O! Teacher stop teaching

O! Teacher stop teaching

Our present methods of teaching which are inflicted on by far the vast majority of children the world over are the single biggest cause for killing the imagination that every child is born with and making them into square blocks which fit our own frightened, constrained and slavish worldview. Those who comply we ‘pass’ and those who challenge it and refuse to succumb, we ‘fail’. The occasional among those we ‘fail’, go on to great fortune. The vast majority disappear, never to be heard from again. Destroyed by the education system they didn’t deserve or ask for.

I recall the story of young Tommy; one of the stories that do the rounds on the internet. It is said that Tommy’s teacher asked the class to write an essay about their dream. Next day all the children brought their essays to class. The teacher read them all. But when she came to Tommy’s essay she was astounded and even angry. She wrote a big 0 at the top of the essay and handed Tommy his book. Naturally poor Tommy’s face fell when he looked at the teacher’s notation. He took back his book and silently walked back to his seat. The teacher saw the look on the little boy’s face and took pity on him. She called him back and said, ‘Tommy, your dream is ridiculous. It is fantasy. It is totally unrealistic. That is why I failed you in the test. However, I will give you another chance. If you re-write this dream and bring it back tomorrow, I will give you some marks.’ Tommy listened in silence, nodded agreement and returned to his seat. The eyes and smirks of all those who had ‘passed’ were on his face. They were the ones with realistic dreams which the teacher liked.

Next day Tommy handed in his essay to the teacher. The teacher scanned through it and was astonished to see that there was no change. She called Tommy to her desk in an injured tone and said, ‘Tommy, didn’t you understand what I told you? I said I would give you marks if you changed your dream. You have done nothing here! So I am sorry I can’t give you any marks.’

Tommy looked at her and said, ‘Teacher, I thought about what you said and decided that I’ll let you keep your marks and I will keep my dream.’

It seems strange to me that if I were asked to define the biggest challenge of the teacher, I would say, ‘It is to teach children how to deal with a world that we know nothing about.’ In such a world, imagination is the key resource that they will need. Without imagination they would be floundering trying to find answers in history or ‘facts’ that they had been taught. But they would never find those answers because they simply aren’t there. Yet the thing that most schools do with amazing efficiency is to kill the child’s imagination as quickly as possible. And sadly, they are very successful in doing so.

Take for example how science is taught. It is taught in a way that is no different from history, for example. It is taught as a ‘fact’ course. Whereas science is not about fact at all but about constant discovery. Science is about constantly discovering how little we know. Science is not about answers but about learning to ask the right questions, learning to analyze data with a willingness to be proved wrong, learning to design experiments to disprove our most dearly loved models, knowing that only if the experiment failed could we say that our model is actually correct. Not forever, but until we come to the next discovery.

Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions – opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine. Teaching is about teaching them the tools of learning which will enable them to pursue learning all their lives. Not answer questions – end all discussion and pass exams. That is the reason why the vast majority of children never open a science book once they finish with school. That is the reason why there is a serious global shortage of scientists. The whole approach to teaching must change – from teaching solutions and answers to teaching tools to pursue lifelong learning. Even when we teach what we know – the answers – we need to teach them how we arrived at those answers and then ask them , ‘If you faced this issue, what questions would you ask to find an answer.’ We need to focus far more on derivation, problem solving methodology and analytical skills than on actually arriving at some formula or solution.

The same malaise plagues other subjects as well. In history we concentrate on dates and places far more than on lessons learnt and ways of applying them in today’s society. When was the last time you heard a history teacher ask questions like: ‘What did we learn from the history of the Mughals the reflection of which we can see in today’s society? What can we learn from that period of Indian history which we can apply to our lives today? What can we learn from that period which will help us to find solutions to our problems today? Which problem? What is the solution?’ Instead history question papers will ask you for the date on which the first Battle of Panipath was fought; who was fighting whom; not why; not what that indicated about that society and its implications in today’s society. So, children hate history. We don’t relate what we teach to what is happening currently and how learning what happened then can help people in today’s world.

http://www.math.uakron.edu/~norfolk/why223f03.pdf

Children hate math, algebra even more. But when did we ever hear of a teacher teaching math as a problem-solving tool? Or of teaching algebra as a tool to plan a party? Math enhances ability in reasoning, intelligence, decision making and abstract analysis. But we only teach dry numbers.  Math enables budgeting, judging and assessment of business enterprises; it is the basis behind computer programming, music, art, graphic design, aeronautics – and a million other highly interesting things. But the way we teach math – the majority of students hate it, never use it to any advantage and trash 12 years of learning it as soon as they complete their final exam. So why should you study math at all. See the answers of some students to this question which their professor asked them:

Another very interesting article which turned up on Google on math is here:

http://drkroiss.com/page21.html

Our education system stinks. It is designed to create mechanics – not learned people. That is how one can become an engineer without reading any book other than his course books and without any understanding of anything except the little machine that he works on – as if the rest of the universe doesn’t matter. All the treasure of human thought, ideas, discoveries, experiments, reflections and imagination are closed to him. He doesn’t even know that they exist. He lives a life of stress, doing his best with his very limited understanding of life, trying to reinvent the wheel, to discover solutions which others, far more gifted and learned than he could ever be, have already discovered and written about. But then how would he know about them when he doesn’t read?

