I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
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 and 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 fear of taking risk 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 inwards 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 in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view 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 in myself 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; to 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. I discovered that 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. And I did. 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. 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.
Just to close the point, 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 childhood and education, work life 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. That is why work produces stress.
Berty Suares, my dearest friend
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………
What is it that enables some leaders to continue to be inspirational and not lose followers even when their decisions may not be to their follower’s liking? This is a very critical dilemma of leadership, of walking the tightrope between populist actions and doing what needs to be done and risk losing popularity. In today’s political environment of playing to the gallery, leaders are often held to ‘ransom’ by their followers who give or withdraw support because they don’t like what the leader’s decision. Or don’t understand his wisdom. In modern times, the example of Al Gore comes to mind, where Americans chose George Bush over him for President of America. One can fantasize about how the world would have been different if the author of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, had become President. But that is water under the bridge.
So, what is it that sets a leader apart where even when he proposes to do what his followers either don’t understand or don’t like, they still support him and commit to his way and he doesn’t lose trust in their eyes?
The two finest examples of this in Islamic history are the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah. Let us see the challenges that the leaders faced in each of them.
I won’t narrate the history of this very famous treaty as it is well known. I will list the challenges that Rasoolullahﷺ faced. They were perhaps the most severe challenges that any leader could have faced, especially one who was the Messenger of Allahﷻ and so the recipient of Wahi (Revelation). He took the people with him on Umrah, naturally with the intention of performing Umrah but thanks to a series of events which obviously he could not have anticipated, he was now in the process of signing a treaty that was so one-sided as to be humiliating for the Muslims. Two of the most difficult to accept clauses were:
1. They must return to Madina without making Umrah
2. If a Muslim left Islam and went over to the Quraysh of Makkah he/she would be given refuge and need not be returned to Madina. But if a non-Muslim accepted Islam and went from Makkah to Madina, he/she must be returned to Makkah and must not be given refuge.
To add to the difficulty, Abu Jandal bin Suhayl the brother of Abdullah ibn Suhayl and son of Suhayl Ibn Amr, the orator of Quraysh had accepted Islam and consequently had been imprisoned by his father, escaped and came to Hudaybiyya having heard that Rasoolullahﷺ was camped there. His father Suahyl ibn Amr was the representative of Quraysh, negotiating the treaty. The clauses of the treaty had been agreed upon but had not been written down yet. He demanded that his son should be handed over to him to be returned to Makkah in chains and Rasoolullahﷺ agreed. He advised Abu Jandal (R) to be patient when he complained that the Quraysh would punish him for accepting Islam. The Sahaba were horrified because what was happening was directly against the custom of giving refuge to a victim and in this case to a fellow Muslim. Yet Rasoolullahﷺ was honoring the clause of a treaty even though it had not yet been signed. He was honoring his word which had been given, the writing of which was merely detail. The Sahaba were very sad and angry.
Sad about not being able to enter Makkah and make Umrah and angry at what the Quraysh were demanding. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) even went the extent of questioning Rasoolullahﷺ. Once again, I will not go into the details here as these are well known. However, I would like to say that his questioning was really the unconscious expression of the doubt in the minds of many others, if not most. It was a cry of anguish in the face of the apparently placid and submissive acceptance of injustice. Yet when all was said and done, the Sahaba stood behind Rasoolullahﷺ solidly and followed him and did as he instructed them to do. And that is the bottom-line and the question that I raise here, ‘What was it about Rasoolullahﷺ that inspired them to follow him, even when his decision was not to their liking?’
To better understand the challenge from the perspective of the followers (Sahaba) let me list some of the obvious doubts that this entire incident raises. I am not saying that the Sahaba had these doubts. Allahﷻ knows what was in their minds and hearts and that is not the subject of our discussion here. This is an objective analysis of one of the most severe tests of leadership in history which is important for us to understand. I call this the ‘final exam’, which qualified the Sahaba in the sight of Allahﷻ to lead the world and Heﷻ opened for them not only the doors of Makkah but the whole of their world. Hudaybiyya was the toughest exam because it was not a test of bravery or physical prowess, but a test of faith and trust. The Sahaba passed it with flying colors.
