Article: Leadership Insights from Literature

Sports, Books & Movies

Leadership Insights from Literature

History, mythology and classical literature take a peek into the human mind. They uncover the realms of the behaviour beyond the rational – courage, wisdom, fear, greed, doubt and judgment. Rajeshwar Upadhyaya, Director of Par Excellence, is a student of the human condition. In his captivating essays, he derives lessonsin management and leadership using Indian history, myt

Before the protagonist knows it, he is a victim of his own excesses


Hamlet had no insider friends who would bring in raw data for processing and action. There are no external sources of communications


History, mythology and classical literature take a peek into the human mind. They uncover the realms of the behaviour beyond the rational – courage, wisdom, fear, greed, doubt and judgment. Rajeshwar Upadhyaya, Director of Par Excellence, is a student of the human condition. In his captivating essays, he derives lessons in management and leadership using Indian history, myths and the literary works of Shakespeare. Here we bring two of his essays from among his regular contributions over the year

Hamlet: The Paralysis of Intellect

‘There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet...
Time for you and time for me
Time for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions… Which in a minute will reverse’
— TS Eliot

It is a curious fact that Hamlet is the most known character after Jesus Christ. There is something in the character of Hamlet and his actions that resonates with mankind. There is something in the dynamics of that play that resonates with the ebb and flow of life itself. Failure. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear itself. Fear of consequences and at the center of it all is a poetic apathy. Hamlet is too aware of the larger picture. And the larger picture paralyzes him. In corporate life too — all control and movement is artificially managed. Sure vision, mission, strategy are human efforts towards making meaning of the madness that the modern, unpredictable world is. Unpredictability in an environment of rapid and entropic change is the dynamics the tragic hero is hopelessly faced with. Could he have done things to escape his fate? A psychologist may quietly inform, perhaps not.
It is probably the right time to explore the unconscious compulsions of the tragic hero. At the onset, the play begins with the tragic hero as being a very capable character who is powerful, respected, strong, capable, statured and successful. Yet by the end of the play he is depleted, thrown down and often killed by those very people that admired him. This rather sinister destiny, at the end of the day, is brought upon by the hero himself. He is sometimes in the grips of mechanisms that he initiated in the first place. And now, by the law of karma, his actions catch up with him, nay, overrun him and he lies in the dust wasted! The consequences of CEO action may often time exceed him and overrun him if he were to not operate with awareness within the bounds of human dignity and meaningfulness. The tragic hero has psychological components that are a part of all human psyches and depending on a variety of external and internal conditions they may be triggered off. Before the protagonist knows it, he is a victim of his own excesses. The fault does not have to be against someone — the greatest evil is the evil against the self. As when, in the dying scene, Richard II laments — “I wasted time, and now Time doth waste me.”
Hamlet is his own problem. He gets in his own way. He is his own worst enemy. He is his own most alienated friend. Hamlet’s problem, then, is isolation and introversion accompanied by maniacal but poetically brilliant depression. This is both the boon and bane of the hero. The poetry sustains him. His suffering is beautiful and not for all the physicians in the world will he give up his self-indulgent pity for himself, and as a consequence, for all mankind. Take for example — “How dull, stale and unprofitable to seem the uses of this world…’ and elsewhere, “What a piece of work is man… and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”
