Sunday, November 12, 2017

Monday Musings 297 - Two Neo Monks

Monday Musings: Two Neo- Monks!

I write this with their permission of course. They are two of them.
I have always felt that there is more to the phrase ‘taking things for granted’ than what the words indicated. I always had this inexplicable unease about its frivolous usage all these years that we are perhaps using it too soon and too frequently even when the circumstances did not quite demand such an extreme expression. Very fragile egos, a heightened sense of entitlement and a general belief that if someone is not following our track or is not toeing our line indicates that one was being taken for granted.

The curious case of misplaced entitlement and the havoc it plays with our sense of being got highlighted by two recent conversations I had recently, with two dear friends, both of whom have come out victorious after battling with grave medical emergencies – what might clearly be called as near death situations. I can never be thankful enough to them to have shared with me their hearts and also a permission to write about it.

Such people have a lot to offer to us – but most of all they offer us clarity of perspective; something that is usually a casualty in the whirlwind of daily living. I was intrigued by the uncanny similarities in the two narratives, particularly when they described how this traumatic and testing phase has left them. I shall share a few of those common themes.

 Goodness is real – their belief in the essential goodness of people seems to have been reinforced beyond measure. Help and very timely at that came their way from unpredictable and unimaginable quarters – from unknown strangers on the road to lowly orderlies in the hospital. It seemed to me that they have got rid of a general mistrust of the world and an overblown sense of suspicion about the motives of people. They both found small gestures that sometimes saved them and at other times consoled them during excruciating pain as their dominant memories. Looks like their faith in humanity is truly and permanently restored – in a manner we would not be able to imagine also.

The grand design – they found a very strong role that happy coincidences and nick-of-time help played in their being alive. A colleague who was just there when the emergency happened or the peak hour lift which miraculously did not stop even once during its climb down or a friends friend who just happened to be with the super-busy-difficult-to-get-super-specialist just when he was being wheeled into the hospital – are no longer coincidences alone. They are a part of a grand design to keep them alive – an unseen force that was working behind the scenes to keep them alive. It appeared to them that there is a meaning in everything that is happening around. They can see this grand design very clearly now – even if we cannot the way they do.

Unafraid of future – Describing their own reflections, both hinted how much gloom that the smog of future causes in our lives, mostly with paralysing effects. Looks like only these two have got the real essence and implication of the phrase ‘living in the present’ – the rest of us only parrot the line.
Taking for granted – they rediscovered so many small things that they were taking for granted like climbing stairs or eating samosas or even running. In no uncertain terms the point being made was, within the realm of reasonableness, do not deprive yourself! Eat what you want, do what you like and enjoy wherever you can. The ache of not being able to enjoy the small things was unmistaken, but more than the murmur of regret was the roar of resolve – that nothing shall be taken for granted anymore.

It is in the mind - this epithet that is mouthed so often by so many, and most of times perfunctorily came alive through words and implications in the conversation with both of them .They fought through the grave physical torment compounded by an even graver emotional turmoil only on the dint of spirit. I don’t know what that spirit means – whether that is best described as a will to live or an outright refusal to believe anything is wrong in the first place, almost de-fanging the debility – or may be both; but it was clear that the fight was being won by more than medicines and treatment. In many ways the treatment was the sideshow – their own spirit was central.

They were dipping into a very deep reservoir that lay inside of them – that they had nourished all these years possibly only for this day. I came out of those discussions wondering what was that reservoir for me and how deep it is – and if it shall last me my own journey should there ever be a need to dip into it. I think both of them, through a very testing process have acquired what some spend their whole life struggling to acquire – Wisdom.

Monday Musings 296 - Fixing Internal VUCA.

Monday Musings: Fixing Internal VUCA.
(We are fixing the wrong VUCA !!)

I have a feeling that right after the Indian economy opened up in 1991, for the next 20 years or so, there was no speaker in any conference across India who did not begin his speech with acknowledging the effects of the twin forces of ‘globalisation & liberalisation’. It was as the grand homage paid to the latest buzzword that had been washed up our shores – and we just could not cross the speech without paying obeisance to it. Our reputation of intelligence in people’s eyes appeared to depend on it.

