It is ok for leaders to be human

There was some hullabaloo about the remarks that Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, made about the causes of the growth slowdown in 2016 and 2017. Some say that he blamed Raghuram Rajan and some, like yours truly, think that the evidence was not clear-cut. He called the former Reserve Bank of India governor’s attempt to make banks come clean about the extent of bad loans they were carrying in their books heroic and, in another place, he appears to have likened Rajan’s approach to administering an overdose of Crocin. Perhaps, he was both conflicted and confused. It does not matter. The interesting lesson here is how governments react to economic growth slowdowns.

They claim credit for accelerating economic growth and cast their net wide to find someone to blame for growth deceleration. The reality, when it comes to economic growth, is the opposite. Governments are seldom responsible for positive growth surprises and certainly not in real time. They are more likely responsible for negative growth outcomes. Government actions and outcomes are often asymmetric in nature. Governments carry more power and ability to hurt than to help. That is why their controlling instincts hurt more than their liberating instincts. For the latter to succeed, non-government actors have to do their bit. The former succeeds because it influences behaviour and attitudes of non-government actors more easily. The asymmetry is evident there, too. Most politicians do not get it.

That is why they want guaranteed outcomes, whether it is in the economy or in elections. They deal in certainties and certitudes, no matter how often they fall flat on their faces. With respect to India’s growth outcomes in 2016 and in 2017, both deleveraging—triggered by low credit demand and supply—and demonetization played their part. The government should have owned both as deliberate efforts on its part to cleanse the system with a clear recognition that the efforts would hurt economic growth in the short-term. Instead of being defensive, it should have paraded its decisiveness.

When I shared these thoughts with a friend, he wrote to me: “Governments prefer to be hated for the wrong reasons than speak the wholesome truth, which admits errors of judgement in good faith and they will never understand that people value honesty so much that they forgive honest mistakes!” Beautifully put.

However, if we think that only politicians suffer from this affliction, we will be wrong. Business leaders offer plenty of company. They want guaranteed successful outcomes. When employees offer “under-promise and overachievement”, they raise their eyebrows. They see that as an effort to game the system and garner more rewards for exceeding targets. However, not in all cases, such employee attitudes are driven either by incentives or by the fear of failure and the consequences it entails. Possibly, it is the recognition that there are very few certainties and certitudes in life. Leaders must demand over-performance in effort and employees must offer it. However, demanding guarantees with respect to outcomes and offering it are both signs of hubris. There are other problems, too, with such an attitude.

Such leaders usually come with high self-belief and proud ownership of their missions. Up to a point, these are desirable qualities in missionary leaders. However, they have their downsides. Such missionary leaders are human and humans, without exception, have limitations and are prone to fail from time to time. Such leaders run the risk of being undemocratic, of being untrusting of others to deliver on their tasks, of excessive interference and of second-guessing their employees.

An episode involving two gifted artists, Sivaji Ganesan and Manorama, in the Tamil film, Thillana Mohanaambaal, serves up these messages beautifully. Manorama asks Ganesan to play a note on her Nagaswaram, the wind instrument familiar to most south Indians. After he plays a note, she asks him how he could produce such wonderful music; he replies that it depended on one’s effort and divine grace. Later, in the same episode, she wistfully wonders why such a gifted artist (Sivaji Ganesan) was short-tempered and prone to bursts of anger. He answers that there was no human without blemish. Not only was that scene marked by spontaneous and brilliant acting, but it contained such obvious, yet profound, truths.

In the Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna says that for any effort to succeed, there must be a goal, a doer, skills and instruments. However, above all, he says there must be his support and blessing. It is natural to forget it when we pursue a project or a goal with zeal and sincerity, trusting in our efforts. They are necessary, but not sufficient. Of course, if one does not believe in the existence of a God, one can replace “divine blessing” with “chance”. However, it is there.

Recognizing that, and displaying frailty, is not a sign of weakness but to be human. Mostly, employees will not turn shirkers or slackers because of that, but would relate to their bosses better for being human. Mutual trust will emerge. To be able to balance being a normal human and being a leader is the challenge of leadership. To fail in that challenge is to risk becoming ineffective and unsuccessful. Above all, they risk being lonely in their most vulnerable moments.

