By Devdutt Pattanaik
In the Bhagavata, Kansa kills babies. Krishna kills Kansa. In the Ramayana, Ravana abducts wives of other men, and seduces them. Ram kills Ravana. In the Devi Purana, the asuras trouble the devas. Durga kills the asuras. What is remarkable about these episodes is the expression of Krishna and Ram and Durga in artworks. They are at peace. The same expression when they are intimately embracing their consorts. Angry expressions are at best seen as ‘mock anger of parents’, who have to playact (leela, in Sanskrit) when dealing with stubborn children.
The expression of Krishna, Ram and Durga is in stark contrast of Arjuna when he is being asked by Krishna to kill the Kauravas. Arjuna is full of anguish and guilt and shame. His expressions are contorted, displaying his fear.
Are the gods fearless?
Are the gods fearless? No, they are not. They are simply aware of fears of humanity. Fear is natural. It is what transforms the non-living into the living, makes the latter shun death and struggle for life. In humans, this fear is amplified thanks to the human imagination. Even this imagination must not be denied. For it is the hallmark of humanity – enabling humans to innovate and invent. Imagined fear is what establishes the world of the householder. Only the hermit seeks to break free from both fear and imagination.
A leader needs to be aware of fear. Fear that propels him to achieve as well as fear that prevents his followers from aligning. Parents comfort frightened children with hugs and kisses. They also frighten children into going to school and following household rituals. Both are sides of parenting. To comfort and to use fear. So it is in management.
Fear and management
We don’t use the word fear in management. We use the word ‘stress’. Stress is measurable physiological phenomenon, but fear is not. Fear is a psychological state. Science hates the non-measurable and so ignores fear. In fact, psychology and behavioural sciences are deemed pseudosciences because not everything about the mind is measurable. Underlying all stress is fear. Fear is what makes the animal flee, freeze or fight.
At the work place, everyone is in fear. The investor is afraid he will lose his investment. The director is worried if his directives are not taken seriously. Managers are afraid they are not managing the crisis well. Supervisors are afraid if he is too soft then his team will take him for a ride. Executives are frightened into submission by their bosses. Workers are afraid that if they speak up they will lose their job – so they need a spokesperson.
Fear means we do not listen to criticism. We only want to be praised, rewarded and recognised. Fear means we are anxious and impatient, overseeing every project with a microscope, not letting others do their job. Fear means we do not trust other people’s expertise. We are so busy judging them that we don’t have the time to admire them. In fear, we are unable to inspire. In fear, we are unable to decide. In fear, we get paralyzed.
But when used well, fear can be a great fuel for the leader, enabling him to focus on the job at hand, not be too complacent. Appreciating the fear within enables us to appreciate the fear without. We are able to see the nervousness of those around. We are able to empathise, comfort, inspire, lead, challenge.
Fearlessness, however, is unnatural. A mythical concept created by storytellers. No leader is fearless. No leader can afford to be fearless. Fearless leaders are psychopaths, insensitive to their own emotions and those of people around them. Those who don’t fear cannot love. For love is all about enabling others to cope with their fear.
We are afraid when we enter a new office. We are afraid to build new offices. We are afraid when changing new jobs. We are afraid to create new jobs. We are afraid when organisational structure changes. We are afraid to change organisational structure. We are afraid to enter new markets. We are afraid when asked to abandon old markets.
Too much fear and we erode faith and patience. Too little fear and we become self-righteous smug. The right amount of fear ensures our survival. The gods know that. Krishna knows that, Ram knows that, Durga knows that.
For them Kansa, Ravana, and the asuras, are doing villainous deeds out of fear. They do not hate the villain. They understand their insecurities, the reasons for their impatience and lack of faith. That is why when lecturing and advising does not work, turn to ‘mock rage’, not anger, for authentic anger is a sign of helplessness, and gods are never helpless. In wisdom, we do not deny fear. In wisdom, we embrace fear – become aware of it with us, and attentive of it in others.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an acclaimed author who writes on the relevance of mythology in modern times, especially in areas of management, governance and leadership.
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