I think we have discovered the rightful heir to this buzzword – VUCA. I have not heard any speaker in any conference in the last few years who does not pay homage to it in his speech. Almost all of them pronounce it with seriousness which is best described as a combination of reverence and delicateness. The fear is palpable as the words come out – as if the mere mention of it will consume the speaker, to the point that it appears concocted. I am told VUCA as a phrase is more than half a century old – although the vigour in its usage appears to be of recent origin.

I am sure VUCA is a remarkable framework to look at the chaos around us – it kind of explains a lot of things. However an over usage of the phrase does not make it go away – just as talking about weight does not make a person lose weight. The external VUCA i.e. all the forces that are raging in complex and convoluted ways that they are – is real. Frankly I do not see what we could possible do about it per se. These forces have a mind of their own and they reorganise their onslaught in unimaginable and inexplicable ways. VUCA, the phrase has given us a framework to make sense of these forces. The only contribution of the phrase as I see it is that it has given a name to the beast.
There are varieties of ways in which we have been told, this VUCA can be dealt with. There are framework solutions to it and there are attribute solutions to it. However neither really tells us – what do we really do when the giant wave of VUCA has hits us? What is the single most important thing that matters at that stage? Here is my argument, albeit running the risk of bordering on oversimplification.

The best way to solve the external VUCA is to first fix the internal VUCA. Each one of us has multiple forces that are colliding with each other - anxieties, fears, insecurities, disillusionments, biases and finally ego. In small measure or large each one of us carry this inside every day as we walk into our work space. That is like multiple combustible elements playing with fire – all ready to explode. Imagine such a mind is at work to solve the external VUCA! Fire does nothing to extinguish fire – except to heighten it.

Most complications arising out of the external VUCA are cognitive in nature – they can be understood with a little application of intelligence. One can be given developmental inputs, sent to training programs and put through experts to give a sense of the problems and its potential solutions. Irrespective of our mastery to solve these, the issue continues to remain outside of us. It’s like a moving target at worst. Now add the complication of trying to shoot this target atop a galloping horse, when you are very angry or disturbed or panicked or agitated. What are the chances you will hit bulls eye?

The flutter in the heart is the worst enemy of a steady hand! Composure and poise are allies during extreme turbulence. They may not extinguish the fire, but it definitely does two things – it enables to choose the right way to douse it.

 At daily work instances of a delayed project deadline, a mistake, a cost overrun, a scripting error, unpreparedness for a high stake presentation, non achievement and non performance are daily occurrences. Watch the leader during these crunch moments – and watch his/her patterns during crunch moments. The pattern will tell a story. It will tell a story of how well the leader mangers his/her internal VUCA. If the tempers run lose and the voices go high most of the times during such circumstances then clearly the leader’s ability to manage the internal VUCA is rather limited. I leave it to the reader’s judgement if such a leader will ever be able to manage the vagaries of external VUCA.

I believe that VUCA is not purely a cognitive concept – beneath the wrapper it is being question. Those of us who have a handle over our own emotions stand a better chance to solve the problems that lie outside us. A leader I heard recently summed it up accurately – ‘’One of the primary tasks of leadership is to absorb nervous energy during crunch moments’’. There are leaders who exude calm during toughest of circumstances and there are those who blow their lid at the least of flutters. It is no one’s guess which team would do better, which team would be happier between the two.
How does this calm and poise to rein the internal VUCA comes from? How is it built? Can it be even learnt? Those are questions for some other time; for now let’s settle this once for all – there is not even a remote chance that external VUCA can be solved for without solving for the internal VUCA.

Declaration – My teams view on  my own ability to manage my internal VUCA is likely to be different my own view.
(First Published in People Matters)

Monday Musings 295 - the US Diaries

The US diaries.

I am in a perpetual state of search – of tales particularly. Sometimes the stories unravel around me and sometimes through me, but the essence is always to search a story in the events. Bereft of stories, events are left with no soul. Most of the times the story in the events is obvious, sometimes it has to be sought and worst cases, the story has to be wrenched out. My favourite is the third one. It is this frame I resorted to the most during my maiden trip to the US. On the basis of my readings and without visiting neither US nor Europe, I must confess the latter has always fascinated me more than the former – so this trip was not coloured by the usual overwhelm of a gawky teenager meeting the love interest for the first time; rather it was a discovery of a soul mate so gradual that it might even pass notice.
I describe my top four fascinations and two interactions as anchors of tales in the following paragraphs.

