Every choice has a price tag

Every choice has a price tag

Lower Sheikalmudi like most estates had fallen victim to a custom that had been set up by the British planters; that of worker’s vegetable gardens. The original idea was to informally give some land to estate workers so that they could grow some vegetables to supplement their diet. In those days, transporting fresh vegetables from the plains was not a feasible option and so these vegetable gardens had been cultivated for decades.

As time passed these gardens gradually grew in size and encroached on the tea. The people who grew the gardens were few and what they grew started becoming more for sale than for personal consumption. Also, since vegetables also need fertilizer and pesticides, these started to be pinched from the estate supplies. When I became the manager of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, I made a quick survey of the vegetable gardens and discovered that there were close to fifty acres of gardens, give or take a few. I decided that the time had come to start reclaiming the gardens and planting them up with tea.

I chose the lean season for this and called meetings with the unions and the garden owners. I told the unions that I was not claiming the gardens for my personal use. I was claiming them to plant tea, which when it came into bearing would mean additional employment for their members. At present the garden was providing an income to a few individuals. The tea, when it was mature in four years, would provide employment to more than a hundred people. I asked the unions to support my effort and to persuade the owners of the gardens to return the land to the estate. I told the garden owners that they had enjoyed the fruits of the gardens for so many years, rent free. Now I was asking them to return the gardens to the real owner, which was the estate. Consequently, they would be creating employment for their own children.

By sheer hands-on practice in this and other similar events in my life, I learnt some very valuable lessons in negotiation and influencing without formal authority. The key learning was that in order to get anyone to do anything, or change their ways, especially where it involved them contributing something, be it time, money or anything else, it was essential to be able to show them how they would personally benefit from this change. It is not a matter of some clever talk or pulling the wool over their eyes. Firstly, people see through all such subterfuges quite easily, and even if they don’t in the beginning, they quickly wise up to it as events unfold and then you lose all credibility and moral authority. You need to really be able to see the value in your own proposition and to be able to show it to the people whose cooperation you need. In the vegetable gardens case, the issue was important to me as it would give me positive points with the company management, but it was not a serious enough issue from the management’s point of view (after all it had been going on for more than sixty years without anyone bothering too much about it) to make it worth a fight. So if the workers decided to seriously protest, and especially if it resulted in any work stoppage or labor unrest, it was highly doubtful that I would get top management support or thanks for raising up an issue which they did not see as important enough. It was a tricky situation for me – I needed the workers to give up their gardens and to support me in taking them over without much of a company backing. Seemed like a crazy proposition and some of my friends warned me that it was crazy and that I was unnecessarily putting my job on the line. I have always taken high risks and it was the excitement of challenge that motivated me.

The challenge was to get them to see how they would all benefit in the long term as a collective if a few of them agreed to give up the gardens to the estate to be planted with tea. Once again, my knowledge of the local language (Tamil) and culture (which one can never understand unless one learns the language) came to my aid. Also, the psychology of involving people in their own decision making. I needed not only to persuade the garden owners but the rest of the population that this was good for everyone. That way, there would be moral pressure on the garden owners from their own people, which would be very hard for them to resist. The benefit of additional employment was real, and they all understood it. The issue was to persuade them to do something today to get the benefit four to five years later.

I called a meeting of the Works Committee (Union Leaders) and some of the elders among the workers who were not WC members, but were respected in the community. I spoke to them about what I was planning to do and why. I showed them how by a few of them giving up the vegetable gardens they would enable the perennial employment of future generations. I showed them how by doing this, their names would be immortalized as those who sacrificed their own personal gain for the benefit of the community of workers. I also gently pointed out that over all the years that they had been using the produce of the gardens, the company had not charged them any rent nor interfered with them in any way (actually, these were our legal weaknesses, but I projected them as favors on them by previous managers). Now was the time when they must pay their dues, not to me or to the company, but to their own brethren, by cooperating with us and planting tea instead of vegetables. It took a few meetings over about two weeks or so, but in the end they all agreed, and we took over the gardens and started planting tea.

The exception was one garden which was about five acres in size and was cultivated by a man called Doraisamy, who was not on the estate rolls. The man was an ex-employee of the estate and an ex-serviceman. He was about my height, heavier, and extremely muscular, the result of working hard in the garden. The garden was beautifully terraced and cultivated and planted with pineapple. It had a thick thorn fence all around to keep out Wild Boar that would have destroyed the entire garden in one night if they could get access to it. Doraisamy had a small hut in the middle of the garden where he lived by himself.

When we decided to take back the garden, I called Doraisamy and asked him to hand over the garden to the estate, he refused. I told him that we would have to evict him if he did not give up the land voluntarily. He challenged us to try. There was much whispering going on in the estate bazar in the evening, which was regularly reported to me. I sent some people to talk to Doraisamy privately, but the man refused to budge. I offered him a job as a forest watcher, which would have suited him ideally and given him a steady income. No change. He insisted that he would cultivate the garden and that nobody could move him. Prestige issues become symbolic and then morph into more complex challenges to authority. I was aware of this and decided that there was no alternative but to call his bluff. So, one morning I took twenty workers to the site and ordered them to remove the fence. As the workers started to take out some of the thorny branches, Doraisamy rushed out of his hut with a loud yell and came at the workers. He had a huge chopping knife in his hand. The workers all ran back as a body. Doraisamy came to the gate of the garden and after describing the ancestry of the people who had come to take down his garden fence in very imaginative language, said, “Let me see who is man enough to step inside here. I will chop off his leg.”

There are critical incidents when as a leader you must take a call. At that moment you are alone. You believe in the depths of your heart that you can succeed. You know in your gut the real challenge that you must face. You are afraid, but you don’t show it. You take the first step forward and then you stand aside and watch yourself. For the rest is already written. And it is waiting for you to take the first step, so that the script for the right scene can be played out. Once you take the first step, doors open from undiscovered places. Once you take the first step, angels descend and walk with you and turn aside the hand that rises to strike you. And AllahY puts love and respect in hearts where once resided fear, anger, and hatred. All this, however, depends on the first step. For that one instance, you are alone and all of creation is waiting to see what you will do. It is the choice you make that decides what the consequences will be. We are free to choose. But no choice is free. Every choice has a price tag.

It takes far longer to narrate this tale than the time it took for it to happen. All that I am telling you probably happened in less than five minutes. And of that, the first part during which I took the crucial steps, took not more than a few seconds. The ‘decision’ was not as cognitive as it may sound as you read this. It was instinctive and inspired, more than thought-out. Who knows, but maybe in such situations, the only way to act right is to simply act; not think too long. It is when one thinks too long that logic takes the place of passion. Then the brain rules the heart. And the moment is lost to false concerns of safe harbor. This is where the rubber meets the road and you either walk your talk or fail.

