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When the warrior becomes the worrier

Debashis Chatterjee | Updated on August 02, 2021

ILLUSTRATION: PARTHA PRATIM SHARMA

The leader in the post-Covid-19 world faces the same dilemma Arjuna did — the knowledge-action gap

One of the primary challenges that leaders of all organisations face is this: How to bridge the knowledge action gap. In the post Covid-19 world, leaders have to navigate a world of increasing uncertainty and ambiguity. Which business model to choose? What technology to adopt? How to stay afloat in business amidst rapidly shifting consumer preferences?

Having to choose from a plethora of alternatives, the leader’s mind becomes a battleground of competing priorities. How can a mentor help a perplexed leader in re-prioritising his choices?

Suspended in the midst of the Kurukshetra battle, Arjuna, the leader warrior refuses to fight. In a dramatic turn of events, Arjuna lays down his bow and arrow, and is in despair.

If you say O Krishna that knowledge is superior to action,

Why then do you engage me in such terrible action? (Bhagavad Gita 3.1)

Arjuna’s dilemma comes from his divided mind. He wants to split his world into two halves: Thought and action. In many ways, Arjuna is like the leaders who are caught in an emotional bind. Many CEOs state this as one of their problems. They say, “I know that I have to urgently act on a few things that are important to me as well as for the organisation, but I never get around to doing them.”

Typically the sore points of inaction and indecision happen to require the CEO to go through major emotional upheavals such as lifestyle changes, turnaround plans, confronting non-performance or bringing negative news to the organisation.

Arjuna is unable to find a way out of this dilemma arising out of his mental confusion. So he says, Your advice seems inconsistent, O Krishna; show me one path to follow to the ultimate good. (3.2)

Arjuna is bewildered because he comes from a binary mind where the world is divided into black and white. He is confronting an ambiguous situation. So Krishna is faced with the challenge of evolving Arjuna’s thought. He says to Arjuna, “While you are trying to think through a problem, do you see that your thinking itself is the problem?”

Arjuna, who can only think in linear ways, asks Krishna for a straight arrow answer:

Tell me Krishna one thing for certain so that I can follow one line of action (3.2)

Krishna deliberates that there are two apparently different paths of contemplation and action for two distinct kinds of people. These paths eventually lead to the same goal of realising one’s true potential. Depending on the temperament of the leader, paths may vary but the goal is the same.

Krishna says, At the beginning of Time I declared two paths:

The intuitive path of knowledge of the spirit and the active path of selfless service. (3.3)

You need different strokes for different folks, as they say. Temperamentally, leaders may be classified into two categories: The contemplative and the active. They follow a path that is true to their own nature to make progress. Krishna knows that Arjuna is an active warrior by nature. The warrior has temporarily become a worrier — filled with self doubts about not being able to do battle. Arjuna’s lapse into inaction is corroding his vitality. Krishna leads him deftly out of his confusion.

The way in

What way out of the dilemma does mentor Krishna propose to his protégé Arjuna? Krishna suggests that the way out is actually the way in. The way in is the path of meditation that expands a leader’s awareness. A leader needs to rise above either/or world of the binary mind to a deeper state of ego-free awareness where the paradoxes of life and work are spontaneously resolved. Think of how the Japanese resolved the paradox of high quality and low price of automobiles by challenging the American car makers who were stuck in the mental paradigm that high quality can come only at a high price! Meditation gives the leader a helicopter view of our flawed mental models.

Leadership, therefore, is a synthesis of reflection and action. Reflection is the software and action is the hardware of leadership. Just as Alexander cannot lead without Aristotle; Chandragupta is impotent without Chanakya; Arjuna is incomplete without Krishna. Krishna’s magical awareness transforms Arjuna’s mechanical and binary mind. The worrier, now free of his ego and emotional turmoil, transforms into a warrior. This helps Arjuna outperform the Kauravas and win the battle of Kurukshetra!

Professor Debashis Chatterjee is the director of IIM Kozhikode, and the author of ‘Timeless Leadership’

Published on August 02, 2021

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