While growing up I heard this parroted ad nauseum that India’s soul lives in its villages – which I became increasingly doubtful about as I grew up. In fact by the time I became sufficiently sure of my own views, I started to quip, that more than the soul of India living in Indian villages, I was becoming surer of the fact that the soul of India died in its villages. My first visit through the countryside of US cemented my conclusion for the contrast it painfully highlighted. I think US is what it is because of its countryside – vast, beautiful, leisurely, connected yet isolated, in no hurry to become a city. It is very so sure of itself – sufficiently provided for and yet not hungry to multiply mindlessly lest it lost its essence. It is comfortable under its skin. It is not tough on itself. It enjoys the small things and is obsessed in preserving it – like enjoying the sun, the sky, the silence, the space and a general idyll.

The first thing that I noticed about the US is the absolutely stunning network of roads – they support the country like the numerous and complex system of arteries and veins supporting our body. Understanding them is an education in itself – the interstate, intrastate, freeways and parkways; it is clear that the country cannot be understood without understanding its roads. It supports life and its quality like nothing else. Each road has a character – its beat, its rhythm, its tempo. Long miles sweep under you so effortlessly that you wonder if you even moved despite having done so. There is an avuncular concern in the free flow, in smoothness of the surface and the ease of the turns – as if someone has been very mindful of your comfort while designing your home.

 The third and final thing is the visible absence of the ‘machinery of monitoring’ that we are so accustomed to here – either of the state or of private ownership. In my limited travel I found that the tolls are unmanned, many shopping counters are unmanned, the fuel stations are unmanned, traffic signals are unmanned, and the streets, houses, hotels, housing complexes etc do not have heavy and visible bandobast of guards and personnel. I am sure that the country has very advanced and sophisticated ways of protecting itself – but on a day to day level everyone trusts each other to do what is right. There is no larger than life, visible, on-your-face machinery of monitoring that keeps reminding you that ‘you are being observed’. Remarkably everyone does behave themselves.

I got a taste of what it takes to reinforce the sense of nationhood – and why Americans have always took the concept of nationhood so seriously. Washington DC is called the museum capital of the world. There must be a dozen or so museums in a closed few mile radius, each one surpassing the other in terms of size, collection and sheer richness. Many of them have rich documentation of building of the American way of life, of the history that precedes, the toil that the ancestors have gone through to build this country. Even though one can argue that this representation captures only the American perspective – but the emphasis to capture the sweep of time, so that the coming generation learns from and keeps the memory of that struggle alive is impressive. As waves and waves of school children visit these places, the next generation American is getting built – without any need to be loud and jingoistic about it. I spent the most time at the Holocaust Museum at the behest of a very close friend; the one which captures the gruesome and bone chilling history of the Holocaust. A poster outside remarked something like this ‘’...we must remember what happened; so that it does not happen the next time’’. I immediately wondered if we will ever have a museum on the various riots, pogroms and genocides in India. There is something about nation building that the Americans definitely know a thing or two about.

The two human interactions I have chosen to write about are fascinating in their own way.
Rahmat, the Pakistani Uber driver who came to pick me up for a short drive in downtown Manhattan, soon realised that he was ferrying Indians. We started talking. Soon he laughed on his own joke that it was so difficult to get away from a traffic ticket in New York – had it been Peshawar a fifty rupee would have taken care of any rule violation. We were gone only half the distance that he closed the trip on his mobile, saying that had it been Peshawar he would have treated guests with Tea – but this is the least he could do as hospitality. I was fascinated, stunned and overwhelmed at his gesture – frankly not knowing what to feel and how to react at the unexpected warm display of hospitality by an unknown Pakistani. He had the right name I guess – Rehmat, an Urdu word for Kindness, Blessings.

