Believe it or not, the first time that color television sets became freely available in India was after the Asian Games in 1985. Almost everyone I knew in the plantations immediately bought a color TV and a VCP (no VCRs yet), so that the lonely evenings in the plantations could be spent watching films. There used to be weekend parties to watch some movie or the other or to watch some sport event. When Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren and won Wimbledon in 1985 aged 17, becoming the youngest champion in tournament history, a record which holds to this day, we were invited by Taher bhai (Mr. S. M. Taher) and Bibs in their bungalow in Sheikalmudi. Taher bhai was the Group Manager and we spent a very enjoyable evening with the usual fabulous dinner of ‘Bibs cuisine’. I recall that evening with great pleasure to this day. But for seven years, we did not get a TV because we had no money to spare. All my money was spent either in buying books or in traveling to training courses. I had to take a bit of ribbing from some quarters for being so backward as to not even have a TV in my house.
I decided in 1983, the year in which I joined planting, that though I loved planting and the lifestyle it provided, it was not sustainable. I knew that a time would come, sooner or later, that I would become bored with what I was doing, because it would all become routine. Also, I saw the danger of being in a super specialized job that most of the world had no idea or appreciation about. Mobility across industries would become a problem, if I were ever to leave planting, because for most people in the ‘plains’ (that’s what we called the rest of the world – ‘People in the Plains’) had no idea about the amazing complexity and leadership challenge of the planter. For most ‘People in the Plains’, a tea estate manager was someone who lived in a beautiful house with a lovely garden, had servants, went to a nice club and was paid a salary to boot. That is about as far from the truth of the matter as you can get, but try convincing someone from the plains whose window into the life of a planter was a holiday he had with his wife’s cousin on their tea estate. I saw this early enough that one day I would have to face this if I left the plantations and tried to get a job. I was not sure what the alternative was.
Then in 1983, I attended a two-week workshop in Jaipur that was focused on self-realization. That gave me the direction I needed. The facilitator of my class was Mr. Aroon Joshi who has ever since been a dear friend and mentor. In the workshop I experienced his facilitation and saw how it helped me to work with different issues that were troubling me. I saw how other people were also helped in their journey of self-development and decided that that was what I wanted to learn to do. I was many miles away from making this into a consulting practice but knew that if I learnt how to help people, that would come in extremely useful and potentially be a means for me to build a consulting practice after I retired from planting or earlier.
The challenge was that there was no formal training course, degree, or program that I could attend to qualify as a leadership trainer. Also, I was sitting on top of the hill in the Anamallais while everything I needed to qualify was miles and days away in the cities. To make matters more interesting, I needed my job (I also enjoyed it very much) and so had to figure out a way of self-learning where I could get the study and experience I needed while still holding down a full-time job. I began by investing every available paisa (cent) on books. Since my salary was only ₹ 850.00 per month and then was increased to ₹ 1100.00 per month, I didn’t have too many savings. But I made sure that whatever savings I had, were not used in anything other than my learning and train fares (third class – a bare wooden plank for a seat) and every available day of vacation leave, interning with one trainer or another. I did not take a single day off in twelve years. Then in 1994, I started my own company (Yawar Baig & Associates) in Bangalore with all of ₹ 3000 ($ 80) in my pocket and a dream in my heart, of becoming an internationally recognized leadership trainer. That in my view is typical of being an entrepreneur – to dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?”
My formula to assess if an idea is worthwhile or not is to see if people are calling it impossible and me, crazy. If they are, then the idea is worth working on. But more on that later. Like all things, once you pay your dues, you start to see the benefits. Many people complain that they never had the opportunity. But if they analyze what really happened, they will see that the issue is never opportunity; it is always commitment, perseverance, and investment.
Consistency is the secret of dependability. Only the dependable are trusted. Only the trustworthy are influential. Commitment is the line you cross between wanting and doing. Unfortunately, most people never actually cross the line. They argue that they did not have the opportunity. This may be true in some cases, but in most cases, it is commitment that they did not have; the opportunity was always there.
