Need for luck and learning: constant and continuous

Last week was rich pickings for insightful stories, for me. I still remain captivated by the story, ‘The case against Google’. I blogged on it here.

The next story that I liked immensely was the story in Wall Street Journal on GE under Jeff Immelt.

I like such stories not for the reason that they vindicate my priors (I remind myself not to hold too many of them!) but because they make me think.

This one short paragraph summed up the story rather well:

But Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said. [Link]

Jena McGregor in Washington Post has a good follow-on article on this story. She writes,

The article puts GE well out of its usual role as management exemplar. And it shines a light on a problem endemic to corporate America, leadership experts say. People naturally avoid conflict and fear delivering bad news. But in professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard.

There was an added complication for Jeff Immelt. He was a celebrity CEO. No matter how hard he tried, people would hesitate to share bad news.

From Jane McGregor’s article:

Being led by a celebrity CEO who succeeded a man once named “manager of the century” probably doesn’t help either. Immelt, who rose through GE’s sales and marketing ranks before leading its plastics and health care divisions, became CEO after a high-profile horse race to succeed Jack Welch that catapulted him into the spotlight. One of the most recognized faces of corporate America for the 16 years he held the job (he stepped down last year) Immelt led President Obama’s jobs council and was considered as a veteran corporate hand to replace Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Leadership experts say such prestige can create a “social distance” between the CEO and direct reports, even if they make efforts to improve personal relationships. (Immelt, for instance, was known to host dinners with one of the top 185 officers of the company each month at his home and reconvene for a few hours the next morning to talk about their careers and their performance.)

“People tend to not want to tell them the bad stuff,” said Tim Pollock, a professor of business at Penn State University who has studied celebrity CEOs. “They become starstruck; they’re less likely to want to speak up and say negative things.”

As with most things in life, this too could go wrong. You could create an organisation culture where everyone only brings up bad news and uses them as an excuse not to perform or deliver. There is a fine line and no one knows where it is drawn.

It requires repeated experimentation, trial and error, learning by trying and, above all, good luck, to figure out the right balance between fostering a culture of frankness, honesty and of positivism; right balance between awareness of limitations and of strengths too.

In general, today’s world is a high pressure world – not just in jobs or in businesses but in just about everything. From parenting to maintaining social networks, friendships, from pursuing multiple interests. The culture is one of doing so much in so short a time. Efficiency and scale, even in personal lives, pursuits and social interactions, are privileged. They used to be expected only in business organisations.

When people are running everywhere and in every place with no place to rest, pause and reflect, anyone who allows them to step back, reflect and question these will actually be deemed a saviour! People feel grateful to be allowed to voice their self-doubts and inner doubts, their anxieties and frustrations once in a while and feel connected with those who do not hesitate to let them know that they share these too!

Therefore, that CEO or leader who allows his lieutenants the odd opportunity to step back, to say NO and to warn him of over-reaching, should be received with gratefulness and will be reciprocated with trust, commitment and higher motivation actually. That is my guess.

Not without dangers. Someone might take advantage and someone might embarrass the leader publicly about this. Some one in the media might say that the leader is a shirker and the share price might nosedive! The leader will be out of his or her job soon.

It is not that easy to swim against the prevailing currents even if you are convinced that the current will eventually plunge into a ravine. Given time, it will be right. The GE story is an example. The company went with the social norms and ethos of the times – good news, optimism, success, high performance, not taking NO for answers and deadlines are yesterday, etc. Indeed, it defined the ethos and norms of the times. Has it succeeded? Now, we know that it has not.

But, it takes time to know that it does not work. Not many have that luxury of time or luck to take a bet against consensus norms and ethos and succeed. They have to live in a society and be part of it. Humans are social animals. They need to belong. Some of us actually come to like it. It is seductive. It is lonely to be not part of it. Not easy.

The best we can do is to be aware of how excessive any organisational culture can become and modulate it from time to time. No one size fits all and no one culture works in all situations.

Let us also not forget that these articles are appearing with the benefit of hindsight. Note this paragraph in the WSJ story:

Former GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin, who worked alongside Mr. Immelt during challenges such as the financial crisis, said the CEO would methodically approach a problem with his team, consider multiple viewpoints and communicate regularly with the board, making sure executives stayed focused on the most important issues. “I never found him to be overly optimistic,” said Mr. Sherin, who retired in 2016.

To his credit, Jeff Immelt did not preach one thing and practise another. He believed in his model:

At a conference hosted by Axios in November, the month after he stepped down as chairman ahead of schedule, Mr. Immelt noted that GE is “125 years old; we go through cycles,” and said he was “fully confident that this company is going to thrive in the future.”

A spokesman for the former CEO pointed to his decision to purchase $8 million worth of GE shares in 2016 and 2017. That included 100,000 shares in mid-May at a price roughly twice today’s.