Chemal, pronounced as Shemal, was a young college educated Turkish driver who took us for a quick tour of downtown Manhattan. It was fascinating talking to him about the growing deterioration of Turkish politics, its increasing flirtation with overt religiousness in public life, the utter lack of infrastructure in Istanbul – which frankly could be the story of a Mumbai or a Delhi too. I asked him if he wanted to buy more vehicles – to which he smiles and answers ‘’ I want to open a business soon. US is a great place to start a business.’’ I am touched by his fiery ambition, his clarity and finally his groundedness as he bids me goodbye with a parting comment ‘’Next time you come, my English will be better’’.

Post Script – Fairly impressed by US, I asked this only once to my friend, but I must admit it struck me more than once – ‘’How such a fine country chose someone like Trump’’!!

Monday Musings 294: Fickleness

Monday Musings - Fickleness

Nothing troubles team members more than fickleness in their leader. Fickleness comes camouflaged differently and so might be difficult to gauge in what form and shape it will come each time. Most leadership development journeys bypass this attribute, perhaps with the assumption that this is assumed to be present in the leader. One only wished it was true!

The dictionary meaning of the word ‘fickle’ is fascinating - “changing frequently, especially as regards ones loyalties or affections.’’. This says it all in the context of the workplace.

 We expect our leaders to be steadfast in their beliefs, although distinguishing it from being inflexible or rigid. We want them to be aware of the foundations of what positions they hold, the philosophies they espouse and hence see inconsistencies in their decisions, policies and prescriptions. This clarity or the lack of it is at the heart of a subordinate’s ability for meaningful and productive action. In a world turbocharged with flux and characterised by ambiguity enhancers, this clarity has a premium on its head – and to say that it is rarer than what we assume, is to state the obvious.

The fickleness emerges from shifts of the two dimensions mentioned in the definition above – either there is a shift in loyalties or the affections. Loyalties shift with shift in the winds, political equations or power dynamics within teams or amongst teams. The brunt of these shifts in loyalty is often borne by the last man standing. My favourite however is shift in affections – for this is the purest form of fickleness, for it emerges from the deepest recess of the individual. It is just that the leader wakes up from a different side of the bed that particular morning and voila – the sands have shifted! All reasoning and explanations happen thereafter. The fads of all kinds, the fancies that catch our attention and the whims that govern us are born out of this very affliction – that the affections have shifted. Hell hath no fury, than a boss who just had a brainwave!

The team member who is at the receiving end of this fickleness can only be pitied. He does not even know what is going on. What was till yesterday sacrilege has become the toast of the town now – and vice versa. What was old fashioned, repetitive and a shameless attempt to ape the competition has been raised to a pedestal suddenly and hailed as the next breakthrough. What was ‘paralysis by analysis’ yesterday is now a sharp insight based on deep analysis – and vice versa. Even before the team member settles into the new normal, the kettle is stirred again – and guess why; the boss just had a new brainwave!

Fickleness comes camouflaged as many things – it comes cloaked as ideation, generating multiple options, flexibility, and worst of them all – as responsiveness. All the cloaks are worthy virtues in themselves if pursued purely and honestly, but as cloaks they become ornamental, hollow and mere sloganeering. They generate only cynicism. If only we could measure the fickleness index of leaders and the impact it has on the loss of productivity of teams and individuals!!

Fickleness afflicts both at the macro and micro level. At the macro level it means a shifting strategy or strategic elements even before the previous strategic choices have had time to settle, mature and give results. It means modifying and in worst cases reversing directions and decisions that were taken with so much fanfare only recently. It is not uncommon to see the swings between expansion and consolidation, growth and cost cutting, centralisation and decentralisation, hiring and firing every few years if not every few quarters.

The fickleness at the micro is more entertaining. Let’s take the case of a presentation taken to a boss and you may meet with any of the following three responses.
1. ‘Not-sure’: you have worked through the night to make the presentation the leaders asked you for only to realise that the brief changed the next morning. The multiple briefs make it the game of perpetually shifting goal posts, all in the name of ‘continuous improvement’.
2. ‘Lets-make-it-better’: you have submitted the tenth version but it still can be made better – so what if the difference between the first version and the tenth one is only the change in the colour scheme of the slide!
3. ‘Something-is-missing’: this is the toughest one because this boss is an artist; he purses his lips, raises eyebrows, rubs his face with Socratic thoughtfulness and passes the verdict – ‘something is missing’. Never, ever make the mistake of asking ‘what’!
So what is the last word on this? There is no last word actually. I might change my verdict soon and be charged of being fickle!

