Person-led to Process-driven, Making the critical transformation

When a caterpillar looks in the mirror it does not see a butterfly. Yet hidden in that form is the potential to take the epitome of sluggishness and transform it into the epitome of grace, lightness and flight. The only condition is that the very nature of the thing must change completely. Caterpillars have no choice in the matter. People and businesses do. And therein lies the trap. The trap to remain the way you are, eating leaves and grass, crawling from place to place and thereby miss the opportunity to eat nectar and fly from flower to flower at will. Why would someone choose to be a caterpillar over being a butterfly? Because the status quo is always more comfortable and after all, when the caterpillar looks in the mirror, it does not see a butterfly!!! Also caterpillars are friends with other caterpillars because butterflies don’t crawl. I hope you understand what I am alluding to.

Family businesses need a similar transformation if they seriously intend to become global players in the world market. A transformation that is intrinsic, primordial, intense and painful but which then opens the doors into a world that they did not even know, exists. A world of global influence, great wealth and power and the potential to leave behind a legacy that lives on long after the founders have gone the way of all life. The choice is ours. It is not an easy choice. It is not a quick fix transformation that will happen without serious effort. It is not a course of action that will not meet opposition from other caterpillars. However, as I said, the choice is ours to make.

One thing that I learnt in my practice is that in the East, the family business is more about family than about business. Consequently religion, culture, social norms, family connections, marriage alliances, tradition and manners play a very big role in how the business is run. None of these things may find mention in a conventional business school course but are prime movers for all decision making in the families that eventually hire the products of the business schools. That is why in family business consulting, knowledge of the culture and religion is essential to understand the way in which decisions are made and why they are made. It is only when the consultant is culturally sensitive and knowledgeable that s/he can suggest solutions which are likely to be accepted. I have seen too many cases of Western consultants suggesting good ideas, but which are not accepted because they don’t fit into the cultural/religious context of the family. I have seen families take decisions which were not the best for the business but which were more acceptable in the cultural context.

This is certainly true for Indian subcontinent and Middle Eastern cultures but may well have elements that apply to other cultures as well. I have focused on these two cultures as I have an ‘insider’s view’ of them and therefore the advantage of knowing extensively how these cultures work. That gives me the benefit of perspective from which I am able to conceptualize the processes involved and help family business owners see the changes that they need to make in order to transform. It enables me to empathize with the specific cultural challenges that they face, the emotional dilemmas, the complexity of multiple roles and multiple role players. It enables me to suggest solutions to them in syntax that makes sense to them and to show them ways of accomplishing the transformation in ways that protect their particular vulnerabilities. Having grown up in these cultures and having studied the languages and theology of the religions, I am also aware of the very different interpretation of time that Eastern cultures have, compared to the West. It is not that time does not have value or that there is no sense of urgency. It is just that time has a different meaning and urgency is interpreted in terms of many different factors that impact on the way business is done in these cultures.

Let me give you an example: One is about a family business in India which is a very large infrastructure corporation that builds highways, airports, bridges and such large projects. This family also has a sugar mill in their village, which they still run though almost always, it makes losses. When I was discussing some issues of the business with the founder, he mentioned this sugar mill. My instant reaction coming out of my own very Western training and business degree was, “Why on earth do you still have that sugar mill? It just doesn’t fit in with anything else in your portfolio and takes up a lot of your personal time and resources while the profits it makes are not worth taking about. Why don’t you just sell it?”

He is a very gentle man. Most unlike the popular profile of the billionaire industrialist that he is. He said to me softly, “Sir, those people depend on us, you see.”

I asked, “Which people?”

He said, “O! The people of our village and other villages in that area. They grow sugarcane and we are the only sugar mill in that whole area. If we close, they have nowhere to sell their produce. This business does not make us money, but it is their only source of livelihood. How can I sell it?”

“But the new buyer will run it and they will have their income,” I said; still thinking with my business consultant hat on.

He simply replied, “But the buyer will not be one of them, you see. I am one of them. They are mine. To the buyer it will be a business. For me this is a legacy. I have to honor it.” And that closed the case.

Family is family: There is always a difference between ‘insiders’ who are family members and ‘outsiders’ who are not related. Some of these differences may be overt as in rules applied differently. Some may be covert and under the surface but still clearly visible to everyone, as in forms of address, precedence, who can go to the Chairman’s home uninvited. In many families the business is treated as an extension of the family home and the same roles of elder and younger apply.

Employees are ‘servants’ and in India the word ‘Malik’ (Owner) is used to refer to the business head. The connotation is not limited to the legal issue of business ownership but is extended to the ‘Malik’ being viewed as the ‘Owner’ of everyone who works for him. Loyalty is therefore a very personal thing and is experienced as such. Someone who is not completely in sync with the ‘Malik’ has really no future in the business. Being in sync is often interpreted as being subservient. This means that any difference of opinion can mean a quick termination of career in the business. For family members this is even more complex because in many cases they have literally ‘nowhere to go’ if they leave the family fold.

 Guaranteed employment: Every male (in some families daughters also enter the business) member enters the business as a matter of course, whether there is any need for him or not. So, many don’t even look elsewhere. Many don’t care if they do well at school or not as they are sure of a job. Such default entries later have trouble inspiring and leading executive staff who are career driven. Such staff compare the family leaders to business leaders that they may have experienced in multinational process driven businesses and if they don’t measure up positively, professionals have trouble being led by them. Some professionals play politics and decide not to rock the boat and accept the incompetent family member in order to keep their jobs. There is an overall lowering of standard of leadership in the business and profitability and growth suffers.

Guaranteed career progress and no door marked ‘Exit’:

Like employment, career progress is also guaranteed. After all the family rarely promotes an ‘outsider’ over the head of an ‘insider’. So, the family member will always get his promotion, even if it means that someone else does the work. I have seen many examples of this in the Middle East where the professional manager does the work while the family member is busy fulfilling decorative purposes. Needless to say, the same logic extends to family members leaving the organization. After all, just as you can’t steal from yourself, you also can’t leave yourself. So, no exits for any of the reasons that are guaranteed to send ‘outsiders’ into orbit. This encourages complacency. In some families the incompetent member is shifted to some other part of the business where he proceeds to spread his negative influence, only to be moved elsewhere when he has done sufficient damage. The power of the bad apple must never be underestimated.

