Ingress of Mediocrity

Tapan Misa

There lived a habitual thief in a village. Villagers were exasperated with his nuisance. So the villagers decided to punish him. They chopped off his nose as punishment.

The thief could not show his face to anybody. He relinquished the village and went in hiding in a forest. Slowly his hair grew to be unkempt tresses. He hit upon the idea of faking himself as an ascetic and started doing meditation and reciting prayers.

Slowly his name got spread as an ascetic with nose chopped off. People started flocking to him. Some even offered to become his disciples. He initiated the disciples to his sect by chopping off their noses. Over the time, an entire religious sect got established where all members had their noses chopped off.

I read this story by Swami Vivekananda in my childhood. We used to lough aloud by imagining the appearances of the sect members. But the profound implications of this story, I realised much later.

I have closely observed the dynamics of growth of mediocres in a team or in an organisation. Many times misadvertently or by bad choice or deliberately to have a control of the team, a mediocre character is reposed with the responsibility of a team leader, bypassing many deserving and meritorious contenders.

While meritorious employees prove themselves with excellence, mediocres get strength from numbers of equally qualified colleagues. They quickly start ganging up with other mediocre colleagues to corner the meritorious ones. The meritorious colleagues, find themselves asphyxiated gradually in the environment of mediocrity. Then the survival instinct overpowers the meritorious members. They realise that if they start mimicking the other mediocres in the team, they will get acceptance and importance from the leader. This infection of mediocrity spreads fast. Very soon, the whole team turns out to act like a bunch of mediocres. Just like the sect, all of whose members have their nose chopped off.

It is no guarantee that the team will be a high performing one just because the team members are selected with care and with merit in mind. It is most important that due care is given in the choice of the leader. More often than not, it is the leader, not members, of the team who turn it into a bunch of mediocres. There is no dearth of examples where our industries and institutions end upturning from productive to mediocre ones simply because of faulty choice of leadership. More often than not, mediocrity seeps from top, not from bottom as conventional wisdom suggests.

Tapan Misra is a globally acclaimed distinguished scientist. He has headed the Space Application Centre and also served as Advisor in Department of Space. His contribution to ISRO and India’s Space Programme is immense.

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