Business Lessons from the churning of Milky Ocean

Posted by Venu Payyanur     Category: Mahabharata and Management

 

The story

Durvasa, the short-tempered, highly respected and most feared Rishi, was wandering over the earth; when be saw in the hands of a nymph, a garland of flowers with fragrant odour. The sage demanded it from the nymph, who, bowing to him reverentially, immediately presented it to him. He placed the garland on his head and resumed his journey. On seeing Indra, the ruler of the three worlds, seated on his infuriated elephant Airavata, and attended by the gods, presented the garland of flowers to him. Due to his extreme arrogance and disrespect, suspended the garland on the brow of Airavata. The elephant, attacked by the bees attracted by the flowers, threw it on the ground and trampled on it. Sage Durvasa was highly incensed at this disrespectful treatment of his gift, and thus angrily addressed the Lord of the immortals: “Inflated with the intoxication of power, you did not show respect to the garland I presented, which was the dwelling of Fortune (Sri). Now, fool, for that disrespect your sovereignty over the three worlds shall come to an end. Due to arrogance, you have shown disrespect to me and therefore henceforth you and all devas would be bereft of all strength, energy, and fortune and will no more be immortal. Though Indra immediately apologised to the enraged Sage, he did not withdraw the severe curse cast upon the Gods.

Where there is energy, there is prosperity and upon prosperity, energy depends. How can those abandoned by prosperity be possessed of energy; and without energy, where is excellence? Without excellence, there can be no vigour nor heroism amongst men.

The three regions being thus wholly divested of prosperity and deprived of energy, the Asuras, the enemies of the gods agitated by ambition, attacked the gods. They engaged in war with the feeble and unfortunate divinities; and Indra and the rest, having lost, fled for refuge to Brahma, who advised them to approach Vishnu for support. Upon seeing the divine Vishnu, Brahma and the other deities, paid him homage, and said, “We, defeated by the Asuras, have fled to seek your refuge and compassion and pray to defend us with your mighty power. Hari, the creator of the universe, being thus prayed to by the prostrated divinities, smiled, and spoke “With renovated energy, oh gods, I will restore your strength. Do you act as I say. Let all the gods, associated with the Asuras, cast all sorts of medicinal herbs into the sea of milk; and then taking the mountain Mandara for the churning-stick, the serpent Vasuki for the rope, churn the ocean together for ambrosia; depending upon my aid. To secure the assistance of the Asuras, you must be at peace with them, and promise the equal portion of the ambrosia, drinking of which they shall become mighty and immortal.

Thus instructed, the divinities entered into alliance with the Asuras, and they jointly undertook the churning of the milky ocean. They collected various kinds of medicinal herbs, and cast them into the sea of milk. The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an elaborate process: Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, king of snakes, became the churning rope. The Asuras demanded to hold the head of the snake, while the Devas, taking advice from Vishnu, agreed to hold its tail. However, fumes emitted by Vasuki poisoned the Asuras. Despite this, the Devas and the Asuras pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean. When the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Vishnu, in the form of the Kurma (turtle), came to their rescue and supported the mountain on his shell.

The Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean) process released a number of things from the Ocean of Milk. First was the lethal poison known as Halahala, escaped from the mouth of the serpent king as the Asuras and gods churned. This terrified them as the poison has the power to destroy all of creation. Then the gods approached Shiva for protection. Shiva consumed the poison to protect the three worlds but it burned the throat of Shiva. As a result, his throat turned blue and hence called Neelakantha. Subsequently many other divine and precious things emerged out of the ocean because of the churning.  That included Uchhaisravas, the white horse, Airavata, the elephant, various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka, etc, Lakshmi: the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth, Varuni: Goddess of wine, Kamadhenu: the wish-granting cow, Kausthuba: the most valuable gem, Parijat: the divine flowering tree with blossoms that never fade or wilt, etc. Most of these items were shared between the Devas and Asuras and some, like Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and Kausthuba gem were given to Vishnu. Finally came Dhanvantari, the heavenly physician with Amrita, the nectar of immortality. Fierce fighting ensued between the Devas and the Asuras for it and finally Asuras took it away. The Devas appealed to Vishnu, who took the form of Mohini as a beautiful and enchanting damsel, distracted the Asuras, took the amrita, and distributed it among the Devas, who drank it. The story ends with the rejuvenated devas defeating the Asuras.