That is why we have idiotic product design because the designer has no concept of relating his design to the actual user. He is thinking in terms of his narrow area of knowledge, not of the vast area of application. That is why Haleem makers in India use washing machines as kitchen mixers. Saves them a lot of labor stirring the pot when they can have the pot stir itself. Ask the washing machine designer what he was thinking of when he designed the machine except dirty clothes? But great opportunity does not lie in customer demand. It lies in areas that the customer didn’t even know he needed.

The biggest problem with teachers is that they teach. That is the root cause of all ignorance. That is why I titled this essay, ‘O! Teacher, stop teaching.’ Start discovering, learning, enjoying. Start appreciating that the child is the best thing that happened to you and every single day try to become the best thing that happens to him or her. Teachers must never teach. They must be like ushers in a vast museum, walking quietly with their students tiptoeing behind them, opening one door after another – letting them take a peek – and then handing them the key to the door so that they can come back in their own time and explore in detail. The teacher then takes them to another door for another peek and another key. See?? Imagine how exciting that is for the child!  The teacher’s job is to give them the keys.

Teaching is about asking questions – and teaching them to ask questions. The teacher who gives answers has failed. So never do that. Teaching is about keeping the excitement of learning alive all lifelong. Teaching is about taking the hand of a 4-year-old and leading the whole group to a tree. Then sit down under the tree and tell them, ‘Let me see who can get me a perfect leaf of this tree.’ Actually, do this and see the fun. When they all come back, brimming with joy at their perfect finds – ask them if all the leaves are the same, even though they came from the same tree? Let them marvel at the fact that they are all leaves from the same tree, but each is different. Ask them, ‘Why do you think this happens? What is Allahﷻ saying to us?’

Then pull out a seed of the tree you are sitting under from your pocket. No, it didn’t grow there, you prepared for the class, remember? Then show them the seed and let them all (every one of them) hold the seed in his hand and explore it, texture, shape, color and so on. Give them crayons and paper and let them draw the seed. Give them a few more so that everyone has his own seed. When they have drawn the seed, tell them, ‘Now look at this tree. Do you realise that this tree was inside this seed? Can you draw the tree inside your seed?’ Let them do that. Every drawing must be made much of and draw breaths of amazement from you – and indeed, if you have ever taught in this way, you will realise that being amazed is the default setting. It is only when we kill the imagination of children that they become like us.

Then tell them about genetics – yes to four-year olds – and explain how the tree was inside the seed until Allahﷻ ordered it to come out. Explain the whole process of germination and growth. Draw lessons from each step and show them the glory of Allahﷻ.  Of course, that will make your own role as teacher much harder but also much more fun. To be on top of the game you have to read and prepare @ 4:1 – Four hours of preparation to one hour of teaching. The kids will come back with answers to the questions you planted in their minds. You will need patience and tact and wisdom to deal with some of them. But you will have the joy of learning, of having doors opened for you where you didn’t know there were doors. Teaching is about learning. I learnt some of the best lessons in my life from someone who was knee high to a jack rabbit.

As a dear friend of mine, also a teacher put it: What a teacher must inculcate is a sense of responsibility, self-discipline and a sense of the sacred. These are not easy to teach in a world that speaks/teaches rights at the cost of responsibility, obedience and self-indulgence instead of self-discipline and debunking/cynicism in place of respect for the sacred. These are values that were important, are important and will be important in any age.

Teaching is not a job. Anyone who considers it a job must do one of two things: re-think their vocation or become a cigarette salesman. That is a job. Selling cigarettes to people to hasten their demise. Teaching must be a passion. A teacher is someone who simply can’t imagine doing anything else. A teacher is someone who will teach not only for free but also if they had to pay for it. Only then can you light the lamp of the love of learning in the hearts of others. Teaching is to light the lamp of knowledge and dispel the darkness of ignorance. Do you, Mr. Teacher, consider what you are doing in these terms? I often ask people to think of a role model and then ask for how many of them it is a parent or a teacher. I have never had more than 10% of the population, across nationalities, races and genders, raising their hands. That means that for 90% of people their role model is neither a parent nor a teacher. What a tragedy, seeing that these two roles have the maximum face time with children. Yet they seem to do their roles in such an uninspiring and dull way – if not in a positively harmful way – that most children are glad to be away from them as much as possible.

I ask teachers to consider this. Every morning a strange thing happens at the gate of your school. Parents come and hand over their most precious assets to you without asking for any guarantees for anything; for you to do with them, as you please for the next 6 – 8 hours. Are you conscious of this responsibility in quite this way and do you plan for those 6 – 8 to become the best 6 – 8 hours of that child for that day? Do you actively plan this? What would you say if the teacher, who you send your child to, planned to make those hours the best hours of your child’s life? Do you believe this is worth doing? If not, what are you doing here?