The doubts that the incident raises are:
1. They believed in Muhammadﷺ as the Messenger of Allahﷻ who received Revelation (Wahi). They believed that one of the forms in which Wahi was received was in a dream. Rasoolullahﷺ had seen in his dream that he was making Umrah with his companions and so, had invited them to join him to travel to Makkah to make Umrah. However, now he was agreeing not to make Umrah that year and was going to return to Madina with them without fulfilling the intention of performing Umrah.
2. They had been taught and believed that Islam was the truth. They had been taught and believed that standing up for the truth and fighting against falsehood was a sacred trust and duty. Yet here they were apparently giving in to blatant injustice.
3. They now faced the prospect of returning to Madina to the taunts of the Munafiqeen who would no doubt cast aspersions on the prophethood and veracity of Rasoolullahﷺ.
4. For Rasoolullahﷺ himself were the questions, ‘If Allahﷻ wanted him to make Umrah, why did this barrier come about? Why did Allahﷻ not open the door for him to make Umrah after directing him to do so in his dream? Why was Allahﷻ wanting him to sign such a humiliating treaty with his enemies? What ‘face’ would he have with his followers who believed in his Messengership? What about his personal credibility as the Messenger of Allahﷻ?’
Truly Hudaybiyya was a test, difficult beyond belief. That is why I call it the ‘final’ exam of the Sahaba.
Wars of Riddah
Before we discuss the reasons for the Sahaba remaining steadfast in their support for Rasoolullahﷺ let me mention another similar incident in early Muslim history which was a landmark for the future of Islam. This was the refusal of many tribes to pay Zakat, after the death of Rasoolullahﷺ. They refused on the grounds that they used to pay it to Rasoolullahﷺ who was no longer present and so Zakat was not due any longer. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) the Khalifa reminded them that Zakat was not a personal payment to Rasoolullahﷺ but was a Rukn (Pillar) of Islam about which Rasoolullahﷺ had declared that anyone who separated Salah from Zakat had left Islam. It was on this basis that Rasoolullahﷺ had refused to accept the Islam of the Banu Thaqeef of At-Ta’aif when they came to him and offered to accept Islam on condition that they be made exempt from paying Zakat. Rasoolullahﷺ refused and declared that both Salah and Zakat were Pillars of Islam and equal in importance and that leaving of either would be tantamount to leaving Islam. On this basis, Abu Bakr Siddique (R) declared war on those tribes who refused to pay Zakat.
The Sahaba were very perturbed about this as it appeared that the Khalifa Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was planning to make war on Muslims. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) asked Abu Bakr (R) how he could consider going to war against Muslims. Abu Bakr (R) said to him, ‘What has happened to you Omar, that you were very tough when you were not a Muslim but have become soft after entering Islam?’ He then reminded him about the ruling of Rasoolullahﷺ about separating Zakat from the rest of Islam and said, ‘Even if they refuse to give a single rope of a camel which is due, I will fight them.’ And that is what he did. In retrospect, it was this single unshakable stance of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) which preserved the integrity of Islam after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away. If he had not taken this firm stand, Islam would perhaps have disintegrated with people deciding to follow whatever suited them. But ask, ‘What is it that made the Sahaba support him even when they disagreed with his decision?’
In the case of Rasoolullahﷺ at Hudaybiyya, one could say that his position as being the Messenger of Allahﷻ was sacrosanct and when you believed that he was receiving Revelation, it was perhaps easier to follow without question. However, Abu Bakr (R) was not receiving Revelation. He was one among them, albeit first among equals, but an equal. Yet they obeyed him even though some or many didn’t agree with his decision, initially. Not only did they obey him, but they put their own lives on the line and enrolled in the conscript army which was the army of the time. Nobody stayed back. Nobody said, ‘I don’t agree and so I am not going to risk my life by joining the army.’ What made them do that?
I believe there were two major factors that operated in both these incidents; i.e. Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah.
1. Trust: An unshakable faith beyond question in the personal credibility of the leader. This faith was based on the character of the leader which his followers had seen throughout his life and which inspired total trust and respect in their hearts. So, while they may have disagreed with the leader in a matter, his personal credibility, his intention that he wished the best for them, his objectivity, truthfulness, commitment to the goal (Islam), impartiality, lack of selfishness, sincerity, desire only to please Allahﷻ were never in question.