Lesson 1

Durvasa, the short-tempered, highly respected and most feared Rishi, was wandering over the earth; when he saw in the hands of a nymph, a garland of flowers with fragrant odour. The sage demanded it from the nymph, who, bowing to him reverentially, immediately presented it to him. He placed the garland on his head and resumed his journey. On seeing Indra, the ruler of the three worlds, seated on his infuriated elephant Airavata, and attended by the gods, presented the garland of flowers to him. Due to his extreme arrogance and disrespect, suspended the garland on the brow of Airavata. The elephant, attacked by the bees attracted by the flowers, threw it on the ground and trampled on it. Sage Durvasa was highly incensed at this disrespectful treatment of his gift, and thus angrily addressed the Lord of the immortals: “Inflated with the intoxication of power, you did not show respect to the garland I presented, which was the dwelling of Fortune (Sri). Now, fool, for that disrespect your sovereignty over the three worlds shall come to an end. Due to arrogance, you have shown disrespect to me and therefore henceforth you and all devas would be bereft of all strength, energy, and fortune and will no more be immortal. Though Indra immediately apologised to the enraged Sage, he did not withdraw the severe curse cast upon the Gods.

Indra has become extremely powerful and arrogant due to his expanding authority over the three worlds. History shows that he has disrespected his Guru, GODs and raped innumerable women as he was drunk on his power and authority. Sage Durvasa not only destroyed his arrogance but also took away immortality and authority over three worlds from him. This is what happens to highly successful organizations led by arrogant CEOs. They not only destroy their company but also the life of its employees with his own career.

In a study conducted on the narcissism levels of 953 CEOs from a wide range of industries, as well as examining objective performance indicators of their companies, two Europe based researches observed that organizations led by arrogant, self-centred and entitled CEOs tend to perform worse and their CEOs were significantly more likely to be convicted for corporate fraud (e.g., fake financial reports, rigged accounts, insider trading, etc.). Interestingly, the detrimental effects of narcissism appear to be exacerbated when CEOs are charismatic, which is consistent with the idea that charisma is toxic because it increases employees’ blind trust and irrational confidence in the leader. Jim Collins in his widely-noted book ‘Good To Great’ (2001) concluded that one of the distinguishing characteristics of good-to-great companies, or those that showed sustained performance improvements over a 15-year period, was that they were headed predominantly by “humble CEOs.”  He used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings, and so on” about successful CEOs who led their companies to glory.

Optimism is healthy. Arrogance is not. Self-confidence is healthy. Megalomania is not.

Believing that you can do a great job as CEO is healthy. Thinking that you know better than others is not. You need confidence and conviction to succeed as a CEO or in life, but what these studies clearly show is that – taken to extremes – narcissism kills companies and kills CEO careers.

Lesson 2

The three regions being thus wholly divested of prosperity and deprived of energy, the Asuras, the enemies of the gods agitated by ambition, attacked the gods. They engaged in war with the feeble and unfortunate divinities; and Indra and the rest, having lost, fled for refuge to Brahma, who advised them to approach Vishnu for support.

Where there is energy, there is prosperity and upon prosperity, energy depends. How can those abandoned by prosperity be possessed of energy; and without energy, where is excellence? Without excellence, there can be no vigour nor heroism amongst men.

When an arrogant and narcissistic CEO leads your organization and employees are demotivated, performance spirals downwards. Customers will desert you and competitors enjoy the greater opportunity and market share. Due to poor financial performance, there would be cuts in promotional budgets and in extreme cases retrenchment of employees, which further demotivates employees and overall performance. Unless the company finds a way to rescue itself from this difficult situation, their very existence may be in danger. The gods approach Vishnu as the saviour, but who would be your company’s saviour?

