Aggression Vs. Punitiveness

Virat Kohli’s aggressive behaviour on the cricket field evokes both admiration and revulsion in us. Recently, the famous actor Nasseruddin Shah described Kohli as the “worst behaved player”. Needless to say, this created its own chain reaction against Mr. Shah. While Mr. Shah may have been more direct and upfront, the unease about Kohli’s aggression has also been expressed by several others.

A couple of months back, when Kohli had reacted to a fan by asking him to leave the country, it created quite an uproar. This was widely interpreted as jingoistic and intolerance towards a fan’s preference for a foreign player. Kohli did clarify that he was not objecting to the fan’s preference for a foreign player, but reacting to the disdain in the expression “these Indian players”. However, Kohli’s clarification was generally ignored.

I have no idea as to what kind of person is Virat Kohli. What seems reasonably apparent is that he is passionate, ambitious, intense, competitive and expressive. Beyond that it is difficult to say anything about him. To best of my knowledge, he has never resorted to physical/verbal abuse or been involved in drunken brawls or been accused of unfair practices like ball tampering etc. He has rarely been a “bad loser”(blaming others) and has often been generous in his praise of his opponents. Thus it is difficult to associate punitiveness with his aggression.

Aggression and Punitiveness may look alike but they are quite different from each other. The most important difference of course is, that in Punitiveness, there is a clear INTENT to harm/hurt the other. The motive for causing the hurt/harm may vary ( e.g. teaching a lesson or settling a score etc.) but Punitiveness is a MOTIVATED ACT.

As against this Aggression is an EXPRESSIVE ACT. Here, the other is incidental or in a sense irrelevant. It is essentially a release of one’s own aggressive impulses, which may have got triggered from fear, insecurity, frustration or even a sense of relief and achievement. This may cause harm/hurt to the other, but it arises from the insensitivity/callousness of the aggressor rather than an active intent.

Aggression is often deployed in the service of Punitiveness, but not always so. Seemingly non-aggressive behaviours (e.g. sarcasm, mockery, slight, disdain, dismissal etc.) can be equally effective in punishing the other. In fact, they carry an additional advantage as they are very difficult to counter. One often comes across instances when people justify their insults and ridicules as “just joking”. Thus non-aggressive act of punishment, allow the perpetrator to get away without taking any responsibility in the matter.

Aggression and Punitiveness may overlap with each other, but not all Aggression is punitive, and not all Punitiveness is blatantly aggressive. The distinction between the two is particularly important in the Indian context.There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we Indians have a very uneasy relationship with Aggression. We either tend to deny/suppress our aggressive impulses OR discharge them indiscriminately. Consequently-

a) It becomes extremely difficult for us to harness the positive potential of aggression.

b) Whenever we are faced with aggression ( either in ourselves or in others), we become punitive(towards self and/or other) and

c) Much of our punitiveness gets expressed through seemingly non-aggressive ways.

Thus when some one like Virat Kohli comes along, who is able to deploy his aggressive impulses to his advantage (I have rarely seen him play a shot in anger) without becoming punitive towards himself or others, we experience strong ambivalence. On one hand, he becomes a symbol through which our own aggressive impulses are finding expression, and on the other, all our demons about aggression begin to haunt us. We want to both admire him as also punish him for doing what we are unable to do ourselves. Just as people who do not know how to stand up for themselves feel both elated and upset, when they see someone else doing it, so do we when we see a Virat Kohli showing his raw aggression without getting consumed by it. We want to admire him, emulate him and also punish him.

Strange as it may seem, there is perhaps an inverse relationship between Aggression and Punitiveness. The more discomfort that we have with our aggressive impulses, the more punitive we are likely to become. And the more we grace our aggression, the less punitive we are likely to be.

I have often come across people who are extremely aggressive but not punitive, just as I have come across people who seem non-aggressive, but are extremely punitive. I have also found that generally we are a lot more tolerant of the non-aggressive punitive people, and a lot more critical of the aggressive ones, even if they are non-punitive. What has been your experience?

Strong Leaders- Weak Leadership

More than two years back, in a blog post “Intoxicating Invincibility”, I had speculated about the rise and fall of brand Modi and how it may impact BJP. So far, the events have unfolded, more or less in line with what I had anticipated. Whether or not, they continue to follow the same script is yet to be seen.