2. Respect: The belief that the leader was more knowledgeable, committed and sincere than any one of them. That he understands a situation better than the follower. That his track record shows that even in the past he had been right, when he differed with his followers.
As you can see, these two factors are dynamically linked. One supports the other. And both arise out of one’s conduct. When you live by your principles, you don’t have to keep talking about them. People see them in your life and emulate them in their own. The converse is equally true which we tragically see in our modern-day leadership. Leaders who don’t walk their talk may be obeyed out of fear but are never respected and loved. There is no way that a leader can divorce his personal conduct from his stated principles and expect followers to respect and follow his lead.
Personal credibility which translates to high respect. People trust those they respect. And they don’t trust those who lose respect in their estimation. A leader’s life is public. Every statement, whether made in seriousness or jest, is public. Every action, private or public, personal or involving others, is public. And they all contribute to the overall picture of the leader that people hold in their minds. Image and personal credibility of the leader is built on his walking the talk. People listen with their eyes and don’t care what you say until they see what you do. This is the Brand of the leader. They care less about what is being said, than about who is saying it. ‘How’ also matters, but only after ‘Who’. If people don’t respect the individual, what he/she says doesn’t matter. First the who, then the how and then the what. Seems strange but that is human psychology for you. People must first trust a leader. Then they listen to how he puts across his proposal. Then they think about what he is asking them to do. If the first two, especially the first one (high personal credibility), is strong, people will even go to extraordinary lengths to follow their leaders.
In times of stress, success of the leader depends on the ability of followers to recall and remember the brand. And still obey and follow the leader and commit themselves even when they don’t fully understand why they should commit. And even when they may not agree with some of what the leader is doing. Please note that what I am referring to is not what happens after the leader has explained what he is doing and why he wants their support. I am talking about a time when the leader may not have the time, opportunity or may for reasons of confidentiality, decide on a course of action without consulting his team. Will the team still follow him and commit fully to him and his course or will they hold back, rebel and not support? That is the meaning of faith in the leadership. Like all good things, maybe easier said than done, but like flying, if you want to fly, you must be aerodynamic. There is no alternative.
On October 20, 2010, I was 55. I released a book on that day called: 20-10-2010-55 which was 55 life lessons that I learnt in my life. I have decided to share those with you (those who read the book please forgive me) and so you will get one every day until we finish them all.
Those who feel motivated to read the book itself can get it from Amazon. Those who would like to know more about me and my life should read, “It’s my Life”, which is also on Amazon (India, US & Canada). My life is worth $7 (INR 200). I am most grateful that Allahﷻgave me the life that He gave me for $7. Ajeeb!
I turned fifty-five on October, 20, 2010. That’s the title of this book and blog; 20.10.2010-55. On that day, I reflected on the lessons that I had learnt in an unusually rich, active, exciting life lived in India, Guyana, America, Saudi Arabia, and in travels in other parts of the world. I wrote this book as a tribute of thanks to all those who added value to me, taught me formally and informally, and invested in my learning. During my childhood and teens in India through the 60’s and 70’s, I spent all my vacations walking in the jungles of the Aravallies, living with my dear friend Uncle Rama. Imagine the excitement of a fifteen-year-old with a .22 rifle or a twelve-bore shotgun, walking with one Gond companion, Shivayya, all over the jungle bordering the Kadam River.
