Published on 28th February, 2014, in The Times of India.
The Bhagavata Purana tells the story of raas-leela, the circle of milkmaids who dance around Krishna. Krishna makes everyone feel loved and nourished, even though he is not obliged to by law or custom. The Mahabharata tells the story of Draupadi and her five husbands. As wife, she is expected to make everyone feel loved and nourished, but in her heart she prefers Arjuna; no one notices it except Yama, the god of death. In the Shiva Purana is the story of Chandra, the moon-god, who has twenty-seven wives. He is also expected to love all of them equally but the closer he gets to his favourite, Rohini, he waxes and becomes more lovable. The farther away he gets from her he wanes and becomes less lovable.
In business, we constantly demand alignment to a common mission through contracts and bonuses, and show Krishna as an illustration, but not everyone can be Krishna. Alignment is more about heart than head. Logic does not govern emotions. The heart cannot be controlled through rules and processes, much as we want it to. Like Draupadi, we will have our favourites though we strive hard to please everyone equally but that does not convince all. More often than not we are like Chandra, preferring our favourites even when threatened by Daksha curse. Everyone knows this intuitively, yet somehow we have all bought into the modern management mythology of a common mission statement.
Every corporation is encouraged to have a mission statement. It is the common goal we are told that everyone has to align to. The vision is normally determined through a democratic process under the watchful eye of a management consultant who is a visioning expert. The statement is usually grand, meant to impress whoever reads it. Usually the CEO is part of the team that determines the vision statement. Since he is part of the process, it is assumed he is aligned to it, especially since he signs it off. The problem starts after the CEO resigns or retires.
The new CEO inherits the old vision statement and is expected to be true to it for the sake of continuity. In fact, a professional CEO who moves from company to company is expected to abandon the vision of his old company and become the champion of the vision of his new company. So mission, like vision and values, becomes a hat we have to wear, a hat we have to sincerely believe in, but a hat we can easily replace when our contract changes. It is seen like a switch that a professional is supposed to have.
The origin of the mission statement comes from the biblical idea of the Promised Land. The prophet showed the slaves in Egypt the vision of the land of milk and honey where they would be free. This motivated them to give up familiar comfort and travel across the sea and the wilderness in search of the unknown. But the slaves were united in their enslavement. Each one wanted to be free. Each one wanted the Promised Land. So they got united in the mission. Why do we assume that every CEO is a slave seeking the Promised Land defined by someone else? Why do we assume that every member of the organization wants the same Promised Land? Are we imposing the mission of shareholders on employees? Are employees submitting (or pretending to submit) because they are contractually obliged?
In the Bible, while faith in Promised Land leads the slaves of Egypt to Israel, disagreement on what that Promised Land should be, or who should be determining it, leads to the collapse of the new kingdom. The royal house of David replaces the royal house of Saul; rival factions subvert the mission and divide the kingdom; eventually enemies overrun the land and once again the children of slaves find themselves in captivity and exile.
The (forgotten) Indian approach to businesses focuses not on the common goal. In fact, it does not focus on goals at all. For the sages of India, goals are merely milestones that give the delusion of direction and purpose. The unchanging purpose of business, like any human activity, is not to go somewhere but to discover who we are and what we can become. And we all can become Vishnu, the god who creates ecosystems of happiness where everyone can thrive, the god who attracts fortune. This is the common goal that unites all humanity. Depending on capability, capacity and challenges every Vishnu performs, like cells in the body, respecting cells in the neighbourhood, knowing well that individual cell growth without coordination with those in the neighbourhood leads to cancer.
Becoming Vishnu is not easy as we are gnawed by insecurity and seek to control the world around us, make it predictable hence manageable. This prevents us from delegating. This prevents us from trusting. This prevents us from allowing. We would rather direct, instruct, and order.
But whether we like it or not, nature takes its toll, age catches up, the world changes and control is wrested away from us. We feel like victims while those around us see as villains. All because we did not discover and amplify Vishnu early enough. And so what could have been a ranga-bhoomi, an empowering joyful playground, ends up become a rana-bhoomi, a ruthless political battleground.