The only enduring lesson in all this is that in business as elsewhere, the need for luck and learning is constant and continuous.


Confronting our profound ignorance is frustrating, but it is also crucial. It is the force driving us forward. Real progress in understanding the Universe requires recognising that every instance of our ignorance is a scientific opportunity, and then resolving to chip away at it. Advancing our understanding requires venturing beyond the edifice of current thought and opening our minds to new ideas. [Link]

Viruses on campuses and in the American society – great weekend reads

(1) The Media Bubble is Real — And Worse Than You Think [Politico].

The only quibble I have with the article is that it concludes that journalists respond best when their vanity is punctured. But, far from trying to figure out why they were so vain as to miss what was happening to America, their vanity is making them tilt at the manifestation of their failure – Donald Trump. So, they are pitting their vanity against his and are directing their energies at getting him out. Russia is their trump card (pun intended). If they succeed in removing him, they think that they can exculpate themselves of the failure to anticipate his rise. Then, it would be difficult for the authors of this wonderful article to come up with another explanation as to how the media could do worse than they did in 2016.

(2) Professors moved Left in the 1990s. The rest of the country did not. Great read although it is from 2016.

While the data confirms that university and college faculty have long leaned left, a notable shift began in the middle of the 1990s as the Greatest Generation was leaving the stage and the last Baby Boomers were taking up teaching positions. Between 1995 and 2010, members of the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. Moderates declined by nearly a quarter and conservatives decreased by nearly a third.

What is it about the boomers that they turned so irredeemably Left? Is it their success or is it guilt conscience that they achieved so much success at so high a cost to the world at large, to Planet Earth, etc.,?

(3) Heather Mac Donald’s experience at Claremont McKenna College in April 2017. It is positively scary and despairing. David Brooks is right to call it a tale of ‘chilling intolerance’.

(4) A great title: ‘Freedom from speech’ and a great line (George Will – Nov. 2015):

Campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought [Link]

(5) David Brooks is unfortunately likely to be proven right here:

These days, the whole idea of Western civilisation is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it. [Link]

(6) On a hopeful note: this video has more than seven million views on YouTube

(Most of the links above were picked from the Twitter handle of Jonathan Haidt)

The purpose of liberal arts education: an examined life

A conversation between Professors Robert George Cornel West of the Princeton University (ht: The Heterodox Academy). I have extracted some portions that made me think and I am presenting them in this blog post. You can find the full transcript here.

