Handling Individual Greatness- from Sachin to Kohli

In the last few years,the cricket world in India has gone through a significant transition – from the Sachin era to a Kohli era. Even die hard Sachin fans (like yours truly) have to admit that in all likelihood,Virat Kohli will surpass Sachin Tendulkar, not merely in terms of individual achievements, but more importantly, in terms of contribution to team’s success. Even as fans go crazy with chants of “Kohli  Kohli”, there is a palpable difference in the kind of adulation and reverence which was given to Sachin as compared to what is offered to Kohli. During the Sachin era, it was not unusual for people to lose all interest in the game, once he was gone, but that does not seem to be the case now. I have as yet not seen Kohli being elevated to “Godhood” as was the case with Sachin. Is it only a matter of time or has something shifted in our handling of “Individual Greatness”? I hope it is the later, but it may be too early to say.

To begin with, let me state the difference, as I see it. During the Sachin era, our collective focus was much more on his personal achievements than on team performance. For many people, his scoring a hundred was more important than India winning the match. Surely, people still enjoy  a Kohli century, but I don’t think his records are being followed as zealously as was the case with Sachin. At that time, people came to see Sachin bat (or bowl or field, for that matter). Today Kohli is a big draw, but the game does not begin or end with him.

How this collective obsession about Sachin Tendulkar affected his teammates can not be said with any certainty, but it is rather unlikely that they would have been oblivious to it. In fact, some of them have talked about being extra careful in ensuring that they don’t run him out and become targets of public wrath. It has also been suggested that the huge gap between Sachin and the rest of team was one of the factors which contributed to his failure as a captain. Contrast that with Kohli, where even relative newcomers like Karun Nair and Kedar Jadhav feel free to express themselves without much inhibition. Thus it would seem that rather than feeling dwarfed in his presence, Kohli’s teammates feel more inspired and empowered by his greatness.

What we are witnessing with Kohli, is perhaps the logical extension of a process which began with several other contemporary greats of Indian cricket, particularly, Dravid, Kumble and Dhoni. Each of them a colossus in his own right, and yet never became larger than the game as seemed to have happened with Sachin. When that happens,  the greatness of an individual becomes more of a  liability than an asset both for the individual and the total collectivity. This is equally applicable to all areas of human endeavour not just cricket and sports.

In any field, there will always be individuals with exceptional talent and capability. How their greatness is handled, depends not merely on them but also on the context to which they belong. In a context of low self-worth, such individuals are either deified or crucified. In either case they are dehumanised and left to carry the burden of their greatness. I suspect, something akin to this happened in case of Sachin. He became a compensation for our low self-worth. He was a “special gift” from the almighty sent to deliver us from our gloom and through him we could feel good about ourselves.

To a much lesser extent, we did the same with Dhoni, but so far at least we have spared Kohli from it. Surely, there are huge expectations from him, but we do not feel as delirious with his successes and as devastated with his failures as we did in case of Sachin. There is a much lesser sense of “everything depends upon him”. And this in spite of the fact that in the current test team, there is no one other than R. Ashwin who comes any where close to his capability and stature. Perhaps we are learning to pin our hopes on collective effort, rather than on brilliance of one individual.

Ironical as it may seen, it is “self-belief” at the collective level, which enables individual greatness to flourish. Take away the self belief from the collective, and the individual greatness becomes more of a liability than an asset. Such collectives can at best revere but not admire, appreciate and assimilate.The real challenge lies in ensuring that the individual greatness becomes a source of inspiration for the collective rather than a source/compensation for its feelings of smallness.

 

Religion Vs. Religiosity

Some time back, a friend had asked me whether I considered myself a religious person. In my younger days I would have responded with a clear and emphatic No. Today, I am not so sure.  In a conventional sense, I still don’t regard myself as religious. However, it is equally true that places of worship (gurudwaras, temples, dargahs, churches mosques etc.) fill me with a sense of serenity and some of my most favourite songs have a distinct devotional flavour. This apparent contradiction in myself, forced me to think about what it means to be religious?

As a theological construct, religion deals with issues of cosmology /metaphysics such as existence of God, life after death, relationship between body and soul etc. I have no definite opinion on any of these and nor do these questions hold much interest for me. In this sense, I can regard myself as non-religious.

Religion is also a moral/social construct. It lays down ethical values, social obligations, codes of conducts, rituals and ceremonies etc. While I recognise the need for all these, I am extremely uncomfortable when they are made “absolute” through references to “sacred texts” and “religious diktats”. The sociological/ethical sides of human existence have to be governed by prevalent life conditions and hence must be dynamic. The less they are linked to theology (which tends to be absolutistic) the better. In this sense also I have to regard myself as non- religious.