Hardship is what hungry Indians have to undergo: When a Western child leaves his food the mother says, “Think of all the starving Indians. Don’t leave your food.” As if by his eating, the bellies of starving Indians would be filled. What I am alluding to is almost all 2nd and 3rd generation family members would never have seen financial hardship. They would never have known what it means to want something but not be able to afford it. For the 1st generation founder it is almost a matter of honor not to allow his family to ‘suffer’ what he may have suffered in the startup phase. The fact that this suffering, built character, resilience, energy, self-reliance and confidence is lost sight of. As a reaction to the hardship that he endured, the founder tries to give the ‘best’ to his children. It is in the definition of ‘best’ that the complexity lies. Usually ‘best’ means easiest, most comfortable, cushiest, most expensive, and most glamorous. This only encourages decadence, self-importance, false sense of security and a love of ease. For Generation 2 & 3 getting money to buy something is a simple matter of asking Daddy or if Daddy is reluctant then asking Mommy to facilitate the process which most mothers are only too happy to do. For many even that is not required because all that they really want is usually given to them on one occasion or other and for the rest there is oodles of pocket money.

The other side of the coin: The ‘Burden of the Family’

Who loses his seat? Who loses his head? Who loses his job? Who loses his home? Who gets paid first? Who takes the first salary cut?

In the case of family businesses, the other side of the coin is the other meaning of ‘Family is after all family’. These are the people to whom the place really belongs. So, they are the ones who in the end will be left holding the can if something goes wrong. Many founders hock everything including their wife’s jewelry, their homes and their reputations to raise funds. If the business fails, they stand to lose everything, while a professional who works in that company simply walks away to another job and talks about the last job as a ‘learning experience’. The potential of loss to the owner is far more personal. He is the one who will pay the price personally for the risk. No matter how dedicated the employee may be he is not personally liable. Similarly, if things get tough the founder is the first one to forego his salary and to take a salary cut while it is a matter of honor for him to ensure that his staff never has to do the same. Rare indeed is the staff member who volunteers to take a salary cut when the going gets tough. This is the single most critical factor that builds the ‘insider’ – ‘outsider’ mindset.

I have seen situations where a close friend who was with the founder at the start got an ‘insider’ status because of how he helped the latter in a tough situation even though he was not a family member. Some of these outsider-insiders become powerful beyond measure and wield authority even over younger family members. This becomes the cause of much heartache among the younger generation, but they can do little about it as long as the sponsor of the insider-outsider is alive. It is this sense of personal commitment to the business that truly distinguishes the owner from others.

 Speed is the result of power: Owner versus Employee:

Play by the rules versus make new rules: Another factor in the discussion that we have been having is the power of the owner to decide things. Customers like to deal with owners because they can get decisions fast. The owner has the power to decide, to change rules to make new rules, and choose to do business in new ways. Most employees must follow policy guidelines and so are slowed down, and their hands are tied in some cases. Many owners are very wary of handing over authority to other family members, let alone employees and like to make all decisions themselves. Many take pride in micromanaging oblivious to the fact that this is the biggest barrier to the growth and development of the business. They are themselves involved in all kinds of minor decisions which leaves them little time or inclination to think about the long term or to work on expansion or diversification. In the end of course, everything adds up and the result is not beneficial, to say the least.

One of the interesting things about culture in family businesses is the extent to which the personal culture of the family becomes the culture of the business. For example in India, Africa and the Middle East (and in Indian and Middle Eastern family businesses elsewhere), the joint family culture continues to be the operative, dominant culture in most business families. In this culture hierarchies are rigidly defined, can’t possibly be superseded and are a matter of birth and end with death.  The patriarch is the head of the family and remains the head until his death, no matter how old or feeble he may become. He is succeeded by the eldest surviving male member of the family, either his brother or son. And this continues. In this system if you are not fortunate enough to be born early then your turn at leadership will probably never come and there is nothing that you can do about it except to break away. And that is what often happens.

Naturally this does not happen overnight and over time a lot of resentment builds up at imposed authority that is sanctioned by society. Politics within the family also starts up with different people taking sides. Women play a very powerful behind the scenes role where they influence their men in one way or the other. Tradition and social rituals and customs add to the resentment. The family hierarchy dictates social standing and so the younger ones must kowtow to the elders in all public ceremonies and functions no matter how much they may dislike doing it. Boundaries of official and personal interaction are blurred. As one young man from a very prominent Indian business family said in a group once, “The Chairman to you, is Tauji (Uncle-the father’s elder brother) to me. I go home with him, you don’t. I have to touch his feet, you don’t.”  What happens in the office becomes an extension of what happens in the home. Causes for resentment can be many and powerful. Loyalties are by blood relationships which sometimes get influenced by marriage. ‘Scion A’ marries the daughter of his uncle and then his ties with that part of the family become stronger. Not that he will be disloyal to his father but when it comes to competing with his brothers, he will have the additional force of the uncle’s side of the family behind him.

For an outsider (consultant) to even understand these dynamics it is almost obligatory to be an insider first. Meaning that you need to know the native language of the family and be from or have a deep understanding of the culture/religion that the family follows. The boundaries between religion and culture are also blurred and many things which actually have nothing to do with the religion but are really elements of the local culture, get the sanctity of religious rituals. And since they have been followed for centuries in cultures that have a high degree of connection with their roots, they have great influencing power. For a Western mind it is very difficult to understand how family history and tradition that is centuries old can have any relevance at all today. But in the East history is a living thing. It may not all be factual, but it is believed nevertheless and gives us a sense of identity and belonging which is highly valued and jealously guarded. Like all things there are two sides to this as well.

On the one hand Westerners are not weighed down by tradition but then they often don’t have a strong sense of identity with the large extended family group. Easterners however have a very strong sense of who they are and what they stand for; things which come very much in handy especially during stressful times. They have a strong connection with their roots and family bonds are very strong. ‘Family’ in these cultures is not merely confined to nuclear relationships but a vast extended network involving marriage alliances and children of what in the West would be several separate families. All are seen as part of the clan and each has its privileges and responsibilities in a rigidly stratified system. In societies where the state does not bear the burden of social security, the family ties are critical to survival. This is recognized and respected and where necessary, enforced. People are not always free to do whatever they want because what they choose to do can jeopardize the whole system and others may suffer the consequences. So, freedom is not experienced in the same way as it is in the West. Mutual responsibility is a big consideration in Eastern cultures. There is always someone to take care of you, but with this comes the burden of tradition and all its boundaries.