At times Shivayya and I would walk in the night to witness a Sambar mud bath and sit behind a tree, quietly watching majestic Sambar stags roll in mud and then stand up to shake off the excess; coated in an armor of mud which, when dry, protects them from biting insects. Sometimes we would hear the call of the tiger as it set out for work. I learnt to read tracks which tell the story of all those who passed that way. I learnt the meaning of smells which tell their own stories and can mean the difference between life and death. But the biggest lesson I learnt was to take life seriously while having fun and to extract every drop of learning.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I spent five years in the Amazonian rain forests of Guyana bordering the Rio Berbice. I went there when I was nineteen and lived alone in Kwakwani. During weekends, my friend Peter Ramsingh and I would take our boat on a trip fifty to sixty miles upriver and camp on the bank or on a sandbank. It was our code of honor to not take any food on these trips and live off the land from our hunting and fishing. As an emergency fall back, we would take some raw chicken guts in a plastic bag. If we didn’t manage to catch any Lukanani or to shoot any Agouti or Canje Pheasant, we would trawl the chicken guts in the Berbice and sure enough, we would get a bite – Piranha. Great eating as long as you know how to keep clear of the teeth and retrieve your hook. I would see alligator eyes shining like diamonds sprinkled on the dark waters during our night patrols to check our fishing nets. During one trip, Peter and I accidentally caught a twenty-two-foot Anaconda in our fishing net. It was so heavy that both of us couldn’t lift him clear off the ground. I met people who live thirty to forty miles up the Berbice River in houses on stilts, in small forest clearings where they grow a few vegetables, hunt and fish for their meat, and don’t come to ‘town’ for months at a time; no water except the river, no light except the sun. Sometimes it is a single family of Amerindians. Sometimes it is a couple of families who live by one another. Their children play in the forest and swim naked in the river, yet I never heard of a case of Piranha bite; never figured out that one as the river is infested with Piranha and they love to bite. These families always grow the best honey which they would sell to people like me who turned up on their doorstep, or take to town and exchange for a couple of bottles of country liquor – deadly stuff in more ways than one.
I received news in May, 2011 that my dearest friend, mentor, and boss from Kwakwani, Nick Adams, entered into Islam along with his wife and sister-in-law.
I spent ten years in the 80’s and 90’s in the rain forests of the Western Ghats in Anamallais, India and further south, planting tea, coffee, cardamom, and rubber. I spent many hours tramping up and down hills and valleys, sometimes at a height of eight to nine thousand feet on the famous Grass Hills; at other times, wending my way in sweltering heat through the thick forest on the Ghats where the sun almost never reaches the earth. One day, I escaped an angry, charging bull elephant by what could only be a miraculous divine intervention. All my tea garden workers believed that I was divinely blessed from this day on; a belief that I did nothing to dispel – who would object to being divinely blessed? On another instance, I walked up to a Red Dhole kill – they moved away and sat in a circle watching me, while I ensured that the Sambar hind that they had brought down was dead. On a forest road in the Anamallais, I once had a face-off with a huge Gaur bull who eventually decided he didn’t hate me enough to eliminate me and moved away, allowing me to move on, on my Royal Enfield motorcycle. My greatest joy was to camp on a huge rock outcrop called Manja Parai in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate where I was the big boss, sitting on a platform in a tree to watch elephants come to drink in a nearby stream. When the elephants left, the Gaur would come. Finally, when everyone had gone their way, my companion Raman and I would descend and light a fire against the bitter cold, smoke a couple of beedis, and drink hot, sweet tea and wait for the sun to rise. Gradually, the sky would lighten; the orange glow would show and then the majestic ball of fire would come up over the edge of the horizon, greeting us across an expanse of forest and tea gardens. What is the value of such a sight?
I never was good at math.
Lest you think, all play and no work – I went to one of the best schools in Hyderabad, India, where I was born and spent my childhood – The Hyderabad Public School. I believe that school is the most important institution in building character and preparing the child for manhood. No university or institution of higher learning can do for character building what a good school can do. I went to one of the best, not only because of the infrastructure, which was world class, but also because of the wonderful people who taught me. Simultaneously, I acquired a formal Islamic education (twelve years) with both book learning as well as Tarbiyya, which I continued over the years. I learnt that it is always possible to do more than conventional wisdom would have you believe if you push yourself. I also learnt that pushing yourself is great fun. In school I was passionate about horse riding; I excelled in dressage and also played polo. After completing school, I went to college and graduated with degrees in History, Political Science, and Urdu literature. I also have a post-graduation in Management from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) and a further qualification in Applied Behavioral Science.
I specialize today in Leadership Development and Family Business consulting and have written several books on these and other subjects. I have retained my interest in the wild places and those who live there. This has developed into a passion for photography and so over the past several years, I have spent many very happy hours every year in Kruger and Hluhluwi National Parks in South Africa and in other forests of the world.