At the psychological level, Hamlet enjoys his suffering and the depressive vortex that he creates around himself sucks everyone else in. His poetry, his vocabulary, his abstraction of thought, his clarity and power of expression and above all his ‘intuitive intellectuality’ render his saviors petty — incapable in their own eyes of helping him. Of all the characters in the play, Hamlet trusted only Horatio but Horatio was too much in awe of the prince to be able to help him. Also, in Hamlet’s own words, Horatio was too spiritually evolved and therefore detached to meaningfully intervene in Hamlet’s mind and bring about a change.
Ophelia could have helped him but he sabotaged that. He alienated her. Completely. In fact almost personally drove her to insanity and then to suicide. This then is an abiding trait of a tragic hero — he almost invariably drives the important woman in his life away. Or ridicules her. Neglects her. In so doing he is killing his anima, his yin, his feminine aspect. In short, he alienates himself from the feminine aspect in his life. The Hindus have a concept of the ‘ardhanarieshwara’ where one half of your psychological existence comes from the feminine presence in your life, just as Shiva himself is part Parvati. An examination of one’s personal life may indicate that one is erring too much on the side of the masculine and the rational — to exclusion of the emotional. The blindness so self-imposed does prove disastrous. In the play, all the main characters die, succumbing to deception, deceit, revenge, power-games, lust (bordering on incest), greed and unbridled anger. Since these attributes are biologically hard-wired into the human psyche, the appeal is universal as is the fatality.
An analysis of Hamlet will reveal an inner dynamic that is central to all of us in potential — the lesson therefore is to cognitively understand its compulsions and then recognize them in ourselves as possible operating principles. Hamlet’s ability is that he sees too much, understands too much, empathizes too much, analyzes too much and consequently is paralyzed by his own intelligence. This is the classic intelligence trap: where you are trapped in a point of view by your ability to defend it. He can think for and against an issue with equal élan. He trusts the ghost of his father that tells him of the crime his uncle has committed by murdering him and marrying his queen — this is double sin: murder of ‘God’s representative on earth’ and incest. When the time comes to revenge and deliver on the promise he made to his father’s ghost, he is plagued by doubt — by the ‘nature of evil’ as a possible trick of the mind induced by Satan himself! Thus no action flows, except internally as a monologue with the self.
The other possible consequence of delay in action (procrastination) is his pathological fear of failure. But every fear of failure shares an insidious border with the fear of success. Success, specially the one you are not psychologically prepared for, brings with itself a host of fears about your competence — the fear that others will now know what your true worth is — as if you were bluffing your way to the top all these years! The solution is what Hamlet himself provides before he dies — preparation is all along with a leaf out of the tome on the Level V leader who is equipped with the twin weapons of humility and ferocious resolve.
In an organizational context, Hamlet had no insider friends who would bring in raw data for processing and action. There are no external sources of communications. There is almost complete reliance on himself and the meanderings of his own thinking. He has no mentors in the organization or outside it. No coaches — just a naïve, sentimental mother and a foolish courtier in Polonius. His dislike for Claudius has an irrational (supernatural) basis and goes on to do the opposite of what his uncle could have liked. This is akin to a boss-subordinate relationship where the subordinate dislikes favoring the boss because, at some level, he fears becoming like him or being perceived as wanting to be like him. Hamlet felt a moral and ethical superiority to his uncle. While this has logic, it was, in the play self-defeating.
Doubt. Indecision. Procrastination. Lack of external sources of reliable information. Absence of a coach and mentor. These are central to Hamlet and bring about the fall of the hero. The lessons from Hamlet are, therefore, clearly in the plea for ‘task’ oriented, goal focused activity, avoiding emotional and intellectual excesses—in pursuit of the larger good—stake-holder value in this case.