The objective of life is to achieve that which you did not know you could. To scale heights that leave you breathless with fear until you realize that it is excitement and not fear at all. Excitement is fear that anticipates a happy ending. Short breath, dry mouth, alive senses, and joy. The objective is to see how much more you can achieve. And you never can tell that unless you try to do that which you have never done before. Safety is only one of the considerations in the strategy to achieve that. Never the objective. As they say, ‘Ships are safest in the harbor. But ships are not made to remain in the harbor.’ To live is not simply to draw breath.

I saw myself looking at the people around me. They were all standing in a bunch, crowded together, watching to see what I would do. My Field Officer, Mr. Govindraj was standing a little behind me, also watching to see what I would do. Mr. Jeyapaul, the Field Officer of Lower Division, was also there, as was Suresh Menon, my Assistant Manager. I was standing on top of a small rock. I looked straight ahead and saw Doraisamy standing in the doorway of his garden with the chopper in his hand. Strangely, my heart was with the man. I was amazed at myself. Here I was facing a man who was threatening to chop off my leg and I felt what he was feeling. He saw me as someone who was bent on destroying his life’s work. He had put untold hours into this garden. He had cleared the land, fenced it cutting thorn bush from the forest, in the process donating his blood to the millions of leeches and the thorns themselves. He had then cut terraces to hold the plants. He had planted pineapples and tapioca and tended them. He had guarded them in the bitterly cold, dark nights against the depredations of gaur, elephant and wild boar, sitting awake sometimes all night, shouting and beating an empty tin can to chase them away. He had seen his plants grow and as a planter, I knew exactly what the emotional attachment is to something that you plant with your own hands and nurture with your sweat and love. Anyone who has never planted a garden can never understand what was going on in the mind and heart of that man. He could and would have killed, if he needed to, to save his garden. And I was the man who was his principal target.

With hindsight, I know that if I did not understand him and feel for him, I would never have taken that fateful step and would have probably left the place, never to return. For such incidents are never repeated. They happen once and they set the boundary. It is only with love that one can deal with the worst conflicts. In order to resolve a conflict in your favor and be able to show the opponent the benefit that he will get by accepting your position, paradoxically, you must love your enemy. You must love him, feel for him, and understand him.

It is very much like hunting. The best hunter is the one who loves his quarry. You kill the animal, but not because you hate him. You kill him in a test of skill where you come out on top. It is true that you have a sophisticated weapon. But he has instincts honed over centuries of selective breeding and developed to an extent where they are almost magical in their power to keep him safe from harm. He has endurance and knowledge of his surroundings that the hunter can never match. And most of all, he has the supreme motivation of saving his own life. Yet you as the hunter must beat him at his own game. And that takes some doing. But the central theme in it all is to love the quarry. On occasion, after tracking down the quarry and seeing it fully in the sights of my rifle, I have lowered the weapon and watched it go away. The satisfaction far more than in squeezing the trigger. For in giving life there is always more joy than in taking it.

To come back to my story, I understood and empathized with Doraisamy. Yet I had my goal to achieve and I knew that there would be no second chance. This was no longer about Doraisamy or his garden. This had escalated into a trial of strength, which would define me and my power as a Manager. If I lost this, I may as well leave my job for it would destroy my authority in a place where moral authority and the aura that went with the position was the main resource in making you effective. Without that you were another person like anyone else and that spelt doom. People obeyed you because disobedience was not an option. If it ever did become an option, then you may as well leave because there was no way that you could govern hundreds of people by force. You governed them because they considered you worthy of obedience and loved and respected you enough not to think of rebelling. You needed to be fair, compassionate and kind, but above all, strong. Kindness coming from a position of strength is respected; from a position of weakness it is not seen as kindness at all but helplessness to be taken advantage of.

I stepped off the rock.

I walked straight towards Doraisamy. Behind me, I heard the voice of Mr. Govindraj telling me to stop and not to go near him. Suresh made to accompany me. I signaled them to stay where they were. This was about me, personally. Not about anyone else. I heard all the men standing around Govindraj murmuring. I noticed nobody. My eyes were fixed on Doraisamy in the doorway. I walked straight towards him. I was unarmed. I was smaller than he was and much younger. I stepped inside the doorway and stopped literally a few centimeters from him. I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Okay, chop off my leg.” For a few moments he held my gaze. Then his eyes dropped. I knew in that instant that I had won. The critical incident was past. The danger was no more.

“I did not mean to say that to you,” he said. I extended my hand and said, “Doraisamy, give me that chopper.” He handed it to me without a murmur. I said to him, “Were you really going to kill me?” He looked down and said, “No Dorai. I was not going to kill you or anyone.”

I then looked at his hut and said, “So Doraisamy are you not going to invite me into your house?” Immediately the rural spirit of hospitality kicked in and he said, “Of course. It is your home. Please come in.” I bent down and went in through the low doorway, having first handed him his chopper. Also deliberately putting yourself in his power and turning your back to him only demonstrates your own psychological superiority. If you have judged the situation right, you are not in the slightest danger. But by handing the weapon to the man, you are asserting the fact that you trust him. He then becomes honor bound not to harm you, even though you are now physically in his power. It is very essential to ensure that you allow a person in such a situation to save face. That enables him to back off with honor and defuses tension. Only a fool shuts all escape routes for the opponent because when cornered even a rat will fight to the death. Only a fool looks for a fight. In the words of Sun Tzu, ‘Build for your enemy a bridge of gold to retreat over.’ My purpose was not to humiliate Doraisamy. It was to get him to give up the land he had been illegally occupying with the least amount of fuss. To enable him to do that honorably without feeling insulted or losing face in the community, was the best way.

The inside of the hut was very neat and clean. The floor had been sprinkled with a mixture of cow urine and dung and then swept clean and tamped down. That makes it hard and dust free and completely odorless. A traditional method of maintaining floors in the villages. There was a cot with a rope mesh with a blanket on it. There were some pots and pans neatly placed in one corner with a small stove near them. He asked me, “Will Dorai have some tea?” I said, “Of course.” Then as he made the tea, I told him, “Doraisamy, look, you have a beautiful garden here. You are a very skillful gardener and a very hard-working man. I appreciate your work and hate to take it away from you, but what can I do? Your land is the only one left. You took the fruit from this for so many years. Now with this land going back to the estate, you will lose that income. I will employ you as a forest guard, which is a position I need to fill. That will give you a regular income and the work is far easier than this. And when we finish planting the tea your children will pluck it. What do you say?”

He said, “Dorai, you are the owner. Do whatever you like.” I felt sad that I was taking away this land but was very happy that it ended as easily and smoothly as it did. We removed the fence and then eventually we planted tea in all the lands that we had reclaimed, adding almost fifty acres of planted area to the estate. I look on these areas with great pride and satisfaction because it is not everyone who has a chance to plant large acreages of tea in today’s times in South India.

