Rajeshwar Upadhyaya


The Derailment Archetype

Rajeshwar Upadhyaya


 Having operated in leadership development space for nearly two decades now, I find most leaders focusing on attaining success. Despite a leadership derailment case making the headlines every now and then, I hardly see similar focus on maintaining that success. And the tragedy is that the raw materials required for success are the very ones that will bring failure. People fail not because they lack the ability. Their derailment is not caused by the lack of a hard skill but distortion of the way they perceive the reality around them and how they relate to it. The very attribute that causes their rise and success, beyond a certain point in time becomes the reason why they derail. The Greeks called this hamartia – a fatal flaw, which is not fated.

Aristotle’s account of tragedy is intimately linked with his theory of action and his theory of ethicality. His ‘Poetics’ was intended to form a central part of his extended inquiry into the nature of human action and happiness. Aristotle viewed that in tragedy, the tragic hero collapses into misery through hamartia, a mistake, an error, which results in an irrevocable damage to the life of the leader and/or the lives of his loved ones. Hamartia or ‘tragic error’ brings to fore the fragility and predicaments of human flourishing. Aristotle believes that it is the human action itself on which men depend for success or failure and it is the representation of the action that spells the plot out. Aristotle says that “Tragedy is the representation of an action, and it is chiefly on account of the action that it is also a representation of persons.”

As the graph of success rises, there is a change in the context, the change in context demands a different behavior, a different approach, and a different attitude asking for re-examination of the reality on which the old assumptions are based. But hubris/ arrogance/ narcissism shuts the individual from the reality, and creates a deadly conviction urging him to move on the path of past success, believing it to be the only way forward. And at this point the individual is no longer ready to take in any feedback. And as he is blinded to the reality, his fall into the abyss commences.

 – Arrogance is derived from arrogare, a Latin word meaning the desire to accumulate. But why would one have such an irrational desire to posses so much when he already knows, in some part of the consciousness, that ultimately all these possessions will mean zilch. Man was designed to be ‘human being’ but in his lust for possessions; he has gotten himself entangled in ‘human having’. In the desire to have, he has to do. And this unchecked process of doing for having is likely to hit a point of utter irrationality. This irrationality was called as peripetia by Aristotle; the whole context has changed, the over arching demands from one are now different, but even then one doesn’t have the cognition of it; resulting in the repeat of same past behaviour. That is why Hosni Mubarak did not see that in the internet age his old methods of crackdown to end protests will not work and CR Irani did not see the need to reinvent The Statesman.

– Hubris means excessive pride. This excessive pride has an element of something grander in a sense that it is much more profoundly capable of self destruction. Pride to such horrific levels that it tends to completely blind oneself. Because of the success, one manufactures this immense sense of one’s own superiority. This superiority complex gives rise to a defiance of ‘I know it but you don’t’, and blocks any feedback. The moment the incoming of the data and information is barred, nothing can challenge the assumption which reinforces behaviour of past success and because of the changed context, impending doom. Rajesh Khanna’s case precisely; his fans were moving on from his kind of cinema to the ‘angry young man’ fad but he continues his starry tantrums, alienating important people.

1 web– ‘Narcissism’ is the excessive love for one’s own self to the exclusion of everything else. Self love was a Goddess’ curse to Narcissus and thousands of years later, it still remains inflicting leaders of the mankind. While on the pedestal of success, one often finds himself at the center of the universe and operates from that perception. In doing so, he fails to see other points of view and generate acrimony on the way up. But as the context changes and his chips are down, enters the nemesis. Macbeth met his nemesis in Macduff, Caeser met his in Brutus, Ravana had his in Rama, and Lalit Modi found his in a bunch of politicians.

The first error that he makes is the easiest for him to miss but the gravest of all. He falls out with the idea – it can be the values, beliefs, norms or ideologies that define his changing context. The seeds of failure are sown here. The second error is an error of decision. This cataclysmic error wreaks havoc in the business, takes the country on the brink of a meltdown, or plunges a team at the bottom of the league table. But his people, his peers, his followers still give him a chance, offer help, but he refuses. He doesn’t care and doesn’t see the errors he is making. This is where the person commits his third ruinous error and alienates his people. The individual now loses his credibility, the trust and cooperation of other leaders in the ecosystem along with that of all his followers. It is this very point where he is completely estranged; he doesn’t have anybody to fall back on. The strength to get back on track is now impossible to garner and the individual already can be considered to be derailed.

In mythology derailment doesn’t imply failing a project, losing an election, or getting fired from a job. It means death. Even the greatest of the kings, Julius Caesar and Oedipus had to die and even then it was not the end of it. In Greek mythology and Shakespearen tragedies even at the point of death, each character is not allowed the bliss of ignorance for he must die in the knowledge of all the mistakes that he has made, The Greeks called this anagnorisis which means recognition. When the last dagger enters Caesar’s chest he gasps and says “Et tu Brute”. He had to bear the pain of knowing that he suffered treachery at the hands of his trusted friend before he could die. Derailment has happened.

2 webBut in reality, people often don’t die and in theory can rebound. But the rebound can also happen only before a point in time I call, the Angulimal point. In the times of Buddha, Angulimal was a dacoit who would cut the fingers of people and wear the cut fingers as a garland around his neck. But when one day he met Buddha he was transformed, got into the sangha and attained enlightenment. But despite this, one day when he was begging for food as a bhikku, people identified him and stoned him to death. So, when the consequences of one’s action continues even after the attainment of enlightenment, there is in no way that one can return from the Angulimal point. Take for example the character of Jack in Lord of the Flies, the killing of Piggy was his Angulimal point as after that he could never go back to being an innocent teenager. For Rajesh Khanna, his Angulimal point was the Filmfare Awards fiasco after which, he could no longer get the support of the industry to get back on his feet. For Lalit Modi, the Angulimal point was refusing to retract his statement about the share holding patterns of the Kochi franchise; after that things only went south for him.

Julius Ceaser was warned not to venture out on the ides of March but he responded with ‘Danger and I are two lions born on the same day and I being the elder is more dangerous than he’. Derailment is avoidable but is not easy. It is always easy to miss the signs of derailment and ignore the early warning. That is why one needs to keep the channels of feedback open. There has to be a steady trustworthy source of feedback who can point you to the warning signs and warn you of the changing tide. And as the legendary basketball coach, the ‘Wizard of Westwood’, John Wooden said “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be”.

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