Vetaal in the workplace – promotions, skills and leadership

Vetaal in the workplace

Vikram and Vetaal is the retelling of the Baital pachisi that was translated from the Vetaal Panchavimshati part of Kathasaritsagar, an 11 century work in Sanskrit. Vetaal in the workplace adapts the concept of Vetaal – a wise vampire asking the right questions after narrating a great story to modern workplace situations. This story is taken from the original series.

The story….

Once upon a time there lived a washerman named Dhavala. He once spotted a very beautiful lady at pond, who happened to be the daughter of another washerman. He instantly fell in love with her and pleaded with his parents to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. His parents did accordingly and the girl, Madanasundari, got married to him with her parents consent. She then went with Dhavala to live with him.

Once the brother of Madanasundari, came to Dhavala to invite his sister and brother-in-law to their place for festival season. Dhavala agreed and the three of them were returning to Madanasundari’s home. On the way they happened to pass by the temple of Durga Devi, the all powerful goddess of power. Her brother wanted to pay a visit to the goddess, and went to the temple. But as soon as he came near the goddess, he wanted to make a massive sacrifice to the goddess. So saying he cut his head off for the goddess. Madanasundari was worried and she then sent her husband to see what the matter was. On seeing the state of his brother-in-law, the husband was also moved deeply and he decided to offer his own head too to the goddess and cut his own head with his scitmar. Madanasundari, after a long wait came and saw both her brother and husband lying on the ground and then decided to take her own life but asked the goddesss to get the same brother and husband in the next life. The goddess was pleased and stopped her from dying and asked her to join their heads and bodies and then she granted them life. In a hurry, Madanasundari, exchanged the heads of her brother and husband and was perplexed. The body of the brother is matched to head of the husband and the head of the brother to the body of the husband.

Vetaal stops and asks King Vikram asks this question: Who among the two is the husband of Madanasundari?

Vetaal’s question of mixing heads and bodies is common to us in many of the promotion stories in our Organizations. The person who does a great job is promoted to manage others to do a great job. Are the promoted managers able to lead their team?

Let us consider this workplace story…

Tharun is a brilliant programmer. He is also a very hard working and ambitious guy. He puts in 12 hour workdays almost all 7 seven days. Boss is happy, CEO is pleased and he quickly rises to the position of manager. He has 22 guys in his team. Tharun delivers quality outputs and finds that his team can just not match up to his number of hours or knowledge or quality of work. He explains to the team, teaches them and even writes many of the programs. The team actually loves him. Is he a good leader?

Let’s see – when the requirements come in, the team wait for Tharun to give instructions, they then wait for Tharun to teach them how to do the job, and most importantly when they are stuck in the middle of coding, they happily wait for him to come and sort the issue.

Is Tharun wearing the head of the leader and the body of a programmer?

At times in companies, some outstanding individual contributors aren’t the greatest leaders of businesses. “The best individual contributor does not necessarily make the best manager; the best manager does not necessarily make the best CEO. Every new level needs a different skill set, and hence success at one level is no guarantee of success at the next higher one,” says Rishikesha T. Krishnan, professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore while commenting on Sachin Tendulkar’s record as a captain was poor when compared to the brilliance he showed as a player.

Possible answers…

ALTHOUGH WE OFTEN think of leadership as being about the person visibly at the front, this isn’t necessarily true. We remember Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for first climbing Mount Everest, but they were not in charge of the expedition. Expedition leader, Sir John Hunt, was one step behind making critical logistics, relational and strategic contributions. He navigated the complex dynamics of personalities and cultural differences (between Englishmen, New Zealanders and Sherpas). Hunt had to make the hardest call: not everybody could reach the summit. He had to ensure all climbers knew that to get anyone to the top, it would take strong commitment to team goals over personal aspirations.     

GREAT DANGER LIES in using the word ‘leader’ to describe someone as it confuses concepts of exercising leadership with notions of positional authority.

IT IS LIBERATING to separate out these ideas.

Leadership is NOT a person or a position. Leadership is a space where growth happens.


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