Published on 26th September, 2015, in the Economic Times.
Did Duryodhana’s friendship with Karna make his brother, Dusshasana, insecure? Did Ram’s love for Hanuman make his brother, Lakshmana, or Bharata, insecure? Did Karna and Hanuman go out of their way to ensure that the family of their patron did not feel threatened by the patronage showered upon them? The tension born of insecurities is intangible, beyond the scope of measurement and often ignored by leaders – ignored because the inability to measure makes them feel helpless. This problem is amplified in a family-owned business. In multinational companies, this is better camouflaged.
Traditional organisations are built on the talent of one owner. He then hires people who are loyal and obedient. All decisions are centralised. As the organisation grows, he needs to bring in talented professionals, who owe allegiance to no one and demand reward for work done. This pits the professionals in conflict with the loyalists. The professionals, by simply doing their job, draw attention to how loyalists are inefficient and ineffective. This makes the loyalists insecure. The loyalists then go out of their way to use their knowledge of the organisation to sabotage professionals. This war between loyalists and professionals needs to be handled by leaders. It cannot be wished away. It certainly cannot be instructed away.
The insiders are either family members or old-timers. The outsiders are the new professionals. Everything about the two is different. The former dress casually and speak an informal language, often filled with secret codes and metaphors known only to those who have been around long in the company. The outsiders dress formally, in suits and boots, and distance themselves, clarifying that they are here to do their jobs and get their money, valorising detachment calling it professionalism, almost mimicking mercenaries of yore.
In the Mahabharata, when Duryodhana wants Karna to fight the war as leader of the Kauravas, Bhisma opposes this. He sees Karna as the ‘bad influence’ and the cause of the rift between Kauravas and Pandavas. He refuses to fight by the side of a charioteer’s son, referring to Karna’s lowly birth. Duryodhana is caught in a bind: family (Bhisma) or outsiders (Karna)? He knows that if he sides with Karna, then the family will withdraw support. But if he sides with Bhisma, he will lose the talent of Karna. He does not know what to do. Karna comes to Duryodhana’s rescue. He declares that he will not enter the battleground till Bhisma is dead. He thus spares Duryodhana the burden of making a choice. The professional steps back and sacrifices himself so that the family can have its way. He does not leave the organisation but simply waits in the shadows till a crisis demands he is sent for without resentment or grudge.
The strategy adopted by Hanuman is very different. In all images, he is shown at the feet of Rama, while Rama’s brothers stand around him holding the parasol and the yak-tail fly whisks. Everyone is serving Ram — brothers and outsiders, but the outsider bends and bows to demonstrate he is no threat to Ram’s brothers. One can argue that Ram’s brothers were more mature, but that is rhetoric that does not help management.
Humans are not mature. We constantly feel threatened and seek validation from those around us. Very few are at peace with themselves and are able to locate themselves in a hierarchy without prejudice. The rest want to climb high and dominate those below. Family relationships enable one to climb the informal hierarchy of an organisation. Merit enables one to climb the formal hierarchy of an organisation. Friction between relationships and merit is unavoidable. A good leader uses both to his and an organisation’s benefit.