 When a child asks a question, ‘Mr. Great Crocodile, what does this mean?’ You say, ‘You tell me.’ And then let him go away and search. You watch what he is doing, give him a hint or two but never make it easy for him. If it looks like he is getting too close to an easy answer, bowl a googly. Ask a question which will lead him to dig deeper.’ Then when he comes to you with his answer, listen very carefully and be prepared to be astonished. Don’t put any limits or boundaries on what he can or can’t say, what he can or can’t question. Then listen very carefully and take notes. That will do wonders for his confidence as well as for your own learning.

 And another thing – abolish exams. Or at least have only open book exams. Exams are the worst evil that ever happened to learning. They are the final nail in the coffin which ensures that the child hates learning forever. Just ask yourself how testing the memory of the child for random recall in a specific timeframe is a measure of his knowledge? Has this happened to you that a child couldn’t think of an answer though it was on the tip of his mind, until he had handed in his paper and the exam bell had rung. And then, five minutes after the bell rang, the answer dropped off the tip of his mind into his consciousness. Does that child know or not know? But does that child pass or fail your exam? If that happens to be a final, qualifying exam, then does it shut the doors on his dreams or not? Now you know why some poor kids commit suicide? Exams, as we conduct them are evil.

Tests as we do them are perceived as threats. They are threats. The human brain responds to threats in the most primitive way by shutting down everything except reflexes. When a threat is perceived, the reptilian part of the brain takes over and the neocortex shuts down. That is why in martial arts we learn to force ourselves to continue to think, while allowing the training to take over reactions. The thinking gives us the strategic edge in a conflict. Pilots are also taught to ‘go back to the manual’ in case there is an emergency. That means, not to allow the reptilian reflex to take over and to do all the checks that the manual prescribes, because only that has a chance to save the situation.

Yet in exams, we first shut down the brains of our students and then force them to perform in an atmosphere of high threat perception and pass or fail them for a life in which there is mostly no threat. At least not when they are reading history, for god’s sake!! Exams are a sign of our own laziness. We test random memory because that is the easiest thing to test. Not because that makes sense, or is a real indicator of learning, understanding and application of knowledge. Reducing it to multiple choice questions, where the child simply ticks a box is the ultimate insult to learning. That is done because the tabulation of marks can thereby be done by a machine and teachers are not burdened with even reading answers. How much worse can this get?

Do test. We must test because we need to measure the results of our effort. Test understanding. Test application of knowledge. Test value addition to what we taught them. Reward new questions that arose from what we taught them. Don’t insult your teaching and destroy the lives of students by testing them in ways that are insane and toxic. Ban exams as we know them. Find other ways of testing. And treat this like the life-threatening emergency that it is.

May you be the one to illuminate the world by igniting minds.

First of all, your own.

Three Fundamental Laws

I am going on a long journey and want to remind myself and you of the three critical lessons that I learnt from my life. I call them my Three Fundamental Laws. I hope they will help you as they helped me all my life.

Be Number One

No. 1: Be Number One

Not Number Two. Number One. I can’t do better than to quote the best speech that I have ever heard in this context; “What it takes to be Number One”, by Vince Lombardi of Green Bay Packers. I quote selectively from his speech, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”  – Coach Vincent T. Lombardi

Being Number One starts with the desire to be Number One. A burning passion that will not be quelled. It is not liking, it is not an interest, it is not a preference. It is total and complete passion. 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.

This comes from an underlying drive. To be the best. To stand out. Never to blend in. To create standards that others can aspire to. This is what has always driven me. It is something that comes from inside you. It has nothing to do with anyone else, human or circumstance, driving you from outside. This is the fire in the belly that people talk about. I have been conscious of this from my earliest childhood. I always wanted to do what nobody else would do. That is what passion is all about.

Sometimes people say, “We must teach our children how to fail.” I say that is the most stupid statement ever made. Or, since so much of stupidity is spoken today, that is one of the most stupid statements ever made. Teach them how to fail? Who would want to teach his child how to fail? Teach them how not to fail. Teach them what to do with failure, if they fail despite their best effort. Teach them to treat failure like a college year. Take ownership for their failure instead of blaming others, face the brutal facts instead of being in denial, recognize what caused them to fail and chart out a new strategy of success, instead of falling into depression. That is what you teach. Not ‘how to fail’, for God’s sake!! Get real.

It is mediocrity that one must fear. Not failure. Failure is a kick in the backside. Eminently beneficial and most necessary from time to time even for the best of us. Nothing beats a kick in the backside to wake you up. There is an Arab saying, ‘The blow that doesn’t break your back only makes you stronger.’ The failure that doesn’t annihilate you (I have yet to see one that does), only makes you stronger and wiser. But what we must fear, what must terrify us, is mediocrity. That is because it masquerades as success. It is insidious, it is tempting, it is seductive. It tells you to believe that good enough is good enough; even when you know that good enough is never good enough. You learn this lesson most effectively in the wild places on this earth.