Baig Dorai Thotam

The closing of this loop was when I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi Estate in 2007, twenty years after this incident and was delighted at how beautifully the tea that I had planted had come up. As I stood there looking at the tea, Raman, my guide told me, “Dorai, they call this Baig Dorai Thotam (Baig Dorai’s Garden). When the workers come here to pluck tea, they first take your name. Till the day this tea is here, your name will not be forgotten.”

In this whole incident the one thing that is not logically explainable but an essential part of leadership, is the willingness to trust your inner voice. When you do that you enter a state of grace. It is a state where you do things that you did not know were possible. You will find yourself saying things that you were not aware that you knew. You will find your mind working at a heightened state of awareness. You will feel more alive and full of energy than you ever did before.

Another big learning for me was the importance of actively participating in the action. I spoke to Mr. Jeyapaul on January 4, 2008, more than twenty years after the incident. I mentioned to him that I had visited the Anamallais the previous month and was very happy to see that people still remembered me. He said to me, “Sir, how can they forget? To this day they talk of how you faced Doraisamy and then when he backed down, you did not insult him, but went into his hut and drank tea with him.”

Suresh and I

What struck me was the quality of my own memory of this incident, which to this day is uplifting for me. For Mr. Jeyapaul, even though it is an important enough memory for him to remember it twenty years later, obviously the quality of it is different. So even though we were both (and many others) present on the occasion, the impact of what happened to each of us is in direct proportion to our own active participation in the events. To give people like Mr. Jeyapaul and Suresh their due, they watched because I had expressly forbidden them from coming with me when I went down to meet Doraisamy. Knowing them as well as I do, they would have walked by my side gladly. But in my assessment the issue was between me and Doraisamy. Man, to man. If I allowed anyone else to accompany me, it would reduce my own moral authority. If I did it alone, I would be the only one risking myself, but then the result would also be proportional. In any case, I did not want the additional responsibility of looking out for anyone else in case something went wrong, having to deal with the thought that I had allowed them to risk their lives. Another matter was that given the critical nature of the situation it was entirely likely that Doraisamy would have attacked someone other than me, who he saw as less powerful. So, I ordered them all to remain where they were and went down alone.

The benefit of reflecting on your life in seeking to learn from it is that even twenty years later, there are things you can learn.

For more stories please read my book: It’s my Life
For he was a man

For he was a man

My house in Kwakwani, Rio Berbice (1979-83)

I started my corporate career in Guyana with the Guyana Mining Enterprise in Kwakwani, on the Rio Berbice. Kwakwani was a small mining town, hanging on the bank of the Berbice River trying not to get pushed into its deep and dark waters by an aggressively advancing forest. Living in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest with no family and only a Scarlet Macaw and sundry chickens, turkeys and a series of wild animals as pets may not be the normal youngster’s dream job, but it was mine. I lived on Staff Hill, in a small bungalow with three bedrooms, a living/dining room and kitchen and a veranda on two sides. Facing the bungalow was an orange orchard that ended in the brooding mass of the wall of the rain forest. Behind and surrounding the bungalow was a large open field ending in the wall of the rain forest once again. Living in the middle of the rain forest meant just that; you had the forest surrounding you.

Me in my hammock in my yard, with the orange orchard and forest visible

I would sit on my veranda in the evenings after the sun had gone down and I had had my dinner. In the days and places without TV or mobile phones, you had time to relax, watch the world go by and simply be in sync with your surroundings. The forest is not a silent place. Forests breathe and speak and are visibly and audibly alive. Even if you don’t know their language – and it differs from place to place – you can still hear them. I could hear Macaws talking to each other as they headed home. They pair for life and have great conversations. Lesson: conversation is essential to a good marriage. Then there are the smells. The smell of the first rain after the dry season. The smell of the markings on trees of territorial creatures which are meant to warn away potential threats. The smell of vegetation, growing or decomposing. When you sit quietly in a forest and let it talk to you, it does. Gently and gradually. Naturally, it takes a little while because first our ears must stop buzzing with the residue of our own noisy, raucous sounds of so-called civilization. They try to drown out everything that the forest is trying to tell you. But if you are patient and give it some time, then gradually the buzzing fades away and you start to hear the breeze rustling in the leaves. You hear water dropping from the top levels onto the canopy below. You hear the occasional ripe fruit or dry branch fall to the floor, to become either food or manure. You learn to tell the difference between a sound made by a living creature – which may be potentially dangerous or useful – and the sound of something that is not a living creature. The forest speaks to you in the voices of the Howler Monkeys announcing that the dawn has broken and, in the evening, that the night has fallen, and they are signing off for the day. Toucans, Parakeets and Macaws talking to each other as they fly, feed and roost. It speaks to you in the rustle of the oncoming deluge which you can hear advancing towards you, not threatening but announcing its progress so that you can take shelter. The wind rustling the treetops sometimes sounds like the waves of the ocean. You will hear all this, and more will happen if you give it some time, are observant, and are willing to learn. I was thrilled to be there. There was nowhere else that I would rather be.

Nick and I on the Kwakwani Trail in Prime Minister Sam Hind’s car (1997)

My first boss, Mr. James Nicholas Adams (Nick Adams) was the Administrative Manager of Kwakwani and I was his Assistant Manager. Nick was my manager but even more he was my mentor and guide. Although he was technically in charge of the whole operation, he let me run it the way I wanted and that was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. Nick had a unique way of teaching by delegating responsibility and then periodically calling me to do a participative analysis of my own performance. He would then reinforce the strengths and achievements and encourage me to draw lessons from my mistakes. I remember my first ever appraisal in 1980. Nick gave me the form and told me to fill it in myself. I was shocked because I thought appraising was something that the boss did of your work. But Nick said, ‘You know what you did better than I do. So, write it up.’ I returned with what I thought were my achievements and then Nick and I had a long chat about them. Thanks to my Indian cultural upbringing, Nick ended up adding several things that I had left out feeling that they didn’t really count. I still have that form with Nick’s signature on it, decades later.

In Kwakwani, I was the youngest member of the Management Team, sometimes by decades. As the Assistant Administrative Manager, it was part of my responsibility to look after the logistics in the entire mining town. There were department heads over whom I had no formal authority, but whose cooperation I needed to get anything done. Some were twice my age and Guyanese and members of the PNC (People’s National Congress – the ruling party in Guyana), while I was a young foreigner. I learnt, very practically, that the best way to make progress was to develop a relationship based on sincerity as that would be the only thing that you could count on, especially in hard times. I remember how Nick Adams used to put it. He’d say, “A relationship is like a bank account. You only have in it, what you put in. And when you need to draw on it, you only have as much as you put in.” That is one of the lessons I learnt in my life and which has stayed with me all these years. That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” Nick and his lovely wife Kathleen knew that I was Muslim and would eat only meat that was slaughtered according to the rules of Halal. So, they made sure that not only was what they gave me Halal but that I would have total confidence in that. What better way than to let me do it myself? 