Finally, there is an emotive and psychological side to religion which corresponds to certain imperatives of being human. In order to distinguish it from the theological/sociological side, I will call it Religiosity. Religiosity is a medium (and by no means, the only medium) through which certain imperatives of being human (for example, the need to find meaning  for one’s life, the need to merge and become a part of a larger entity etc.) find expression. The most significant of these imperatives is the need to have faith.

Faith is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts. It is often confused with dogma, irrational belief and even confidence. In fact, in many ways it is the exact opposite . Notions such as dogma and confidence rest on the plank of “certainty” whereas, faith rests on the plank of “uncertainty”. A dogmatic person “knows for sure” that his/her beliefs are absolutely true. A person with faith accepts the limitations of his/her knowledge and does not feel destabilised by this lack of knowledge. Similarly, a confident person believes that through competence and effort one can gain mastery over one’s destiny. In contrast the person with faith does not feel a compelling need to control his/her destiny. The person is quite content to give his/her best shot and simultaneously accept that the ultimate outcome will be determined by a host of factors, most of which are beyond his/her control. Competence and effort are necessary prerequisites for success but by no means sufficient. What matters is one’s willingness to embrace the outcome with humility and grace.

For me, Faith is essentially an antidote to Anxiety which is an inevitable consequence of  human limitations. There is no way that human beings can have complete knowledge/control over their own lives. Thus living with the anxiety of having to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable is an integral part of human existence. However, there is a marked difference between Religion and Religiosity in how this anxiety is dealt with.  Religions  deal with this anxiety through providing certainty, either through positing an omniscient and omnipotent God figure or through a definite and absolute theology/unquestionable sacred text. Religiosity on the other hand accepts and graces the uncertainty and limitations of knowledge/control inherent in human existence.Each  religion has its own brand of   theology, morality, social norms etc. but as mediums for expression of emotive/ existential imperatives ,their essence remains the same. Consequently, religions tend to be divisive whereas Religiosity can be inclusive and has the potential of being a unifying force. The beauty of religiosity is that it is so inclusive that it does not even require you to believe in any god or divine order.

It is for this reason that I regard inclusive religiosity as a much more meaningful and potent concept than secularism. In secularism, there is very little space for the emotive imperatives which find expression through religion. The end result is a huge vacuum which is often exploited by the fundamentalist forces to propagate their own theological and sociological certainties. This is particularly applicable in the Indian context.

For various reasons, the Indian psyche is more religiosity centric than religion centric. Further, it has a huge appetite for religiosity. It is not uncommon to find people  in this country flock around a god man irrespective of religious affiliations. It does not matter whether it is a christian saint or  a muslim pir or a budhist monk or a hindu gurumata or a jain muni or a sikh guru, they all act as magnets for virtually all people. In fact so insatiable is our appetite for religiosity that we can make gods out of anything-trees, animals, rivers, planets or anything else that one can think of. There are very few objects/creatures that one can think of, which are not worshipped in some form or another in some part of India.

This almost insatiable appetite for religiosity accompanied by its “open-ended” nature is a huge potential resource which unfortunately is becoming more of a liability. While it is important to be watchful against the divisive forces which are unleashed by religion, it is equally important to ensure that in the process we don’t end up saying good bye to religiosity. In fact, the more we turn away from religiosity, the more divisive religions will become. I suspect, no one understood this better than Gandhi and hence he always emphasised inclusive religiosity rather than secularism. I believe this was also a significant factor which enabled him to mobilise people across the length and breadth of this huge country.

 

 

 

 

Honest beneficiaries of a Corrupt System

Over the last two weeks, we have seen a significant shift in the opinions of “experts” on demonetisation. In the first few days, virtually every newspaper, T.V. commentator, financial expert  was busy  hailing it  as a “bold and courageous” step which will usher a new era of economic progress and social justice. This was followed by the phase of “good move but not well planned/properly implemented”. We are now moving towards the phase where the wisdom and effectiveness of the move is being strongly questioned and several people are calling it a whimsical decision of a dictator.

So what has happened ? The most obvious explanation is that initial euphoria is invariably met with disappointment and the pendulum swings the other way. This perhaps is largely true but why the initial euphoria to begin with ? Why not shock and anger ? The answer perhaps lies in the fallacious belief that it is only the “dishonest” which reap the benefits of a corrupt system. Hence when the move is seen as an attack on the dishonest, the premise is that it will not affect the rest of us who are honest . As the reality begins to sink in that it is the fundamental structure which is being shaken, the euphoria begins to turn into a rude shock.