Have you ever seen a Langur sentinel? Or a Bar-headed Goose sentinel? All around it are feasting, there is no sign of danger, but the sentinel never relaxes. It doesn’t feed even though it is starving. It doesn’t feed when others are eating up all the food. It knows that it is precisely when everything seems completely safe, that the greatest danger lurks. When there is no sign of approaching danger, it only means that the leopard’s camouflage is particularly effective and so the sentinel must peel his eyes even more and be even more wary of danger. In the wild you learn fast because the price of failure to learn is death. In our offices, homes, schools, parliaments, governments and industry, we are lulled into complacency. Since we don’t face physical death, we relax. We are surrounded by those who will sympathize with us and tell us that we must have time to relax, to ‘enjoy’ life, to be ‘free from stress’. And we believe them. The result is mediocrity. I repeat myself, ‘Fear mediocrity because it pretends to be excellence.’ It isn’t. It is the worst failure because it will keep you sedated, intoxicated and comfortable until the end when you realize what you have done with your life but then it will be too late to change. For the passionate person, his passion is fun, relaxation and enjoyment. It excites him so he is never stressed because of it. The passionate person doesn’t have a bumper sticker saying, ‘I would rather be golfing.’ Passionate people would never rather be doing anything other than their passion. They love what they do, and they love doing it.

Remember the ‘Parable of the Boiled Frog’.

Take a frog and put it into a pot of hot water. What will it do? It will leap out. But take the same frog and put it into a pot of water at room temperature. Then when the frog has settled down, light a fire under the pot and gently heat the pot. As the water gets gradually hotter, the frog gets used to it. Frogs are cold blooded animals. So, as the water gets hotter, the frog’s muscles relax, it gets somnolent and flaccid. Until the time comes when the water is now dangerously hot. The frog realizes that it is cooking, but by then its ability to react is finished. Though it knows that it is doomed, it can’t do anything to avert the doom. What killed the frog? Complacency, mediocrity, ‘good enough’. Beware of mediocrity. Don’t listen to those who try to comfort you. Seek out those who will tell you (if you don’t already know) the stark, hard and painful facts about what you said or did or what you didn’t that led to your failure. They are your friends. Your real friends. The pain you will feel, listening to them is the pain you feel in the gym pumping iron. But you still do it because you know that it is making you stronger. Appreciate such people. Don’t argue with them. Don’t justify your words or actions. Shut up and listen to them. Take in what they said and change yourself. One day you will bless them. If not, one day you will curse yourself. The choice is yours.

No. 2: Be Focused

Once again back to nature. See how an eagle hunts. See how a lioness locks onto her quarry in a huge herd of galloping Wildebeest. See how a leopard stalks his prey. One thing you will see in all of them is the ability to ignore fluff. An eagle that tries to catch two rabbits will lose both. The lioness doesn’t get distracted by the fact that there are many others like the one she locked on, just as juicy and tasty. But she ignores them all and focuses on the one she picked. She does that because she knows that if she loses that focus, she will lose her quarry and everything else also. She knows this because she learned that lesson in a very hard school. Only one in seven or eight of a lion’s hunts is successful. The rest of the time, she starves. Nothing like starvation to teach life lessons, to lions and humans.

Focus is the art of ignoring fluff. However, you can’t have focus unless you know what you want. The lion focuses on the prey which he first selects. The goal is clear and so he can focus. That is why you must first clarify your goal. Write it out in one line. If it can’t be written in one line, it is not clear. It must be written in one line and in language that a ten-year-old can understand without explanation. That is the test of clarity. Having written it, one more test to see if it is the right goal. And that is to ask yourself, ‘What happens to me when I read my goal statement?’ Do you get tears in your eyes? Does your heartbeat increase? Do you start breathing faster? Remember, what can’t make you cry, can’t make you work. Your goal should be so clear and so dear to you that you should taste it in your mouth, you should breathe its fragrance, you should hear its call, you should dream its fulfillment and you should consider anything at all that you do to achieve it, a privilege and honor. Forget, delete, remove and eliminate the word ‘sacrifice’ from your vocabulary. There is no such thing. Sacrifice is what happens when the chicken dies for you to have Tandoori Chicken. Everything else has a return. The clearer the return on your investment is to you, the happier you will be, making that investment. So, replace sacrifice with investment. And then invest in yourself. Invest in your goal.

Focus also means making choices, sometimes very painfully. When I started my training and consulting business in Bangalore in 1994, there were two major choices before me. I could be in training and/or recruitment (called rather appropriately, head-hunting). I could have been in both. Many people advised me to do that, because recruitment was highly lucrative. But I chose not to be in both. I chose training and in that, I chose leadership development.

The result was that I was seen as a highly trusted ‘friend’ and not a potential head-hunter. And I earned a name as an expert in Leadership Development Training. So, whereas all recruitment consultants had a tough time meeting CEOs and decision makers, I was invited to meet them, often to be consulted on matters of their personal development. I became a defacto coach to many promoters and CEOs for which I never charged a fee, but which paid off in many other ways. More than anything else and most valuable was the fact that I was seen as their mentor and got an insider’s view on entrepreneurial dilemmas and decision making. Decades later that resulted in my books, ‘The Business of Family Business’ and ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary’. This happened because I announced openly that I was not in recruitment and even on the rare occasion that I recommended a friend to another friend in another company, I never charged a fee, which they would otherwise have paid to a recruitment consultant. That is how I got a reputation that I was trustworthy and whereas head-hunters wouldn’t be allowed past the reception area, I had total access to anyone I wanted.

