04 Feb 2021 20:50 IST

From being Drona, to being Ekalavya

Leaders need to be between two states; Drona to guide and coach; Ekalavya to be humble, learn and serve

Most of us are familiar with the story of Drona and Ekalavya. Drona, the famed guru. Ekalavya the model, yet self-sacrificing pupil. In our journey as leaders, we typically see ourselves in Drona-mode. We are the expert or guru in our chosen area, and we lead by teaching or coaching our team members. We expect team members to look up to us. We’re not shy of demanding actions and words to demonstrate loyalty. But the big question for our leadership growth is — How do we become better Ekalavyas?

Be humble

Humility is a strange quality. The moment you think you have it, you have lost it. Leaders often devote much time and energy to broadcasting their achievements and to self-promotion. This seems like the logical ‘business-leadership’ thing to do. But a paradox often plays out — the really successful, the really legacy-leaving leaders usually tend to be self-effacing and humble. The biggest mistake is to assume that humble leaders are weak. Quite the contrary. It takes quite a bit of courage and personal security to be humble. The braggadocio-leaders are often insecure and weak. They need the show of strength and public recognition to compensate for their inner inadequacies. As Dan Cable wrote: “Humility and servant leadership do not imply that leaders have low self-esteem or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasises that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers — to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.” (HBR April 2018).

Ultimately, the primary role of the leader is to bring out the best in your team. Without that you are just an empty suit. How can we practically display this humility? By shining the light on others, by being willing to share and sometimes even give away credit, by being open to constructive criticism, by being willing to acknowledge our own mistakes honestly. Ekalavya did not take Drona’s refusal to teach him as a personal insult. He actually went ahead and built a clay statue of his guru and even more intensely pursued his training. That combination of humility and will is the recipe for great leadership.

Be willing to listen and learn

One of the biggest curses for the leader is the curse of expertise. When a leader sees himself as the ‘full-cup’ expert — he stops listening, he stops learning, he stops growing. Google’s former SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, would say that humility is not just about creating space for others to contribute, but that it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.”

The Drona mindset prevents us from being open to listening. We seem intent on being the smartest person in the room. We sometimes even put a team mate down in the quest to appear smarter, better or to win a point. But this isn’t leadership. It is an almost adolescent obsession with ‘self’, that limits our leadership and the impact we make. When we stop listening, we risk being blind-sided by changes, by crises, by volatility that is outside our circle of competence. How can we practically get better at this, at being more like Ekalavya who showed the openness and willingness to listen and learn — even after his guru had turned him down?

One practical habit I’ve found useful, is when a specific area of our expertise comes up in a team discussion, a client meeting, a presentation and the urge to immediately demonstrate our expertise is strong — it pays to hold back and count down to 10. It is amazing how much I have personally learnt from that deliberate space — as a teammate chips in with an insight I’d never thought about, an angle that I’d not considered or a piece of knowledge that was new. Another is to appoint a junior colleague as your mentor in an area of her expertise and one that you wish to learn about. Block time to spend so she can mentor you and educate you. In doing that you achieve multiple things — you empower her, you ‘role-model’ a learning attitude and you create a ripple effect in your organisation where teammates can emulate you.

Be willing to serve and sacrifice

I remember at the time I was to get married. I was managing an export division and suddenly a spate of shipments had to be sent out right after my wedding date. I resolved to tell my wife-to-be that we would have to cancel the honeymoon and that I would need to come right back to work after the wedding. But just the week ahead, my boss from Mumbai lands up and tells me to go ahead with my honeymoon plan. I still remember his words to me: “Go with a free mind. I will be here and will take care of the shipments.” A leader ready to serve. The concept of servant-leadership gets a lot of space in books and blogs, but it takes a real Ekalavya leader to have the courage to practice it.

There is no better way for a leader to teach this than to role-model it. Ekalavya cutting off his thumb demonstrated that he was willing to sacrifice his self-interest and trust in his guru’s version of the bigger picture. He was willing to surrender the spotlight to Arjuna and step into the shadows. He sacrificed and he served.

In our journeys as business leaders, we may find that we are not meant to be Drona or Ekalavya — we need to be both. We will find that these are states that we must move between. There are times that will require us to be Drona — to guide and coach. But there will be times we must be humble, we must listen, we must learn, and we must serve. As leaders we intuitively tend to stay in the Drona-state most of the time. But we must consciously look for and deliberately embrace the opportunities to be Ekalavya.

In some ways, in the Drona-Ekalavya tale — archery is the visible skill — the invisible and greater one is the conquest of self. Any business can serve the same purpose, if only we as leaders choose to make it so — to serve as a vehicle for us to grow beyond our self-centred selves and make a difference to those around us. In that sense, when Drona asked Ekalavya for the guru-dakshina of his thumb — a cruel request driven by fear and ego — and when Ekalavya unhesitatingly cut off his thumb and gave it — the mantle of guru passed from Drona to Ekalavya. Ekalavya showed he had transcended ‘self’ and Drona was still slave to it.

PS: I must acknowledge and thank Mr LV Navaneeth, CEO at The Hindu, for the idea behind this article. Warmly appreciated !