust on the team. How should the leader handle a situation when he finds out that some senior members of the team do not support him?

    Thank you,

  • In my opinion, since your selection has been one of pick and choose, but not any divine appointment, and moreover you too are aware that you are in way superior to your other colleagues, Koran gives a reasonably good solution for situations like this. It is mentioned in the Koran that God rewards them with Paradise, those who take their decision, let them be household, or official, or family matters, through consensus. Even the process of consensus is also elucidated by Prophet Mohammad. The person holding the chair should call a meeting of all worth mentioning, lay down the problem, seek suggestion from one and all in the group, give a patient hearing to every body’s voice, and he shall retain the authority to take the final decision. But that decision should not involve ones ego, but the aim should be only the ultimate interest of the company or group. The person in chair should not decline some good suggestion because it has been given by the smallest person in the group, or junior most employee in the company. And the person in the chair should not feel that he is the boss of the group/company, but that he is the first servant of company. Since every body has contributed his bit to this decision, every body will contribute to the success of this decision also.I am sure this will ensure a smooth sail, success of the company, and the success of the CEO. Is this not Democracy!

    • Balaji

      Agree with you completely. Think thats the best that can be done.