Published in Corporate Dossier ET, August 06, 2010.
For eighteen days, the Kauravas and the Pandavas fought on the plains of Kurukshetra. Hundreds of soldiers were killed on either side. In the midst, of the massacre one hears a heart-warming tale. Arjuna, the chief archer of the Pandava army, rode on a chariot pulled by four white horses. His charioteer was Krishna. At one point, in the middle of the war, Krishna said, “We have to stop Arjuna. The horses are tired. They need to rest and be refreshed. Shoot your arrow into the ground and bring out some water so that I can bathe and water the horses. Keep the enemy at bay with a volley of arrows while I do so.” Arjuna did as instructed. He shot an arrow into the ground, released water and created a small pond where Krishna was able to tend to the horses. Standing on the chariot, Arjuna shot arrows and kept the enemies at bay while the horses rested. Refreshed, they were able to pull the chariot once again with renewed vigour.
The horses pulling Arjuna’s chariot did not ask to be refreshed. Krishna sensed their exhaustion and made resources available so that they could be comforted. Often we forget the ‘horses’ who help us navigate through our daily lives. Horses are a crude metaphor for those who make our lives comfortable but who do not have much of a voice when it comes to their own comfort. In every office, especially in India, there are a whole host of people who keep the office running — the office boy, the canteen boy, the security guard, the drivers, the peons. This is the silent support staff. They take care of the ‘little things’ that enable us to achieve the ‘big things’. A simple study of how organizations treat this silent support staff is an indicator of leadership empathy.
Randhir drives his boss to work every day negotiating through heavy highway traffic for over two hours each way. His boss, Mr. Chaudhary, is partner of a large consulting firm, responsible for over nearly fifty high net worth clients. This means a lot of travel both in the city and outside. This means early morning airport drops and late night airport pickups. This also means travelling from meetings from one end of the city to another. This also means short trips to satellite cities.
Randhir is frustrated. His boss does not know that he lives in a shanty town an hour away from Mr. Chaudhary’s swanky apartment block. To travel to the place of work, he needs to take a bus or an auto. These are not easily available early morning and late night. His travel allowance is too less to take care of this. When he raised this issue with Mr. Chaudhary, he was told, “This is what the company policy says you should be paid.” Randhir does not understand policy. He serves Mr. Chaudhary not the company. But Mr. Chaudhary does not see it that way. And then there are Sundays when Mr. Chaudhary visits his farmhouse with Mrs. Chaudhary and the little ones. No holidays for Randhir. “His family is in the village so why does he need a holiday?”
Often there is no parking space at places where Mr. Chaudhary has meetings. Often there are parking spaces but no amenities for drivers — a place to rest or a decent loo. “You cannot eat in the car; I do not like the smell,” says Mr. Chaudhary, who also disables the music system when he leaves the car, “So that he does not waste the battery.” And when Mr. Chaudhary got a huge 40% bonus over and above his 2 crore CTC, he very generously gave Randhir a 500 rupee hike. “I am being fair. That’s more than what the drivers of others got. I don’t want to disrupt the driver market.”
Mr. Chaudhary’s empathy for Randhir is much less than Krishna’s empathy for his horses. And Randhir is no horse; he is a human being. He is one of the silent support staff without a voice. If he speaks, he will be silenced, or worse, replaced. If he shouts, the management will fear ‘rise of union thinking’ and shoot him down. He is but a line item in the balance sheet, often under “outsourced services”.
One wonders, does Randhir fall in the purview of management? He is neither part of the organization nor the market. Is he responsibility of the leader or the administration team? He is neither Arjuna nor Krishna. Yes, the Kauravas have to be defeated. Yes, the Pandavas have to win. Strategies have to be thought of. Tactics have to be implemented. But surely not at the cost of the silent support staff. They are as much a part of the war, as the warriors.