This was the text of my column in MINT on Tuesday.

[cross-posted here]

The Zuckerberg dilemma

From a NYT interview with Mark Zuckerberg:

Roose: Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of News Feed, recently said he had lost some sleep over Facebook’s role in the violence in Myanmar. You’ve said you’re “outraged” about what happened with Cambridge Analytica, but when you think about the many things that are happening with Facebook all over the world, are you losing any sleep? Do you feel any guilt about the role Facebook is playing in the world?

Zuckerberg: That’s a good question. I think, you know, we’re doing something here which is unprecedented, in terms of building a community for people all over the world to be able to share what matters to them, and connect across boundaries. I think what we’re seeing is, there are new challenges that I don’t think anyone had anticipated before.

If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room.

Overall, he had handled the interview well. He came across as honest and sincere. That is important.

But, what set me thinking was the portion highlighted. Most of the time – or all the time – we have no idea of what we are unleashing, when we set out on a path. What we are unleashing for ourselves, for people around us and in the larger world. With many of us, the consequences are limited to a smaller circle of family, friends and colleagues. We do not cause much damage or good. In the process, we will never know whether we helped someone realise their potential for the greater good or limit theirs from doing good.

But, some of us have the ability to influence events far bigger and wider than in our immediate circle. Zuckerberg’ FB is an example. It takes on shapes and forms that one could have hardly visualised at conception. That is what he is admitting.

That is not a reason not to try. Human beings will always not know what is coming next. That is no reason not to try. But, it should inform how we try and, at what point, we stop ‘trying’ and ‘surrender’ to the larger force or wisdom.

At a somewhat more mundane level, does it set limits on growth? I had written on this earlier too. FB’s impact and the situations it keeps throwing up make me keep revisiting these issues. When do we completely lose control of the forces that we unleash? At that point, do we simply admit and walk away that we had created a Frankenstein monster rather than being a force for good?

Can we even anticipate that moment and stop ourselves a moment or two before that? Is it even possible?

I do not have answers to these questions. But, I find these questions fascinating and posing these questions repeatedly to myself and others might help me discover some answers which, again, have to keep evolving. Not easy.

Are we ‘inevitably’ evil? – the story of the year

NY Times magazine published a very long piece titled, ‘The case against Google’. It will probably be the article of the year for me. It is a business case study, a public policy case study and a business ethics case study – all rolled into one. All of these are interwoven into the personal story of two small entrepreneurs whose search engine proved more powerful than Google for certain types of queries and how they paid for it!

Public policy students and analysts will appreciate the spirit behind ‘anti-trust’. In the process, you learn the story of Standard Oil, the story of Microsoft. Microsoft did win its appeal against anti-Trust decisions. It did not have to break up. But, the legal challenges – even though they failed – made the company a lot more sensitive and allowed an upstart (called Google) to emerge.

Google’s behaviour may not have been against consumer interests but was it simply fair?

One can also reflect on the spiritual and philosophical lessons of this. When Google was formed, it took on the motto, ‘Don’t be evil’. Has it lived up to it? Or, as one grows big, powerful and influential, does it become part of the DNA or almost inevitable to become ‘evil’? Is that true, almost without exception, for individuals, institutions, corporations and sovereigns?

[Note: Google’s new parent Alphabet abandoned that motto and took up, ‘Do the right thing’, circa 2015. Don’t be evil is simple and absolute. ‘Doing the right thing’ is relative, can be subject to interpretation and it can be bent. The yardsticks are malleable.]

Then, does it follow that if you are self-aware, you limit your own growth and stay small, lest you become inevitably evil?

Do we realise that, once we start rationalising, we are no longer wedded (but already divorced) to our values? In fact, the rationalisation is merely a confirmation of the divorce that would have happened some time earlier.

Is there no better way at all than to become inevitably evil? What is that ‘better way’ if there is one? What does it take to traverse down that path? Do the modern society and its organising principles militate against individuals, institutions and businesses walking down that path?