Another thing that helped me to build a reputation of trustworthiness was my commitment to integrity. For one thing I never used copyrighted material without license. This was and continues to be a major problem in India where people simply photocopy and use psychometric and other instruments to avoid paying for them. Since they do it internally in their organizations and with the collusion of whichever consultant is working for them, they get away. I refused to do this, ever. One serious test of my commitment was when in my early days, when I was struggling for business and needed the money, the HR head of a major IT company invited me to design and conduct a leadership training program for a very large number of their junior and middle managers. This course included administering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to the participants and helping them see how their preference affected their behavior at work and elsewhere. GE had sent me for this certification to Otto Kroeger Associates, in Fairfax, VA in 1995 and I was, at that time one of the very few Indian consultants with this certification. The publishers of the instrument would sell the instrument only to a registered analyst and so any client who wanted to use the instrument had to go through a certified analyst. I was delighted as this job meant that I would get some sorely needed cash as well as the fact that this assignment with this major IT company would add value to my CV. I created the design and submitted it to the Training Manager. She was very happy to see it. We had a very positive discussion and the training dates were finalized. I was very poor and hungry at the time. I desperately needed this business and was delighted and most thankful that I had landed this contract.

Then two days before the course was due to be run, she called me and said, ‘Yawar, could you please come and meet us?’ I agreed but asked if there was any problem. This kind of call, so close to the training program date usually means that there is some hitch. She said to me, ‘No, nothing. Just a small matter which I hope we can sort out. It means no loss to you and a saving for us.’ That sounded good and fair enough. So, I went to her office the next morning. She said to me, ‘You know, this MBTI, if we buy the instrument legally, it is very costly. So, why don’t you photocopy and use it instead. It will save us money and you will not lose anything.’ I was shocked more so because this company used to make a lot of noise about how committed to integrity and honesty they were. But here was their Head of Training telling me to cheat. She took my silence to be acquiescence and said, ‘Well, I am glad that is settled. We can go ahead with the training. I will have all the material photocopied and ready.’

I said to her, ‘I am sorry, the matter is not settled. I don’t photocopy copyrighted material.’ She said, ‘This is a big assignment for you, no? If you don’t do this, you will lose this business and perhaps never work with us again. In any case everyone does it here. I don’t know why you are making such an issue of it.’

I said, ‘Everyone is not my teacher. My integrity is not for sale. I don’t steal. Photocopying copyrighted material is stealing. Whether I get the business or not is immaterial. If I can’t do business honestly, I prefer not to do business.’

‘Is that your final answer?’

‘Yes’, I said. ‘That is my final answer.’

She said, ‘I am sorry, then we can’t work with you.’ And I went home, having lost one of the biggest assignments that I had had at the time. But very happy about it.

Several decades later, the head of training of another company told me, ‘I was talking to Mr. Ojha, who is the head of the company that sells the MBTI instrument in India and mentioned to him that you are doing it for us. I asked him if he needed your license number, which they normally ask for before selling the instrument. He said to me, ‘Yawar Baig is a brand. We don’t need anything if he is doing this for you. We know him and we know the stand he takes on respecting copyright.’ That for me was a ‘payment beyond price’. The price I paid for it all those years ago was a pittance compared with the value of this unsolicited feedback from a client. All the result of focus. In this case, the focus on what and even more on how. Believe me, dishonesty is its own curse and punishment. Integrity is an absolute value. There are no shades of it. You either have it or you don’t and if you don’t then nothing else can compensate for it. Just as if you do, it adds brand value and inspires client respect and loyalty.

No. 3: Quality

The last thing but by no means the least, is quality. Doing something well, once can be an accident. A fortunate one but still an accident. To do it well over and over is the meaning of quality. Expertise is repeatability. That happens with thoughtful practice. Not just practice. But thoughtful practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Thoughtful practice makes perfect. Think about what you are doing. Ask yourself why you are doing it. Ask if there is a better way to do it. Don’t change the goal. That is the Core. Unchangeable. Everything else is changeable and can and should be changed in order to achieve the goal. Nothing must come in the way of achieving the goal. Not tradition, not habit, not convenience, not expense, or trouble, or backbreaking effort. Everything that is necessary to do to achieve the goal must be done. That will happen only if you question why you are doing what you are doing and do it thoughtfully. Not mechanically as a matter of habit. But consciously, thoughtfully and deliberately. Not once, but over and over again.

