Are you a Pied Piper?

As a child when I read Robert Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, it was a simple, but delightful piece of poetry. The rhythm, the rhymes, the simple story line told in a racy way was what appealed to me.

When I grew older and reflected on the poem, it had acquired sinister overtones. A stranger luring children into a subterranean cave in revenge for not being paid for rendering a service – there was something chilling about it and it could have come straight out of a horror movie.


However, leaving the macabre aside, I think we can draw on other messages from the story of the Pied Piper. Books on leadership and management principles, all talk about motivating, leading by example, advising, mentoring etc. It all seems like a lot of hard work. To my mind, leading should be like what the Pied Piper did – fascinating them into following you. People should follow you because they just want to. People should follow you because they think you are going to reveal something wondrous to them. There is no analysis or cold logic here about leadership qualities. Like the Nike slogan they just want to ‘do it’.

Let me give you some examples. I have always wondered how the so-called ‘holy men’, ‘holy women’, swamis and babas are able to attract crowds of people with very little trouble. What they offer is not specified. They will offer vague assurances like – ‘freedom from all your troubles,’ ‘all your love issues solved,’ ‘prosperity for ever’ and so on. These things are just hinted at but somehow it gives a lot of people a promise that wonderful things are ahead for them.

In the poem one of the children, who was unable to follow the others into the cave due to a lame leg, laments later,

It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!

I can’t forget that I’m bereft

Of all the pleasant sights they see,

Which the Piper also promised me.

For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,


Think of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha. Do you think he stood on a dais like a politician, thundering and exhorting people to follow the middle path, which would lead them to Nirvana? He practised what he believed in and his following grew. Actually if you come to think of it, religious leaders are the ones who are most akin to the Pied Piper. Their appeal is subtle. It speaks to the emotions rather than to reason. That is why their teachings are still followed centuries after they are dead. What a leader has to offer should be implied.

Think of the difference between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Nehru was a perfect politician and had an intellectual bent. He stirred up the patriotic fervour of the revolutionaries with his speeches. His leadership qualities cannot be doubted but Gandhi was more popular with a wider mass appeal. Gandhi made very few public speeches as such (the one before the salt satyagraha being the most famous), but he managed to touch the hearts of the common people. When crowds listened to him, they did so with their hearts. He roused their emotions.

As the Piper you have to charm the people around you. You have to cast a spell on them, if you know what I mean.

I’ll give you another example drawn from my personal experience. I once had a boss, who was one of the most unassuming persons I’ve ever seen. He rarely raised his voice in office, and even out of it. He had a fine sense of humour but his chief quality was that he would never tell or order anyone to do anything. He would always ask – ‘do you think you could do this by 4 pm please?” If we did as he asked he was, of course, most grateful and would show it too.  If, for some reason, we were unable to do it, he would never take us to task. He would just look concerned, ask us if we were busy and offer to help us in completing the work. Sometimes he wouldn’t say anything at all but just go away, making it clear however that we had let him down in some way.

Are you a Pied Piper?

I don’t think any of us ever disregarded his requests if we could help it. If we failed to do our task, we felt guilty and ashamed of ourselves. He was held in high esteem and affection by all of us and indeed was a respected editor. All of us would swear by him. His presence in office was a comforting one, even if we did not interact with him directly. He was one of those managers who never presumed to advise; he would throw out suggestions, which we were free to take or reject. He approached everyone, even the most junior member of the team with a certain degree of faith in their abilities.

Look at some of the prominent dictatorial figures in history, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. They brought a lot of misery to the countries they led and we are often left wondering why people ever followed them. The emotional attraction or pull of these leaders was so great that people could not help going along with them. Like the Pied Piper, they had a ‘secret charm’ which drew the people to them. They could exert some kind of an influence on ordinary people, who were willing to suspend their rational thinking and obey them blindly.

So, are you ready with your pipes and charm?

Contributed by Janaki Krishnan, an entrepreneur in the education and skills sector. Prior to this she was a business journalist. Writing continues to be her abiding passion