Most of us regard ourselves as honest and  and perhaps are seen as such by others. . We may admit to paying an occasional bribe, trade a few favours,  make purchases without taking a cash-memo, or even inflate some of our expenses in our I.T. returns etc., but none of it shakes our basic idea that “I am an honest person who is forced to indulge in a few questionable activities because of systemic deficiencies” In fact, I have even heard some politicians claim that they are forced to use illegitimate cash because if they don’t ,they will be at a definite disadvantage vis. a vis. their rivals. Thus our basic stance is that of a victim, or a saviour but never the perpetrator . The reality is perhaps a lot more complex and each one of us is simultaneously all three.

This simultaneity of the victim,saviour and perpetrator was brilliantly portrayed by Vijay Tendulkar in his famous play “Kamla”. The protagonist of the play Jaisingh Jadhav is a ambitious journalist who buys a woman Kamla and presents her in a press conference in order to expose the human trafficking racket. Not merely is Jaisingh totally insensitive to Kamla’s discomfiture and humiliation but his relationship with his own wife is akin to a “master-slave” relationship. Eventually, Jaisingh is fired by the owners of the paper presumably because he dared to take on powerful vested interests.

In Jaisingh we have a very interesting character . He is not a bad or dishonest person. He does not indulge in any wrong-doing, he neither mistreats his wife nor Kamla, who he actually rescues. His only folly is his utter self-absorption and insensitivity to everyone else. He starts off trying to be a saviour, becomes a perpetrator and finally a victim. This perhaps is the bitter reality of all  systemic oppressions- they make every constituent into all three, thereby ensuring that everyone has a stake in the preservation of the system and its prevalent inequities. Thus whenever the basic foundation is destabilised it is met with ambivalence.What we are witnessing today is a very mammoth shake up, but the ambivalence can be witnessed in almost all instance of fundamental departures including changes in families, communities and work organisations.

Generally, this ambivalence is polarised creating a split between those who are “for” the change and those who are “against ” it.  Inevitably both sides lay claim to the victim/ saviour location for themselves and attribute the perpetrator location to the other side. This is quite evident in the present situation, where everyone is talking “on behalf” of the “common man” , who by common consensus is the victim with each side looking at the other side as the perpetrator.

This creates interesting double-binds for both sides. For example, in the present situation, any one expressing doubts about the government’s decision runs the risk of being branded as a “defender of black-money”. Similarly, any one who supports the move runs the risk of being branded as “insensitive to the sufferings of the underprivileged “. Thus all expression becomes guarded, making it very difficult to assess as to how people are actually feeling and what do they really think. Bereft of any real connect with the ground reality, people at the helm of affairs are forced to pretend that they are completely “in-control”, and what ever is unfolding  is as per the plan. If they course-correct, they can be charged with unpreparedness and inconsistency; and if they don’t ,they can  be charged with insensitivity and being stubborn.

This of course is a massive exercise, but anyone who has handled change at even much smaller scale will know that once a process is set into motion, it acquires its own momentum. No matter how well prepared one is, the unforeseen will always have to be contended with. The only thing that one can do is to engage with the “emergent reality” in as authentic a way as possible. In order to do this, the first step has to be give  up the victim-perpetrator game, which makes any meaningful dialogue and engagement an impossibility.

To conclude, issues of personal honesty and dishonesty become irrelevant when one is focussed on systemic transformation. Invariably,a focus on personal honesty/dishonesty   ends up with musical chairs between Victim, Perpetrator and Saviour. It may be more meaningful to look at systemic issues which are heavily loaded in favour of certain class/categories of people and where by even the honest and respectable become beneficiaries of systemic corruption.

 

 

 

Indian Resilience- Paradox of Dharma

It is debatable as to who will win the ideological and political battle being currently fought in the country but one clear winner which has emerged is the average Indian, who has demonstrated, yet again his/her grit and resilience in dealing with hardship. Over the past few days, many common Indians have been walking long distances, standing in serpentine long queues and that too with no certainty that their efforts will bear fruit. They have felt frustrated, anxious, angry and wondered how they will meet their immediate day to day needs. In spite of all this, at least so far, there have been very few instances requiring intervention from law enforcement agencies. In fact, one could even spot a few smiling faces, some friendly banter, and quite a few expressing their support for the decision which has caused them so much hardship. “It is a problem right now but it will be alright soon and in any case it is for the overall good of the country” is the sentiment expressed by at least a sizeable section if not the majority. This optimism may be misplaced and may not last too long but there is little denying the fact that it is playing a crucial role in sustaining their resilience.

