167 Monday Musings: The Contrarian and the Despot
Dipankar Gupta, the renowned sociologists in a newspaper article argued beautifully that it does not suit leaders to hide behind the arguement of the ‘will of the people’ and take a stand on issues of significance, even though they are contrarian to the wisdom of the times. He goes on to illustrate the point through many examples which includes that Gandhiji did not seek popular approval before fighting against untouchability, or Nehru did not hide behind public opinion before promulgating the Hindu Marraige Act so on and so forth.
I can recollect two examples from organisational history that echoes the same sentiment. Henry Ford is believed to have said something like this “I don’t ask customers what they need, because if i would have asked them they would have said we need faster horses” Similarly the legendary Steve Jobs is believed to have underplayed the findings of customer research in determining what to create and sell. He rather believed in his own convictions on what the customers would ‘want to have’ and then went on to put his money where his mouth was.
So here is the dilemma. It is clear that the mob does not have a mind. It certainly does not have a sane mind. It is nice to believe in democratic processes, collective wisdom, consensus and co creation – as at one level they are great principles to abide by and at another level they are constructs on which this modern society based on free will and individual rights are based. But it is difficult to ignore evidence that visionaries have always taken a contrarian stand. They have always gone against the popular wisdom, the conventional logic, the established norms – and they have quite literally bulldozed their way through the vox populi and stood by their convictions. It is difficult not to be thankful to their steadfastness, to their bull headedness or else much of what we cherish today may not have seen the light of the day. Abraham Lincon fought for abolishing slavery much against the views of society at large and his own partymen. Raja Ram Mohan Roy definitely did not seek popular approval before picking up cudgels against sati. Transformative change is often led by contrarians.
Philosophically then, what is that separates from a visionary from a despot – because the methods employed and the attitude demonstrated by both are often quite the same? To my mind very little. Most of that difference perhaps unravels itself only in hindsight. Perhaps the intent of the person might make a difference but even that is questionable, for we have many a benevolent dictators, who have with the best of intent created very despotic regimes. The road to hell is paved often with good intentions, as they say. In the everyday organisations that we work in where we negotiate not only multiple points of view but often entrenched status quo rooted in individual self interest, what is the sweet spot between pliant co-creation and dogged contrarianism?
A few months back a colleague sent a message (and i wondered quite a bit if there was a message intended for me), which goes like this – “ Of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron cruelty may sometime sleep, his cupidity may at some time be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience”. Most despots actually believe in this despotism and believe that there is a larger purpose in their monochromatic world view – and by the way that is exactly the way the contrarian leaders of yore think.
So i go back to my own predicament – what is the difference between a contrarian and a despot? Philosophically speaking, the jury is still out.