  • It’s the gospel of liberal arts education. It’s a gospel that is all about interrogating your own assumptions and presuppositions. In an age of ideology, it’s hard to think of what could be more important than the self-critical attitude and the virtues of intellectual humility and love of truth that are at the core of liberal arts learning.
  • As Plato said, perhaps an unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps the wealth and the prestige and the status and the power and influence are mere dross. Maybe the real meaning of life, what it’s really all about is something different, something that can only be obtained through critical self-examination.
  • And to learn how to die is to muster the courage to critically examine yourself, the courage to interrogate yourself so that you must wrestle with a certain doctrine and dogma that may have to die — certain xenophobic prejudice, certain assumption or presupposition you’ve had in your life, you’re holding on for dear life and you have to let it go. That’s a form of death.
  • Spiritual blackout is about the eclipse of integrity, the eclipse of honesty, the eclipse of decency. And once that goes, no matter what our ideological or political orientations are, we’re just on the way to the survival of the slickest.
  • What we don’t want is for higher education across the board to be instrumentalized to the goal of, for the individual, career attainment, and for the society as a whole, simply training our workforce for the new economy or the next stage of the economy.
  • I do believe in all honesty that we’re in a deep moral and spiritual crisis. The liberal arts tries to get us to look at the world through moral and spiritual lens, whatever our traditions are, so that the sense of what it means to be human is not reduced to just money making, status seeking, manipulation, domination. Those are the dominant forces in human history. Human history is a cycle of hatred and revenge and resentment, domination, exploitation, and subordination. How do you interrupt those? That’s what Plato is concerned about. Why is Plato concerned about it? Because his mentor
    condemned — Socrates. He said, I’m going to make the world safe for the legacy of Socrates so every generation will have to come to terms with his example, the enactment of an examined life. And Plato pulled it off pretty well.
  • think the dominant goal for most people these days, or at least many people these days — perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so judgmental — is feeling good. It’s having satisfaction. People find it in different places, look for it in different places, often look for it in all the wrong places. But they’re after a certain psychological status, a certain desirable psychological state….something deeper and more difficult to handle.
  • Why do people want money? Because prestige comes with it. Why do — or status. Why do people want prestige and status? Because you feel good. It makes you feel good. It’s like a drug. It’s the same reason people like applause. It’s the same reason people, including students at universities, are so conformist, so unwilling to cut against the grain, so unwilling to question the campus dogmas and orthodoxies, because if you do, you get criticism, and that doesn’t feel good. What feels good is applause. It’s like a drug. It’s addictive like a drug. And to avoid that drug, you need spiritual strength.
  • What’s our age? Well, it seems to me that our age is the age of feeling,… And the age of feeling — feeling is what slips into the role of governor when faith and reason are abandoned, when they lose their status, when they lose their prestige, when they lose their authority. And that’s what you get — I think what Cornel is calling spiritual blackout. You get spiritual blackout when feeling is the whole thing and what we’re after is feeling good. Some people seek that in very, very bad and dangerous ways: through drugs, promiscuity. Other people seek it in other ways, less physically dangerous but perhaps no less spiritually dangerous: through the status and prestige that comes with wealth or power or what have you.
  • Again, there’s nothing wrong in itself about feeling or desiring to feel good, but if that’s your fundamental goal, then you’ve got a deep spiritual problem. And the last thing you’re going to be looking for is the examined life. You will not see the point of the examined life because what it does is make you feel bad.
  • The examined life is a life in which you’re constantly questioning yourself. You’re subjecting yourself to self-criticism. Intellectual humility is a central virtue because in order to carry out the enterprise of self-criticism, you have to actually deal with the possibility that you might be wrong, and that’s hard, especially if changing your view would result in your being stigmatized, ostracized, isolated on your campus or in your community, whether your community is right, left, center, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — whatever your community is. Seeking the examined life can be a very dangerous thing if what you’re after in life is satisfaction and feeling good. It’s a probe. It’s a prod. It’s a disruptor.
  • People don’t feel as though anything matters, that they’re looking to feel good, something that will make them feel good. People want to at least feel like they matter, something matters. And when they can’t find that, when they’re in the condition of nihilism, you will turn to something else. Now, drugs are just the kind of gross, obvious example for people who are very poor, who don’t have an alternative, although it also affects people who are very rich. But for a lot of people who are very rich, they can find that. They can look for that in a less obviously physically dangerous way. And it can, in its pathological forms, take the form of not just power but domination; not just influence, but narcissism — can take these kinds of forms. And there’s an awful lot of that about.
  • So the call for the restoration of liberal arts ideals is necessarily a call for a sort of spiritual reawakening, a revival, which is at the same time a condition for anybody’s truly appreciating that it’s worth working hard for things, that there are things that are worth having that go beyond how they make you feel, things that are worth having even though — you know, the drug rush is not going to be the reward but, nevertheless, whose value we can perceive and appreciate and struggle for and dedicate ourselves to.
  • So this is not an argument that you have to have a college education or a liberal arts education to be a good person. It’s just that the value of a liberal arts education consists at least in part in its capacity to contribute to our spiritual and moral fulfillment, our spiritual and moral well-being, and there will be a certain number of people for whom, absent that provision, the path is going to be the wrong one. It will be down the path toward seeking wealth and power and status and prestige and influence because there will be a certain number of people who will confront Shakespeare or confront Plato and suddenly realize, “I’m on the wrong path. I’m going the wrong direction. I need to reevaluate my life. I need to assess what really matters. I need to rethink what I’m going, what I’m going to dedicate these next 60 years or 70 years to doing.”
  • My brother David Brooks talks about this in terms of the shift in his own life from being obsessed with his resume as opposed to becoming obsessed with his eulogy said at his funeral. That’s a very different set of stories and narratives and analysis of what’s said at your funeral as opposed to just what’s on your resume. I think what’s said at your funeral is very much about integrity and honesty, decency, love, sacrifice, self-surrender, service, and what have you.
  • On Liberty” — there Mill makes the point that we should value dissent even when we are confident that the dissenter’s wrong because that dissent will enable us by way of defending the truth to deepen our understand and appreciation of it.
  • We human beings wrap our emotions around our convictions, which is not a bad thing in itself, but it can become an impediment to having an open mind. So, you know, I’ve got a lot of stuff against Nietzsche, and yet I read him and I assign him not only because I know that trying to respond to his criticisms will deepening my understating of what I believe to be true, but also because I know that there is a chance — maybe an outside chance, but a chance — that he’s right and I’m wrong.
  • … a true liberal arts education with that openness of mind, with that intellectual humility, that willing to recognize that one might be wrong, that willingness to engage the greatest that’s been thought and said by the greatest minds, the greatest people, it’s like getting on a train not knowing where you’re going to get off and maybe even not recognizing who you are anymore when you get off that train.

I had read about Professors Robert George and Cornel West last year in a Bloomberg article. Their collaboration, despite different ideological viewpoints, was refreshing to read. They reminded me of Professor Daniel Kahneman who had done that too, in practice. This is the original Bloomberg article and this is my cover story for Swarajya for December 2015 (‘Who is a Liberal?’) in which I had mentioned them and Professor Daniel Kahneman.