Simultaneously, there are thousands of bank employees, working tirelessly in a a highly demanding and stressful situation. They do not have adequate infrastructure and more importantly adequate cash to meet the requirements of those who have been waiting in front of them for hours. They often have to absorb the ire of the angry and anxious crowds for no fault of theirs. Yet from whatever I have experienced and heard from others, they have handled the situation with exemplary equanimity, maturity and sensitivity. Many of them have gone out of their way to extend help and support particularly to senior citizens like yours truly. And then there are the invisible ones, the ones who are working behind the scenes – printing currency, transporting it to many outlets, crunching numbers, responding to emergencies, devising ways and means to minimise the hardship to different segments etc. etc. The sheer size of the exercise is mind boggling and one can not help but wonder as to where are these people finding their energy from and what is keeping their spirit alive?

Of course, this is not the first time that Indians have shown this spirit. It has been seen on several such occasions like the Chennai floods last year. What is perhaps not appreciated is that  resilience in face of hardship is part of everyday life in India. We may notice it only in moments like this but it is ever present. A couple of years back I had seen a research study which ranked Indians amongst the highest in terms of sense of well being/satisfaction/happiness etc. in spite of the hardships of everyday life in India. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar have talked about the “pervasive presence of hope, even in the most dismal of life circumstances” in their book “The Indians” It appears that resilience in face of hardship is an integral part of the Indian psyche.

What makes the present situation even more striking is the fact that the hardship has not resulted from a natural calamity (like the Chennai floods) or enemy action (like Bombay blasts). The present hardship is a direct consequence of a somewhat controversial decision taken by their own government. While politicians, media persons, activists, financial experts, have screamed and shouted at each other on behalf of the “common person”, the so called “common person” who is at the receiving end of it, has gone about his/her business with minimum of fuss. He/She has expressed helplessness and/or satisfaction with all the commotion around but has simultaneously found ways and means to sustain “life as usual” with the stoic stance of “this too shall pass”Interestingly, no political party has so far succeeded in organising any sort of public action and/or mass protest. On the contrary, most of them have been rather diplomatic in their criticism focussing more on issues of implementation and integrity of intent rather than the step per se. The obvious hypothesis is that they believe that in the eyes of people (rightly or wrongly) “dharma” lies on the side of the government and hence it would be suicidal to make too much noise till such time that people run out of patience or can be convinced of the adharmic nature of the government’s action. A mere appeal to hardship may not suffice.

This brings me to the centrality of dharma in the Indian consciousness and its relationship with faith in cosmic benevolence and resilience to deal with ups and downs of life. Needless to say, I am not using the term dharma in a religious sense but as a perspective and way of life. The core belief on which this perspective is built is that Cosmos/Universe is  orderly, fair and benevolent. All that a person needs to do is to focus on his/her role obligations and not worry about the fruits of his/her endeavour. The cosmic order ensures that in the ultimate analysis each person receives his/her “karmon ka phal” i.e. legitimate due in accordance with one’s actions.

This may sound like Hindu philosophy ,but perhaps is a perspective shared by most Indians irrespective of their religious affiliation. Most Indians believe that the short term vicissitudes of life are beyond human comprehension and hence it is best to accept them with the spirit of “whatever happens, happens for the good and hence the seeming adversity is perhaps also a blessing in disguise”. Recently, I heard a lady talk about a near fatal accident of her husband which has left him with serious disabilities. What was amazing in the tonality of her narration was the complete lack of bitterness and complaint.Instead she seemed full of gratitude and feeling very lucky because “it could have been a lot worse”. One can not help but marvel at this tremendous ability to extract what ever little positive that one can from any situation- an ability which I have sensed in many Indians and which I believe has something to do with the centrality of dharma in their lives.

This leads us to the obvious question- If Indians are such dharmic or virtuous people, then how does one explain the widespread corruption, nepotism, insensitivity, oppression of the weak etc.? It is tempting to attribute these ills to a handful of evil people, but perhaps, the reality is a lot more complex. I think, the root of this paradox lies in the notion of dharma in the Indian consciousness. To the Indian mind, dharma is not an absolute but only contextual. The same act performed by one person in a certain situation can be regarded as dharmic , but becomes undharmic in another situation and by a different person. I suspect that Indians must rank as the most frequent users of the term “it depends”. As the famous poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan suggested, Indians have a distinct preference for “context- sensitivity” rather than “context-free” ways of thinking. For us virtually everything is contextualised be it morality, arts, health, day to day living,relationships or any thing else.