(first published in People Matters, August 2017)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Monday Musings 293 - The shadow of Past Lives

Monday Musings: The Shadow of Past Lives

I must have been killed in an ethnic strife in my past life.

I have always found this whole thing about past life regressions and the desire to know what we were in our past lives downright bizarre. Every time I saw the ludicrous TV show and its brain-dead content on past life regressions, my senses got assaulted. I mean who has the time to try to find out what happened in the past life when there is absolutely no way we know what is happening in this one. For all that I know I was a lizard or a snake or a cockroach or an earthworm in my past life – none of which I could boast of in any conceivable way today.

Cut to a very different subject - There is something about ethnic strife that has always made me feel wrenched from within. I discovered this in installements. It all started during my B school when out of serendipity I chose Israel as the country to study for a class project. As I read more and more about the Jews as a people and their thousands of years of persecution, first in early civilisations and thereafter the holocaust, something broke in my heart. I experienced their pain in a way I had not experienced ever before. I could not explain to myself what happened as studied more and more about them. How could a people manage to hold their dignity, brilliance and tenacity so gracefully across thousands of years? What were they made up of? What does it take for a people to hold on to their identity on the face of so much adversity, so much persecution and so much violence? I knew I was not in my senses when to a question by my professor during the presentation on Israel, if I would invest in Israel, then a country besieged with war – I answered YES. I knew something in me had decisively shifted – that I was identifying with the story of the Jews and Israel more than what I had reasons to. Many books and many movies later, the subject of Jews and what they went through continues to move me in ways I cannot explain to myself.

My second epiphany happened on the subject of partition of India. Our family had no extreme experience of partition so this anguish does not run in the subconscious memory of my ancestors. However all literature around partition makes me go marshmallow in my soul. Movies, poetry and personal stories from families I have met over the years makes a dent in my heart. When the grandparents of a very close friend of mine expressed with longingness the desire to of the streets of their roots in Pakistan, something snapped in me. I cried when I first saw the Google TV ad around two friends across the border. I could not stop myself from finding out and writing to the marketing guy with Google. I cannot skip any article or ignore any movie that is based on Partition. I read the heart wrenching tales of human strife and the permanent debris it left in its wake for many generations, as if it was my strife. I continue to be moved by it.

The third epiphany was when a very close friend of mine shared his father’s longing for his roots in Bangladesh – and how the exodus from there to India in the wake of the ethnic violence has never left him even now. I was never able to explain why the story of his father felt as if it was mine. Recently I am told he traced his father’s school and some very old connections. I was overjoyed for no logical reason.

Last week on the margins of a conference I attended I met a few Sri Lankans. A lady amongst them shared during small conversation that she was born to a Tamilian father and a Sinhalese mother – and that they were practicising Christians. I was not surprised with myself when the next half an hour or so I was hooked into her story. The identify mix up between a Tamil, Sinhalese and Christian layers, the early violence as they were caught up in the crossfire of the strife, the reactions of erstwhile friends and the society at large – and now when things appear to be normal, how moving on has its own dynamics. Quite predictably the story lingered on long after it was told.

Coming back to where I began – for someone who watched the past life regressions with so much disdain and who continues to hold that whole process with the same disdain, I cannot explain why stories of ethnic strife, ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing makes me feel the way they do. There are many more kind of miseries around – but they do not move me this way. I am on the verge of this conclusion – I must have been killed in an ethnic strife in my past life.

Monday Musings 292 - The Myth of a Perfect Employee

The myth of a perfect employee

 (First Published in ''Peoples Matter' July 2017 Issue)

While gemology, a science dedicated to the pursuit of study of gems, is a vast geological field of enquiry, the aspect of it which deals with its colours is of particular intrigue – and with significant lessons for us in the field of leadership and employee fitment.

An elementary study of precious stones will tell us that there are precious stones like diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald, while all other gemstones being semi-precious. Sapphire and Ruby, two of the most popular gems are actually cousins - both are corundum’s i.e. made up of aluminium oxide, but differ in the nature of impurities that are embedded in them respectively. The impurity chromium gives it a red hue and is called a Ruby, while an impurity of Iron or titanium will give it a blue or green or pink of purple colour and it will then be called a Sapphire.