The reason why many people do not seem to get enough commitment to accomplish large goals is rooted in two causes:
- Lack of clarity about the benefits at the end.
- Impatience – giving up midway due to lack of quick results
Clarity about the end
As I have said earlier, it is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations; people rise to high expectations. It is essential that the final result is visualized clearly and is as real as possible to the person who sets out to accomplish it. The more desirable the end result, the more people will be willing to accept the inevitable drudgery and the mundane, which is a major and essential part of all endeavors. It is the promise of great reward that drives the soul when the body has passed the boundaries of exhaustion. It is the expectation of that which is dearest to the heart that holds the hand when the night is dark and cold, and you are alone.
I became most aware of the power of the extraordinary goal when I was in Vietnam, fifteen feet underground crawling through the tunnels where the Vietnamese had fought the Americans. I was doing the tourist routine in Cu-Chi where the tunnels are, wondering what it must have been to experience the real thing. The Vietnamese Tourism Authorities have widened one of the tunnels slightly and strung a couple of light bulbs so that it is not pitch dark. The tunnel is just about one hundred meters long. You go down through a trap door at the bottom of which the tunnel begins. You must lie flat on your belly and crawl. Does wonders for your clothes. Then at the end of the tunnel you come out into the pit at the bottom of the other trap door and climb out. And of course, you don’t meet a snake coming the other way, nor are there bombs falling overhead. I was drenched in sweat to the extent that my shirt was soaking wet. There were two-hundred-and-fifty miles of these tunnels at three levels. They had hospitals, ammunition dumps, sleeping quarters, eating quarters, meeting rooms, and even burial rooms. They were cold and dark and damp. And overhead flew the American B52 bombers whose instructions were to drop all they had after every bombing sortie in this area. The Americans tried everything from flooding, gassing, chemicals, and napalm. Yet the Vietnamese fought back, often using discarded ammunition, booby traps made from empty Coke cans, nails, spring steel, fire ants, scorpions, and snakes. Talk about invention and ingenuity. Talk about a very nasty way to die. Do that tour and then see the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and you will learn the meaning of determination and resilience. Read about these in the books that are for sale there. Read also about the Tunnel Rats – American, Canadian, and New Zealander soldiers who volunteered to go into the tunnels and fight the Vietnamese, working alone. Makes you wonder what motivates such people. Irrespective of what one may think about the justification of the Vietnam War, one can only admire the courage of the soldier who chose to go into a tunnel, often with nothing more than a knife or a handgun. The tunnels were built for the small, wiry Vietnamese, not for big Americans. So, it was the small, short ones from the American Army who volunteered. Amazing stories of some very brave people on both sides. One can only wish that all this courage, determination and dedication had been for a cause more worthy than deleting a fellowman.
What kept the Vietnamese going? The same thing that kept Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada and all the freedom fighters of South Africa alive and mentally healthy for eighteen years on Robben Island. The same thing that drives the freedom fighters of today wherever they may be, the drive for freedom.
Freedom is an immensely powerful goal. An extremely basic and intense need of the human being. It is something for which a person will sacrifice anything. That is what those who seek to enslave forget; that paradoxically, enslavement strengthens the desire to be free. The more you try to enslave, the more people want to be free. And in the end, the slave masters always lose. It is the thought of freedom that kept the Vietnamese fighters alive and striving for their goal. Thousands of them died and never saw the goal fulfilled, but in the end, it was their sacrifice that ensured that the most powerful nations in the world had to retreat.
Giving up midway
Have you ever seen a traditional weighing scale in a shop in India selling food grains? There is an extremely important life lesson to be learnt from this. The next time you go to buy rice or some other grain, notice what the seller does.
First, he puts the weight measure in one pan. Say twenty kilos. Then he uses a scoop and starts to pour rice into the other pan. As the pan fills, even when he has poured nineteen kilos in it, what do you see? Nothing.