One of Nick’s biggest strengths was his communication; both its clarity and wisdom. I recall an amusing but very instructive incident which illustrates the challenges we faced and how Nick dealt with them. Guyana had recently become independent and was ruled by the PNC (People’s National Congress) which was socialist/communist. The President of Guyana was the very powerful and iconic, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923 – 1985). Communism/socialism was the prevalent ideology. We addressed each other as ‘Comrade’. I was Comrade (written Cde.) Baig. Bauxite mining was the major economic activity in Guyana and just before I landed there in 1979, the government had nationalized the bauxite mining and calcining operation. One inevitable and tragic result was that people were appointed and promoted more for ideological loyalty than for professional competence. Another result was that the Guyana Mine Workers Union became very strong. Guymine (used to be called Guybau) had 5000 workers and all were members of the GMWU. The Union was run by its General Secretary, Stephen Louis, a huge big man with a voice to match.

One effect of the nationalization and heightened union activity was frequent work stoppages on all kinds of frivolous matters. Then we would meet to discuss Terms of Resumption and arrive at a settlement. The meetings were contests of will, to see who would break down first. The meetings were very important because if we couldn’t arrive at a settlement the issue would go to Arbitration before the Minister of Mines whose other role was as the President of the Union. The typical Terms of Resumption meeting would go straight through for anything ranging from 24 – 72 hours, with short breaks of usually an hour or two to stretch our legs and eat something. Naturally patience was tough to maintain, and tempers would get frayed. This incident relates to one such meeting.

I can’t recall what the issue was, for which the Union had called for a Tools Down. We started the meeting at 8.00 pm and it continued through the night into the next morning. We took a break of about 2 hours to take a shower and have breakfast. Then back in the meeting until 8.00 pm that night. Then a break for dinner and back again through the night. Stephen Louis was holding forth at full strength, his voice resonating and bouncing off the ceiling and walls; my first experience of surround sound. The only option we had was to listen. Our team had Nick as its head and me and another young man from IR (Industrial Relations), who we shall call Jacob (not his real name). Late that night, well past midnight, Jacob’s patience snapped. Stephen Louis had been going on and on about the ideological differences between socialist and capitalist ideologies and why the socialist ideology to which the PNC and the GMWU were committed was superior. Jacob said, ‘Man! Stephen, talk sense man.’ It was as if he had shot Stephen in the head. Stephen stopped in mid-sentence. Turned slowly to face Jacob and said, ‘Boy! (pronounced Bye) Jaykie, waya seh! Talk sense. Like me na takin sense? Ya tink a-we takin nansense? All dis time we bina trying to come to a settlemen and dis Bye seh we bina talkin nansense? Eh!’

The situation was as close to sitting on a powder keg with the fuse burning as I care to remember. In another two seconds, the Union would have walked out and hours and hours of work would have gone down the drain. We would have had to begin again with the additional problem of dealing with bruised egos as a result of good old Jaykie’s comment. That’s when I saw how quick thinking and experience makes a difference. Nick called out, ‘Hol-an, Hol-an man Stephen. De Bye na seh, Leh we talk sense. He seh, Leh we talk dallar and cents. Leh we talk moe-ney! Leh we do dat man. Nof-of dis ideology thing. Leh we decide and go to bed.’

I swear, I saw relief on Stephen Loius’s face. He say, ‘Ah! Ya, leh we do da.’ And we did. We finished as the day was breaking and as we left the room, Stephen came up behind Jacob, affectionately grabbed him by the back of his neck and said, ‘De man Nick don save yar aas. You know waya seh, eh! And I know wa I hear! But Nick don save a-we. If not, dis meeting was gonna go on for noder two days. Watch ya tongue Bye. It can geh you into trouble. And you won’ have Nick to bail you out next time.’ That is where I learnt human relations. In a very tough environment but where even our antagonists took time out to unofficially mentor youngsters.

My last story about Nick. I heard this story from his son Owen Shaka Abubakr Adams. When Nick was a young man, and lived in Linden, Demarara, he received a summons from a court in Corentyn which is at the northern border of Guyana, with Suriname; a distance of about 400 kilometers. To go there in those days (1950’s?) must have been an expedition. Nick had no idea why he had been summoned. But he went. When he arrived at the court, his name was called, and the judge asked him to come forward. As Nick was walking down the aisle, he heard a woman’s voice, ‘He is not the man.’ Nick turned to see a young woman with a baby.

The judge told the lady, ‘Look carefully at him. This is Nick Adams. Is he the man?’ The lady said, ‘He is not the man. This is someone else.’

When Nick asked, the judge said to him, ‘A man by your name, got this lady pregnant and now that she has a baby, he has disappeared. Anyway, this is not your problem, so you can go home.’

Nick said to the judge, ‘Your Honor, I would like to request you to please arrange for the maintenance of this child to be deducted from my salary.’

The judge was astonished. ‘Do you know this lady?’

Nick said, ‘No, Your Honor, I don’t. I am seeing her for the first time today.’ ‘Then why are you offering to pay for the maintenance of the child?’ asked the judge. ‘It is not your responsibility. This matter doesn’t concern you.’

Nick replied, ‘But the child needs to eat, Your Honor. Someone must pay for that. I am willing to do that.’

For the next 18 years, Nick Adams paid maintenance for a child that was not his own. He saw the mother, that one time in court and never saw the mother or child again. But month after month, year after year for 18 years, Nick Adams paid for a child because he had compassion in his heart.

His Rabb was no less compassionate. So many decades later, maybe even 60 years later, Nick Adams who was by then suffering from cancer, one week before his death, accepted Islam along with his wife and sister in law.

The happiest ending; or I should say, the happiest latest story, to my Guyana times was when I got the news in 2011 that Nick Adams and his wife Kathleen had accepted Islam. Nick was terminally ill with cancer at the time and died a couple of weeks later. I hope one day to meet my friend once again in Jannah. He died sinless and pure and I ask Allahﷻ for His Mercy and Grace for my dear friend to whom I owe so much. 

When success is the problem

When success is the problem

Design determines results. A train will never fly no matter how powerful the engine may be, because it is not designed to fly. A microlight aircraft flies with an engine smaller than that of most motorcycles.