Honor is a big part of the equation and public opinion is a living thing that influences decisions strongly. For example, I have seen in several Muslim and Hindu business families (it is amazing how many traditions are similar) that as a mark of respect, the younger members of the family will not sit in the presence of the patriarch or any of his siblings, the uncles, unless invited to do so. Neither will they smoke or even speak or laugh loudly in their presence, even if the elders do, as a mark of deep respect for them. This behavior is expected, rewarded and its absence strongly objected to and even sanctioned when the young one refuses to give up his ‘waywardness’. The conditioning however is so strong that I have personally never seen any instance of anyone defying this tradition of ‘showing respect’ to elders.

The question of course is not about sitting or standing but the carry forward of this tradition of showing respect into the Board room. Which son, who will not even sit in the presence of his father, would or could speak against his father’s point of view, especially in the presence of others?  In such a scenario what chance do you think an ‘outsider’ professional manager has of taking a stance opposed to the heavy weights in the family? Professional managers are also judged by the same yardstick, the degree to which they are seen as ‘loyal’. In these cultures, power is derived from your identity, from who you are. Not from what you have or have done. Achievement is important but is second to the position of birth. So, if an elder member is not performing on par in the business, he is almost never questioned, because of his social position. In many families a younger one is put as an understudy to him, but with the unspoken responsibility to take up the slack and see that the commercial results come. It is a very subtle system and for the most part worked well as long as the market remained the way it was, with the future being an extrapolation of the past. However today, when the future is nothing like the past, this system is showing a lot of strain, if not becoming completely out of place. Consequently the need to make the business process driven.

In one very large Indian business family it is the tradition that when the patriarch travels anywhere, one of the managers of the company that he is visiting is always in attendance, 24 x 7. While he is sleeping in the bedroom in the guest house, the manager (and must be a fairly senior one, not some pipsqueak) sits in the living room, watching TV with the volume turned down, right through the night. Every 8 hours the shift changes. Reason? ‘In case he calls.’ It is also the expected form that the head of the location meets the flight and formally ‘receives’ the visiting patriarch or uncles at the airport and sees them off, no matter what time the flight may come in or leave. His wife is expected to be in attendance likewise on the wife of the visitor if she accompanies her husband. This rule extends to the next generation also but with more junior members of the professional management taking the place of the location head.

That is why in that corporation it is an unwritten rule only to hire people from the same religious community, who may not be related to the family but because they follow the same socio-religious cultural customs, they understand them and will know what to do and will not resent the servile overtones. On the contrary for them, to be chosen to be in attendance is seen as a sign of high favor and an honor and is a source of perceived power for the individual. Closeness to the seat of power devolves power upon the individual. Many professionals have reported in survey after survey that one of the principal reasons they join family organizations is for the chance to be close to the source of power. In a large multi-national this may never happen. It was not a simple punishment when in the days of old someone was banished from the ‘Presence’. That was almost as good as getting a death sentence. Being banished from the presence of the seat of power meant that you no longer mattered. Not many survived that banishment.

In the Eastern tradition disagreement is often viewed as opposition and therefore by inference as disloyalty. Disloyalty in this system is a capital crime. Nothing is considered worse. And that is why those who are considered loyal are forgiven all other ‘sins’. Things like contribution to the business, demonstrated entrepreneurship, ability to inspire others and take them with you, are all way down on the list of priorities. The last one is also sometimes viewed with suspicion and the individual is seen as a potential threat, especially if he or she is unwise enough to rock the boat. This is one big reason why in most Indian and Middle Eastern family businesses succession is neither planned nor successors consciously developed. Capable successors are feared.

And since there is no legitimate way to succeed the only way is to break away or overthrow the older generation. Our histories are replete with instances of dynasties where rulers lost their seats by virtue of losing their heads, literally, at the hands of their own sons and brothers.  There is much confusion in most business families about what to do with non-contributing family members. The only way of ‘taking care’ of family seems to be by keeping them in the business. However negative or incompetent people have a disastrous effect on the morale of others, especially when they are themselves seen as powerful by association with the family. I am not talking about someone who misappropriates funds or does something dishonest. I am talking about someone who is not competent in business and does not produce results. If that person had been a professional, he would have been sacked without question. But if he is a family member, he is usually shifted around from one role to another. All that is achieved is that his attitude spreads. The fact that the only reason he still has a job is because of his family’s name on the door, is not lost on anyone. That such a situation will in the long run destroy the whole business and consequently the whole family will suffer, is something that is conveniently ignored, most often because the family has no process to confront each other constructively. Consequently, family members have a different status in the business no matter what their designation may be and no matter what the official line on career progression may be. The fact remains that the family member has lifetime employment and his family is looked after, no matter whether he is productive or not. Once again social traditions outweigh good business processes with attendant consequences.

 Transforming by chance or by choice?

It may seem as you read the above, that given the nature of issues with family businesses it is almost impossible for them to transform their intrinsic character and become process-driven. This is not so. It is eminently possible to transform, and I am going to show you the way to do it but let me say at the outset that it is not an easy job. It is essential to be mentally prepared for the difficulty so that you don’t quit. Some families make this transition because they have no choice since the growth is very rapid and there are not enough children to go around (RPG, Tata). So, professionals are taken in and processes are created. Others transform by choice (Murugappa). The choice is ours. It means basically changing the reasons for prominence, influence and control. It means fundamentally changing the way we think and, in many cases, going against traditions that have the weight of centuries of followership. But unless this is done the transition from person-led to process-driven will never happen and the organization will never be able to unlock its potential to become a market leader.

Facing the Fears

There are two major fears that founders have to deal with if they are to successfully induct key professionals and introduce a process-based approach.

  1. I will lose control of how things are run
  2. I will lose money because the non-family professional will not treat my money the way I do.

Let us see what needs to be done if you are to overcome these fears. To begin with I will not tell you that these fears are unrealistic. They are real and all founders have them. But if you are serious about transformation, then these fears must be dealt with and overcome. The way to do this is detailed below:

  1. I will lose control of how things are run

You will not ‘lose’ control, but you will consciously and deliberately ‘give up’ control to some extent and this is eminently desirable. This is because firstly this is the best way to develop successors and secondly because you need to free up your time to look at bigger issues. If you are involved in daily transactional matters, then the organization will suffer. When you hand over control to a professional, do remember that the incumbent has the education and experience to handle what you are giving him. You are not really taking any substantial risk because you are handing over to a capable person. Secondly you are always there to see what is going on and to help him to perform. While saying that let me pre-warn you that looking over his shoulder constantly or asking him to ‘check with you’ every time he moves, is not the way to do this. You as the founder must learn to trust others. If you are interested in the growth of your business and in attracting the best talent and in leaving a legacy that endures long after you, then you must learn to trust people.