There is an associated virtue with focus and quality and that is discipline. Discipline is to do what needs to be done. Not only what you like to do. Everyone must suffer two kinds of pain. The pain of discipline or the pain of regret. It is our choice. When I started my consulting practice in Bangalore in 1994, I realized that I was getting fat thanks to my mostly sedentary work. I had left ten years in tea planting where I walked at least ten to twelve kilometers every day. There was no chance of doing that in Bangalore. So, I joined a gym. This was at a time when sometimes I didn’t have money to pay my house rent until two days before the rent was due. I had no savings, no extra cash. Yet I decided that physical fitness was important enough to invest in the gym fee. Then came the other problem, time. On most days, by the time I finished work, it would be past 6 pm. And by the time I got home it would be dinner time. I changed dinner time. I said to myself that I would eat dinner only after I finished my session in the gym. There were days when I ate dinner at 11 pm, because that is when my gym session finished. But the result was that I remained fit and had the energy to do my work very satisfactorily. As I said, nothing is free. We are free to choose, but every choice has a price.

I was very fortunate to be involved from its inception, with GE’s 6 Sigma Quality effort which Jack Welch started in 1994. I know that much water has flowed under the bridge and 6 Sigma is no longer the buzzword in GE or elsewhere. But I am not selling 6 Sigma here. What I want to share with you is what that taught me about quality. I learned that there are two critical things that are intrinsic to any quality initiative. Measurement and documentation. Without these two you can’t have quality. It is that simple.

In my business I defined my quality standard as delivering on three parameters:

  1. Integrity
    1. To be true to ourselves and serve our clients with total uncompromising integrity, in all respects.
  2. Continuous Learning
    1. To constantly seek increase in our knowledge and share it with all our constituents in the belief that knowledge increases with sharing.
  3. Speed of Response
    1. To hold ourselves to the value that a client must be responded to within 24 hours. (My internal measure for that was 8 hours, not 24)

I have never regretted this. What this resulted in was systematic measured professional development for myself, which I invested time and money in, every year. I augmented that with writing a professional journal which eventually yielded books on various topics. As on date, I have written thirty-nine books (of which three are audio books) on a wide variety of topics, which reflect my own varied interests in life. I believe I am among a very small brotherhood of professionals who have written so many books on so many different subjects. I have two podcasts which have a global footprint with downloads in almost every country in the world except Greenland. This is the result of documentation.

As for measurement, as I mentioned I schedule a training course or certification or some learning experience for myself, every year. This involves expenditure of time, money and effort but one result of this is that on the rare occasion when anyone says to me, ‘Your fee is more than that of others. Can you reduce your fee?’ I say to them, ‘Here is what my personal development log looks like over the past five years. Why don’t you look at the log of whoever you are comparing me with?’ I never reduced my fee and I never lost a client. People are willing to pay if you can show them value. But you can’t show value if you don’t measure it and document the results.

The final point is the importance of speed of response. Speed is a competitive advantage and I have always been conscious of it and responded to clients, friends, associates, everyone, usually faster than anyone else. I never ever needed reminders. I never fail to return a call. I am never ever late for an appointment. These may seem like small things. But so is taking a breath. Try doing without it.

To sum up, Passion, Focus and Quality. And in Quality, Measurement and Documentation. These are the secrets of success. This is my legacy to you. May you be blessed in it as I am.

Success is the biggest danger

Success is the biggest danger

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:

  1. That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.

2. That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.

3. 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, Respecting elders or tradition, 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. Anglo American which owns 85% of De Beers Group, the premier diamond company in the world has an entire department, headed by one of the most brilliant men that I have ever met, Clem Sunter to do Scenario Planning.  I had the honor of being a co-speaker with him at a WMO Conference in Pretoria. Clem Sunter and his team conceptualize both opportunity and threat scenarios to enable Anglo American to prepare for them well in advance. I strongly recommend that you read Clem Sunter and Chantell Illbury’s book, “The Mind of a Fox”, to understand what Scenario Planning is and how critical to survival and development it is for individuals, companies, people and countries. 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.

That is what passion is all about. Let me try to describe passion by starting with what it is not. Passion is not ‘interest’ or ‘liking’. It is obsession. Single minded obsession about the thing that you are passionate about which enables you to invest your best in the pursuit of your goal. It is not about major investment. It is not about significant investment. It is about total investment. All your time, all your energy, all your money, all your thought, feeling, emotion, effort, sweat and tears; everything. People who are passionate live, think, feel, sleep, dream, wake and work to achieve their passion. And nothing else. The issue of ‘nothing else’ is very important. This is a checklist for those who want to test and see if they are passionate about whatever they think they are passionate about. See how many of these things you can tick off in your life. If you miss even one, then to that extent you are not passionate. You may be interested. Even very interested, but you are not passionate. Believe me, that is often the line between success and failure. It is your choice and you are responsible. Nobody else.

To be passionate is not to have a Plan B. Plan B is your insurance, it is your safety net, it is your fall back. Passionate people don’t need it because they don’t intend to fail. They have total commitment. See this clip of the lioness attacking the zebra. That is total commitment. She has no Plan B. She doesn’t let go even when the zebra somersaults and lands on top of her. A zebra that size is at least 200 kilograms. Imagine that landing on you and yet you don’t let go. That is passion and when you work with that kind of passion, there is only one result. Success. So, no Plan B. I have worked like this all my life and today at age 63, I don’t have a single regret about living this way. As a matter of fact, I am in the process of starting a new phase in my life being a mentor to anyone demented enough to want me as a mentor. That’s my payback to those who invested their time and effort in me. Many have passed away, but they would be happy to know that I am carrying their contribution forward. They wouldn’t want it any other way. When people ask me why I don’t have a Plan B, I say to them, ‘Because I don’t plan to fail.’ That is not an arrogant statement. I say that because I am totally committed to what I do and have total faith in the help of Allahﷻ. He never let me down and I am content and thrilled. 

