There are so many occasions when one comes across a powerful creative leader or a band of leaders straddling organizations, and who relentlessly lament that the next generation of managers has not lived up to expectations, and let the system down. The next generation of managers are accused of being cowardly, over-compliant, cynical, and impotent – a liability to any system, as they seem to be throttling the energies of their own teams – of younger men and women who come in with hope and passion.
Intergenerational conflict is the term used to explain this pattern of politics – where the system is comprising of two or more ‘generations’ of managers and leaders – each generation subscribing to a set of beliefs and language different from the other, and competing with each other for power, status and for resources.
Today, I see many leaders at the helm often get away with anything – their managerial styles quite neurotic – with a clear intent to accumulate power, resources, and independence without wishing to introspect and learn, and without being sensitive to the impact on others. The next generation seems to wanting to mimic the same neuroticism – they become explosive, reactive, abrasive, and compulsive. The vicious cycle often continues down the hierarchy.
Intergenerational conflict gets further reinforced by technology cycles, where managers are rendered obsolete by the next breakthrough, and yet the former generation are unwilling to let go of their power, their wisdom, and their status.
Working with intergenerational conflict is difficult in India. Even when organizational systems work hard to discern intergenerational conflict from other political processes such as inter-functional conflict or alignment – for intergenerational conflict is often dormant and unconscious not in your face, it often gets clumsily worked with. Family managed organizations work hard to create the Charter, professional organizations term it as leadership pipeline building but this conflict gets scant attention.
To invite you to look at this conflict from a different lens, I am quoting some research on how the investors and shareholders seem to value leadership at the helm of companies in India and in the USA.
According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO pay is 271 times the nearly $58,000 annual average pay of the typical American worker. Although the 271:1 ratio is high, it’s still not as high as in previous years. In 2015, CEOs made 286 times the salary of a typical worker and 299 times more in 2014. Compare that to 1978, when CEO earnings were roughly 30 times the typical worker’s salary.
Indian firms are no different…
“… In 2017, the median salary of the top senior executives is on average 243 times higher than the average salary for employees, according to data from Capitaline and annual reports. The pay ratio of the CEO and an average worker’s salary in India was the second-highest in the world after the US, according to Bloomberg…”
Surely, there is more to this multiplier …
This blog seeks to explicate how inter-generational conflict manifests in many modern organizations in India, where political processes, role-taking and self-authorizing are imbued by and triggered within the leadership today, though unconsciously, by the inherent psychodrama of Yayati, his wives, and his youngest son, Puru.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the mythical narrative of Yayati, the relationship between Yayati and Puru has been used to differentiate and contrast the father-son relatedness and dynamics within Indian society from the Oedipal complex used by Freud. Many scholars and writers have written on the Yayati complex, comparing and contrasting it with the Oedipal complex to explore evolution at an individual level.
This blog, instead, chooses to look at Indian organizational systems, and offers hypotheses on how the Indian organization leverages the principles of ‘self-sacrifice’, ‘compliance’, ‘self-authorizing’, and ‘rewards’ – impacting systemic processes and politics through its culture, often mirroring the narrative.
In addition to the above, it also explores the notion and role of femininity in patriarchal systems as reinforced by the narrative by looking at the dynamics of two powerful women – Devayani and Sharmishta with Yayati. In my sensing, the two women stand for two different strands of femininity – each offering and threatening the patriarchy superstructure that gets created by the dynamics of Yayati and Puru.
The blog ends by exploring how the global Indian firm, with the influx of the occident way of looking at systems and authority, is unable to co-hold the Yayati complex and the Oedipal complex – leading to complex dynamics and politics that go beyond the tradition.
Summarizing the Yayati narrative
The narrative of Yayati appears in the 19th chapter of book IX of the Bhagavata Purana. King Yayati is the second son of Nahusha, who takes over the throne and prospers – he is able to conquer the whole world.
The strand that I wish to focus on begins with two powerful women – Devayani, who is the daughter of Shukracharya – the Sage of the Asuras; and Sharmistha, the daughter of an Asura king Vrishparva, who with their friends go to the forest and bathe in the pool. Sharmistha errs in choosing the clothes of Devayani to wear after the bath, and then has to bear the tirades of the daughter of a powerful man. Sharmistha gets irritated and with the help of her friends, pushes Devayani into a dry well. Devayani is rescued by Yayati and in the act of holding her right hand, she demands that he marry her.