Hire the best. Some founders hire incapable people because they come cheap, then when they fail, they try to tell themselves that delegation is not practical. The fault is not with delegation but with the way you chose the person to delegate to. So, hire the best, because the cost of hiring the best will be more than justified and offset by the quality of their output. Satisfy yourself that the person is capable of the responsibility and then leave him alone to perform. Mutually set goals, agree on measurement parameters and then set in a structured appraisal system. Reward handsomely and give him a stake in his own success. Clarify what kind of reporting you need for your own peace of mind. And THEN LEAVE HIM ALONE. This is very important. Professionals who have not worked with family businesses may take a bit of time getting used to this style, but those who are interested in the responsibility and in learning to work with family businesses will make the effort.

  1. I will lose money because the non-family professional will not treat my money the way I do.

Once again in this case it is a question of trusting that the professional will treat the company’s money with respect. There are two things to do in this case. One is to create a culture of openness and thrift which you reinforce by your own practice. Focus on cost effectiveness, not on cost cutting per se. Always ask and teach people to ask, “What is the return on this investment?” Collect data about cost effective management and give them visibility. Reward people for giving suggestions for cost effective ways of managing and put the suggestions into practice. When you create a culture that continuously focuses on how to make the operation more profitable, then people will not spend money unnecessarily.

The second method which must go hand in hand is effective financial control. Automate and use technology to track all expenses. Get comparative data to see what others are doing. But don’t create bureaucracy. That is the biggest danger in this step. Bureaucracy slows you down and makes you less responsive to the customer. Both are lethal dangers. Good financial controls backed by automation will help you to ensure that your money is not being lost and that it is being used in the best possible way. Once again, leave the professionals to do their work and keep track of their performance through your reporting systems.

In some cases, a third piece of advice has to be given. If you are so wary of delegating and handing over to a professional, then define which aspect of your business are you most worried about handing over to someone else and keep that to yourself. Hand over the rest. Then when some credibility builds, you can think of handing over that ‘critical’ piece as well. But delegation is an absolute MUST.

The key factor in the case of family businesses is not simply to turn around 180° but to do so while keeping the good parts of family traditions alive. Change must be brought about but with the least possible pain.

It must be remembered that in the end decisions are far more ‘personal’ than they are in a Western corporation. In short this means that ‘family will always be family’ still the business must be process-driven. That is why an in-depth knowledge and personal understanding of the social and religious traditions is such an important element of all family business consulting in the East. Family business tends to be more about family than about business. Decision making is not based purely on cost – benefit analysis. Many other factors play decisive roles. Keeping the family together while making any changes is by far the most important consideration of all.

Before I go into the details of that, let me state with all the emphasis at my command that if this transformation does not happen, the business will decline and eventually disappear, taking the family with it. Transforming the business is therefore also more for the sake of the family than for the business. It is in the interest of both to ensure that they give it their full support so that both the family and the business may prosper undiminished from one generation to the next.

‘The business and family love are two different, mutually exclusive things. When the two mix, both self-destruct.’

 

For more, please read my book: The Business of Family Business

https://pothi.com/pothi/book/mirza-yawar-baig-business-family-business

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Success is the biggest danger

Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone, creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:

  • That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
  • That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
  • That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.

This seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power.

That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away.

This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.

What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth.  That growth is not looking with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.

So, what is the alternative?                                          

In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.

Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.

The single biggest and most critical requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.

It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.

A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.

Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. And if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. That is why work produces stress. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.

The strange thing in life is that organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize effort and productivity. But the messages they give are negative. Let me give you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is Friday. This is a small party at the end of the work day on Friday where all employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom which was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian companies picked up on this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it as a perk in their recruitment spiels.

I was speaking to a friend of mine who was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this TGIF custom.

I asked him, “Do you really want people to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

I said to him, “To me, if someone who works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal. It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work very hard to create an environment where people would actually love to go to work.”

“You are a real spoilsport,” said my friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”

Take another case. You have a sales person who is magical. She or he is an inspired sales person. They can sell the Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work very hard and exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.

You achieved two things: Firstly you were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work is actually unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas.

Consider the alternative. Passionate people who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it? And before you accuse me of fantasying, let me give you an example. All missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of hardship, to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work. The need is essential.

Just to close the point I am making here, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in education that is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for.

It is essential for one to take stock from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.

Which brings me to the next question: what is a good goal?

A good goal in my view has two essential ingredients:

  1. It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
  2. It is big enough to scare you.

A goal that is not scary will not generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been because the work was too easy, the goal not big enough. My antidote to tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big, scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood. You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored, inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know, the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the tigers that will make you run.

It’s true that tigers are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.

 

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”

http://amzn.to/28JpEC2

Master or Victim – time to choose wisely

People sometimes look at the misery that surrounds us and ask, ‘Why doesn’t God do something about all the sick and dying and starving people?’ The answer is, ‘God did something already. He created you and gave you the means to feed at least one hungry person, pay for the education of one child, pay the hospital bill of one sick person and so on. If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one. If you can’t build a school, pay the fee of one child to go to school. It is a common cop-out strategy to blame the external world, in this case God, for all the suffering we see around us. Those who are really serious about wanting to help, don’t blame, but ask themselves, ‘What can I do?’ That is what Islam teaches us. To do something. Not to simply complain. Problems need solutions, not complaints. Compassion is the best basis for a society.

In the life of every man and woman comes a time and a window opens when they have a unique opportunity to make an impact and influence others. To succeed we need to anticipate, prepare and act with courage when it opens

Living life is about making choices- the choice to be a ‘victim’ of circumstances or the choice to do something about circumstances and be their ‘master’. We are free to make this choice – to be a ‘victim’ or to be a ‘master’ – but the choices; each has a different payoff in terms of its consequences. Both stances are subject to the same givens of society, environment, organization etc. But have very different implications in terms of our development and happiness

It is one of the fallacies that people assume: that when we say we have freedom of choice; the choice is free of consequences. This is a myth and like all myths, it is a fantasy and a lie. We have freedom to choose but every choice has a price tag – every choice that we make is the same in this context. Each has a price tag. Foolish people make choices without first ascertaining the price tag and are then surprised, shocked, disappointed and so on, when the time comes to pay for the choice.