Our propensity to be context-sensitive provides us great amount of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Simultaneously it creates many ethical ambiguities. Take for example, the fact that many shopkeepers and small traders are continuing to accept the old currency notes despite the ban. Their only precondition is that you should not place too much burden on them to return change. Thus they are not willing to accept a 500 rupee note for a 50 rupee purchase but will happily do so for a 400 rupee purchase. Technically speaking their act is “illegal”, but would they regard it as immoral or undharmic? I do not think so. From their point of view, there is a world of difference between laundering large quantities of unaccounted money through purchase of gold and striking an honest business deal by stretching the rules a bit. The issue here is not whether what they are doing is right or not, but only that it is perfectly possible for an Indian to regard his/her act as virtuous and dharmic even if it violates some other standards of legality and morality.

The absence of absolutes in our notion of dharma is both a curse and a blessing. We are all too familiar with its downside viz. our double standards, our “chalta hai” attitude, our insensitivity to oppression of the weak, our lack of systemic discipline etc. etc. While it is important to take cognisance of these and address them, it is equally important to celebrate the positive side of our “context-sensitivity” which enables us to be flexible, adapt to the imperatives of a situation, respect diversity, peacefully co-exist with differences and deal with vicissitudes of life with resilience and equanimity. In other words, learn to celebrate ourselves for “who we are”. Perhaps for far too long, we have searched for our national pride in either our glorious heritage and/or aspirations to become a super-power. It may be more meaningful and productive to look for it in the smiling face of an average Indian who refuses to give up his/her cheerful optimism in spite of all the adversities which life throws at him/her.

 

 

 

From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

Some time back, I had requested Google da to educate me on “Indian character”. Promptly, I was led to several writings from which I learnt many despicable things about ourselves. For example, I was told that we are hypocritical, corrupt, spineless, status-conscious, crude, insensitive, superstitious and many such things which would make us a tough competitor for the coveted prize of the worst creatures on the face of this earth. This was no surprise as  over the years, I have got accustomed to listening to stories about Indian Standard Time, Indian crab-mentality, Indian duplicity, and the like.Needless to say, these attributes applied only to an “unidentifiable Indian” and people telling these stories were  exempted from them.

What did come as a surprise was a recent encounter with a group of young college students. I found a distinct shift in their perception of Indian character. While some of the stereotypes persisted, there was much more emphasis on other attributes like our intellectual acumen, resilience, diligence, adaptability etc. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of patriotic fervour and pride, which had got eroded in the earlier generations.

All this was music to my ears and yet it left me with some unease. I could not resonate with what I sensed as their brand of nationalism. We did not discuss specific political figures, but the impression that I got was that Modi was much more likely to be their hero and role model than Gandhi. I mention these two people because both of them are inspirational figures and have come to symbolise two different kinds of nationalism. Normally, this difference is seen in terms of inclusivity vs. divisiveness;but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

Inclusivity and divisiveness represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even if Modi wished to be inclusive, chances are that he will end up being divisive. This was best illustrated by his “kutte ka pilla”(puppy dog) comment.Some time back, in responding to a question about communal violence, Modi had made a statement that one feels anguished even when a puppy dog meets with an accident. Giving him the benefit of doubt, he was perhaps trying to express universal compassion. However, it was such an insensitive way of doing it, that it created more backlash and divisive feelings than harmony and a sense of togetherness.

I suspect, divisiveness is a consequence of the hyper-masculine flavour of Modi’s brand of nationalism whereas inclusivity has something to do with Gandhi’s leaning towards an androgynous/ feminine variety. With Gandhi, you do not associate a broad chested muscular individual ready to take on and conquer the world. Instead what you associate is inner resilience, conviction and a quality of strength which is not in your face. With Gandhi, the emphasis is more on wholesomeness rather than on advancement- a wish for self-contained, self-governing, harmonious communities rather than smart cities and aspirations of becoming a monolithic super-power.

This shift from androgynous Gandhi to distinctly masculine Modi, is perhaps in keeping with the imperatives of the times that we live in. We can see it happening in virtually all spheres of our lives. Even women-centric cinema today is more likely to be of the “Gulab Gang” or “Mardani” variety. Thus it is no surprise that Gandhi is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the hectic and hyper-masculine world of today. While, it leaves me with some discomfort, I can also see its positive side.; particularly in view of the uneasy relationship between masculinity and Indian cultural identity.

The Indian cultural ideal is androgynous- the concept of Ardhnarishwar. Perhaps this is one of the major factors behind Gandhi’s strong emotive pull in Indian psyche. Many of our cherished values like peaceful co-existence, primacy of family/belonging system, looking at nature as a living entity, faith in cosmic benevolence etc. have a distinct feminine flavour. While attributes like valour, courage, youthful virility are valued, so are wisdom, innocence, sensitivity and compassion.