The problem with our schooling today is not that it has failed but that it’s successful. It does what it’s designed to do…create mediocrity and conformity so that we have more and more compliant plodders who will never rock the boat, never question and God forbid, never rebel against authority. It delivers very effectively what it was designed to deliver – obedient morons. Or to put it more charitably obedient servants for industrialists and the State. That is exactly what our education system does very well. We on the other hand want it to create children who will question, be creative, challenge the status quo, invent new ways to achieve results and generally buck the system positively. That is like expecting a train to fly by revving the engine. Our system is designed to create followers, not leaders. It is designed to create compliance not questioners. That is why we reward obedience and label questioning as disobedience and punish it. For the average teacher the ‘troublesome’ child is the one who asks too many questions in class. But it is only questioning which opens doors to new vistas and finds solutions to problems which we don’t even recognize yet.

We all agree that the pace of change is such that quite literally we don’t have a clue about what the world will look like five years down the road. The only thing we can be sure of, is that it will look very different. We also agree that the two critical ingredients to success in that world are imagination and divergent thinking of which creativity is the result. Yet we have an education system that destroys these things very effectively, ruthlessly and quickly. If you doubt me ask yourself how many times you have heard the statement, ‘Forget that. You can’t get a job doing that.’ And you are right. He can’t get a job doing that. But perhaps he can create jobs for thousands if you leave him alone with his dreams and not destroy his creativity and divergence. Or maybe he will not even create jobs but will be a happy human being living his life to fulfilment. Now what’s so bad about that? But that terrifies the daylights out of you and so you force him to comply until he succumbs – another one bites the dust.

 If you want your child to be a leader with a chance to do something valuable, to leave a legacy of honor, to change society, to alleviate suffering, help the oppressed, stand up against injustice and be a credit to you, then formal schooling is the first thing you should save him/her from.

Our education system doesn’t need change. It needs a decent burial. Then we need to put in place a system which is focused on developing the natural talents of the child, enabling him/her to leverage them to their greatest benefit and then help them to apply the learning. No matter how much you tweak a railway engine it will never fly. If you want flight, there’s nothing in the design of a railway engine that you can learn from. You need to forget railway engines and learn how to design something that’s the opposite of a railway engine. And that’s our problem…we’re trying to create a flying school using engine drivers. It’s not about fancy infrastructure and air-conditioned classrooms but about opening minds, re-learning how to teach, writing new books and encouraging questioning, tangential thinking and unbridled imagination.

As a friend of mine who is a teacher put it, ‘We are churning out robots who can neither think for themselves, nor do we equip them to deal with life’s challenges, which is why there is such a high percentage of emotional and physical burn-out at an age when they should be at their creative peak!’ 

The big problem in schools is that the whole atmosphere is soul destroying. Homes are not much different. So, most children don’t look up to either their parents or teachers. And the fault is not theirs. Most parents and teachers are only fit to be quietly pushed under the bed when you have polite company. Generally, parents today seem to believe that upbringing of children consists of satisfying their physical needs alone. So, there is no focus on developing their minds, fulfilling their spiritual needs or teaching them manners and social skills. We program our children to fail when they are faced with life’s challenges and those that still succeed do so despite us, not because of us.

When I am invited to speak to parent-teacher bodies in schools I usually start all such talks by giving them a task and asking one question:

  1. Please think of your role model (someone you know or knew personally)
  2. For how many of you is it a parent or a teacher?

I have never had more than 5% of the audience which had as their role models, parents or teachers. That means that 95% of the population doesn’t look up to parents or teachers – though they are the two roles which have the maximum face time with children.

Then I ask them another question: “What do you think your children would say if they were in this room instead of you? Would they be thinking of you?” The biggest problem today is a total starvation of role models. And that is the biggest challenge of education.

Today we have confused education with literacy and knowledge with information and stuff the children’s minds with disconnected data which makes no sense and then test them on recall at a specific time and we call that process of regurgitation – exams. That has given birth to the industry of Examination Factories who exist only to teach children how to ‘crack’ exams. Learning is the last item on their agenda, if it is even there at all. All that the child is taught is to cram select information on the basis of questions that have been asked for that exam in the past and the Exam Factory’s analysis of what is likely to be asked in the exam that the child will take. Once he does that successfully his photograph is used as the bait to draw other aspiring fish into the trap of mediocrity. The champ in our system is that poor beast who can stuff himself with random information which he has no clue how to use and faithfully regurgitate it on call. If the poor child recalls that same piece of useless information (E.g. When was the Magna Carta written?) five minutes after the bell, he would have failed the exam. To know the place of birth of Shakespeare is essential to pass our exams – not to write creatively in English. No wonder that many of our successful ‘scholars’ can hardly carry on an intelligent conversation for ten minutes or write a powerful letter to the editor in the papers. Did you ever wonder why all letters to editors are written by old codgers with nothing to do – not by school children whose future is being squandered by adults who couldn’t care less?

Our children spend on an average 15 years in what is called Primary, Secondary and High School and come out of there, completely unable to do anything useful, worthwhile or important in life. The only job they can get with 15 years of schooling is to wait tables for which also they have to be trained onsite. They can’t even do anything their education was supposed to teach them. How many school graduates do you know who wrote a book for example? After all they all learnt languages and passed papers in them for 15 years. And yet that is not enough for them to use that language creatively to express their thoughts. But we find nothing wrong with this. Their parents amazingly don’t think this to be odd at all even though they spent a fortune, which many could ill afford, on this thing they called ‘education’. I won’t even talk about how we squander science, math and humanities. Our society is the most powerful witness to that.

In this whole process I can’t possibly under-emphasize the importance of wise adults in the lives of children that the children can look up to. But where are we going to find them? We don’t need huge numbers of them (not that it would hurt) but we need at least one or two in the life of each child. The problems of drugs, rave parties, teenage pregnancies, alcohol (also a drug though we don’t like to call it that) and so on are really symptoms of the sickness of our society. That these are to be found in our schools is a sign of how deep that sickness has reached. We are very, very sick. We need surgery – not pills. And certainly not placebos.

As Jiddu Krishnamurthi said, ‘ It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. ‘

Problem definition is always easy. Solving it takes a lot of time, pain and investment. And that is usually another story. But somewhere there is a spark, alive and waiting for the chance to flame into a conflagration that has the power to light up the world.

Are you the one to find, protect, nurture and guide it to the final stage when it shines?

FIKR

FIKR

Sometimes people ask me for the secret of success. We live in a world of fantasy where people want magic formulae for everything. Let me tell you the good news. It is not a secret, but it is a magic formula. Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.

I have given it the acronym, FIKR – K from the phonetic pronunciation of Consistency (Konsistency). As for the R – well, we’ll get to it. Just remember FIKR.