Or, is that question too a form of rationalisation? Isn’t it implicit in the question that we have simply re-arranged our priorities?

How do we stop rationalising or, better, realise that we have started rationalising?

Is it about having fearless upstarts and advisors telling us that? Does it work? In the Indian epic Ramayana, Kumbakarnan warns Ravana eloquently of the doom that he was courting by having brought Sita forcibly to his kingdom. It did not work. It was too late.

In Mahabharat, Vithurar was the voice of wise counsel in the Kaurava court. Even Vikarnan warns his brother, Duryodhana of the destruction that awaits in the path that he had chosen to walk on. No avail.

Indeed, even the wise ones and the exalted souls are not exempt. The illusion of size, power and influence shrouds their intellect. Knowledge, spirituality and reason retreat.

Therefore, ‘are we doomed to end up like this only?

Utterly fascinating, utterly educative and utterly and ultimately sobering, about us. [Link]

The wisdom of Sébastian Bras for Mark Zuckerberg

The September 23rd International Edition of New York Times had two very beautiful stories. I caught up with them on my flight to Hong Kong.

The first story I want to mention here is that of Facebook. The article is aptly titled, ‘Facebook’s Frankenstein moment’. The article has some very interesting and profound sentences that should make us think of its relevance for human lives too.

The journalist writes:

If I were a Facebook executive, I might feel a Frankensteinian sense of unease these days. The company has been hit with a series of scandals that have bruised its image, enraged its critics and opened up the possibility that in its quest for global dominance, Facebook may have created something it can’t fully control.

One more:

But the troubles do make it clear that Facebook was simply not built to handle problems of this magnitude. It’s a technology company, not an intelligence agency or an international diplomatic corps. Its engineers are in the business of building apps and selling advertising, not determining what constitutes hate speech in Myanmar. And with two billion users, including 1.3 billion who use it every day, moving ever greater amounts of their social and political activity onto Facebook, it’s possible that the company is simply too big to understand all of the harmful ways people might use its products.

The last one:

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, nobody could have imagined its becoming a censorship tool for repressive regimes, an arbiter of global speech standards or a vehicle for foreign propagandists.

These three excerpts made me think. Multiple thoughts came to my head. There are lessons in this for corporate mission and goals; for humans.

Is growth the ‘be all and end all’ for corporations? Are we in control of what we do? When we begin to do something, do we even know in what directions it would grow and how big? Do we control the process all the way through? Do we realise that? Do we even know that we don’t drive the process but the process has a mind and life of its own? In fact, it is the real intelligence and we are the artificial one! Do we grasp the play of the law of unintended consequences in life and in business?

Only if we do, we can put our hand up and say STOP and not pursue growth for its own sake. When we conscioiusly question the ‘growth’ choices (becoming big or rich or both), we will even think of why we pursue those goals – megalomania or delusions of grandeur?

Plainly put, is it ego that drives and not any other so-called rational imperative? Per se, nothing wrong with ego having a role. It always does. But, recognising that will evaluate the trade-offs and the costs better and pursue corporate goals (or, personal goals) with a sense of awarenesss.

Every time we are offered choices to grow big and fast, the alternatives are ‘grow big but at a measured pace’ and ‘stability over growth’. How do we evaluate the choices? That would make a big difference. Going back to our origins, our goals at inception would help steer us better and keep us grounded even as we fancy taking flight to higher altitudes. Again, applies as much to businesses as it does to individuals and institutions.

And, to politicians! As they become bigger and bigger players, they move furhter and further from their core values and principles. IF they look into the mirror one day, they will not recognise the face they see. How much has it been transformed and HOW and WHY?

Staying close to one’s knitting and to one’s initial goals, staying small, compact and manageable vs. growing big, these are as much philosophical decisions as they are business decisions. When we choose the latter – growing big – we do have to recognise the possibility that we won’t be in the driver’s seat.

Letting the process drive us and growing big consciously are actually two different choices. The articles give us the opportunity to think about how many of us are victims or prisoners of the former? The second one is about freedom. Are we free?