To return to our discussion, ‘victims’ are people who complain about adversity, think of excuses, blame others, lose hope and perish. ‘Victims’ can be individuals, groups, communities or nations. The ‘victim stance’ is the same – complain and blame. When ‘victims’ find themselves in difficulties, they look around for scapegoats; for someone to blame. They invent conspiracy theories. They like to live with a ‘siege’ mentality. They try to tell everyone that the only reason they are in the mess that they are in, is because everyone in the world is out to get them. They think that as long as there is someone to blame, they are faultless. They don’t stop to think that no matter who they blame, their problems still exist and that it is they and not whoever they blame, that is suffering.

‘Masters’ on the other hand are people who when faced with difficulty and adversity, first look at themselves to see how and why they came to be in that situation, own their responsibility and then look for solutions to resolve that situation. They have the courage to try new ways and so they win even if they fail. “Masters’ recognize that whatever happens to us is at least in part, if not wholly, a result of the choices that we made, consciously or unconsciously. The result of what we chose to do or chose not to do. Consequently, if we recognize that we created the situation, then it follows logically that we can also create its solution.

The characteristic of ‘Masters’ is that even when they may temporarily be in a ‘Victim’ situation, they quickly ask themselves the key question: ‘Okay so what can I do about this situation?’ This question is the key to taking a ‘Masterful’ stance in life. This is in itself, a tremendously empowering mindset which frees a person from the shackles of self-limiting barriers to his or her development. A ‘master’ never says, ‘I can’t’.  She/he says, “I don’t know if I can!” – And in that, is a world of difference. The difference between the shepherd and his sheep.

The key question to ask therefore is, ‘In terms of the challenges that I face today, what do I need to do if I want to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’? What is the investment that I need to make in order to succeed? Free fall and flight feel the same in the beginning. But it is the end which spells the difference between life and death. One lands safely. The other crashes and burns. Ignoring the law of aerodynamics does not change the law or its result.

Similarly, in life, in our race to succeed, we may well be tempted to ignore the laws of gain – that gain is directly proportional to contribution. We may be tempted to buy the line that what you can grab is yours to take, no matter the consequences to others. Just as the one in free fall may thumb his nose at the one who is flying, even claiming that he is traveling faster than the flyer – the reality is that his speed is aided by gravity which is rapidly pulling him towards his own destruction. It is not speed therefore which matters. It is the direction of flight and the way it ends.

Compassion, concern for others, a service focus, measuring contribution in the same way that we measure profit, willingness to do what it takes to deliver the best possible quality not because someone is watching but because we consider the quality of our output to be our signature and a reflection of our identity – all these are the real pathways to wealth, influence and prosperity. The critical difference is that prosperity that comes in these ways is sustainable, long lasting and spreads goodness all around.

Prosperity that is sought without regard to those who share the world with us, people, animals, environment; without regard to values, ethics and morals with the sole criterion being the amount of money that can be made is short-lived, has a high cost and spreads misery and suffering, including for the one who was chasing it.

We live in an intensely connected world and the sooner we realize that and start taking care of the connections, the better off we are likely to be. We have seen graphically the results of the alternative – blind pursuit of profit.

‘Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ ~ Madhukar Shukla

Focus on the long term

Believe it or not, the first time that color television sets became freely available in India was after the Asian Games in 1985. Almost everyone I knew in the plantations immediately bought a color TV and a VCP (no VCRs yet), so that the lonely evenings in the plantations could be spent watching films. There used to be weekend parties to watch some movie or the other or to watch some sport event. For seven of those years, I did not get a TV – had no money. All my money was spent either in buying books or in traveling to training courses. I had to take a lot of ribbing from some quarters for being so backward as to not even have a TV in my house.

But like all things, once you pay your dues, you start to see the benefits. And when I started earning more in one day than most people earned in a month, they started seeing things differently. Sadly, for many of them, it was impossible to change and the reality is that not a single one of my contemporaries went into the training and consulting world even though every one of them had exactly the same opportunity. The issue is never opportunity; it is always commitment.

Commitment is the line you cross between wanting and doing. Unfortunately, most people never actually cross the line. They argue that they did not have the opportunity. This may be true in some cases, but in most it is commitment that they did not have; the opportunity was always there.

The reason why many people don’t seem to get enough commitment to accomplish large goals is rooted in two causes:

  1. Lack of clarity about the benefits at the end.
  2. Impatience – giving up midway due to lack of immediate results

Clarity about the end

It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations; people rise to high expectations. It is essential that the final result is visualized clearly and is as real as possible to the person who sets out to accomplish it. The more desirable the final result, the more people will be willing to take the inevitable drudgery and the mundane, which is a major and essential part of all endeavors. It is the promise of great reward that drives the soul when the body has passed the boundaries of exhaustion. It is the expectation of that which is dearest to the heart that holds the hand when the night is dark and cold, and you are alone.

I became most aware of the power of the extraordinary goal when I was in Vietnam, fifteen feet underground crawling through the tunnels where the Vietnamese fought the Americans. I was doing the tourist routine in Cu-Chi where the tunnels are, wondering what it must have been to experience the real thing. The Vietnamese Tourism Authorities have widened one of the tunnels slightly and strung a couple of light bulbs so that it is not pitch dark. The tunnel is just about hundred meters long. You go down through a trap door at the bottom of which the tunnel begins. You have to lie flat on your belly and crawl. Does wonders for your clothes. Then at the end of the tunnel you come out into the pit at the bottom of the other trap door and climb out. And of course, you don’t meet a snake coming the other way, nor are there bombs falling overhead. I was drenched in sweat to the extent that my shirt was soaking wet. There were two-hundred-and-fifty miles of these tunnels at three levels. They had hospitals, ammunition dumps, sleeping quarters, eating quarters, meeting rooms, and even burial rooms. They were cold and dark and damp. And overhead flew the American B52 bombers whose instructions were to drop all they had after every bombing sortie, in this area. The Americans tried everything from flooding, gassing, chemicals, and napalm. Yet the Vietnamese fought back, often using discarded ammunition, booby traps made from empty Coke cans, nails, spring steel, fire ants, scorpions and snakes. Talk about invention and ingenuity. Talk about a very nasty way to die. Do that tour and then see the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you will learn the meaning of determination and resilience. Read about these in the books that are for sale there. Read also about the Tunnel Rats – American, Canadian, and New Zealand soldiers who volunteered to go into the tunnels and fight the Vietnamese, working alone. Makes you wonder what motivates such people. Irrespective of what one may think about the justification of the Vietnam War, one can only admire the courage of the soldier who chose to go into a tunnel, often with nothing more than a knife or a hand gun. The tunnels were built for the small, wiry Vietnamese, not for big Americans. So, it was the small, short ones from the American Army who volunteered. Amazing stories of some very brave people on both sides.