One of the most famous cases of FIKR in action is that of Dashrath Manjhi, a poor villager in Bihar, who literally carved a road out of a mountain. When his wife died tragically, because he was unable to get her to a hospital in time thanks to the fact that he had to go around a mountain to get to the main road, he decided to cut the mountain and build a road. He carved a path 110 meters long, and 9.1 meters wide to form a road through the rocks in Gehlour Hill so that nobody else would need to suffer the same fate as his wife and he had to. It took him, working with a chisel and hammer, 22 years. He did this without surveying equipment or experience, drone photographs or any technology, explosives or heavy equipment. You can read more about him here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashrath_Manjhi

What was his secret? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.

In 1983, I had just returned from Guyana and joined the tea planting industry in the Anamallais. On my first annual vacation, I attended a two-week residential, experiential learning workshop on Applied Behavioural Science by the Indian Society of Applied Behavioural Science (ISABS), in Jaipur. I found it very beneficial and was impressed by the potential to help people that lay in this line of work. I was particularly impressed by Mr. Aroon Joshi whose facilitation enabled me not only to understand myself better but to resolve some issues which had been bothering me. Aroon has been my dear friend and mentor ever since. The long and short of this was that I decided that I would make training, my profession. I was a tea planter. And I wanted to make a career in training. Sounds crazy. It was. How did I do it? That’s what I want to share with you. I hope you will be able to benefit from the lessons I learnt in my life.

Before I go into the how, let me tell you what I did since then, so that you have a complete picture in your mind. From the time you saw a young tea planter, sitting on the floor in an ISABS Lab (that is how it worked), agonizing over his work relationships, you would have seen him single-mindedly focused on learning how to train, to taking some very hard decisions and risks which would have left many, freaked out. You would have seen him speak to his first client and stake his reputation in his pitch. You would have seen him succeed and fail but succeed more and never fail at the same thing twice. In short, you would have seen him learning. Learning all the time. Enjoying learning, which enabled him to take ever higher risks. You would have seen him challenging himself and doing things which most people in any line of work, never do i.e. write thirty-six books. Today, I have trained over 200,000 people on three continents from practically every nationality, race and walk of life.

From where I started in training, I specialized in leadership development. That is what excited me. To see people come in, looking like something off the clothesline and walk out, straight and tall with a glint in their eye and to know that I’d had something to do with that. Over the years, now almost 40, several times I have had people come up to me in an airport or in a restaurant and say, “I don’t know if you remember me (I almost never do) but I attended your workshop and it changed my life.” I consider myself fortunate that this has happened to me more than once, because even once is enough for a lifetime, to know that you made a difference to someone.

In leadership development, I super-specialized in family business consulting (wrote, The Business of Family Business) and entrepreneurship development (wrote, An Entrepreneur’s Dairy) and then started a podcast called, “Leadership is a Personal Choice”, (wrote another book by that name) which has a global footprint, from China to the Americas with Asia, Europe (except Greenland) and Africa in between. Maybe there is nobody listening to my podcast in Greenland because Trump wants to buy it and they’re all holding their breath.

Leadership is a Personal Choice, podcast global footprint

How did this happen? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.

To return to 1983, I made my way back to the Anamallais from Jaipur, taking the Pink City Express to Delhi and then the Rajdhani Express to Chennai. Then the Nilgiri Express to Coimbatore and the bus ride to Valpari, up the Aliyar Ghat’s forty hairpin bends. Tamilnadu Transport Corporation bus. Nothing fancy. The big task in it being to ensure that you get a window seat but stay upwind of anyone with motion sickness. That last one being a matter of luck, more than anything else. All through that journey and every waking moment thereafter, my single thought was, ‘How can I become a leadership trainer?’

The first thing that I did was to write on a large sheet of paper, with a thick marker, “In the next five years, I want to be a globally recognized leadership trainer.” Hindsight tells me that I was a bit off as regards the time but made good the rest of it. The timeline was very useful because it helped me to keep focused and gave me a sense of urgency. A goal without a timeline is a wish. Timelines are critical to success.

The big problem was (and still is, to this day) that there was no formal course or degree that I could take. Especially as training is about the most hands-on thing that there is, learning to train meant that you needed some unsuspecting souls to practice on. My being in tea planting instead of in HR (used to be called Industrial Relations in those days) didn’t help. So, I did two things. I read every book on training that I could lay my hands on and I practiced on my workers and staff. Not in formal classes because I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, but every day at work. The way that happened was that I would apply something that I had learnt, unknown to them, then I would watch for reactions, mine and theirs and record them. That was my feedback loop on what worked and what didn’t. I had (still do) a very good memory and I augmented that with taking notes as soon as I was able to. I used to carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket and would write down key words. To this day I can tell you that the pocket notebook is the fastest way to record and access any information and outperforms every gadget you can imagine.

I took every psychometric test that I could and then wrote an analysis of the report compared to my own understanding of myself. That helped me to understand psychometric testing very well. I am one of those who believe that it is a tool and not a secret weapon which enables the interviewer to look deep into the interviewee’s soul without his knowledge. All these notes resulted in a couple more books. Notes are an amazingly powerful aid to self-development. They enable you to reflect objectively on what had happened and see what options you had at the time, which you used or didn’t and decide how to behave in the future. Reflection needs a cool head, free from the pressure of emotions that is usual in the heat of the moment. For most of us, after the incident, we forget details and so when we have time to think about it all, we don’t have data. Keeping notes helps to recall the data so that our conceptual take on what happened and what to do later, is much sounder and more accurate. 

Another thing I did was to enroll in ISABS’s Professional Development Program, which is a four-year distance learning program in Applied Behavioral Science, in which you learn how to facilitate group learning, while learning about yourself. It is a very rigorous course and I had some of the best teachers in the course of it. Udai Pareek, Somnath Chattopadhyay, Aroon Joshi. I also learned from Pulin Garg and Gourango Chattopadhyay. Very rewarding. That culminated in me being inducted into ISABS as a Professional Member. While I was doing all this, I was in a full-time job managing a tea estate (for 7 years) and a rubber estate (for 3 years), in which I was fully accountable for business results without any allowances for my self-inflicted learning goals. For those who may not know what ‘managing a tea estate’ means; an average tea estate in the Anamallais has an area of 400 hectares (multiply by 2.47 for acres), a labor force of about 800, a tea factory, supervisors and staff totaling to about 20 and 2 or 3 Assistant Managers. Sometimes also a resident doctor for the estate hospital. All these were the responsibility of the Manager. The workers and Staff were all unionized and sometimes, highly militant. Since the estates were in Tamilnadu, and I am from Hyderabad, I needed to learn a totally new language, Tamil which I did to a level of expertise of a native speaker. I won’t go into a Manager’s daily routine because that is not in the scope of this article. But this should suffice to give you an idea that there was not a moment to spare as far as I was concerned.