[Of course, at a macro level or economic plane, there is a problem with this philosophy. A country of India’s size needs scale. Also, conversely, while the desire and passion to grow big brings with it, its own share of problems, issues and loss of control, the motivation to stay small should also be subjected to rigorous questioning? – laziness (sloth) or lack of confidence.]

But, in the American context and in the light of what Facebook has wrought to itself, to people’s lives (most users are on big ego trips on their Facebook page unmindful of their own privacy and security), the above questions and issues are more relevant than the parenthetical sentiment.

The story of the Michelin *** Chef putting his hand up and say STOP was a beautiful contrast to the Facebook story. He is a spiritual chef.

Mark Zuckerberg – and all of us – must have a conversation with Sébastian Bras. He is only 45 years old (google search). He wants Michelin to take his three stars away. Pointedly, he said this:

I want to be liberated from the pressure.

That is it. We have found our spiritual wisdom. That one sentence can unlock many things, many of our minds including that of Zuckerberg.

‘Liberation’ is a heavily loaded spiritual term. We are all held in bondage by our desires, by our goals and by social conventions, pressures and because ‘this is how and this is what everyone does’. Liberation is about letting go. He is ready to do that, at least in this aspect. If ‘letting go’ is not spiritual, what else is?

He said he wanted to give a new meaning to his life.  Bingo!

Towards the end of the article, there are quite a few profound truths, uttered by chefs. There is something very beautiful about hearing these words from chefs because food is the biggest craving for many of us. It is a very big bondage. Here, chefs are teaching us about ‘letting go’. There is a beautiful irony in it.

Sample this:

In 2005, Alain Senderens, a founder of the nouvelle cuisine movement, decided to close Lucas Carton, his Art Nouveau restaurant on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris and abandon his three stars. He said he was fed up with the agony of perfection and wanted to do “beautiful cuisine without all the tra-la-la and chichi, and put the money into what’s on the plate.”

Fed up with the ‘agony of perfection’ – think about it.  It is not an invitation for sloppiness. Indeed, the paradox is that he would most likely make food that delight scores of customers with this mindset.

Or, sample this:

Earlier this year, René Redzepi, 39, the chef and a co-owner of Noma in Denmark, a leading light of the New Nordic movement, said he was closing his two-starred restaurant and moving it to another neighborhood in Copenhagen, forsaking his hard-earned stars. He said in an interview that it was “necessary to break down a castle in order to build a new one.”

Of course, in my book, the gold goes to Sébastian Bras:

Mr. Bras, for his part, said his decision to shun the would-be supreme court of global cuisine had been motivated by a search for serenity. He noted that while the pressure to retain three stars could be an engine for creativity, it could also prove debilitating.

“Food should be about love — not about competition,” he said. “All I want is to welcome people to my restaurant during the day, or during the night under a sky filled with stars.”

All emphasis mine.

Sébastian Bras is not just a chef. He is a Guru.

[Postscript: A friend, on reading the post promptly, pointed out that the use of the word, ‘process’ can be confusing. A process-driven path to growth (or any other business or personal goals) may actually be considered the right way to go about it rather than the one that is ego-driven or driven by convention, social pressures or peer group pressure, etc. I have used the word, ‘process’, to denote these latter, unthinking and unconscious approaches]

An inner search engine for Google

The story of former Google Engineer James Damore is dominating airwaves. He was fired for writing a memo that pointed to basic gender differences as one of the explanations for why there were so few women in software. It is not just about the firing of a single employee. It is about Google. Over time, being fired from his job might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for James Damore.

I had gone through his memo. You can find it here. I found it reasonably worded and argued. I listened to the 50-minute conversation of Prof. Jordan Peterson with James Damore. Professor Peterson at the University of Toronto cited many references that supported the points that Damore had made in his memo.

David Brooks in NYT wrote a good piece as to why Sunder Pichai should resign.

James Damore wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal as to why he was fired. It is interesting that he appeared to sympathise with Google management by blaming the ‘mob’ for ‘tying’ the hands of the management:

Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views. When the whole episode finally became a giant media controversy, thanks to external leaks, Google had to solve the problem caused by my supposedly sexist, anti-diversity manifesto, and the whole company came under heated and sometimes threatening scrutiny.

