Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 4, 2008

First published October 3, 2008

 in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times

Eyes of a Leader

Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times on 20 Sept, 2008.

God may be an abstract concept but the common man needs a tangible form for this abstract concept. That is why, in ancient times, people represented their deities as rocks. That is why, when we travel across India, we find in shrines of local gods and goddesses, no elaborate imagery, just a rock smeared with turmeric or saffron or vermillion. But such imagery is too impersonal. To make it personal, in many shrines, one thing is done – the rock is given eyes, large petal shaped eyes, usually of metal. They stare at the devotees constantly from the moment the door of the shrine is opened to the time the shrine is shut. In temples, the ritual that transforms an ordinary statue into a deity is called the `eye-bestowing ceremony’. Once the eye is given, or opened, the deity is established and alive. The murti becomes swarup, the living image of the divine. What is so special about the eye? What does the eye do? And why is the eye equated with life?

With the appearance of the eye, the stone becomes sentient – it can sense, it can see, it can respond to the world in front of it. The eye-bestowing ritual tells us something very powerful about humans, about the devotees who establish the deity. We want to be seen. We want our gods to observe us, know us, and understand us. Without eyes, how can they know our pain, our aspirations and our issues? We constantly ask God to open his eyes, see our suffering and even shed tears for us, empathizing with our situation. A leader is supposed to be like that village god or goddess: he or she must have eyes that observes the team and understands them for who they really are.

The Mahabharata tells the story of a kingdom where the royal couple has no eyes. The king, Dhritarashtra, is blind and his queen, Gandhari, is blindfolded. The result: children who feel unobserved. The father cannot see; the mother chooses not to see. The children grow up with a warped value system. Since no one is seeing them, they feel they can get away with anything. As a result the law of the jungle reigns supreme in the kingdom of Dhritarashtra. A woman is publicly disrobed and lands are grabbed by force.

A leader must see his people. He must recognize them for who they are, rather than what he wants them to be. More often than not, leaders don’t have eyes – or rather they see only themselves. Their eyes are only for their vision of the world. They do not realize there are others around them with other visions of life. This lack of eyes strips them of all empathy. Everything is measured and valued against their own vision. Those who align with their vision are good; those fail to do so are bad. Intellectual leaders with an intellectual outlook of things therefore look down upon people who are not intellectual. Emotional leaders keep advising non-emotional team members to transform for their betterment. Task oriented leaders do not value people oriented team members and vice versa. In other words, they see nothing but themselves and constantly seek themselves in others. They notice no one else.

Aziz knows what it feels to have a blind boss. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Aziz could not study beyond the 12th standard. A contact brought him to a garment manufacturing unit where the proprietor, Jaichand-saab, decided to make him the telephone operator because he spoke English. Aziz had no choice but to accept the position. But in a matter of few weeks, he knew everything about the garment business simply by merely answering the queries on the telephone: he knew where sourcing was done, where the finances came from, what the customers were looking for, what were the issues in the garment manufacturing business, who were the competitors. Every time he tried to talk to Jaichand-saab of a way to improve the business, Jaichand-saab dismissed him because for Jaichand-saab, Aziz remained a `12th standard pass, English speaking, telephone operator’. Blinded by Aziz’s resume, he refused to see Aziz – the living, breathing, thinking, feeling Aziz. He did not see, or even try to see, the person before him.

One day, Jaichand-saab’s son, Krishnachand, came to the office to help his father. Krishnachand noticed that Aziz was different from the other employees. He could answer all queries. So he knew everything, but could he imagine? The owner’s son took Aziz out for lunch. It was an unforgettable lunch: he discovered how brilliant Aziz was – he had imagination and creativity, an ability to diagnose problems and find innovative solutions. He was all excited to tell his father about the discovery. But when he returned to the office, he had to face an angry father.  Jaichand-saab shouted at his son, `Don’t get too familiar with the workers!’ Out of respect, knowing his father, Krishnachand kept quiet. It struck him how blind his father was. He did not blame his father: after all  when was the last time his father actually saw him? One day, thought Krishnachand, he would take over the business. That day, he would make Aziz his right hand man, whatever his qualifications.

The ability to recognize and nurture talent is often missing in people who are assumed to be leaders by their respective organizations. Some leaders, recognize talent but do not know what to do with it. Others, envious of talent, reject or ignore them deliberately.  The character Karna in the Mahabharata is a case in point. Like Aziz who is dismissed as `12th standard pass, English speaking, telephone operator’, Karna was always seen as a charioteer’s son and never as a great archer by the Pandavas. Only Duryodhana saw Karna’s talent but used him unfortunately for his villainous goals. This is what happens to talented people who are rejected by the mainstream – they end up in the wrong hands. And in rage and frustration, they end up doing the undesirable.

In the Upanishads, it is said that it is an observer who creates an observation. It is our attention that creates the world around us. Thus it is the eyes of the village deity that creates the village around him. Likewise, it is the eyes of the leader that creates an organization around him. Dhritarashtra’s lack of sight and his wife’s refusal to see created the Kauravas. It is not so much about sight as it is about attention – how much attention do we put in people around us. We want the gods to see us and pay attention to us. Do we see people around us and pay attention to them? Do we see what they see? Do we try and align our vision to theirs or do we simply impose our vision onto them? It is time for leaders to open their eyes to these questions.

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