Why Larger than Life Careers are not such a great Idea!

One of the most iconic images from the Mahabharata would be that of Bhisma Pitamaha lying hapless on a bed of arrows and the entire Kaurava and Pandava clan gathered around him. Such sorrow, such adulation and such great respect! One almost wishes that one had similar job description. Hardly!

Imagine having to live your entire life without the love of a woman, or children to call your own. Imagine having to defend the indefensible, imagine having to defend the irrelevant, imagine having to defend the inconsequential. Who would want to live such a life and to live such a loss, hardly a job description to be proud of and hardly KPIs to live for? Now imagine your own larger than life career. What love you are losing, what KPIs have lost relevance under your watch?

Staying with the Mahabharata, another larger than life career was that of Krishna, almost the antitheses of Bhisma. So many Women, so many children, so much intrigue. Imagine playing games with people who trust you, imagine playing games whose outcomes you don’t even care about, and imagine playing games for the sake of playing games. Now imagine your current larger than life career. What games are you playing?

Arjuna anyone – perhaps a safe career bet. Who does not want to have a career where you are treated like the cream of your team – the absolute top of the game player? A player whose success rides on injustices meted out to the Eklavya’s and the Karna’s of the world. A player who rides into a war of monumental inconsequence, a war which no player worth surviving would survive, a war where the throne belongs to someone else, and you are not even sure to whom? A war where you avenge injustices which are the consequence of other injustices and the likely outcome is more injustice? Now imagine your current larger than life career. What injustice are you encouraging?

Dharamraj Yudhisthir? To get a Job Title which sits uneasily on your shoulders – nothing can be worse. You value truth, but live a lie at the most crucial juncture in your career so that someone can stab your mentor! You value truth, but your other values are quite doubtful? You claim ownership over your brother, over his wife, and over public property. Now imagine your current larger than life career. What are you claiming ownership of, which may not be gainfully yours?

Larger than life careers play havoc with the most important word in that sentence. LIFE! Larger than life careers coupled with individual centric incentives, create a misplaced sense of achievement, stifle teamwork and discourage mentorship. Larger than life careers play havoc with relationships. Work-life balance is an amazingly inane phrase to cloak our incompetence and misplaced sense of achievement. No one should need work life balance. Work does not lie outside of life. Work is an integral and an important part of life. However, it is just a part of life. It cannot lie at the heart of life, deciding which part of life gets how much of blood!

We have all heard the story of how you can break one stick but not a bundle of stick. Unfortunately, organizations spend copious amount of resources and an insane amount of energies asking us to be that one stick. Then when the bundle no more exists, we take people out for off-sites, team building exercises, vision workshops, et al to foster a spirit that we killed in the first place. Now let me also highlight exactly what happens after those team exercises. 1-on-1 meetings!

I have learnt my life’s lesson from Tamarind trees and cats and drooling dogs and lazing friends. I have learnt my life’s lesson from cricket pitches where it was ok for snakes and little boys to coexist. I have learnt my life’s lesson from community living and common wells. That is the kind of careers organizations need to concentrate on. That is the kind of organization; organizations need to strive to create. In such organizations, you have those big bosomed aunts who ensure everyone is well fed, you also have those favourite uncles who may not have a fat purse but will have an amazing collection of horror stories, each somehow involving them as the protagonist. In such organizations, you have mentors with parental advice and brothers and sisters who stand up for each other. In such organizations Performance Management is about fixing issues that stand in the way of robust performance. In such organizations, the purpose of bell curves is to eliminate bell curves.

Larger than life careers need to be eliminated in favour of larger than life teams. Teams that stand up for every member of that team, teams that leave you space to smell the roses, teams that leave you space to walk barefoot on wet grass, teams that leave you space to stop and listen to the church bells toll and let aazaan seep into your very being.

Great performance will happen when you are one with your work. Picasso, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Kabir, Jesus, Gautam, Mohammad, Nanak, Shelley, Hawking. How many of your employees are like any of these gentlemen? Mira, Razia, Curie, Earhart, Sappho, Joan, Teresa. How many of your employees are like any of these ladies?

Stop being ordinary, everyone else is like that. Eliminate the need for choice. Everything that’s worth doing in this life needs to be done in this life.

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