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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Managing Bosses Then and Now



The five Pandavas with king Yudhisthira in the...
Image via Wikipedia

After Yudhisthira lost his kingdom to his cousins the Kauravas in a game of dice, the Pandavas were required to spend twelve years in exile, followed by one year in hiding incognito. The stipulation was that in case their identities were revealed during this one year, they would have to go into exile all over again. The Pandavas decided to spend this year in the service of King Virata of Matasya, in different disguises. Yudhisthira would become a courtier giving sage advice to the king as a sanyasi; Bhim would indulge in his passion for food by taking the job of a cook; Arjun would live out a year as a eunuch serving the ladies of the court, thereby also simultaneously undergoing the curse of a year of lost manhood given to him by Urvasi when he rejected her amorous overtures; Nakul and Sahdev would work in the king’s stables, tending to his horses and cows. Draupadi, their wife, would become an attendant in the queen’s court.

When the Pandavas thus decided their vocations for the one year of ‘agyaatvas’, their family priest Dhaumya blessed them and gave them some very sound advice. The sheer wisdom and pragmatism of this advice is such that it doesn’t sound out of place if taken in the context of the modern avatar of the king – the boss. Here is the advice reproduced from C Raja Gopala Chari’s Mahabharat.

Those who are engaged in service under a king should always be vigilant. They must serve without talking too much. They may give their counsel only when asked, and never obtrude it. They should praise the king on befitting occasions. All things, no matter how small, may be done only after informing the king, who is a veritable fire in human form. Do not go too near him, nor yet appear to avoid him. Even though a person may be trusted by the king and have great authority, still he should always behave as if he would be dismissed immediately. It would be foolishness to place too much confidence in a king. One may not sit in the conveyance, seat or chariot of the king, presuming on his affection. A servant of the king should be ever active and self-restrained. He should not be excessively elated, nor unduly depressed, by being honoured or dishonoured by the king.

He may not reveal the secrets confided to him, nor may he receive anything in the form of gift from the citizens. He should not be jealous of other servants. The king may place fools in positions of authority, leaving aside the wise. Such waywardness should be ignored. One cannot be too careful with the ladies of the court. There should not be the faintest suggestion of indelicacy in one’s conduct towards them.”

How true each and every bit of this advice is even today. Being vigilant or alert, and going about one’s work without unnecessary chatter, however difficult to do, is definitely good policy to follow at the office. Like they say in the Navy, “loose lips sink ships”, and so it is in every sphere of work. Talking more than required, or aimless gossip, has been known to sink the ships of many a promising careers. And when it comes to rendering unsolicited advice, being at the receiving end of it is as abhorrent to the modern day monarch of the workplace as it was to any ancient ruler – so render it at your own peril. Of course, flattery will get you anywhere today too, but remember the operative part of this advice – “on befitting occasions”. Most contemporary power figures would be astute enough to discern deserved flattery from underserved. The latter can actually backfire, as it can be construed as insincerity and trying to take the boss for a ride.

We often talk about keeping the boss ‘in the loop’. This is what Dhaumya’s next piece of advice for the Pandavas implies. Again, in today’s environment of information overdose, it is for the discerning subordinate to avoid overloading the boss with the mundane, while ensuring that nothing vital remains unreported. Being aware of what lies within the ambit of decision making authority delegated by the boss to you is essential. Reference to the ‘veritable fire’ is to the king’s brightness in being able to quickly gauge things, or the ability to burn when annoyed – or more likely, both. Similar fires would rage within the modern day boss too. Therefore, either trying to be too close by ingratiating one’s self with the boss, or being completely distant and detached, both could lead to trouble. The trick lies in remaining in his or her good books while continuing to maintain a respectable distance. A little like enjoying the warmth of a bonfire from a safe distance.

Indiscretion or lack of complete probity in public dealing definitely continues to be a route to disaster – sometimes the shortest, sometimes a little long winded, but the destination is definitely disaster. And whether it was court politics in the ancient times or office politics in modern, it’s texture has not changed much over the years. Fools continue to do surprisingly well and find favour with those in authority – or maybe it is just that others in favour with those in authority continue to look like fools to us. Whatever be the case, the advice to ignore such waywardness must be paid heed to. As must the urging for delicacy in conduct towards ladies.

Many years have passed, systems have changed, as have organisations and forms of authority. Technology has completely transformed the world since these words of advice were rendered by the learned priest. But human nature has remained the same, and thus every line of these ring true in today’s context too.

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One Response “Managing Bosses Then and Now”

  1. Jai
    17 Sep 2010 at 9:11 am

    Having read your views I am remimded of a joke; “Once a dignitary was visiting the Russian president of the soviet era , early in the morning he saw a number of commuters on their bicycles going to their offices , on being asked as who they were the Russian premier replied that they were the Kings; after sometime the visitor saw a number of black limos going the same way, the Russian premier was again questioned about their identity, to which his reply was; these are the servants of the Kings…….”

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