Saturday, 6 January 2018

The General and the King

Article by : Prof. Partha Saha, Associate Professor, Calcutta Business School

The Koshal army led by General Kumar Tikendrajit was retreating. Retreat was fast and furious. It had to be. Two neighbouring states, Koshal and Karnavati were locked in bitter battle for supremacy for the last two decades. There were lots of border skirmishes between the two states. Battles were mostly non-decisive. See-saw battles between two armies raged for long period. But this time Koshal army crossed the river Koel to attack Karnavati, hoping to take the enemy by surprise. But they were mistaken. The army of Karnavati was fully prepared due to advance warning from their superior spy network. The result was a disaster. Koshal army was completely routed. King Virendra Devvarman of Koshal, who was leading Koshal army from the front was mortally wounded. Later he succumbed to his injuries. Almost three quarter of Koshal army perished in the battle. The Koshal army, defeated and devastated, had no option but to retreat at full swing. However they were pursued by the marauding adversaries. Both armies were running on their horses. Only silver line for Kumar Tikendrajit was that his adversaries were half a day behind and they were unlikely to overrun him in a hurry.

Kumar Tikendrajit and his men quickly reached a forest. They were to navigate the forest to reach the banks of river Koel. Their only salvation lies in crossing the river Koel and stepping into the soil of Koshal. But the forest terrain was treacherous. It was full of marshy wetland, lakes, quicksand, small rivers covered by thick dense trees. Many wild animals like tigers, lions, cheetahs, wild boars roamed freely inside the forest. Wetlands were infested with snakes and reptiles. Even in the daytime it was difficult for the Koshal army to progress as beams of sunlight peeked through the foliage. The terrain was unknown and there was absolutely no compass to guide them. Kumar Tikendrajit and his army were moving slowly through the forest. At every step soldiers were cutting their way through the jungle with axes and machetes. Soldiers are cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out, while Kumar Tikendrajit and his lieutenants were watching close-by. Suddenly there was wild shriek and screaming. Seven of his men were drowning in the quicksand along with their horses. The army stood helpless watching the men and beasts slowly sinking into the sand. Later five of his men were bitten by cobra and died almost instantaneously. Cry and wailing of soldiers was also attracting the attention of the spies of Karnavati army who had a base-camp near the forest. They despatched two of their quickest horses and ablest men to inform the pursuing Karnavati army. Karnavati army were making quick advances to capture or slaughter the remnants of their adversaries. Now Karnavati army knew the exact locations of their enemies and their movements in the jungle. The noose around Tikendrajit and his men were tightening.

At this point of Tikendrajit realized that they were circling in the jungle in a haphazard manner. With his own sword he cut the branches of two trees and wrote his name in the trunk of both of them. After two hours he came back to the same spot. This time Tikendrajit began to sweat. The full import of the situation suddenly dawned upon him. His enemies now knew his exact location, thanks to their spy network. The advancing army of Karnavati were coming closer and closer at every passing hour. Karnavati spy network was watching his every movement. The forest landscape was unknown. He was slowly losing his men due to attack from wild beasts and reptiles. To top it all he was not sure of the correct escape route, to reach river Koel. Probably surrender was the only option. But the Karnavati army, known for ruthlessness, was unlikely to take any prisoner, he mused.

At this point Tikendrajit spotted a cavalry man coming from the other side of the forest. He was a man in his early thirties. Grave but with a noble countenance he possessed a remarkable feature. First thought that came to Tikendrajit’s mind was that the person might be a spy of Karnavati army. General’s men intercepted the stranger and he interrogated him personally but found out that the young cavalry man, named Vikramjit, was a complete stranger. Out of sheer desperation Tikendrajit narrated his predicament to Vikramjit. The rivalry and war between Koshal and Karnavati, the defeat and the flight of Koshal army, their flight into jungle, everything was told to Vikramjit. Finally the general begged to Vikramjit, if he could lead them away from danger, to the bank of river Koel. Vikramjit told to the general “You want to go to river Koel. Why don’t you find out the route by yourself.” “We tried but we don’t know the path; we are circling round the forest. By this time we are completely surrounded by the enemy,” a desponded Tikendrajit replied. Vikramjit dismounted from his horse and looked around. He spotted a tall coconut tree and began to climb up. He reached the top of the tree, surveyed the whole landscape quickly and then climbed down. Then Vikramjit rode on his horse and commanded the army “Follow me.” The whole army followed without a murmur. After three hours of rapid flight the army reached the river Koel, crossed the river and reached Koshal. As the throne was vacant following king Virendra Devvarman’s untimely death, the grateful general Tikendrajit then persuaded Vikramjit to ascend the throne.

The ecosystem in which management of an organization operates can be compared to the treacherous forest terrain in which Kumar Trikendrajit found himself. There are two or more players in a marketplace offering same goods and services. There are intense rivalries. Management and workforce often find themselves boxed into difficult corners due to sudden change of the business environment. Management under excessive pressure often resorts to cliché solutions, which compound the problems. Sometimes they try to find escape routes but find themselves embedded into a maze, just like general Tikendrajit and his men were circling round the forest without success. The general was lucky to spot the future king, in the avatar of Vikramjit, who led them out of sure destruction by asking right questions and showing the escape route. The escape route could only be found by surveying the landscape from the top, as Vikramjit did. The solutions were always within reach but only a true leader could ask the right question and suggest out-of-the-box solution as Vikramjit did.

The difference between management (exemplified by Kumar Trikendrajit) and leadership (represented by Vikramjit) is striking : Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things. Management excels in keeping intact bottom line: how does an organization survive in a certain industry(s). Leadership focuses on top line: in which industry(s) the organization should operate. Management shows efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; Leadership judges whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. It is not very often that we see the happy combination of leadership and management in a single individual/organization.

It goes to general Tikendrajit’s credit to spot the leader in the form of a complete stranger Vikramjit, asking for his guidance and following him unquestionably when the latter showed him the escape route. Perhaps fear of impending disaster and merciless persecution by the enemy allowed him to see the light at the earliest!

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