Over the course of fifty-five years, of which thirty-eight have been working years, I have met thousands of people across races, nationalities, colors, political landscapes, genders, sizes, and shapes – ranging from business and political leaders walking the corridors of power (in 2008 I met the King of Saudi Arabia, His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz ibn Saud at a banquet in his palace in Mina; the Prime Minister of Guyana, His Excellency Mr. Samuel Hinds is a personal friend of thirty-five years standing), to religious scholars (Muslim, Christian, and Hindu), union leaders, anxious parents of children who have become strangers to them, heads of family business – billionaires who would give half their kingdom for peace of mind and real happiness, poor farmers and hunter gatherer tribesmen and women who have little, but are ever happy to share it with you. They have problems like the rest of us, maybe even more, but you don’t see that on their face or hear it in their voice.
I met tribal leaders in their villages, one of them comprised of four huts in the rain forest in the Western Ghats in India and broke bread with them and to their utter astonishment, played with their children. I drank milk straight from the udder of a buffalo and honey straight from the hive, with the blessings of the owners. I swam in forest rivers that have no names, rode horseback on the South American pampa and the English Moors and fished for Piranha and Arapaima in Rio Berbice. I have driven cars, SUVs before the term was invented (we called all of them ‘Jeep’), Caterpillar dump trucks, bull dozers, and boats. I rode a buffalo into a lake until it decided to dive and I floated away. Mercifully, I grabbed her tail and she towed me back to shore. I met teachers, parents, and students in South Africa, Malaysia, India, Guyana, U.K, and America and wondered at our similarities which far overshadow our differences. I have spoken to audiences ranging from a few people in a room to nine-thousand people in the great masjid of the International Islamic University in Malaysia and marveled at how easy it is to connect to people across every imaginable boundary. I was one of three million in Haj on more than one occasion and if I had a dollar for every smile I got from a stranger, I would be a rich man. I feel I am a rich man anyway because of all the experiences that life has afforded me. I have been in life threatening situations more than once, facing direct personal danger sometimes from both, two legged and four legged creatures, but I am still here. I studied many religions and philosophies and then came to Islam with my eyes wide open. Though I was born in a Muslim home, my Islam is by choice, not chance. Having seen the opposite spectrums of the economic scale – the rich living responsibly or irresponsibly, the poor living with self-respect and dignity or justifying all sorts of bad actions by reference to poverty – I have developed a strong sense of justice and compassion. I believe the two must go hand in hand. I also learned what I consider to be the two most important lessons in my life, after sharing which I will end this introduction.
The first relates to the fact that essentially we are all in control of our lives and selves and no matter how powerful or powerless we may believe we are, there is always something that we can do to make a difference.
‘I will not allow what is not in my control, to prevent me from doing what is in my control.’
The second relates to the fact that everything we do counts and defines us as human beings and becomes our legacy to the world. I ask for the courage to do what is in my control, fearing nobody but my Creator to Whom is my return.
‘All that we chose to do or chose not to do, defines brand value and character.’
The dilemma of the modern corporate enter-trainer
One of my friends who is a corporate trainer/teacher/facilitator, wrote to me on Teacher’s Day and talked about how the nature of training/teaching has changed.
- Observation: attitudes of students have changed…
- Guru is not necessarily a brahmo or devo. As a service provider, there is no leeway or tolerance for a teacher,
- Teacher has to enable the student to reach their goals, without the student willing to learn.
- Entire paradigm or process of education is based assumption that the student wants to learn or shares some of the responsibility for their own learning. Looking at today’s folks, I get an attitude like similar to them in a theatre… “ I am here and now let us see how you entertain us, even if I don’t want to be entertained” like saying make something go into my head, inspite of me.
- Am finding schools that are doing everything like photocopying or emailing notes. So kids don’t write. They just have to listen/read/vomit. Where is the synthesis part, the part of education that makes students go through certain actions, rituals that have a certain impact on the mind somehow… or is there a need to rethink the ritual from the goal a bit like rethinking business because of the eBusiness paradigm?