If you need to be woken up in the morning; even if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are not passionate. If you need to be reminded, you are not passionate. If you need material rewards, the praise of others, designations and titles, medals and awards; if you need anything external, you are not passionate. If you are satisfied with your output, you are not passionate.

Passion is its own payment, its own reward. This is essential to understand and experience because otherwise you can’t sustain passion. Ask where you are likely to find Usain Bolt on the morning after he received the Olympic Gold Medal. The answer is, ‘On the track.’ Jane Goodall was passionate about chimpanzees. She studied them, worked with them, lived among them and died among them. That is passion. Passion is to have what I call Positive Dissatisfaction or Positive Stress. This is not the stress that comes from the conflict of goals, emotions, fears and desires. This is the excitement of always trying to do better than you did before. Not because someone is pushing you. Not because someone is watching you or monitoring your actions. If you are passionate and work with passion, you will find yourself surrounded with satisfied people. That will be your biggest challenge. The biggest danger. The biggest incentive to relax and become complacent. You will not be walking through disapproval but through huge approval and appreciation. People will praise you and extol your virtues and applaud your output. They will tell you that they never saw or experienced anything as good as what you did. They will tell you that you changed their lives, their work, their belief in themselves. They will tell you that they never met anyone like you and that you are the best. The passionate person appreciates all that and is grateful, but he will never become complacent. He will never be satisfied and say, ‘I have arrived.’ For the passionate person, the journey is the destination; the race is the winning. Not some finish line. Passion is its own reward. Passionate people take joy from the effort. They do because they are. They are because they do. They do because they are trying to see what the best that they can do is. And nobody ever knows the best that they can do.  

Having said all that, it is not that I succeeded in every endeavor. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the technique that I learnt early in life; to objectively 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 I intended to convey was less important than what I 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. 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 workday 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 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 salesperson who is magical. She or he is an inspired salesperson. 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. So, I say, give them the money and let them do whatever they want with it but don’t take them off doing what they love to do.

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.

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 final 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.

Try

Try

Judgement

by Anonymous

Before God’s footstool to confess 
A poor soul knelt, and bowed his head; 
“I failed,” he cried. The Master said, 
“Thou didst thy best—that is success!”

My house and my free flying Macaw in Guyana, 1980


It was December 1980. I was sitting on the veranda of my house in Guyana. It was about 9.00 pm, dark, balmy evening in the tropics. As usual on most days in this season, it had rained in the day and stopped. The air was heavy with moisture but the breeze, cool. Before me was the orange orchard of the Staff Hill, bounded on the far side by the forest. The rain-forest of Guyana. The evening had signed off to the night by the booming calls of the Howler monkeys who also announced the beginning of the new day. Scarlet Macaws flew to their roosts, talking to each other. I also heard the chatter of the Sakiwinki (Common Squirrel Monkey) families settling into their resting places. The forest was now relatively quiet, except for the singing of the Cicadas, whose song rose and fell in waves like those of the ocean. Sometimes they would fall totally silent, only to start again in the middle of my deep breath of relief, to remind me that the only way to live with Cicadas, as with some kinds of people was to get used to them. The forest is never totally silent because the forest is a living being. It has living beings in it, but it is itself a living unit which breathes, sings, groans and talks to those who know how to listen. The forest has its own language, which you need to learn, if you want to enjoy being in the forest. Otherwise the forest can be an alien, ominous, even threatening presence to those who don’t understand it.

I spent my whole life from the school days, to this, in forests. Not that I lived inside them but I lived near them and where I didn’t have forests near me, like now when I live in a huge, concrete labyrinth called a city; I make the effort to go to the forest at least once every quarter, simply to breathe. Otherwise I feel suffocated and start dying slowly, inside. The forest rejuvenates me, gives me new life, energizes me and enables me to go on for a while longer. So, that night I simply sat on my veranda and was one with the forest.

But where does the poem I began with, come into this story? You ask.

That night, I had finished a very long and protracted negotiation with the union, a marathon session over 72 hours, practically non-stop. But still at the end, we were waiting to see what the union would do. Accept or not. That is when I recalled this poem, which my very wise and dear friend and boss, Nick Adams had mentioned once. You will not be asked, ‘What happened?’ You will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ As someone said, ‘You don’t lose the race when you fall. You lose the race when you fail to rise.’ As long as you rise and keep running, you are in the race. But if you remain down, then you are out of the race. Who decides whether you rise or not?