What kept the Vietnamese going? The same thing that kept Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada alive and mentally healthy for eighteen years on Robben Island. The same thing that drives the freedom fighters of today wherever they may be; the drive for freedom.

Freedom is a very powerful goal. A very basic and intense need of the human being. It is something for which a person will sacrifice anything. That is what those who seek to enslave forget; the fact that paradoxically, enslavement strengthens the desire to be free. The more you try to enslave, the more people want to be free. And in the end, the slave masters always lose. It is the thought of freedom that kept the Vietnamese fighters alive and striving for their goal for fifteen years. Thousands of them died and never saw the goal fulfilled, but in the end it was their sacrifice that ensured that the most powerful nations in the world had to retreat.

Giving up midway

Have you ever seen a traditional weighing scale in a shop in India selling food grains? There is an extremely important life lesson to be learnt from this. The next time you go to buy rice or some other grain, notice what the seller does.

First, he puts the weight measure in one pan. Say twenty kilos. Then he uses a scoop and starts to put rice into the other pan. As the pan fills, even when he has put nineteen kilos in it, what do you see? Nothing.

There is no change in the situation. The pan with the weight remains firmly on the counter top and the pan with the rice remains in the air. However, the man does not stop putting the rice into the pan. He continues to do that until he sees a small movement in the pans as the pan with the rice starts to descend. Once that happens and the pans are almost level, the man changes his method of putting in the grain. Now instead of the scoop, he uses his hand. He takes a handful of rice and very gently he drops a few grains at a time into the pan. And then lo and behold, the pan with the rice descends to the counter top and the pan with the weight rises in the air.

When I saw this, I learnt two essential lessons in life, both equally true:

Lesson # 1:    Up to nineteen kilos, nothing will happen.

Lesson # 2:    At 20 kilos, the pan will tip.

Believing in the ‘impossible’

I have touched on this briefly earlier, but if there is one thing that my life has taught me, it is the truth of the fact that nobody knows the best that they can do.  This of course does not mean that you act with all passion and no planning. Passion is the key. Then comes the hard work of planning, scheduling, monitoring, measuring, taking feedback, course correction, and the final result. This is where the gap is created and enthusiasm fizzles out. However, if you plan well and make a good road map with milestones, then it helps to keep the passion alive. More importantly it helps to keep the passion kindled in the hearts of your followers.

Any great enterprise needs people. People who you can share your vision with, people who resonate to your tune, people who can hear the drumbeat to which you are marching. This is the biggest challenge that any leader faces. How do you make others dream your dream? Like most things in life, this also involves a paradox. On the one hand, as I have said earlier, the goal must be big enough to make it worth the effort. But a big goal is scary and it can scare away a lot of people. On the other hand, if you water it down, then it will attract the wrong kind of people and fail to arouse the interest of those who can potentially share your dream. So, the goal must be big and exciting, even scary. Then it must be reduced into steps on a plan that will convince people that it can be accomplished. It is possible that you may end up with a plan that does not completely add up and leaves some room for a leap of faith but remember that if the gap looks like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely that you will find any takers for your vision. There can be a gap, but the gap must be reasonably feasible. This is the beauty of a real stretch goal. It is big enough to excite and energize, yet not so big that it scares people away into not trying at all.

A good plan with graded steps plays the role of bringing the stars within reach. It also indicates that enough thought-share has happened in the genesis of the plan. Potential supporters look for this consciously or unconsciously. For example, when venture capitalists are listening to a business plan, more than looking at the numbers, they look to see if there is enough passion behind the idea, if enough due diligence has been done, and if enough alternatives have been generated and answered.

Generating alternatives is all about thinking outside the box in terms of what you do. Of using your creativity to approach problems from a different angle, which often opens doors that you did not think existed.

If you read all the books on Judo and know all about its genesis and all about the principles of leverage that are behind each throw and why the fulcrum in each throw is applied where it is, you would be called a great scholar of Judo. But if you get into a street fight, you would still hit the floor very hard. That is because you know a lot about Judo, but you don’t know Judo. To know Judo, you must join a Dojo and practice. Practice very hard. Learn to fall ten thousand times. Learn to throw ten thousand times and only then will you know Judo. Then in a street fight you will win every time even if you are not able to give a lecture on the origin and development of Judo as a martial art. But in a fight, that doesn’t matter. What matters is, can you fight? After all, if you look at it, why would you or anyone learn Judo? To win a fight, to protect yourself, to save your life. If your knowledge of Judo doesn’t do that, then what use is it?

If you want to win, you must do one of two things. Surround yourself with positive people or walk alone. Definitely don’t be around negative people, no matter what you do. The reason for that is because negative people drag you down. I am sure you have had this experience in your life where you are all charged up about doing something positive, about bringing about positive change, about changing yourself, your habits, your goals or initiating change in society and in your enthusiasm, you mention this to your good friend.

His/her immediate reaction is, ‘You can’t do this. It is impossible. It is impractical. There is no way that you can succeed.’

Your heart stops, starts again, you won’t give up, so you must say something, and you do. ‘Why do you say that? I think it is such a good idea. Why won’t it work?’

‘Believe me, take my word for it. I tried this ten years ago and failed. It can’t be done. Try it and learn the hard way if you want. But I am advising you, forget all this. You can’t succeed.’

Does this sound familiar? If you have ever tried to do something worthwhile in your life, I am sure you came across someone like this. If you still succeeded, it was because you did what I am going to tell you to do now. Delete that ‘friend’ from your list. And do it fast. Never, ever tell them any of your plans. As I said, walk alone or find someone who will encourage you.

For more please read my book, “It’s my Life”
http://amzn.to/28JpEC2

 

Be a Shameless Idealist

As I stand here at the tail end of 2018, just a few days before the new year is due to come in, I ask myself how I would like to be remembered. And the answer, hands down is, as a Shameless Idealist.

In your life, if you want to achieve anything worthwhile you must do two things. Firstly, surround yourself with positive people or walk alone. Definitely don’t be around negative people, no matter what you do. The reason for that is because negative people drag you down. I am sure you have had this experience in your life where you are all charged up about doing something positive, about bringing about positive change, about changing yourself, your habits, your goals or initiating change in society and in your enthusiasm, you mention this to your good friend.

His/her immediate reaction is, ‘You can’t do this. It is impossible. It is impractical. There is no way that you can succeed.’

Your heart stops, starts again, you won’t give up, so you must say something, and you do. ‘Why do you say that? I think it is such a good idea. Why won’t it work?’