Having been a trainer/teacher/facilitator/consultant for the past 35 years I have had the opportunity to observe the change in the environment, especially in the Indian corporate world. There was a time when the teacher was someone who was right by default. Teacher’s tolerance levels were low. Students had to accept what was told to them. Questioning the teacher was tantamount to being impertinent and disrespectful and was not acceptable. Arguing or disagreeing with the teacher was not even heard of. The archetypical model of the ‘rebellious’ student was that of Eklavya in the Mahabharat who had to pay the Gurudakshana of his right thumb to Dronacharya for daring to learn what his teacher did not intend to teach him.
Today we see a total change with the proverbial boot on the foot of the student. Trainers eat or starve depending on the fickle likes and dislikes of students. Teachers are judged not on the basis of what the students learned, realized or felt able to practice in their lives, but on the basis of whether or not they ‘liked’ the teacher. Giving critical feedback to the student (many of whom incidentally as my friend says do not even consider themselves in need of learning nor are they even called ‘student’) is an activity fraught with danger. The danger that the fragile ego of the student may get bruised in the process and his lovely self-image of being God’s gift to mankind may be shaken and he may be displeased. Being ‘liked’ by students seems to be the single most important consideration.
This means that the price of giving some well deserved adverse feedback or of challenging some pet position of a student can mean that on the Trainer Dashboard the trainer’s rating may go down by one or two sub-points from 9.8 to 9.3 which translates very simply to kissing that client goodbye. In some cases of course the HR professional who handles training is also a trainer and understands the complexity of the job. They sit in the training class and know the style of the trainer. They also know the profile of the students well enough to know what must have led to the feedback. They are focused on what is good for the organization which is why the training was being done in the first place. So they simply ignore the feedback and a trainer who has the commitment to say what the students need to hear and not what they like to hear, retains his job.
On rare occasions s/he is even appreciated and thanked for saying to the student what everyone else was dying to say but dared not. On the other hand when the HR professional either has no training experience themselves or if their personal anxiety is so high that they are totally focused on the training being ‘liked’ and the students having ‘fun’, then you have the scenario that I presented above. In such situations ‘intelligent’ trainers become ‘entertainers’ to ensure that they continue to eat and leave the fate of the student to himself. One can hardly blame them for focusing on being liked, when being liked is more important and gets rewarded more than being useful.
Truly it has been said that we get what we pay for. When we focus on fun, we get ‘funny’ trainers. People have fun and may learn something in the same way that if you throw seeds on the ground some will germinate irrespective of all conditions. But if you had taken the trouble to prepare the ground first by ploughing, harrowing, irrigating and manuring and then you carefully planted the seeds, a far higher percentage would germinate and more importantly, grow and bear fruit. So also if an atmosphere of serious learning (which can still be great fun) is created, with students wanting to learn, believing that they can benefit, be willing to invest their time and thought in learning and be willing to listen to feedback, then the benefits of learning would be far higher. Naturally in such a case what the organization would need to measure is the size of the harvest – what did the students learn and what are they able to apply. Not whether or not they liked the trainer per se.
Now having said that, and being aware that what I have described above is not what happens in most organizations and probably is not likely to happen, what is it that the trainer can still do both to ensure that he continues to eat as well as not compromise his own integrity as a teacher by withholding knowledge, feedback or experience in order to ensure that he continues to have work? In my own life I have always held my own integrity as a teacher above all other considerations, including future business. I have said what students needed to hear even if it was what they did not want to hear. In two cases I lost business on that account, but I have no regrets about that. In every other case in 35 years, people have come back to me time and again and thanked me for putting them back on track when they had gone off and nobody else had the courage to ‘tell it like it is’. In this process of doing what is essentially a very challenging and complex job I developed some techniques which I will try to share with my fellow professionals in the hope that they will find them useful. I call them my 7-Point Formula.
1. Today I will teach like I’ve never taught before
I have said this before and I will say it again: NEVER compromise your own integrity as a teacher. When you enter that room, the only responsibility that you have is to your students. Not to their company. Not to the HR or Business Manager who hired you. Not to your own family or yourself. Your first and only responsibility is to the students and that is to ensure that they get the best that you can possibly give them without any compromise. So as a trainer/teacher I tell myself: TODAY I WILL TEACH LIKE I’VE NEVER TAUGHT BEFORE. I am a religious person and so before I go to my class, I pray for the class. I ask Allah to enable me to do my best and to give them the very best of what I know and to enable them to benefit from it.