However, while the cultural ideal is androgynous, the ground reality has been quite different. Rather than pursuing and cherishing both the masculine and the feminine, we have ended up neglecting both. The end result is a fragile sense of masculinity and a disdain towards the feminine. The average Indian male is more likely to gloat over the fact he is born a “man” and hence entitled to certain privileges ,rather than actively invest in acquiring masculine qualities. Consequently, one often comes across a sense of smallness, insecurity and fragility amongst many Indian men, and a propensity to take offence in face of any perceived affront to their masculinity.  Some of the consequences of this uneasy relationship are a propensity to avoid direct confrontation, servility towards the powerful and oppression of the powerless. This is most evident in man-woman relationships where large part of violence against women stems from a fragile/insecure sense of masculinity rather than hyper-masculinity.

This uneasy relationship with masculinity is not very conducive to the notion of Ardhnarishwar. Pursuit of the androgynous ideal requires a recalibration of our relatedness with masculinity. To that extent if we are investing in developing a more secure and mature sense of masculinity, then it is good news. However, if in this process  we jettison the androgynous cultural ideal then we may end up having an India in which there is no place for Indian-ness. That will be great loss not just for us but for humanity at large. Personally, I can’t think of Indian-ness without the androgynous ideal. Also, I believe that  it is the greatest gift that India can give to a world which is fast becoming a captive of the hyper-masculine frenzy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meritocratic Humanism- beyond charismatic leaders

It is not very easy to co-hold humanistic values  with demands of meritocracy. This is understandable because meritocracy entails looking at people primarily in terms of their skills, competencies and contribution. The emphasis is on what the person brings to the table rather than who he/she is, where does he/she come from or even what kind of person he/she is. On the other hand, in humanism, the emphasis is on  person as a human being, his/her unique context, personal qualities and relating to him/her as a fellow human rather than as an object of utility. It is therefore not surprising that research shows a clear negative correlation between the two and considerable effort is expended by many leaders and managers to find the “right balance” between the conflicting demands of humanism and meritocracy.

Simultaneously, there are people who do not play this “balancing game”. Their emphasis is on the convergences between humanism and meritocracy rather than getting caught with the conflicting pulls between the two. In their scheme of things humanism and meritocracy become mutually supportive of each other rather than being enemies of each other. Thus the “human touch” provided by such people becomes a source of inspiration for higher levels of performance. Simultaneously the “performance pressure” that they apply makes the person feel more cherished and valued as a “human being”

In almost all traditional Indian companies that I visit, I hear many stories about these charismatic figures with considerable nostalgia. A common theme across these stories is about their being “highly demanding” in performance standards and also “deeply caring” about virtually all stakeholders viz. co-workers, customers, clients etc. Simultaneity of caring and demanding seems to have been an important ingredient of their charisma.Thus it appears that at least in the Indian context, these charismatic leaders held the tension between humanism and meritocracy on behalf of the entire system. While this worked well in a certain context, the efficacy of such a process in the current context is doubtful. There are two main reasons for this-

  1. These charismatic leaders create considerable dependency and often become the proverbial banyan trees under which nothing grows. Consequently, the organisations that they leave behind are a peculiar mix of  a”close family” and a “well-oiled machine”. Generally, these organisations are fairly self-sustaining and can survive even with average leadership in a reasonably stable environment. However they lack in agility and ability to transform themselves in a dynamic and turbulent environment. This can be easily witnessed in many traditional Indian organisations post liberalisation. The end result is that they often find themselves playing the “catching up” game even in areas where they may have earlier played a pioneering role.
  2. The socio-economic changes in the larger context, including shifts in child-rearing practices, family and community relations, greater emphasis on individualistic values etc. has led to reduced power distance in authority relations. Today there is much more pull towards equalisation, participation, transparency etc.  The notion of a “benevolent patriarch” may not have totally disappeared but has certainly lost some of its sheen.

Thus we are left with no choice other than learning to co-hold the demands of humanism and meritocracy ourselves rather than depending upon a charismatic leader to do it on our behalf. The first step in this process will be to review some of the frozen meanings that we hold about both humanism and meritocracy.

In my experience, humanism is often interpreted in a soft, sentimental sort of way with very little room for authentic encounter and confrontation.One often comes across managers who refrain from giving negative feedback to their subordinates lest they hurt their “feelings”. Similarly exercise of lateral and upward authority is shunned in the name of respect, concern ,empathy and a host of similar so called humanistic values. The end result is that humanism  gets reduced to mere interface management and a convenient way of not engaging with the unpleasant realities of the system. To illustrate this process, let me give an example.