Yayati seeks permission from Shukracharya for the proposed marriage – the sage allows this marriage given the condition that he also takes in Sharmistha into the palace as Devayani’s slave – for the latter has to be punished for her acts and yet has to have no relationship with her.
Yayati, over time gets attracted to Sharmistha, and on her desire to experience motherhood, invests into a relationship with her – bearing three sons. Devayani gets to know about his infidelities, and runs to her father seeking vengeance. The sage enraged, curses Yayati to ‘old age’ in the prime of his life. He later regrets this curse for it hurts the interests of his daughter, and then allows Yayati a way forward – that he can exchange ‘old age’ with any young man in the kingdom if the latter is willing to sacrifice his youth.
Yayati is old and impotent, and yet it is the young Sharmishta who offers to accompany him to the forests, willing to sacrifice her life for him.
But Yayati remains blind … Yayati in his regal arrogance believes that any of his loyal subjects would be proud to take this duty, and then discovers that nobody wishes to take on the deal. Finally, his youngest son Puru, Sharmishta’s child, and who against his mother’s wishes, agrees to give up his youth so that his father can live and indulge in the pleasure of his senses. and Yayati does so for another thousand years, till he realizes that desire knows no constraint.
It is only when he says, “Know this for certain, … not all the food, wealth and women of the world can appease the lust of a single man of uncontrolled senses. Craving for sense-pleasures is not removed but aggravated by indulgence even as ghee (oil) poured into fire increases it…. One who aspires to peace and happiness should instantly renounce craving and seek instead that which neither grows old, nor ceases – no matter how old the body may become”, he is able to restore Puru his youth, and grows old.
Deconstructing the Yayati narrative
The Yayati narrative has often been used to build a greater understanding of the Father-Son relationship in Indian culture – where the son (Puru) is seen as willing to sacrifice his own youthfulness and potency for the sake of the father (Yayati), who is wanting and seeking to live a life of pleasure through his youthful senses – never growing old. As opposed to the occidental lens, where the Son has to learn to metaphorically kill the Father within, the Indian mythology celebrates the self-sacrificing dutiful son. The same archetype gets further immortalized through Bhishma in Mahabharata and to some extent, Rama in Ramayana but that goes beyond this blog.
From a Systems thinking perspective, the narrative has much to offer:
- Yayati as the Authority figure, is seen as all powerful, indulgent, and pleasure seeking. He is shown to be blind in his understanding of the system, and taking for granted the loyalty of his people. He remains insensitive to his sons, his wives, and his people – much like the neurotic powerful leader of our times. The other male authority is Shukra – easily swayed by emotions and reactive.
- Puru, the son / next generation, is set up to be the self-sacrificing son – neither confronting his father nor owning up his own potency and youthfulness.
- I must at this stage also express my deep admiration for Girish Karnad, who dramatically enhances this narrative by creating the character of Chitralekha – Puru’s young wife. Chitralekha is heartbroken to learn that her husband is surrendering his youthfulness and vigor. Maddened with grief, she seeks to bear Yayati’s child. Upon being rejected by Yayati – who sees her despair and loneliness as a royal privilege, she kills herself.
- The two women Sharmistha and Devayani are shown in interesting ways – Devayani is the Brahmin and Sharmistha is the ‘Asura’ woman – irrational, passionate, competitive, reactive, and possessive. It is their rivalry and envy that is seen to be generating this saga. Sharmistha stands for the dynamic feminine – intense, wise, insightful, passionate, and yet ‘illegitimate’ for she can never by clothed like a Brahmin.
When I look at intergenerational conflict in Indian organizations, I am struck by a similar psychodrama being played at the System level today.
- The Leadership including the CEO or the Owner is often seen as omnipotent and indulgent. It is neither confronted on its myopic tactics – for there are few leaders who are looking at building institutions today, institutions that would last beyond their lifetimes, and institutions built on values and ‘dharma’. Most CXOs are too busy appeasing their shareholders for immediate returns and tactical creation of wealth.
- The next generation unconsciously plays the ‘Self Sacrificing Instrument’ for the sake of their leadership. This nature of loyalty becomes the currency for commitment to the system. There was a time when a large IT powerhouse in India celebrated the notion of ‘Self Sacrificing Samurai’ – a generation of managers and leaders who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the firm. Of women who were willing to leave their babies with their parents, as they migrated onsite and worked for months; of men who would work for 100 hours a week as the organization created wealth but were stricken by obesity, blood pressure, diabetics etc.