 Beryl, chemically beryllium aluminium cyclosilicate is a large joint family. The same culprit chromium there gives it a green colour and then it’s called an emerald; the impurity of iron gives it a golden colour. The list is endless and the gem lovers have these impurities a lot to thank for; what would have been the appeal of a ruby or a sapphire or an emerald without its colour!
An impurity or an imperfection so to speak, is the reason for the value of the stone. Take away its imperfection and it’s just a stone. Human beings treat an imperfection in a very different way. It’s something to be detested, hated, criticized, corrected, feed backed, harped endlessly to the point of being nagging and frustrating, brought up needlessly and tactlessly at most inopportune times. It usually passes our attention that what appears as an imperfection may something only that we do not like, something that only we are not comfortable accepting, or something that is unacceptable to our sensibilities and not something that may be fundamentally or universally unlikable or wrong or bad. Our own sensibilities cannot and must not decide what an imperfection in a human being is arguably.
Aggression, forthrightness, ambition, result orientation, candour, courage so on and so forth can be virtues with double edges. One man’s food can be another man’s poison – what can be one persons strength will be classified as another ones area of development! Who knows for better or for worse, how a person might look once you take away what to some appears as an imperfection. Take away the impurity of chromium and a ruby is just another stone.

 It would be wise, before we judge in people what would be an impurity to our eyes, for if he were to get rid of it, he might also rid himself of his greatest strength, the one thing that might be his greatest ally in the pursuit of an outcome. Not all imperfections need to be eradicated in human beings - mostly it’s not possible, sometimes it’s not desired.

Nature perhaps teaches us a thing or two about tolerance to imperfections. Only in human world the notion of purity or perfection is so vehemently defended and even propagated – assuming that it is even possible in the first place. Let’s look at this through the lens of an example, even though it might be an extreme and controversial one. The doggedness in a founder to make an otherwise untested concept into a profitable scalable business also makes him/her ignore its effects on culture and ethos, as the recent Uber saga tells us. Unfortunately it’s the same doggedness that has been responsible for both – the meteoric rise of Uber as well as its cultural fault lines. Who knows if Uber would ever have become what it has, had Travis Kalanick not what he has been, with all his imperfections, failings and strength. Just a clarification needed to put the argument in context – this is not to defend personality imperfections or justify toxic behaviours, or the fundamental premise if human beings could become better than what they are; this is only to point out that on an average human being comes as a package of what they are brilliant at and a bit of quirks and imperfections hard wired in them. Within the limits of propriety, upholding ethics and law, one must allow space for employees to exist with their own overall skin of unique talents and peculiar quirks. The whole pursuit of having perfect employees is at best a fanciful idea, not supported by nature.

While dealing with human beings, the big question to ask is, can the impurities or imperfections be valued for what it is, or what it can be, rather than what it is not or what it shall never be?.

Monday Musings 291 - PISA is Paisa Wasool

Monday Musings: PISA is Paisa Wasool !

For the uninitiated, PISA is the Program for the International Student Assessment, a global test that is barometer for the average intelligence or academic performance of the 15 year olds across the globe. The Economist suggests that the US is concerned about its kids being piped by the kids from Shanghai who have been beating the hell out the American kids in these tests for a while – and the experiments to ascertain the reasons thereof have been indicating that the Chinese kids seem to be working harder than everyone else.

I have not stopped smiling since the time I read this story, particularly because in the next room from where I write this, my elder daughter is being hauled up on hot coals for deep sins like not doing home work and not being sufficiently attentive at school. I am relieved that my better half does not know that Americans are worried that the Chinese kids are studying harder than their kids, otherwise my daughters’ woes would only multiply. As if it was not enough to keep up with the kids from Borivali that she now has to worry about keeping up with the kids from Boston!
Way back in 1983, in a report commissioned by Ronald Reagan, ‘’A nation at Risk’’ it was warned that there is (in US) ‘’a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people’’ (and wait till you read the next line) – ‘’than in letting others surpass its educational achievement, America has been committing an act of unthinking unilateral educational disarmament’’. They did not pay heed to the report then and have landed up with the kind of President that they have. Not all government reports are trash you see.