We are brought up wrong. In many more ways than one. Let me give you an example. Someone told me a very tragic story about a highly successful Indian businessman in the US, who one day, shot himself, his wife and two children, obviously not in that order. When the case was analyzed, it turned out that he had fallen on hard times and though he had property which he could sell to settle his debts, he would have been reduced to penury and would have had to start all over again. He chose instead to end it all and killed his whole family as well. Someone commented on this story and said, “The problem is that he was taught how to deal with success, not with failure. We must learn how to deal with failure.” That may sound a bit like loser-talk; learn how to deal with failure? Think about it while I tell you another story.

This is about Thomas Edison, the great inventor and founder of General Electric. The story goes that one night Edison’s famous laboratory caught fire. It was housed in a separate building and before anyone was alerted and could do anything, the whole building and everything inside was a huge conflagration. Edison’s son, Thomas Alva Jr. said, “I was very anxious about my Dad and rushed to see where he was. This was his entire life’s work going up in flames and I was afraid that he would perhaps do something drastic at this tragedy. When I found him, he was standing with his hands folded behind his back, watching the fire. He saw me and said, “Go call your Mom. She is not going to see such a magnificent fire in a hurry.” Thomas Alva says, “I couldn’t help myself but ask him, “But Dad, that is your entire life’s work!” Thomas Edison replied, “Tell me, how many people have the chance to have all their mistakes erased at once? Now go and call your Mother.”

I said that we are brought up wrong because we are conditioned to seek outcomes and to not only feel sad, glad, bad, mad based on them but to judge ourselves on the basis of results. Now, don’t get me wrong. Especially those who know me and know how focused on results I myself, am. I am not against focusing on results, but on focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else. I submit that if you focus on the result alone, that can be detrimental to the result itself and so it is a self-defeating exercise.

What must I focus on, if not on the result? You ask.

Focus on the process. Focus on the way. Enjoy the effort. Monitor what you are doing and how you are doing it. Put metrics on the effort and as I said, enjoy it. The reality of life is that there are no final results. Every result is like a rest spot in a marathon. You can stop for a bit, while the rules of the game get changed. Then you run again. Not in the marathon; in life. The truth is that most of our life, we are going to be engaged in the process. Most of our time, all our effort and resources are going to be engaged on the way to get to our destination. If we don’t enjoy that, then we are going to be very miserable. But if we enjoy the journey, then we will live a very happy life. As for the destination, well, the right road will get you there, but only if you keep walking. So, Johnny Walker, keep walking.

In Guyana I lived in a small mining town called Kwakwani, which clung to the bank of the Berbice River, with the ever-present forest threatening to engulf it in an unwary moment. We generated our own electricity using a generator that had a huge flywheel to take care of providing energy for the engine after it delivers the power stroke. Look it up if you are interested in the role of the flywheel in power generation. My point however is different. The flywheel, for those who have never seen one, is a huge wheel with spokes. The one in Kwakwani had a diameter of 30 feet and was made of cast iron. It was a massive piece of machinery. We never allowed the engine to stop but on the annual maintenance day, when the engine had to be stopped for a few hours, the sight of the restarting was very amazing and instructive. To get the flywheel to start turning, it took a huge effort because it was so heavy. After applying all the effort, it would turn just slightly. Sometimes it would simply settle back in place, a heartbreaking thing to see for those who had bust a gut to get it to move. But you never gave up because you knew one thing and that was, that once it started turning, it would go on turning literally forever. If those trying to get the flywheel to move, focus on results, they will lose heart, because for the longest while there are no results, despite all your effort. But if they focus on the process, see if they are pushing hard enough, do whatever it takes to keep pushing, then the result is inevitable and then all they need to do is to stand by and watch it happen.

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

My most inspirational creatures in the wild are small birds. Birds which are so small that when they perch on a blade of grass, it doesn’t bend with their weight. These birds, their eggs and young, are prey and food for everything that eats meat. And they can’t do anything to defend themselves or to protect their young. Yet they thrive. How do they do that? They do it by focusing on the process.

The Bulbul, my teacher

Here is my conversation with one of them, who perched on a little twig right before me and my camera in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka, with a neatly tied blade of grass in her beak. “How do you do it?” I asked.

“I am a bird. It is my job to build a nest and raise young. I do that job to the best of my ability. If in the process, my nest is destroyed, I simply start building again. If I build the nest and lay eggs but before they can hatch a tree snake, a rat, a monitor lizard or anything else finds my nest, then I escape and let the predator eat the eggs. I can’t help it. I can’t protect them. But once the predator has left, I build another nest and I lay some more eggs and I incubate them. It is heartbreaking when predators find my nest with my young in it. Once again, I must leave and watch my babies being eaten before my eyes. But then what do I do? I build another nest. I lay some more eggs and I raise some more babies. That is why in the end, I survive and my tribe increases.”

I am in my nest but you can’t see me

I ask you, ‘Have you ever seen a depressed Bulbul?’ I haven’t. They have no time for depression. They never give up. They know what they are supposed to do. They do it until they succeed. No matter how many times they fail in the process. No matter how long it takes. They keep at it until they succeed. And in the end, they always succeed.

I asked, “Is my job done?”

He answered, “If you are alive, it’s not.”

What comprises leadership?

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.

Suleh Hudaybiyya

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.