- One thing stood out though – the next generation could not confront the one at the helm of the system. It was almost as if the ‘self-sacrificing son’ had no recourse, no choices, no legitimate demands, and no rage. The yes-man culture would accentuate the blindness of those at the helm and the impotency of those in the next generation. This pattern was repetitive and got more vicious as time moved on.
- The Yayati-Puru narrative is not very often talked about – perhaps it is quite explicit and threatening. And that there are immensely more glamorous and less threatening narratives that serve as substitutes. For example, I see the narrative of Rama as one such substitute – for in this narrative, even the powerful Vishnu took birth to play the role of the dutiful, self-sacrificing son. Dashratha in Ramayana is still seen as the good but weak father, who is manipulated by a woman into sending his crown prince into exile.
- The aspect that Girish Karnad brings in is equally interesting to consider – for the younger man to turn into the self-sacrificing good son, his own femininity has to die. Chitralekha stands for the inner femininity that never experiences the play within, the creativity within, and the fertilization within. Puru loses his creativity with Chitralekha dying – for the inner femininity has no space in the Puru archetype. Dutifulness replaces Eros and ennui ensues.
- Puru has no choice but to wait – to be bestowed back his potency. So very often empowerment in Indian organizations is confused with ‘bestowal’ – it is the prerogative of the Yayati to bestow and bless the Puru – and to legitimize Puru’s own resources. Self-Authoring and Self Authorizing can become quite the taboo in Yayati-Puru dynamics.
- Indian organizations are still perhaps learning to survive in a context that celebrates consumption, immediate gratification, and greed. It is the Yayatis who have tasted blood in market capitalism – it is the Purus who have chosen to sacrifice with a certain self-righteousness that smacks of an arrogance too.
- In all of this, CONFLICT gets pushed into the collective unconscious of the system – it becomes very difficult for the organization to look at intergenerational conflict as it means looking at allocation of resources, of power, and of rewards.
- The Yayati Puru psychodrama celebrates a form of patriarchy that is akin to ‘boy-masculinity’ or immature masculinity. In this patriarchy, there is actually a denial of what mature masculinity can really offer. This psychodrama becomes another dirge for a masculinity that seems to be vanishing before our eyes – either we have the hyper-masculine patriarchy or the impotent son.
Most Indian and global organizations are creating spaces for the Indian manager to work with the Westerner. The westerner may bring in his or her unconscious and conscious modes of working with authority – quite different from the Puru mental model.
This integration of cultures is both a blessing and a disguise.
The good news is that the Purus get to see a different play of organizational politics – where authority can be and will be confronted and fought against with. It may trigger introspection and transformation of role-taking for both the Yayatis and the Purus and offer a new creative psychodrama for all to work within the system.
The bad news is that given our colonized past, the westerner may find it easier to play the Yayati within the system – and create more despair for the Purus for the new Yayati may not even promise redemption or bestowal to the Puru.
 I would define Asuras not as demonic nor as evil, but powerful living beings, believing in their own potency, and who are prone to their earthy appetites, passions and cravings. Asuras own the subterranean while Devas or Suras on the other side of the duality represent the exalted consciousness and sublimation of the very same desires.
(2) The PAINTING is by A Ramachandran – titled as Yayati – a 60 feet long mural.
(3) I owe this blog to snippets of conversation between Ashok Malhotra and Mark Argent on a Face book page – two friends of mine, and strangers to each other trying to build a conversation.
4 thoughts on “Inter-generational Conflict in the Modern Corporation: The Unconscious Politics of Yayati & Puru”
Very insightful and extremely relevant. I particularly liked the link with femininity and how it impacts inter-generational dynamics- a theme which has not received much attention. It would be worth pursuing this thread – a possible first step would be to look at role of femininity in different narratives of inter- generational relations.
Thank you Ashok. Hope to work with opportunities on this front…
Very interesting and insightful. But to challenge yayati in Indian context by disempowered employees is to invite martyrdom. The challenge can only be done by people in relatively previliged position. For example.g banker greed cannot be self-regulated or shareholders exercising control but by regulatory fiat only by RBI. Similarly like German management model, where employees have a board seat mandated by law, makes it easier for employees view to be aired at higher levels which is more effective than hoping in vain for a sensitive leader to emerge
I have always been supportive of the German model or the North European approach to governance and am delighted that you support it too. I carry hope that new narratives are created as opposed to just being impacted by old narratives and myths that belong to a different era.
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