The next challenge was to get hands-on experience in training. For this I will be eternally grateful to my wonderful friends who allowed me to be a fly-on-the-wall in their training sessions. However, what that meant was that I would get a letter telling me that so-and-so was going to be doing a training session from this date to that, in this city or the other. I lived, as I mentioned, in the Anamallais in Tamilnadu. The train station was in Coimbatore, which was a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride from where I lived, down the forty-hairpin bends of the Aliyar Ghat. Then the train journey, third class (a plank for a bed) to the city that I was going to. Usually those journeys meant anything from 24-36 hours or more. In that city, I would stay in the cheapest hotel that I could find, in some cases, the stuff of nightmares. The room the size of a closet, bathroom shared between several rooms and mosquitoes galore. Food off street vendors or small cafeterias and no pay. The trainer who invited me to attend his/her class was already doing me a favor. To expect him/her or their client to pay me was out of the question. I would arrive before anyone else. Sit quietly in the back of the room and take notes. Be the gofer-boy for the trainer. And at the end of the day, I would have a debrief session with the trainer where I would share my notes, ask questions, explore alternative ways of teaching or handling exercises and games or fielding questions. After the session, back to the station to retrace my steps back home. From 1983-93, I did this in all my vacation time. I negotiated an additional fifteen days leave-without-pay from my company. Those added to my annual vacation of thirty-five days, I spent in learning how to train. In that entire period, I didn’t take a single day’s vacation. All my money was spent on books or travel cost by the cheapest means, to attend training courses. The question of comfort in travel, proper food, decent hotels and so on, didn’t even arise. All that I cared about was learning, using whatever resources I had. To give you an idea of what that was, my salary in that period went from Rs. 850 – 1100 by increments to a final princely sum of Rs. 5000 per month at the end of ten years of service. This was my investment in myself. No return to show for it and no certainty that there would ever be a return.

During this period, in 1985, I got married. My wife was (and is) my greatest support. What my obsession with learning meant for her was that whereas all her friends in the tea gardens had TVs and VCRs in their homes, we didn’t. Not that we had anything against movies. We had no spare cash. Every year, she would head home to her parents, and I would be off to this or that training class. Every year for ten years. In 1984, my dear friend Pratik Roy suggested that I should get an MBA. He told me, ‘Do an MBA and do it from IIMA (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) because it is not so much what you will learn but the name on your CV will open doors.’ I agreed. But there were two problems to overcome. The regular MBA program (PGP) was a full-time, two-year course, which I simply couldn’t afford to attend, because living for two years without a job was out of the question. So, I looked for something that would give me the same in a shorter time. IIMA fortunately had another course called the MEP which was an Executive MBA, designed for business owners and management executives with at least five-years’ experience. It was a very high-pressure course, seven-days-a-week, no holidays, in which they covered the entire two-year syllabus of the regular MBA. It was taught by the same professors, used the same case studies, but had insane hours. The only thing it didn’t have was the project which was substituted by the work-experience requirement.

Professors Labdhi Bhandari taught us Marketing; Pulin Garg and Indira Pareek, OB; Viswanathan Raghunathan, Finance; Bala (Balasubramaniam), Business Strategy. And others, equally good; each of them a privilege to study under. We had the best and their teaching, lives on in our minds and work.

The MEP is perhaps one of the best courses of its type because it gives you everything that an MBA gives you in a much shorter time. The high-pressure environment meant that only those who were serious stuck with it which was also for the good. It is very exhilarating to study with other obsessive-compulsives. We would study sixteen to eighteen hours a day, every day. We would drink tea and eat Maggi noodles from a street vendor at the gate of the Institute. He ran an all-night operation as he had a dedicated clientele in us. That high-octane tea kept us awake and we argued cases, analyzed our assessments and shot each other’s arguments to pieces; all adding to our learning. We would have surprise tests in class and the dreaded CPs (Class Presentations) where our group would make a presentation on the case that the whole class was studying which the rest of the class took great pleasure in taking apart. If you came out alive after a CP, believe me, it means you had something worthwhile to show. Living to see the light of day after all those brainy types had had a go at you, left you feeling really elated. Didn’t happen often but it did sometimes.

My second problem was money. The course cost Rs. 30,000. My salary was Rs. 850 per month. My savings were zero. I was going to get married and had saved up a little bit for that – I paid for my own marriage – so couldn’t spend it on anything else. I was in a fix. But as the saying is, ‘Where there is a will etc….’ I applied to my company for a loan to attend this course. I told them that I would be better qualified to serve them after the course and that I hoped that they would support my effort to educate myself. Apparently, they were partially convinced, so they replied to say that they would loan me half the amount, and that I would have to sign a bond to work for the company for three years after returning from the course. Also, that they would deduct my annual vacation of thirty-five days from the duration of my absence and treat the rest of it as leave without pay. So, in effect, that was added to my cost and I was still 50% short for the fees. To raise that I sold my car. I had a Hindustan Ambassador (Indianized Morris Oxford), the workhorse of India and one of two cars on Indian roads at the time, the other one being Premier Padmini (Indianized Fiat). That was a big blow because I had no idea when I would be able to afford another car. But the fee was paid, and I was accepted for the course. The course started in April 1985, but I had another matter to settle before that; my marriage. I was the Site Manager for Mayura Factory construction in the Anamallais. Mayura was to be the largest tea factory in South India and it was almost complete.

I took one week off and went to Hyderabad, got married on March 21st and returned on the sixth day with my wife, Samina. All that is another story but the long and short of it, relevant to this story is that the IIMA – Executive MBA (MEP) began in April. That was perhaps one of the toughest decisions my wife and I ever took. To separate so soon after our marriage. But we did it. Her parents were in the UK at the time, so she went off there. And I went to Ahmedabad for the course. What that meant was that even though we got one week off in the middle of the program, I would still not be able to meet my newly wedded wife, because she was in the UK. That was a strange week indeed. Everyone else left for their break. I had nowhere to go, or rather, no desire to go anywhere. So, I stayed on at the IIMA all through the week, alone. The point of all this is to show that if you want something badly enough then you need to take tough decisions. In my case, I lost pay, took a loan, sold my car, left my wife soon after we got married, all to get the Executive MBA which I considered very important. My wife supported me in this and took everything in her stride, including living a very frugal life for over a decade. After the course, we got back to Anamallais and I worked not for three years but until 1993. Eventually in 1993, I decided that I needed to take the final test of the pudding; starting up my own company.