‘Believe me, take my word for it. I tried this ten years ago and failed. It can’t be done. Try it and learn the hard way if you want. But I am advising you, forget all this. You can’t succeed.’

Does this sound familiar? If you have ever tried to do something worthwhile in your life, I am sure you came across someone like this. If you still succeeded, it was because you did what I am going to tell you to do now. Delete that ‘friend’ from your list. And do it fast. Never, ever tell them any of your plans. As I said, walk alone or find someone who will encourage you.

In 1999, at the turn of the century, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) did a survey to see what percentage of training sticks. They went to participants of a wide variety of training courses, three weeks after they had taken that course and asked only one question. ‘What do you recall about what you learnt in that training?’ Now, remember, they didn’t ask about application of the training. They only asked what people remembered. The assumption being that if you don’t even remember what you learnt, what hope of application? The result of the survey showed that only 15% of the people even recalled what they had learnt. That was not because the training was bad, or that people had memory problems. That was because there had been no attempt at putting the learning into practice. What we practice, stays with us. What we simply read or listen to, no matter how enthused we may be with it, is forgotten after a while. One of the major reasons people don’t practice is because their desire is killed in the cradle, by their cynical ‘friends’ who convince them that it is not even worth trying.

The reality of life is that everyone is born with the desire to do something worthwhile in life. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to himself, ‘Today I am going to be the world’s greatest loser.’ Even if he did that, it would be remarkable because he would not be any ordinary loser; he would be the world’s greatest loser. Everyone wants to make a mark in life, to contribute, to change things for the better. If you don’t believe me, go to a primary school and ask those children what they want to become in life. You will find the greatest collection of pilots, firemen, kings and queens you have ever seen. My most inspiring moments are times that I spend with small children in primary schools. People think the kids gain something. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that I gain more than all of them put together.

If you don’t have the time to do this, then just recall your first day, first job. What was in your heart? What did you want to do? Did you wake up that morning and say, ‘Ugh! Another Monday! Just let me get through the day.’ Or did you think to yourself, ‘Today I am going to do something that will be exemplary, something that will make a difference in life for me and others.’ I am not saying that you actually said this to yourself in so many words. Not many have that clarity of intention. But it was certainly in your heart, even if not verbalized or even felt clearly. So, I say to you that everyone is born an Idealist.

Then what happens? Life happens. You go to work and your boss tells you, ‘Welcome to this company. We are one big family here. If you need anything, my door is always open. Since you are new here and have a fresh perspective, I am going to ask you for a favor. Please shadow me for a week and give me your feedback about my management style. You are free to interview my direct reports also if you like. But I want you to be totally frank and open.’

You are thrilled. You came to the right place. Your boss is a man after your heart, so open, honest, humble. He is asking you, wet-behind-the-ears-first-jobber for your opinion about his management style. WOW! That is something to write home about. You are on to a great start in this company. You follow the man around. You shadow him. You take notes. You see things and hear things, many of which you wish you didn’t. But you persevere. You talk to others. You listen. Eventually the week is over, and you write your report which in one line reads, ‘Dear Boss, your management style stinks.’ Granted you didn’t actually write that. You are not that stupid. But in effect, that is what you said, because that was the truth and your boss had told you to be truthful, frank and open. You are an Idealist, remember?

Your boss takes one look at the report and while throwing it into the waste paper bin, says, ‘Thanks for the report. You have a lot to learn. I can see that. You can go.’

You are shocked, horrified. Your idol has feet of clay and they stink. But then as you walk down the passage, trying to ignore the glances of those ‘in the know’, you tell yourself, ‘Well, the report probably slipped out of his hand and fell into the bin. He didn’t mean to throw it in. After all, there is gravity. Maybe the poor guy had a bad night. We all do.’ You take a few deep breaths, grab a mug of coffee and carry on. But to your great surprise it doesn’t end there. There are other such incidents. Not only with your boss, but with others. Your Idealism is taking some hard knocks. ‘What on earth is going on?’ You ask yourself. Life is going on. That is what is going on. Your Idealism is strong, but the problem seems to be that the stronger it is, the more you get knocked. But you are still an Optimist and continue to look at the positive side of everything and refuse to believe the evidence of your experience.

But life is relentless. Things keep happening. People dump on you, they don’t keep their word, they make promises and break them, they claim to espouse certain values but do the opposite. They insist on being what they are, i.e. people. It is at about this time that you start becoming what we call a Realist. You are still enthusiastic but now more cautious. Nothing wrong with being cautious, you tell yourself. Especially on cold nights when the bruises hurt. But life is relentless. Things keep happening.

It is at about this time that you acquire a ‘wise’ friend. Someone who has seen life, has grey hair, maybe even a beard and wears glasses. He takes you to the cafeteria, gets you a mug of coffee and asks you, ‘Tell me, what are you trying to do?’

You look at him and don’t know how to say, ‘I am trying to change the world, because it needs changing.’

He says, ‘Look, we were all Idealistic when we were wet-behind-the-ears. But then we grew up. So, don’t feel bad, but you need to grow up. You need to get real. All this ‘always speak the truth; always stand up for the weak; integrity is the foundation’ stuff, sounds nice. But this is India, see?’

You don’t see. You don’t see what difference that makes to anything. How is integrity, truthfulness, compassion, fairness and moral courage any different in India or the US or Australia? These are universal values and good for all people, everywhere.

‘No, they’re not’, says your friend, the Cynic. ‘But Yawar says it differently’, you insist.

‘He has to. He can’t help it. What do you expect him to say? Will he tell you to lie and cheat? But let me tell you, he knows the reality just like I do. He says all this because that is his job as a leadership trainer. They all talk like this. Forget him. It is not his life. It is yours. Wake up or you will get knocked down again.’

Cynics are popular because they make sarcastic, cynical comments. But have you ever seen a monument to a cynic? Plenty to Idealists. But not one to a cynic. Ask why?

Now is your decision point. If you stay long enough in his company, you will become a Pessimist and then a Cynic and eventually both of you will come to the bottom of the pile and become Indifferent. You will stop caring. You will stop getting angry, passionate. You will stop shedding tears. You will pass by as if nothing happened.

But remember one thing and remember it well. The flame of Idealism in your heart which was alive and bright, will still be there. It will keep pricking you from time to time and will tell you that the stories you are telling yourself are the lie. Idealism is the flame that our hearts come with when we are born. All of us. And no matter what we do to try to extinguish it, it will continue to burn as long as we live. We can dampen it, but we can’t put it out. The flame will finally die when we die. Not before.