A fairly common finding in the engagement surveys conducted by many organisations  is that a statement like “I am treated with respect” gets a reasonably high score. Simultaneously, statements like ” I receive honest and regular feedback on my performance” OR ” I am consulted on decisions which affect me”, tend to receive much lower scores. The obvious question which this disparity raises is – What does respect mean if it is not accompanied by authenticity and relevant involvement? A reasonable hypothesis would be that all that is being said by the respondents is that no one shouts at them or behaves “badly” with them, but nevertheless they end up being taken for granted. The underlying indignity and patronisation of this process is rarely recognised.

Such superficial interpretations of humanism lead to a situation where authentic engagements are replaced by polite diplomatic interfaces. Interestingly research data shows that most Indian managers find their organisations to be over-diplomatic. If this is how humanism is being interpreted then it can only be an impediment to meritocracy and never become its ally.

Much the same can be said in respect of meritocracy. Invariably, it is interpreted in terms of “deliverables” and targets and that too on a quarter to quarter basis. The institutional contribution of the individual or the invisible waste/ damage that he/she may have caused in achievement of the numbers is rarely taken into account. Even efficacy of developmental interventions like training programmes/workshops is measured by feedback rating scales. Is it then any surprise that many trainers/consultants focus more on creating a favourable impression rather than on learning? Personally, I am extremely sceptical of interventions which create only euphoria and no distress.

Similarly, I have found moderately high scores in employee engagement as a much better indicator of healthy employee interface than extremely high scores. Many times extremely high scores indicate complacency and collective delusions. In such cases, it is not unusual to find a disconnect between employee engagement scores and company performance/perception of other stakeholders like customers. On the other hand moderately high scores tend to indicate positive self-regard coupled with a realistic appraisal of the difficulties and potent restlessness to improve the situation. Unfortunately, in the so called meritocracy ,the focus is on winning the much coveted prize of the “best employer” rather than thinking about the health of the organisation-employee interface.

To sum up, co-holding of humanism and meritocracy will entail a serious review of the meanings that we may have given to them. At the surface level, we will not only find them as adversaries but also as self-defeating. Superficial humanism only creates invisible indignities and superficial meritocracy only creates invisible waste. In order to pursue their true essence we will need to discover their convergence and mutually supportive relationship. Not that the inherent conflicting pull will disappear altogether but we may be pleasantly surprised that they not merely complement each other in very significant ways, but in fact are meaningless without each other.

Hierarchy Vs. Authority

This morning while taking a walk, I witnessed one of the security guards in our building trying to prevent a hired car driver from driving on the wrong side. The resident sitting inside the car was arguing on behalf of the driver rather than telling him to follow the rules. While it would have been just a matter of seconds for the car to have reversed and drive through the designated path, much time and energy was expended in this exchange. Clearly, it was not an issue of time or convenience!  What was at stake here was a conflict between two strong principles namely, hierarchy and authority. The security guard  had the authority to regulate traffic movement inside the building complex but since he was seen as lower in status hierarchy, his authority was not acceptable to the resident sitting in the car.

This conflict between hierarchy and authority is played out on almost a daily basis in virtually all spheres of our personal and professional lives. This particular incident reminded me of a paper which Gouranga Chattopadhyay and I had written several decades back. Our central hypothesis was that the concept of hierarchy present in almost all modern organisations creates the breeding ground for incompetence and invisible waste. It is seen as a necessary requirement for exercising authority but in fact, it is one of the biggest impediments to exercise of meaningful authority .

Authority is a structural arrangement whereby certain decision making rights are delegated to a role-holder for effective task performance. In the incident described earlier, the right to regulate traffic movement has been delegated to the security guard and his relative hierarchical status is of no consequence. Hierarchy on the other hand is a relative construct- it places individuals/groups on a scale of lowest to highest on the basis of a criteria. For example, in the Indian caste system the criteria deployed is of purity vs. pollution. The caste groups considered as the purest are placed at the top and those considered as most polluted are placed at the bottom. In another society, economic status may be the primary criteria of hierarchical ordering, but the essence of any hierarchy is the notion of lowest to highest and an assumed superiority of the higher over the lower.

Serious problems arise when this notion of higher/lower is applied to authority which is essentially a task based construct. One of the damaging implications is the assumption that the authority which rests with any role holder also rests with his/her so called superior or boss. The absurdity of such a notion becomes obvious if we imagine a school where the principal has the authority to overturn the decisions of a teacher in respect of his/her pupil or a hospital  where the CEO has the authority to overturn the decision of a medical specialist. Nonetheless, expressions like “higher authority” are freely used by many people in spite of the fact that the concept of higher or lower can not be applied to distribution of authority.

