Published on 16th January, 2015, in The Economic Times.
There was a great sage called Agastya, so great that his knowledge was equal to the knowledge of all other sages put together. When Shiva gave a discourse on the Vedas and Tantras on Mount Kailasa which is located in the North, all the sages came to hear him. Under the weight of so much knowledge, the earth titled. To balance the earth, Shiva told Agastya to go South and restore the earth’s balance. Agastya is renowned as the primary sage of the South, the fountainhead of Tamil language and the occult wisdom called Siddha.
One day, when Agastya was busy meditating, he had a vision. He saw some people hanging upside down over a dark pit. Their feet were tied to a log of food by a rope that was being gnawed by rats. ‘Save us. Save us!’ they cried. When Agastya asked them who they were, they said, “We are your ancestors: the Pitru. We will fall into the pit and suffer for all eternity in the hell called Put unless you father a Putra (son) or Putri (daughter). You are mortal, , not immortal. You owe your life to us, your ancestors. We gave birth to you. You must repay this debt of the ancestors (Pitru-rina) by giving birth to new life. Thus will we be reborn. Thus will we escape the oblivion of Put.”
Agastya, the great sage, appreciated the wisdom of their words. He was knowledgeable and great, but he was also mortal. It was important for him to father a child. And so he went out to look for a wife. He found a princess called Lopamudra. Her songs are found in the Rig Veda. She helped him father many children and thus repay his debt to his ancestors.
We can take this story literally as religious folk tend to do, or symbolically as a concept an idea about the importance of talent management to ensure the survival of an organisation. Leaders and organisations are not created in a vacuum. Great leaders create great organisations, and great organisations create great ecosystems that create a great leader. But neither a leader nor an organisation, however great, is immortal. People die, processes get out-dated, and systems collapse eventually. It is the law of entropy. The only way for an organisation to survive is to admit to the mortality of the leader and work towards making him immortal. But no human is immortal – he needs to therefore ‘father children’, replace himself, with successors who are as competent as they are.
A leader can be seen as possessing information (measureable) and skills (measurable) and knowledge (non-measurable) and competencies (non-measurable). The measurable part can be made part of training programs, which is top-down, which means training has a definitive outcome based on quality of training and content and design. The non-measurable part can be made part of learning and development programs, which is bottom-up, meaning the participants need to be seekers and have curiosity, but despite the best training and content and design, no one on earth can guarantee outcome, no matter what consultants may claim. We can enhance the transmission of knowledge and competencies through coaching, mentoring and apprenticeship. But again there is no fool-proof mechanism.
It’s a bit like producing a child. Conception is tough. Pregnancy is tough. Childbirth is tough. For those who cannot bear children, adoption is also tough. But toughest is to ensure the child has all the attributes and values of the parents. We can compel a child to follow the rules of the house, the demands of the school, but there is no guarantee that knowledge and competency transmission takes place. But still we try to keep the family tree, the family values and the family business alive. We may die but a part of us can, if we try hard enough, outlive us through our children.
Like parents who feel their children are not as good as them, most leaders feel their successors are not as good as them. At an extreme, some leaders feel no talent is as good as them, or can be as good as them. So they refuse to invest in talent management programs. They yearn for clones – someone exactly like them. They love complements – who obey them. And supplements – who enhance them. But they fear competition – who can substitute them. So they reject them. These leaders are consumed by their own brilliance, they forget their mortality. They do not care for the Pitrus. They do not care for the death of the organisation. They believe they can work out of their graves. Such fantasy is dangerous. The great sage Agastya did not delude himself so. He listened to the ancestors. He produced the next generation. He ensured his greatness was – to the best of his ability – future proof.