So, why do people fight you when you are Idealistic? Why do they try to tell you that you are wrong and try to take you off your Idealistic stand?

It is because when they look into your eyes, they see themselves as they were, one day, a long time ago. That frightens them, because in the reflection they see what they did to themselves along the way. Now when you come into their lives and they see you taking an Idealistic stance, they have two choices. Either they kill your Idealism and drag you down to their own level. Then they will be able to live comfortably with themselves for a few days longer. Or they must face what they did to themselves and undo it. The second choice is very difficult and painful, and most won’t choose that, at least initially. But if you remain Idealistic, if you don’t allow your flame to be dampened, then you will find that you will start to light their flames again. And gradually you will find people standing with you, following you, and if you are lucky, going ahead of you. The only condition is that you don’t give up.

I am a shameless Idealist. Have been all my life. And I will die a shameless Idealist. That is because in my mind, if I am not going to do what needs to be done to bring relief, hope, joy and courage to people who need it, then what is the point of living?

It doesn’t matter what others do. They are not my teachers. What matters to me is what I do. For it is not about them. It is about me.

If you think that you are too small to make a difference, too weak to stand up for what is right, too isolated, have no friends and supporters and so are sure to fail, then look at the life of Muhammadﷺ.

About him and his life, the French philosopher, poet and historian, Alphonse de Lamartine said, “If the grandeur of the aim, the smallness of the means, the immensity of the results are the three measures of a man’s genius, who would dare humanly compare a great man of modern history with Muhammad?”

(Extract from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Histoire de la Turquie Paris, 1854, vol. II, pp. 276-277)

When Muhammadﷺ first stood on the hill of Safa and called out to his people with his message of justice, compassion, equality and human dignity, the instant reaction was opposition, anger, hatred and aggression. In one instant he lost all his friends and supporters. He went from being the most beloved to the most hated. If an analyst were to be asked, looking at him standing alone on the hill, what odds he would give to this message being accepted not only by his people present there at the time, but by people still to come in lands yet untouched by it; I am sure the analyst would say that zero was a big number. His chances would be maybe minus ten thousand. But as they say, the rest is history. Fourteen centuries later, today one and a half billion people respond to his message and believe in him.

That will give you the courage to stand up for what you believe in, ignore all analysts and predictions and do what needs to be done, to make this world a better place.

 

Literacy is to language what driving is to cars

In my view the single most significant event in human development is the evolution of languages. It was this process that enabled human beings to preserve their thoughts, teach others, learn from history and talk to generations yet unborn. Language is the elixir of eternal life. Or as close to it as we are likely to come. Literacy or to be able to use language, reading and writing, is the key to this world which essentially distinguishes and differentiates us from animals. Literacy is therefore as fundamental to the human condition and as essential as food, clothing and shelter. And in a manner of speaking, even more essential than that.

When adults teach children to read and write, they are transferring their very humanity and empowering their students to access the collective wisdom and learning of the human race. There is no greater service that one human being can do for another than to teach him to read and write. Societies which are unable or unwilling to teach their children to read and write are impoverished and bankrupt in the most essential element of wealth, knowledge. Without literacy the only door that opens into the world of the future remains locked. The child stands before it in mute testimony to the fact that those whose responsibility it was to hand over the keys, had failed to do so. There is nothing more tragic than that.

In India today, illiteracy is almost bequeathed to the child, thanks to poverty of the parents and an almost non-existent primary & secondary school system in the country. Primary & Secondary government schools which do exist are extremely poorly staffed and resourced and the quality of education provided is abysmal. For illiterate adults there is no place where they can go even to simply learn to read and write. A cursory journey through the villages of India will show that there is a very large pool of very bright children available. The tragedy however is that thanks to a complete lack of support, they are simply allowed to go to waste and instead of legitimately aiming for the stars they spend their youth trying to earn a living doing menial unskilled jobs for a pittance. From there, when they realize the dead-end of life they have entered, they graduate to crime or become the fodder for political skullduggery. We will never know how many potential scientists, philosophers and intellectuals we have already lost only because the rest of us don’t care. If there is something worse than not to care what happens to the minds of our fellow citizens, I must claim ignorance of it. Of this we are all guilty to some extent.

So, what is the challenge before us? To ensure that every child is given the key to his or her future that is his/her birthright and our duty. For this I would suggest five measures:

  1. Schools must be sponsored by corporate companies and the government must encourage this by giving tax rebates on the money spent on primary education. All this should (probably can already) be included in their CRS spending. These schools should be taken out of the Education Department’s control so that the evils of corruption and dysfunctionality don’t infect them. Chambers of Commerce and Industry can set up an Inspectorate to monitor the quality of service.
  1. Skill training institutes must be set up in partnership with Schools to teach children useful and saleable skills which will not only inculcate respect for dignity of labor but also enable them to become entrepreneurs. At any rate, whether they set up shop or not, learning a useful skill that requires you to work with your hands adds value to everyone. Entrepreneurship is the only reliable solution for unemployment.
  1. Every School must have a library and a structured reading program. Books from the library can be sourced from society at large and can be of any nature and on any subject. Not only must the library be a place to borrow books from but the system of maintaining the library must also be taught. We were taught the Dewey Decimal System of Classification in our school, Hyderabad Public School (Class of 72). The library must be run by the children.

https://mypages.iit.edu/~smart/halsey/lesson1.htm

Along with this there must be classes on social skills, manners, consideration for others, caring for the commons, environmental protection and wildlife and forest conservation. These can be taught by field trips, growing gardens, keeping pets and other practical activities to ensure high involvement.

  1. Adult literacy programs must be started in every gram panchayat, municipality and sub-division taught by educated citizens of the locality. This is a social responsibility that all of us should be willing to fulfill free of cost. The purpose of this course is only to teach people to read. Writing and speaking can also be included in the curriculum but are not essential. ‘Text books’ could be any book at all in the language being taught. If books that promote the right attitudes and values through their storyline, are used, it would be a huge value addition. Care must be taken to keep religious and political ideology out of the curriculum due to its divisive nature.
  1. Talent searches must be done annually and students who are identified must be sponsored for higher education. Corporate heads must volunteer to sponsor a certain number of students each. Government must also offer tax rebates for any amounts spent on the education of these children. After qualifying they can be offered employment in the sponsoring companies.

I have no doubt that if these steps are taken we will see their positive results in less than one plan period – 5 years. How I wish we had been doing this since we became independent instead of spending our energies in politicking for reservations. People who have been deprived of education need active support with high quality education. Not reservations in worthless schools and colleges.

Will someone see the light before it is too late?