Another deadly implication of this confusion between hierarchy and authority is that status differentials become a pre-requisite for exercise of authority. The individuals concerned start believing that authority becomes legitimate only when it is exercised by a person who is supposedly “higher” over a person who is supposedly “lower”.In other words, the belief is that authority only flows downwards and never upwards or laterally. Consequently accepting the authority of someone gets equated with accepting his/her higher hierarchical status. It is therefore not surprising that most people are over-cautious in exercising authority over someone who they regard as higher or equal and blatantly callous when dealing with someone who they regard as lower.

The end result of this confusion is that many bosses happily usurp the authority of their subordinates and many subordinates happily “delegate” their authority to their bosses- taking their decisions more on the basis of what they believe their boss wants rather than their own judgement. Needless to say, in such a scenario no real accountability can exist. The real decision maker (i.e. the boss) has no structural legitimacy and the the person who has signed on the dotted line (i.e. the subordinate) has no psychological ownership of the decision.

Meaningful exercise of authority has two main elements

-sanctity of role and structure, and

-requisite competence.

For any structure to work effectively it is important that the authority delegated to a role holder is commensurate with the responsibilities/accountabilities and  that the relevant information is available to the role holder for effective decision making. However, when hierarchy enters into the picture, this scenario changes.  The role holder  tends to delegate his/her authority upward as mentioned earlier. Thus it is not uncommon for bureaucrats to delegate their authority to their political bosses and for even elected political leaders to delegate their authority to their “high commands”. In such situations, authority is exercised not by the relevant role holder but by  someone else who may neither have the relevant information nor the associated responsibility/accountability. Thus, the structural/role sanctity gets compromised through creation of extra-constitutional centres of power and consequent disempowering of the legitimate role holders.

Every effective system needs to work continuously on upgrading the skills and competencies of its role holders. The most important source of this is feedback from the operating levels like the shop floor or the market place. When hierarchy enters the picture,people at lower levels tend to hold back their real thoughts and feelings lest they offend those who are higher than them.  Similarly people at the higher levels run the risk of not paying adequate attention to the messages coming from below.  In absence of authentic feedback it becomes extremely difficult for people to work at their own incompetencies. Interestingly,  higher the person is in hierarchy, the more difficult it becomes for him/her to upgrade his/her competence. I recall some time back I had asked a senior manager of a company about their experience with a prestigious consulting firm. His response was very telling- ” What the consultants told us is what our shop floor supervisors have been saying for years, but having paid millions to the consultants, we had no choice but to listen”. When hierarchy is confused with authority, no negative feedback flows from “lower” to “higher” levels, and the system as a whole can never work on its incompetencies.

It may seem that hierarchy can be helpful in at least upgrading of competence at lower levels because “negative feedback” can be more easily given from a higher level. However this is rarely the case. More often than not people at lower levels dismiss this feedback and attribute it to non-appreciation of the ground realities by their seniors. I recall, once  I and another colleague were working with a group of middle managers in a supposedly professional company. Throughout the day the group kept telling us as to how little their seniors understood the ground realities. In the evening we had invited some of their seniors for a joint session. However, the group preferred to just listen to their seniors (and mentally dismiss it) rather than express their own thoughts and feelings. All our invitations and attempts to facilitate a dialogue were ignored by both sides. The end result was that what could have been a significant learning experience became a meaningless ritual.

While confusion between hierarchy and authority is a widely prevalent phenomenon, cultures with high power distance (like India) are particularly susceptible to it, because it keeps getting reinforced on almost daily basis. Often this reinforcement is so subtle and seemingly inconsequential  that we don’t even notice it. Take for example, a fairly common expectation that a person of lower status hierarchy  than ourselves must behave in a polite and courteous manner or should be the first to greet/salute us OR our own difficulty in being direct and forthright with someone who we regard as higher in status hierarchy. Over a period of time, these seemingly inconsequential ways become part of us and become “par for the course” What we witness at the organisational and macro-social level are merely more dramatic and magnified versions of the same themes.

Thus any attempt to delink hierarchy from authority must begin with greater consciousness about how it plays out in our day to day life; and how we engage with people who we regard as lower or higher than ourselves in status hierarchy. Honouring and gracing the authority of a security guard or a maid servant may seem like a small matter but it can have profound impact on liberating authority from the clutches of hierarchy .It may also help us to learn to exercise our own authority without getting caught with the issue of our relative hierarchical status vis.a vis. the other person.