Lesson 3

Upon seeing the divine Vishnu, Brahma and the other deities, paid him homage, and said, “We, defeated by the Asuras, have fled to seek your refuge and compassion and pray to defend us with your mighty power. Hari, the creator of the universe, being thus prayed to by the prostrated divinities, smiled, and spoke “With renovated energy, oh gods, I will restore your strength. Do you act as I say. Let all the gods, associated with the Asuras, cast all sorts of medicinal herbs into the sea of milk; and then taking the mountain Mandara for the churning-stick, the serpent Vasuki for the rope, churn the ocean together for ambrosia; depending upon my aid. To secure the assistance of the Asuras, you must be at peace with them, and promise the equal portion of the ambrosia, drinking of which they shall become mighty and immortal.

Coopetition or co-opetition is a word coined to describe cooperative competition.

“Coopetition” is a term used to describe unconventional collaboration and cooperation within an otherwise competitive field of players. When companies learn to work together effectively, industry competitors can reach a wider global market while still leveraging their unique value proposition to stand out amongst the crowd. Coopetition occurs at inter-organizational or intra-organizational levels. At inter-organisational level, coopetition occurs when they cooperate with each other to reach a higher value creation if compared to the value created without interaction and struggle to achieve competitive advantage. Often coopetition takes place when companies that are in the same market work together in the exploration of knowledge and research of new products, at the same time that they compete for market-share of their products and in the exploitation of the knowledge created. It is possible for more than two companies to be involved in coopetition with one another. One of the examples of coopetition in practice in high technology context is the collaborative joint venture formed by Samsung Electronics and Sony formed in 2004 for the development and manufacturing of flat-screen LCD Panels. Cartels are not an example of coopetition because their goal is to limit competition, and the goal of coopetition is to take advantage of the complementary resources of the firms in order to reach lower costs and manage innovation possibilities, still regarding competition in a further moment.

More and more companies – from start-ups to incumbents– are taking a less literal approach to pursuing competitive advantage. They are discovering untapped value potential by engaging industry rivals with a hybrid strategy of cooperation and competition, or “coopetition”. For example, Amazon and LinkedIn have welcomed competitors onto their respective platforms, recognising that expansion of their network was its own reward.

Obviously, coopetition alliances come with a unique set of tensions requiring careful management. Adopting two diametrically opposed attitudes– cooperation and competition – toward the same party is a tricky balance to sustain. If participants are too obliging, they risk being exploited; if they are too guarded, the intended synergies are jeopardised. That is why most scholars recommend that coopetition partners employ separation strategies, such as convening two different teams to handle the cooperative and competitive aspects of the relationship.

There are many case studies that shows highly successful coopetitive strategies as well as those that failed. In the Analytical industry, there are many such examples. Analytical Software that can be used to control, acquire, analyse and report results from a wide variety of instruments from different manufacturers is only possible if the Instrument manufacturers and software developers share their control code to each other. There are also many failed agreements that resulted in bitter court battles and bad blood.

Lesson 4

Thus instructed, the divinities entered into alliance with the Asuras, and they jointly undertook the churning of the milky ocean. They collected various kinds of medicinal herbs, and cast them into the sea of milk. The churning of the Ocean of Milk was an elaborate process: Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, king of snakes, became the churning rope. The Asuras demanded to hold the head of the snake, while the Devas, taking advice from Vishnu, agreed to hold its tail. However, fumes emitted by Vasuki poisoned the Asuras. Despite this, the Devas and the Asuras pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean. When the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Vishnu, in the form of the Kurma (turtle), came to their rescue and supported the mountain on his shell.

Total trust, openness and willingness to compromise and make concessions are essential for any cooperation to be successful between competitors. High level of mistrust and suspicion of the other party is what always make such arrangements a failure. Mount Manthara is used as the churning rod and Vasuki, the snake as the rope. Significance of the churning process explained here is important. Gods are pulling from the tail end and Asuras at the head side. They are not constantly pulling in one direction. In that case, it becomes either a tug of war with no churning and no results or rotating always in one direction. Here when Gods pull, Asuras release their hold and Asuras pull, God releases and the process goes alternatively. That is where the give and take happens. Any agreement without such a compromise is bound to fail.

Mount Manthara was used here for the churning and not any small spindle. Similarly one has to deploy the right resources based on the complexity of the task to achieve the desired objective. CEO level involvement is mandatory to make any agreement with competitors successful. That is why we have seen that both Indra (Head of Gods) and Bali (Head of Asuras) was involved in the negotiation and execution process.