Professor Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens have a comprehensive post at the Heterodox academy with a list of citations and research findings that both support and refute the points that Damore had made in his memo:

If you wanted to jump straight to their conclusion, here it is:

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability. This distinction between interest and ability is important because it may address  one of the main fears raised by Damore’s critics: that the memo itself will cause Google employees to assume that women are less qualified, or less “suited” for tech jobs, and will therefore lead to more bias against women in tech jobs. But the empirical evidence we have reviewed should have the opposite effect. Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.  What should Google’s response to the memo have been? We’ll address that in a followup post next week. [Link – all emphasis mine]

Based on her personal experience, Megan McArdle agrees with James Damore.

In short, Google had an opportunity to set an example for what it means to be truly liberal. It blew it. Perhaps, Sunder Pichai’s education, background and experience did not prepare him for facing a situation like the one he faced with James Damore’s memo. It needed a non-Engineering approach. Perhaps, a woman would have handled it better? But then, Google’s diversity officer Danielle Brown did not offer any nuanced reaction. It was a mere prelude to the firing of James Damore.

There is very little to choose between the openly intolerant and not-so-openly intolerant. In fact, the former can be handled mostly through the law-and-order apparatus and framework but the latter is insidious and, hence, probably more dangerous.

Symptoms of hubris

This is a full version of the symptoms originally put forward by Owen and Davidson*. Some symptoms could be associated with other conditions such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

So the stipulation is that “in making the diagnosis of Hubris Syndrome, three or more of the defining symptoms should be present, at least one of which should be among the five components identified as unique.”

  • A propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  • A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light – taken in part in order to enhance their image
  • A disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  • A messianic way of talking and a tendency to exaltation in speech and manner
  • An identification with the nation or organization – to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical (unique factor)
  • A tendency to speak of themselves in the third person or use the royal ‘we’ (unique)Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others
  • Exaggerated selfbelief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve
  • A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the real court to which they answer is much greater: history or god
  • An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated (unique)
  • Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  • Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness (unique)
  • A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’, especially their conviction about the moral rectitude of a proposed course of action, to obviate the need to consider other aspects of it, such as its practicality, cost and the possibility of unwanted outcomes (unique)
  • Incompetence in carrying out a policy, where things go wrong precisely because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of a policy. [Link]

* ‘Hubris Syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years’, David Owen and Jonathan Davidson, Brain 2009: 132; 13961406 (article available on this website)

The right leadership

… While capitalism at last stands electorally victorious and philosophically without serious rival, its performance has become manifestly unsatisfactory. Its core credential of steadily rising general living standards has been badly tarnished: a majority now expect their children’s lives to be worse than their own. It is time for “The Future of Capitalism”. Unfortunately, nobody has yet successfully written that book. In its absence, I will try to weave something from the strands of recent contributions to the field.

Whatever emerges will not be a new ideology. If Levinson is not enough to convince you, try Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix. His title refers not to our current mess, but to ten case studies of how some political leaders really have transformed situations for the better. Tepperman searches for the formula by which these people have remedied serious problems. The cases are valuable in their own right: many leaders could learn from how Lee Kwan Yew drove out corruption in Singapore, how Pierre Trudeau defused Québécois separatism, and how Paul Kagame rebuilt cultural identities in Rwanda. But for present purposes it is Tepperman’s conclusion that is valuable: eschew ideology; focus on pragmatic solutions to core problems, adjust as you go, but be as tough as is necessary. A viable future for capitalism will cut across the ideological baggage of the twentieth century: forget Left versus Right, set aside the familiar pious moralizing and start from the problems. As Tepperman argues, the leaders who stuck rigorously to this approach initially faced intense criticism. Pragmatism is guaranteed to offend the ideologues of every persuasion and they are the people who dominate the media. [Link]

Did Paul Collier forget Nelson Mandela?

Among the global leaders of today, who comes close to this pragmatic centre?