There is no change in the situation. The pan with the weight remains firmly on the countertop and the pan with the rice remains in the air. However, the man does not stop pouring the rice into the pan. Has it ever happened to you that the seller said to you, “You know, this is not going to work. See how hard I am trying! But there is no result. Maybe it is a sign that you should stop eating rice.” He continues to do his work and continues to put in the rice until he sees a small movement in the pans as the pan with the rice starts to descend. Once that happens and the pans are almost level, the man changes his method of putting in the grain. Now instead of the scoop, he uses his hand. He takes a handful of rice and very gently he drops a few grains at a time into the pan. And then lo and behold, the pan with the rice descends to the countertop and the pan with the weight rises in the air.
When I saw this, I learnt two essential lessons in life, both equally true:
Lesson # 1: Until nineteen kilos, nothing will happen.
Lesson # 2: At 20 kilos, the balance will tip.
This is where faith comes in. To continue to work towards your goal on your chosen track is the surest demonstration of faith without which it is easy to give up when you do not see results in the short time. It is faith that keeps leaders going when all around them have thrown in the towel. Often the one who wins the race is not the one who ran the fastest but the one who stayed in the race the longest.
Believing in the ‘impossible’
I have touched on this briefly earlier, but if there is one thing that my life has taught me, it is the truth of the fact that nobody knows the best that they can do. This of course does not mean that you act with all passion and no planning. Passion is the key. Then comes the hard work of planning, scheduling, monitoring, measuring, taking feedback, course correction, all of which determine the quantum and quality of the final result. If you plan well and make a good road map with milestones, it helps to keep the passion alive in the hearts of your team to continue to work until you are successful.
Any great enterprise needs people. People who you can share your vision with, people who resonate to your tune, people who can hear the drumbeat to which you are marching. This is the biggest challenge that any leader faces. How do you make others dream your dream? Like most things in life, this also involves a paradox. On the one hand, as I have said earlier, the goal must be big enough to make it worth the effort. But a big goal is scary, and it can scare away a lot of people. On the other hand, if you water it down, then it will attract the wrong kind of people and fail to arouse the interest of those who can potentially share your dream. So, the goal must be big and exciting, even scary. Then it must be reduced into steps on a plan that will convince people that it can be accomplished. It is possible that you may end up with a plan that does not completely add up and leaves some room for a leap of faith, but remember that if the gap looks like the Grand Canyon, it is unlikely that you will find any takers for your vision. There can be a gap, but the gap must be 80:20 in favor of success. If it is the opposite, then it will discourage. This is the beauty of a real stretch goal. It is big enough to excite and energize, yet not so big that it scares people away into not trying at all.
A good plan with graded steps plays the role of bringing the stars within reach. It also indicates that enough thoughtshare has happened in the genesis of the plan. Potential supporters look for this consciously or unconsciously. For example, when venture capitalists are listening to a business plan, more than looking at the numbers, they look to see if there is enough passion behind the idea, if enough due diligence has been done, and if enough alternatives have been generated and answered.
Generating alternatives is all about thinking outside the box. It is about using your creativity to approach problems from a different angle, which often opens doors that you did not think existed.
For success every leader needs others who believe in him and are energized enough by the dream he shares with them, to make it their own. The key however is that the dream must appear to be achievable, even though it may take heroic effort to achieve it. That happens when the dream is backed with enough due diligence and reflection and conceptualization of learnings to reassure people that at there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if it can only be seen by the leader at that time. When such leaders lead people, you see effort and sacrifice that spans generations. The South African freedom struggle is a classic example where an entire generation and, in some cases, even two generations fought and died so that in the distant future their descendants could walk free. Nelson Mandela is the face of that struggle but it was not he alone but all those with him in the ANC who could keep the momentum of the struggle going, even though they had themselves been incarcerated on Robben Island and the key thrown away. With their spirit and faith and the ability to inspire others, not only did the struggle continue in South Africa but expanded where all people who believed in justice and equality stood for it and against Apartheid. It was international pressure and sanctions against the Apartheid regime which were an equal partner in the freedom struggle with those who fought the White Supremacists on the ground. That is the power of the extraordinary goal.