2. Own your responsibility: Don’t blame the student if he does not like what you tell him. I ask myself, “How could I have put it differently so that he would have accepted it more easily, even if he still did not ‘like’ it?” After all, my effort in this direction can only do me good by helping me develop my own skill. Blaming the student will achieve no purpose at all, either for myself or for the student. Now how can you do that?
The first requirement is to ask yourself why you want to say what you plan to say. Is it to ‘get back at’ or to ‘retaliate’? Or is it because you are genuinely concerned for the student? Granted that it is very difficult to be ‘genuinely concerned’ about some obnoxious stranger but if you are not, it shows. Just as it does when you are. I am always amazed at how much I can get away with if I have ‘passed’ my own test of genuinely caring for the student, first.
One of the ways to help people swallow bitter pills is to ask good questions that lead the student to the only possible option. Let them conclude. Don’t tell. But in the end, even if you lose the contract, say what you need to say without fear. Because your integrity is worth more than the fee.
3. The third thing that I remind myself is to be patient. Ideally I would like the student who has just received some ‘straight talk’ from me to become transformed and fall at my feet in gratitude for having changed his life. But that is as likely to happen as it is for the cow to jump over the moon. So we need to be patient. I remind myself that an egg needs 21 days to hatch into a chick. Jacking up the temperature will cook the egg and put paid to all hopes of the egg ever transforming into a chicken. “Hang on!! Old egg,” I tell myself.
4. I ask myself, “How can I become more ‘liked’ without compromising my integrity as a teacher by withholding knowledge, feedback or insights? After all what is wrong with being liked?” It helps me to remember this especially when I have to give anyone critical feedback. What I do if it is feedback concerning one individual is to give it privately and not in the class. I do it with seriousness, concern for his/her feelings, but I do it directly without beating about the bush. I never give that critical feedback concerning one person as a general comment before the whole class. For example if there is someone who is vitiating the learning of other people by too much of misplaced humor, I don’t say, “I think it is a good idea to be serious,” or some such thing. I NEVER USE SARCASM. I wait for a break and then take the individual aside and say to her/him, “You know, I love your humor but I find it seems to be giving others an escape route not to look at uncomfortable things about themselves. I know that is not your intention in laughing, so do you think you could watch for that and ensure that people get to look at insights seriously?” I say this with a smile because it is my experience that if you say it with a smile you can say almost anything and get away with it.
5. I remind myself that the student who can instigate people and distract them while I am teaching has just demonstrated amazing leadership qualities. My challenge is not to put them down but to ensure that those leadership qualities are channeled in the right direction. So I treat such people as potential allies and ‘co-trainers’. I have never had an instance of this confidence being misplaced.
6. People pay attention to things that they think will benefit them. So how can I show ‘What’s in it for them’ to my students by giving them a glimpse of what I can do for them, if they allow me to? How can I give them a sampling of my knowledge and experience in the context of their needs? How can I show them that I know enough about them, their lives, their culture, organization, circumstances, challenges and aspirations to be able to give them implementable solutions that will help them to succeed? How can I demonstrate to them that they are the most important people for me and that there is nothing within reason that I will not do to ensure that they have a beneficial, enjoyable and memorable experience? Especially since that is the truth.
7. When I start my class I ensure that I greet each individual personally and then I do my best to remember their names. This is easier than you may think and has a huge effect on people and shows respect for the individual and is the best way that I know to build a rapport very quickly. Show me someone who does not want to be respected.
I also try to speak to students in their language. Since I speak 5 languages, that’s fairly easy to do. It is not necessary to speak at great length in their language. A few words do very well to break the ice and to establish a connection and a level of comfort.
I then draw attention to the fact that the student needs to invest time, energy and effort in their own learning. And I do that humorously.
For example I say to them:
“There are three kinds of people who come to a training class:
Prisoners: Who have been sent (sentenced) to the training.
Tourists: Who come because the location is reputed to be good.
Learners: Who come because they genuinely believe that they need to learn.
My submission to you is that whatever be the reason you came, it is a good idea to become a learner as quickly as possible. Believe me that will not spoil the location or the taste of the food and it will release you from your ‘prison’.”
