Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 6, 2008

First published November 5, 2008

 in Economic Times

Uneasy lies the Head

Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times on Oct 10, 2008.

A few weeks ago Jacob was asked by his boss to fire an incompetent employee who had been with the firm for two years. Jacob knew the decision was justified: despite repeat warnings the gentleman had refused to improve, he kept coming late to office, making excuses, leaving his work half done, refusing to admit there was a problem that needed addressing. But firing him? Was there no other option? The boss said, The decision is taken after due consideration. There is no going back. All I want you to do is communicate the news to him. Why me, asked Jacob. No answer was given. Jacob just had to do it.

That was the worst task Jacob had ever done. When he was made department head, he was never told that firing people would be part of the job. Suddenly the job did not seem as glamorous and exciting as he had hoped it would be. He now realized the meaning of the phrase, `Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ For nights he was haunted by images of the man breaking down when he was told he had to pack up and leave in seven days and that he would be paid two months salary to help him while he looked for another job. Jacob had to listen to all those piteous pleas, all those requests for one last chance, with a stony face. It was simply horrible. He hated his boss for making him go through this.

Now Jacob is being asked to do something else. He has been given a junior staff member, who joined the organization roughly eight months ago, and was declared by another manager to be totally incompetent. The boss said, I give you two months to turn this boy around. Why can’t we just fire him? Jacob had asked. No answer was given. He just had to do it.

Jacob is not sure he is capable of this. But then, he did not think he was capable of terminating another man’s employment. He had somehow found the strength to do so.Now, he was being asked to do the very opposite. He was being asked to sustain another man’s employment, develop his competencies. Could he do that? A little voice in Jacob’s heart told him he could.

Jacob’s boss is doing what Rishi Vishwamitra did to Ram in the Ramayana. In the Ramayana, after Ram completes his education under Rishi Vasishtha, Vishwamitra storms into Dashrath’s court and demands that Ram accompany him to the forest and protect his hermitage from Rakshasas. Dashrath offers his army instead because Ram is just a boy. No, I want Ram, snarls Vishwamitra. With great reluctance, Dashrath lets Ram go.

In the forest, Vishwamitra first directs Ram to shoot and kill the Rakshasa woman, Tadaka. But she is a woman, says Ram, remembering his lessons that informed him that women should never be harmed. Vishwamitra does not heed this argument. It does not matter that Tadaka is a woman; she threatens the well being of the hermitage and does not heed warnings, hence must be killed. Ram thus learns how all rules have to be contextualized. He therefore raises his bow and shoots Tadaka dead.

Later, Vishwamitra takes Ram to the hermitage of Rishi Gautama. There Ram is shown a rock which was once Gautama’s wife, Ahalya. Her husband found her in the arms of another man, Indra, king of the gods, and so he cursed her to turn into a rock, explains Vishwamitra. Ram is then asked by the Rishi to place his foot on the rock. That touch turns the rock back into Ahalya and she rises to the heavens, purified as she was of all her sins. Ram realises how there are times when one has to strike and times when one has to forgive.

The killing of Tadaka and the rescue of Ahalya are two extreme events. One reeks of ruthlessness and the other brims with compassion.In the one, there is death, in the other there is life. With these two events, Ram’s practical education which began with theoretical education under Vasishtha is complete. By experiencing two extreme roles of a leader, Vishwamitra transforms the boy that is Ram into a man, one who is ready to take on the responsibility of leadership, one who is ready for marriage and kingship.

The education of Ram is the story of how leaders can be made. It draws attention to the power of a leader and explains in what situation this power can be used to take life and in what situation the same power can be used to give life. It demonstrates how there are situations when a king is called upon to take a tough call and situations where the king is expected to be compassionate. This cannot be taught in a classroom; one has to live it. That is why Vishwamitra stormed into Dashrath’s court and took Ram into the forest by force.

Vishwamitra, one must remember, is not an ordinary sage. Unlike Vasishtha who is born a Rishi, Vishwamitra was once a king who through spiritual austerities became a Rishi. Thus he knows what a king is expected to do and what a king has to go through as he lives his role. That is why he insists on completing Ram’s education and that is why Vasishtha does not stop him.

Jacob’s boss is helping Jacob learn leadership. He could have fired the employee himself since the decision had already been taken. By making Jacob do what is considered to be one of the worst tasks in corporate life, he was making Jacob sensitive to the demands of a higher office. It is not just about power and perks; it is also about taking calls and accepting responsibility. But being boss is not just about having the power to fire people; it is also about developing the skill to develop and retain people. This is what the boss is trying to do when he asks Jacob to mentor a junior staff who has been written off by other managers.

Here is an opportunity for Jacob to save a life. Will Jacob do it? If he does, then Jacob’s boss will know that Jacob is a talent, one who has to be retained in the organization and groomed for leadership roles. If he does not, then Jacob’s boss will know that Jacob still has miles to go before he can even aspire to be king.

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