Life in IIMA

I have talked about three things: Focus + Investment + Consistency. I did all of them. But there is a final one: Risk. Without taking risk, you can never know if what you did would really work. Risk, to a startup is like the first solo flight to a new pilot. That is when all his training shows up. There is no shortcut to this. Risk must be taken and so I started Yawar Baig & Associates in Bangalore in 1994. That sounds simpler than it was. It was simple enough to start a proprietorship company. The trick was to get business. My problem was that all my experience was as a hands-on operations man in manufacturing and large-scale agriculture and I was attempting to enter the domain of leadership training. I had no contacts in ‘Learning & Development’ or in ‘Human Resource Management’. And most of all, I had no track record of training. But I had a lot of energy and I wasn’t going to let what I didn’t have, prevent me from doing what I had set my heart on i.e. become a globally recognized leadership trainer. I hit the road. I made a list of all the MNCs (multinational companies) in Bangalore and started calling their heads. I would call the CEO or the Head of HR. I discovered that calling the CEO was a better deal than the HR Head. An operations man (there were no women CEOs at that time in Bangalore) was more likely to understand me than an HR person. Also, CEOs make decisions and don’t need to ask anyone else before deciding. There was a risk involved in that if the CEO said, ‘No’, then there was nobody else to go to. But then I reckoned that was better than going from one person to another until you got to a CEO who may still say, ‘No.’ The key was to get him to say, ‘Yes’, and not ‘No’.

I prepared my pitch, rehearsed it a million times and called. This was the Australian head of the IT operation for ANZ bank. I got his direct number from another friend who worked in that company along with the warning that he had a very short fuse. I called and he answered immediately and that’s when I discovered that there was a hole in my research; I had never heard an Australian accent before. This was 1994. I had no PC. There was no Google Search for Australian accents. In fact, there was no Google and wouldn’t be for another four years. I didn’t know any Australians and by the time I guessed what he was saying, he almost hung up. Mercifully, he said, ‘Hello! Are you there?’ I said, ‘Yes Sir. I am.’ And then I launched into my pitch (little did I know that later, I would be teaching people how to do ‘Elevator Speeches’) and asked him for an appointment. He said, ‘Will five minutes do?’ I replied, ‘Yes Sir. Thank you. See you tomorrow.’ Later I wondered if he was trying to insult me or challenge me or what the meaning of, ‘Will five minutes do?’ was. I went the next day, suit and tie, well in advance of the time. He greeted me and we started talking. He wanted training for his entry level engineers on human skills to lead IT Project Teams. After my pitch which took exactly four minutes, I said to him, ‘Thank you for your time Sir. I am finished.’ He said, ‘Na! Let’s talk about what I want you to do.’ That meeting went on for forty-five minutes

He said to me, ‘I want you to work with another consultant who is working with us’, and called in Julius Aib, who was to become one of my dearest friends and Aikido Sensei. Julius would teach the Project Management side of the course on “Project Manager Workbench” (PMW) and I would teach the human skills to lead teams. I designed a course called, ‘Critical Human Skills for Project Leadership’ and Julius and I taught it in that company for three years. Regular work is a lifeline for a startup consulting firm and that is how I got it. This course became very popular and I taught it in GE, IBM, Motorola, Wartsila (in Saudi Arabia), Andersen Corporation in the US and in many other firms.

The second meeting which stands out was with a French IT firm which had an Indian American CEO. A friend of mine got me a meeting with him. He was looking for a specific solution; and that was, how to get his direct reports to speak up in his meetings. He said to me, ‘They always agree with me. They never disagree. Then they don’t do what they agreed to do. That freaks me out.’ I realized what the issue was. He was an Indian by descent, but he was American through and through. He was born and raised in the US and had never worked in India. Now he was heading an Indian team and for his bad luck, he looked Indian. I say bad luck because if he had been white, they would have treated him differently and made allowances for his foreignness. But because he looked Indian, they treated him as an Indian, including speaking to each other in their local languages, none of which he understood. Clearly all this was hassling him and telling on the productivity of his team and on everyone’s happiness. He asked me if I had a solution.

‘Yes, I do, but I want to observe one of your meetings first before I tell you what I would like to do to solve your problem.’ He agreed. The meeting was an eyeopener and confirmed my diagnosis of what was happening. It went like this:

They were discussing an issue related to finance. The CEO described the issue (strong American accent) and then asked for the opinions of his team. They were all Vice Presidents of different functions. The first to speak was the VP Finance. As soon as he made his point, the CEO, slapped his hand on the table and said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea. Anyone else?’ There was dead silence. Nobody spoke a word. Deadpan expressions on the face, avoiding any direct eye contact with the CEO. He asked for other ideas a couple of times more; his face started to get red and he looked like he would rise like a ballistic missile and disappear through the ceiling. I decided to intervene and said, ‘Why don’t we take a break and have some coffee?’ Everyone started breathing again and stood up. The CEO realized that this was a deliberate tactic on my part and cooperated and said, ‘That is a good idea. Let’s take a break.’ As we left the room, I took him aside into an empty office. As soon as the door shut, he burst out, ‘See what I told you? This is what they do all the time. They clam up. Nobody gives any ideas. And these are all VPs and supposed to be bright people.’

I said to him, ‘Did you realize what happened there? What you did?’

He looked injured and angry, ‘What did I do? I only appreciated the man. What’s wrong with that? In America they would have come up with a hundred ideas after that affirmation.’

‘You are right, but this is not America and they are not American. This is India and in our culture the cost of ‘failure’ is very high. Nobody wants to be wrong. And definitely not in public. When you slapped your hand on the table and said, ‘Fantastic idea’, that set the standard. ‘Fantastic’ in our culture is the ultimate. It is not a simple word as in the American culture. In India, fantastic means, FANTASTIC. And when you say that with a slap of your palm on the table, it is sealed. You are in effect saying to them, ‘Here is the best possible idea that there can be. I challenge you to come up with a better one.’ Nobody then wants to take the risk to say something only to possibly have it discarded. Losing face is a very big thing in our culture.’

He listened in silence. Then he asked me, ‘What do you want to do about this?’

‘I will design a workshop on cross-cultural communication, and we will do it as an offsite for two days for your team.’

‘What will it cost?’

‘5000 per day plus my costs.’

‘How do I know it will work?’

‘You don’t. So, let me suggest a deal. How about you pay me only if it works. But if it works, then not only will you pay me, but I want you to call your friends and tell them about it and ask them to give me appointments to meet them.’

He looked at me with a quizzical look in his eye and said, ‘I like your spirit. It’s a deal.’

As they say, the rest is history. He was true to his word. Not only did he pay me, but he called other CEOs and I got appointments with almost every CEO there was. After all I had one of their own rooting for me.

You can read all this and more in my book, ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary’.

Excitement is danger that anticipates a happy ending. That is the joy of risk taking, without which there can be no success.

Focus + Investment + Consistency and Risk (FIKR)….that is the bottom line. To continue to do that, not once, not twice, but all your life. That is what entrepreneurship is all about.

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.