Lesson 5

The Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean) process released a number of things from the Ocean of Milk. First was the lethal poison known as Halahala, escaped from the mouth of the serpent king as the Asuras and gods churned. This terrified them as the poison has the powerful to destroy all of creation. Then the gods approached Shiva for protection. Shiva consumed the poison to protect the three worlds but it burned the throat of Shiva. As a result, his throat turned blue and hence called Neelakantha.

First lesson we learn from here is that every organizational transformational process usually produces negative results in the beginning before it attains stability and growth again. Be prepared.

In everyone’s life there are good and bad times. So is in organizations. There are periods of excellent growth and profitability and sudden decline due to either internal or external conditions including competitive and regulatory reasons. When things go wrong, there is pressure on the Executive from every stakeholders. Shareholders will always demand better return on their investment either directly or through the board of directors. Customers always want better product and prompt support at lower and lower prices. Government want more money through duties and taxes and society needs investment from the company for social improvement. When the business is downward, meeting all these demands becomes challenging and pressure from external sources could become increasingly harsh and unbearable. The CEO now has the responsibility to insulate the executives and employees from unwanted external pressure so that they can focus on their job, which is make the company successful. If too much pressure is put, their performance can deteriorate and the downward spiral can start with alarming consequences. That means the CEO should be the buffer between harsh external environment and hardworking internal team members and therefore should act like Siva. Do not pass the poison from the stakeholders to the team members and let the external world do not know the frustration and helplessness of the team. If the poison is let out, the external world will be damaged and if let in, internal world will be damaged. So hold at the throat. And CEO acts like the throat….

Lesson 6

Subsequently many other divine and precious things emerged out of the ocean because of the churning.  That included Uchhaisravas, the white horse, Airavata, the elephant, various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka, etc, Lakshmi: the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth, Varuni: Goddess of wine, Kamadhenu: the wish-granting cow, Kausthuba: the most valuable gem, Parijat: the divine flowering tree with blossoms that never fade or wilt, etc. Most of these items were shared between the Devas and Asuras and some, like Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and Kausthuba gem were given to Vishnu. Finally came Dhanvantari, the heavenly physician with Amrita, the nectar of immortality.

Organizational transformational process or change management is never an easy process.  Usually the initial results one see are not always very positive but keeping and gaining momentum is mandatory by being resilient and committed in our quest to create value for the organization and people we serve. However, the reality of the workplace is that we are dealing with people who complicate matters with their corporate politicking, self-promotion, power plays and ploys, and envy. Competitors equally create problems for us when they unexpectedly convert a long-standing client, establish a new industry relationship, or launch a new product, brand or corporate strategy.   As we normally say, failures are orphan as none accepts a negative outcome like the ‘halahal’ poison and finally Siva had to swallow it. However there were many claimants for the success as both Gods and Asuras argued and fought for each and every good things that came out of the churning process. A leader has to act tactfully and ensure that there is minimum disruption and the transformation process must be continued even after reaching the milestone set initially.

Lesson 7

Fierce fighting ensued between the Devas and the Asuras for it and finally Asuras took it away. The Devas appealed to Vishnu, who took the form of Mohini as a beautiful and enchanting damsel, distracted the Asuras, took the amrita, and distributed it among the Devas, who drank it. The story ends with the rejuvenated devas defeating the Asuras.

Neither the Devas nor Asuras had any plan to share the Amrita with the other party. Any agreement made with hidden agenda is bound to fail and may lead to protracted battle, literally or in the court. However, Asuras had a better plan and strategy to hoodwink gods, took away the Amrita, and escaped to their kingdom. Gods approached Vishnu for help again. The first case of honey trapping happened long back in history and the main protagonist was Vishnu in the guise of an enchantress Mohini. Honeytrap is a stratagem in which an attractive person entices others and trick them to do something unwise. Such cases are very common these days for espionage or for political or financial gains. This story clearly depicts the pitfall of such a vulnerability and all must be extremely careful and vigilant to ensure you do not fall into such traps.

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