Published on 14th November, 2014, in The Economic Times.
When we read the Puranas, one little detail catches your attention. There are sages in the forest known as rishis who continuously visit kings or rajas, or there are rajas continuously visiting the hermitages of rishis. One can see the relationship between the rishi and the rajas as one between a consultant and a CEO of an organisation. The stories reveal how the relationship can benefit both rishi and raja.
The rishi and the raja belong to two different worlds. The rishi lives in the forest and travels from kingdom to kingdom, never staying in a human settlement for more than a day, except during the four months of the rainy season. His travel across kingdoms exposes him to different ways of governance. His stay in the forest forces him to realize the gap between nature and culture, the ways of the jungle and the rules of the kings. Kings stay trapped in their kingdom, with little or no exposure to the modes of governance other than their own. They can stay complacent with their own knowledge or learn better skills and take advise from the rishis.
In modern society, consultants play a key role in corporations. Reasons vary. One CEO of a pharmaceutical company revealed that he saw consultants as wild wolves of the forest, while employees as domesticated dogs of the village. When the latter gets too complacent, he gets the wolves in to shake up the system. It kept the dogs on alert. Another CEO of an FMCG company saw consultants as auditors: external eyes that told him what his own people would not tell. They provided him with a fresh perspective of his own organisation, his market and his own strategy. In a software company, consultants were used for projects for which the organisation did not want to hire employees; they provided skilled labour, nothing else. Of course, most CEOs agree that consultants are a powerful fig leaf to take tough decisions; they fire guns using the capable branded shoulders of esteemed consultants and get away with ruthless decisions that would otherwise not meet approval of the board and make them infamous in the company.
There is a famous joke that a consultant tells you what you already know and charges you for it. It is a joke cracked by people who do not know how to use a consultant. People often see the consultant for a doctor who solves problems. He is expected to deliver a cure for a sickness: give the magic potion that will give children to the childless king. In the Mahabharata, when Drupada seeks a solution for his problem from the rishi called Upayaja, the rishi tells the king to go his brother Yaja who will do the needful for ‘he seeks earthly pleasures and so will give you what you seek’. Thus the problem-solving rishi is seen as a separate, even inferior quality, of rishi. A more genuine rishi only offers the kings clarity, better frameworks for decision-making, possibilities, points of views, and draws attention to consequences of various approaches. He leaves the decision to the king. When a CEO seeks solutions, he is essentially giving up his responsibility as the decision-maker. He ends up outsourcing decision-making and de-risking himself from failure by creating a fall guy or scapegoat in the consultant. The rishi, source of knowledge, but not of solutions, does not care either way for he is steadfast in mind and body, indifferent to success and failure. In indulging this fear of failure, a king stops beings a king and the sage stops being a sage.
The idea of consultants being equated with rishis may be to the liking of many people. For the rishis are visualised as being other worldly and non-materialistic while consultants are very much part of profit-making consulting firms: one is always wondering whose organisation does a consultant’s advise benefit, the client’s or the consulting firm’s. In stories, rishis are not as non-materialistic as we are given to believe. The rishis are practical. They need material support from kings in order to survive in the jungle: cows, wives, maybe soldiers to protect them from hostile demons of the forest. But it is not quite a consultant fees which is payment for services rendered.
In a rishi-raja relationship the gift to the rishi is not dependent on the quality or quantity of advise given as in the consultant-corporation relationship: a raja is obliged and duty-bound by tradition to take care of the rishis and the rishi is obliged and duty-bound not to ask for anything beyond basic survival needs. In the modern world of consultancy, unfortunately, the advisor has a meter ticking. Every minute is charged. He wants to increase billing hours while the CEO wants to keep costs low. The result is that somewhere in the relationship the conversation becomes fake as money takes its toll.