I am not a political analyst, nor am I very well informed in such matters. Essentially, I am a student of human behaviour and dynamics of human collectives such as organisation, families, communities etc. My speculations were based upon my understanding of the interesting relationship between systems(human collectives) with charismatic leaders, particularly of the alpha male variety. The script that unfolds has an eerie commonality across different individual narratives. It goes something like this-

1. An individual with some outstanding capabilities emerges,often from sections which are not central but peripheral in the system. He/she has a meteoric rise and becomes the most significant and powerful person in the system.

2. Under the leadership of this person, the system experiences some early successes, which enables the individual to consolidate his/her position as also the grip over the system.

3. Very soon, the person gains almost complete control over the system. All significant role holders are handpicked by the leader, with loyalty to the leader being a major criteria.

4. While a facade of openness and accessibility is maintained, the operating norms are-
a) The judgement of the leader is never to be challenged, and
b) No “bad news”should be allowed to reach the leader i.e. he/she should only hear what he/she wants to hear.

5. Over a period, the gulf between the “grass roots” and centres of power begins to widen and consequently, the performance of the system begins to slip. This is often attributed to individual failures and sought to be corrected through scapegoating and/or enhanced controls. The end result is further alienation of Leadership from the people at large.

6. At this stage, the disillusionment with the Leader begins to simmer and his/her sheen starts eroding.However, often the disgruntlement is not directly acknowledged or engaged with.

7. In a sense the System is now caught in a double bind.It is far too heavily invested into the belief that leader is invincible and hence can not release itself from the stronghold which the Leader has over it.Simultaneously, the Leader who till now was its greatest asset, now starts appearing like a liability. Simply put, the System can neither get rid of the Leader nor go on with it.The problem is further accentuated by the TINA factor, as usually under such leaders there are very few alternatives.

8. Most Systems at this stage go into a “free for all” state of drift and start waiting for the next Messiah to arrive, who invariably meets the same fate.

The only way that Systems can break this double bind is through unclogging the channels of upward communication which have got blocked. This is easier said than done, particularly in “high power distance” cultures like ours, where a high power distance between the leader and the follower is taken for granted. In case of strong charismatic leaders the problem is even more acute.

In relatively smaller systems, strong leaders take care of this problem through direct personalised connect. Thus one often hears of great leaders who knew each and every one of their employees by name. This is clearly not feasible in large complex systems, where one needs institutionalised processes to facilitate upward communication.

It is therefore not surprising that exercises such as “employee surveys” are being increasingly used by several organisations. While such exercises have their utility, they rarely go beyond identifying what people are feeling “good” about and what they are feeling “unhappy” about.

The feelings of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are mere symptoms- they may have little connection with what the real issues are. This is so, because all collectives have both “wisdom” and “noise” and what the surveys throw up is a peculiar mix of the two. To take an example from the socio-political sphere, a survey may well reveal that a large number of people are unhappy about “minority appeasement”. On this basis, it would be downright foolish to conclude that “minority appeasement” is either factually correct or is indeed the “real” problem.

In a way, such surveys are attempts to “by pass” the intermediary levels and connect the “top” with the “bottom” directly. This would be akin to a political boss who believes that he/she is directly in touch with the “masses”, even when, people who are directly working with him/her are scared to open their mouths in his/her presence.

The problem of clogged channels of upward communication can not be addressed through structural arrangements and introduction of systems like employee surveys. It requires us to revisit our basic notions about leadership. So long as we see leadership as vested in a person, we will continue to create the same double bind.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that leadership is a process to which all members of the system contribute. The so called “leader” is only a medium through which a collectivity expresses itself. How this leader is created, how he/she functions, how he/she is dethroned, has much more to do with collective (its myths, its aspirations, its anxieties, its mythology etc.) than with the individual concerned. This is not to suggest that the individual is of no consequence, but only to emphasise that over-emphasis on the individual blinds us to the forces which create and destroy leaders.

Efficacy of leadership process in a system is hugely dependent upon the quality of communication and state of communication channels, particularly of upward communication. If these channels get clogged ( which they often do, in case of strong leaders) the efficacy of leadership is bound to suffer. Ironical as it may sound, Strong Leaders often mean Weak leadership. Thus perhaps we need to let go of our obsession with Leaders and pay more attention to Leadership.