My intent today is to search humour because on a rainy Sunday evening my need to smile is higher than my need to be concerned. In any case the Chinese are sending their goods here and not their kids – the former thankfully not as brilliant in quality than the later - also because the voices from the other room have yet not abated.

Just imagine what would happen if such a study be done in India? Imagine an Indian PISA report saying something like ‘’Kids from Bihar are working harder than kids from Mumbai’’ – what would it do to the arguments of sons-of-the-soil? What if the report said ‘’kids from so and so religion/caste/region work harder than other’’.

I think I am getting carried away by the Economist – an Indian report on a subject like this will never be written in terms of ‘effort’ i.e. that one set appears to be working harder than the other set ! Perhaps the Indian report would give credit to everything else – DNA, history, political ideologies etc.

The noises from the other room have still not subsided – I just heard a threat being issued, something about ‘being responsible’. I wonder how do American mothers scold their children ‘study hard or you will have to sell Noodles for the Chinese’. As a son to a blue blooded authentic Punjabi, I can safely argue that the most creative and sinister threats for not studying hard enough can only be given in a Punjabi household. (Usually Punjabi kids are not threatened – they are first beaten, thereby obviating the need for soft and ineffective methods like threats) The one of which I was a hapless recipient was ‘’Study or you will become a truck driver’’. I never managed to reply back that instead of serving as a threat it appeared a very classy and exciting career option. My friends discovered the joys of driving an SUV very late. I grew up with super big SUVs – it’s just that we called them trucks.
For now PISA is more a paisa wasool drama because it’s a US-China thing. We shall see when the Indians get involved. Till then I have matters to solve in the other room – the Chinese kids are coming you see!!


Monday Musings 290 - Columnist or Novelist

Monday Musings: Columnist or Novelist

Although I do not remember exactly where, but I read this poignant difference between a columnist and a novelist; a columnist writes for the day and most often what he writes for the day is a part of trash the next day while a novelist writes with at least the intention of seeing his work outlast him. It had struck me then that while this may be a debatable definition for some, it had some ring of truth in it. It is not a surprise that most of us will struggle to remember names of columnists who would have ruled the column inches half a century ago while we can rattle many a names of accomplished novelists still widely read and relevant even after half a century or more. In fact many a times those remarkable novelists actually seem more and more relevant with each passing decade, sometimes acquiring cult status long after they are dead and gone. I thought there was something that leadership in the corporate world could reflect from this distinction.

It is not uncommon to find leaders who work for the day or the quarter or the year at best. Many of them are quite smart and sharp and have had the privilege of the best possible education and exposure. Yet once in a while there comes a leader who refuses to fall prey to the very real and very pragmatic lure of fixing the current leak instead of looking into the quality of the pipe itself! The lure of ‘today’ is not very easy to resist; there is exhilaration in solving for the day. It gives a ‘sugar rush’ that misleads energy for nutrition, to borrow a dietary metaphor.

The columnist enjoys his fame every morning only to realise it by noon that he needs another one for tomorrows morning. He has to find newer and often more dramatic ways to capture the attention of his readers every day morning, day after day. It is a kind of pressure that makes us often slip on the slope of populism. God help the team and organisation who lives for the day – even though there is indeed a struggle for existence daily. The aphorism behind which this is sought to be intelligently hidden is often ‘’without the short term there is no long term’.

A novel and by implication the novelist on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. It is hard labour – of thinking deeply about the plot and the characters, of doing the meaningful work of fleshing out those characters and what they would stand for; of at least having the broad understanding of the sequence of events, the drama, the tension and the wide flow of the narrative and finally ascertaining how it would connect with the reader at a very deep level.

A good novel is written when it finds resonance for the voice of many even if it is being written as the voice of one. A good novelist is adept at finding the echo of the collective even as she begins the search for her own voice. There is universality even in her uniqueness – and a novelist transcends those boundaries. Leaders have a thing or two to learn from this.

Finally even as the flow of events in a novel takes the plot and the characters forward, each growing in meaning, significance and stature and by the time the reader flips the last page both the readers and the characters find solace in the meaningfulness of the journey. It makes the tumult every bit worth its while.