The Self Destructive
Imperative of Nepotism
Dhritarashtra, the Mahabharata and Cultural Failures

In his usual thought-provoking style, Rajeshwar Upadhyaya, uses the exaggerated caricature of Dhritarashtra as a mirror to our society, which accepts nepotism as the norm

In the Mahabharata, there is one person who had the power to prevent the inevitable catastrophe of the final battle at Kurukshetra. He never exercises this power. Contrary to popular belief, this person was not Krishna. The only person with a realistic chance of preventing war, at least almost until the bitter end, was the Kaurava king Dhritarashtra. His physical blindness has always been recognized as a metaphor of his willful emotional blindness, his complete unwillingness to either face reality or accept responsibility for the tragic events that continually unfolded during his reign. It was leadership derailment at a spectacular level and his only feeble justification was his love for his sons, but especially for the eldest Duryodhana. Knowing full well his sons were greedy, unprincipled and out of control. He went along with their power grab, not because he was attached to his throne, but solely because they were his sons. He was fully cognizant that he was being unfair to his brother’s children, the Pandavas. He agonized at length about the wickedness he was collaborating in, but he never put a stop to it. Nepotism always won out, and in the end he had the humiliating experience of surviving on the charity of those he had wronged.
It is absurd to note how may times he accepts guilt in the pages of the epic. Knowing full well he is doing wrong, he nevertheless goes along. It is Duryodhana who articulates this remarkably self aware sentiment – “Knowing the good I ignore it; knowing the bad I still follow it. My svabhava, inherent nature, is thus.”- but the lesson had been learnt from his father. When his sons were dying like flies before the justifiable wrath of Bheema, his self-pitying soliloquies no longer evoked any sympathy from his listeners. His confidant and factotum, Sanjaya brutally speaks truth to power in one of Ancient India’s most extraordinary passages. “Why do you weep now? All your well wishers and advisors had asked you to reign in your headstrong and greedy son. You spoke harshly to them, ignoring Bheesma who is the wisest as well as your grandsire. You ignored Drona who is the greatest teacher in the land. You banished Vidura for a while, and he is both your brother as well as the greatest minister in all of the culture. Even I remonstrated with you and so did your wife Gandhari. To all of us you made it clear that the only thing that matters to you is your son and his ambition. This catastrophe is solely your fault and if you think anybody will mourn for your loss, you are deluding yourself.” What is astonishing is that the blind king meekly accepts this rebuke, acknowledges its truth and goes back to rooting for his sons’ improbable victory. He was incorrigible in his nepotism.
Here is a provocative thought. In India, we profess admiration for the Pandavas, but in practice we follow the Kauravas. This may not be universally true, but it is substantially so. Nepotism was and remains a core cultural imperative. It is a default psychological setting, and the need to cater for it may account for the incomplete social project of modernization. As the depressing example of the epic shows, it is an ancient and enduring imperative. What is important is that nepotism is not regarded as a problem normally – not until it bars something you wish to access. The acceptance of ‘dynastic politics’ as a normal social phenomenon instead of as a bizarre aberration in what is nominally a democratic polity is a tribute to the enduring power of the nepotism imperative. Justifications and rationalizations that are offered up in defence of nepotism, “the India way” excuse seem not to take into account the immense social losses that occur in having to negotiate such institutional barriers. To put it bluntly, this is a mindset that is medieval; utilizing it as a paradigm for living in the modern world is to risk living in permanent schizophrenia. It is not impossible; it is merely adding burdens to an already difficult existence.
The ‘unfairness’ aspect of nepotism does not seem to hold much water, for like Dhritarashtra, everybody is perfectly happy if it is fair to my family! What is unacknowledged is the pervasive bitterness and resentment that seeps into the social sphere when such a value system is privileged. The acknowledgement that life can be unfair seems to have been internalized into a conviction that life has to be unfair. In such a scenario, any personal advantage that can be extracted trumps any social responsibility that may be vaguely felt. It is fundamentally a pessimistic approach to life, a lack of trust in social systems to provide adequately for one’s aims in life. The subtext to nepotism is a sense of enmity between the self and society; it is a seeking of security, a mental regress into childish fears. Dhritarashtra knew full well that there was enough power and pelf for his children and their cousins but as Mohandas Gandhi correctly observed, “There is always enough for people’s need, but never enough for their greed.”
At yet another level, nepotism is the refusal to accept social responsibility until ones personal ambitions have been fulfilled. The blind king openly acknowledged that Yusdhishtara would have been a better ruler than his son, both for the people and the kingdom, but in the end, society got the dirty end of the deal so long as his son was gratified. When Duryodhana was born, he brayed like a donkey, an inauspicious omen and a disturbed Vidura articulates ancient India’s vision as to what should be done with a social menace. “For the sake of a family, an individual may be abandoned. For the sake of a village, a family may be given up. For the sake of the district, we can lose the village; for the country, the district and for the World, an entire country. But for the sake of Dharma, the moral and ethical norms that sustain society, the very Earth indeed may be given up.”
Vidura was praised hugely for his wisdom and quietly ignored. He could have been living in contemporary times.
This is therefore a more demanding challenge in our environment; the compulsions of a collective society where the family is the unit of trust and tolerance. Family owned organizations want to keep the actual reigns of control in the hands of family members. And it is not entirely rare that a 28 year old son of the promoter of a large Indian company immediately upon returning from an American university heads an organization and compels deference from the rest of the staff whose experience and professionalism exceed his own by far. His learning curve becomes the organization’s bottleneck and personal likes and dislikes drive the restructuring imperative. This furthers mealy-mouthed deference and an inability to differ from the ‘leadership’ or even offer an alternate perspective. Obedience and compliance kicks in irrational levels of fear and respect thus reinforcing the feudal ethos where loyalty is more important than performance.
Some organizations have struggled with the issue of professionalising themselves and have experienced varying levels of success. It is common argument that professionals do not truly have any real stake in the success of the business. They can be ‘head’ hunted and like salivating mercenaries they will join, lead and make successful the very organization he was competing with till yesterday. Whereas the truth in this can be debated, the sentiment is unwavering. This deepens the original need to ‘interfere’ and trust only kin. The promoters feel the need to ever so often step in and ‘make’ the right decisions on behalf of the professionals. Nepotism reinforced. Everyone knows the final controls lie elsewhere. And all future decisions must be made keeping that in mind. There is diminishing returns logic in the benefits of nepotism. Dhritarashtra is an exaggeration of that failure. The purpose of exaggeration is not falsification rather visibility.
To make visible what would otherwise escape notice, so that more optimal action may follow. And yet, the exceptions to the norm are numerous enough to render the norm redundant.



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