Listen is not equal to obey: It is very curious that in most languages (certainly true for the ones that I know) listen means ‘to obey’. For example parents are heard to lament about their children: ‘My children don’t listen to me.’ But the truth is that if you gave all the kids hearing aids, it would still not solve the parent’s problem because it has nothing to do with listening but everything to do with obeying. So I say to my class, “There is no compulsion on anyone to accept or obey anything that I say.
Or anything that any of your colleagues say. In this class, listen means to listen only. Do you think you can listen to whatever someone says, consider it, hold it in your mind, play with it, ask questions to clarify any doubts, before deciding if it is applicable, useful or interesting for you? God gave us two ears so that we can take in all inputs from one and let them out from the other. But he placed them on either side of the head so that the input goes through the brain before it is allowed to leave through the other ear. Do you think you can practice this for the duration of this program?”
The benefit of this approach is that it lowers barriers and breaks the ice. When you draw attention of people to the fact that many of us react defensively because we are conditioned to believe that listen = obey and so fear that unless we interrupt the speaker or react defensively it will be assumed that we have accepted what he/she has said. When you clarify this behavioral process and show people the alternative of making the communication a ‘batch’ process instead of being the default ‘real time on-line’ process that it usually is, then resistance to new ideas becomes significantly lower.
I give people the example of the motor mechanic (or any mechanic for that matter) and his toolbox. I ask them, “Who is a better equipped mechanic? One who has many tools or one who has only one?” Then I say to them, “If you asked a mechanic about the tools in his toolbox it is entirely likely that he would have one or more tools which he would not have used in a long time. Imagine that you said to him, ‘Since you haven’t used this wrench for such a long time, why don’t you just throw it away?’ What do you think the mechanic would say? In the same way, consider all learning as tools and keep it in your toolbox. You never know when you might need it. Variety gives you flexibility and options. On the other hand as the saying goes – If the only thing you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.”
Finally I draw attention of my students to the issue of applying their learnings. For me that is the most important consideration and I do everything in my power to ensure that whatever I teach is applicable in real life. I do my best to help my students to find practical solutions to their problems and do all I can to encourage them to feel comfortable to apply whatever they learn from me. This is where my own 16 years hands-on experience as a line manager helps enormously. I am able to give work-life related examples of challenging situations that I have been in and how what they just learned can be applied.
I use this diagram to alert them to the fact that most learning means changing behavior and that is not easy or painless. Depending on how drastic the change is, the pain of trying the new method is proportionate. Most people don’t anticipate this difficulty and when they encounter suspicion, resistance or disbelief from those who have become used to the old behavior, they tend to give up the new way after a while. So the potential benefit of the change is never realized.
It is a very good idea therefore to be prepared for two things:
1. Practicing the new behavior is not likely to be easy and may cramp your style for a while and make you slower and less efficient in the short term.
2. Others are likely to see your new behavior as being ‘put on’ and to view it with a mixture of suspicion, distrust and amusement. Especially if the new way is a drastic departure from the old way.
However what is equally true is that if the new way is practiced consistently and sincerely, then people start to trust the new ‘You’ and to enjoy the change. Then you will start getting some positive strokes which will reinforce the new methods. Behavioral change is possible and enjoyable, but it takes a little time.
In conclusion I would like to wish all my colleagues the very best in their efforts to make this world a better place. Believe me; the results justify the effort and energy that it sometimes takes. I teach not because I have no choice but because I do and I would rather not be doing anything else including fishing or golfing. Because in the end, if you have worked sincerely, with professional integrity, sensitivity and awareness and have tried to do the best that you could have done; then you will be the biggest beneficiary. Now why would I want to do anything else?
Finally it is good for all concerned, teacher and pupils to remember these words of ancient wisdom from the Smruthies:
Achaaryaath paadam aadatthe;
paadam sishya swamedhayaa;
paadam sa brahmachaaribhya;
A person can get only one quarter of knowledge from the Achaarya – the teacher, another quarter by analyzing himself, one quarter by discussing with others and the last quarter during the process of living by method: addition, deletion, correction, and modification of already known aachaaraas.