 So what distinguishes a columnist and a novelist at a very fundamental level and what can leadership learn from the distinction – even though there is merit in the thought that in real corporate world we need to be both; that there is symphony in the balance between both.
I believe at the very fundamental level the novelist has a far greater sense of the long term than the columnist. A novelist is not in a hurry – she is willing to give the characters time to build, the story time to evolve. She recognises that institution building is a slow and painstaking process; that speed might have virtues but has great follies too.

The second distinction is that a novelist, while having an eye for the reader’s approval is not held ransom by it. She is willing to go three levels beneath the issue, unravelling human motives and angst layer by layer. The novelist appears to be far less prone to populism for the day, far more courageous to say things that might hurt current sensibilities but things that must be said and confronted if any meaningful breakthrough has to be accomplished.

The third distinction is a distinction of style of narrative- a novelist uses characters to bring out contrarian points of view. It has a far less chance of being perceived as pontification or sermons this way than a columnist. Real people get inspired by real stories and not by intellectual abstractions and concepts.

The fourth and final distinction between them that leaders in the corporate world can possibly learn from is the rather obvious deep embedding of the author in a novel than a columnist in a column. There is so much of the author and her experiences and her stake in the novel that it is quite impossible to decant the novelist from the novel. This adds so much more credibility for the novelist in the eyes of the reader. The columnist and the column, and this need not be really so but appears to be more and more true, usually appears to be two different entities. We relate to the messenger as much and perhaps more, than the message. Our ability to assimilate and act on a message becomes so much more when we realise that the messenger has equal or even more stake in the message. The corporate world usually says this differently – ‘’there is skin in the game’.

For the record – I like novelists and columnists in equal measure; but if push comes to shove my vote will be for the former.
(first published in People's Matter - July 2017)
|| @musingsbyguru

289 - Monday Musings: The vagaries of the Marriage Market!

Monday Musings: The vagaries of the Marriage Market!

When the Economic times front page declares the league tables in the marriage bazaar is undergoing a shakeout then one must sit up and take notice. The news item screams that the lure of IT in the marriage bazaar is fading and quotes a real matrimonial ad advising that IT engineers not to apply. I have read of many ways of diagnosing the waxing and waning of the fortunes of a sector – but studying the matrimonial ads for it... is certainly the most novel of them.

I feel sorry for the IT engineers, but only for a second. Thereafter it is all glee and rejoicing – its poetic justice served even more poetically because for over two decades they have ruled the charts and made others feel like children of a lesser God. All these years they have been hailed as the modern version of knights in shining armour, galloping with their coding abilities in one hand and the promiscuity of a green card in another – the perfect candidate, the prized catch that most aspired for and a few got to. Finally as they fall from grace, karma catches up with them. Now they will know what it felt to be a mechanical engineer or a B Pharmacy or worse still a BA – Arts!!
It is clear that there is a certain caste system that works like the invisible hand in the market dynamics of open sourced marriages – the nautanki of arranged marriages are immune to this because they function like government controlled sectors, immune to the secular market forces of supply and demand.

However and thankfully, this caste system, contrary to its original cousin, is dynamic – as the fall from grace of the IT engineers clearly demonstrates. Some profiles have clearly held their sway across time zones – like the IAS, IPS and its myriad cousins. Despite the murkiness generally associated with them, they still command a certain premium. I am waiting eagerly for the market forces to do their job soon on them too. The day will be a red letter day when a matrimonial ad will warn ‘Bureaucrats need not apply’’.

Doctors, Engineers and Civil servants (I am still looking for what is Civil in them) have ruled the roost for many decades now. Will the following ever happen? – ‘Teachers will be preferred’; ‘Filmmakers must certainly apply’; ‘Arts and humanities must apply’; ‘Writers, Painters and musicians – where art thou?’! It appears that the movers and shakers of civilization have always been considered as products with poor velocity from the shelves of the marriage bazaar – products that people buy only when nothing else is available at the moment and the need is acute.
I must thank the Economic times for publishing a news item with so much consequence on its front page. It speaks volumes about the quality of business journalism. What’s next folks?