Sunday, July 06, 2014

Conversations 6: Thinking About Models

I am re-reading Benjamin Franklin's biography. This is a habit that has grown on me: When I am making a transition, from one kind of life to another, I try to envisage the models to live by. By itself, this is a rather romantic exercise, building presuppositions about what would happen, but I have found this eminently handy, as this gives me a sense of purpose and allows me to plough through the difficulties that inevitably come along.

But there is also something sobering with Ben Franklin's biography. My idea of creative life is perhaps not the bohemian ideal of Parisian poets and artists; instead, my assortment of heroes would include Ben Franklin, Charles Darwin, Rabindranath Tagore and some people I knew personally, like  my own grandfather. I would guess what appeals to me is the fact that in these personalities, hard work, patience and commitment were not antithetical to imagination and creativity. However much may I admire the humanism and the passions of Rousseau and Marx, my middle class upbringing and values, deeply influenced by my entrepreneurial grandfather, tend to appreciate the patient, diligent, hardworking imagination of Darwin, the practical aspects of Tagore's life (he not only imagined a new kind of education, but created a school and an university to deliver it) and the practical, entrepreneurial life of Ben Franklin more than the revolutionaries. Indeed, this is what the bourgeois mindset is supposed to be, but I now have enough personal perspective of history to know that even those boring, hardworking scientists, poets and businessmen change the world too.

In fact, I believe that the ideals of Franklin and Darwin are perhaps more relevant in contrast of the flighty entrepreneurialism and rhetorical leadership that has gained so much prominence since the 1990s. It is no longer the loafing artist who stand in stark contrast with the solidity and commitment of a Darwin, but rather the entrepreneur who wants to create the next app and change in the world in 24 months. If Marx was wrong in proclaiming Capitalism's demise with every stock market crisis in his day (there were quite a few), we are also getting ahead of ourselves in predicting the end of history with every app. The credo of valuing ideas by the money it fetches in the Mergers and Acquisitions market stands in deep contrast with the ideas people developed and worked all their lives on: I would tend to believe that we are just cashing in on the hard work of the previous generations and not putting enough back into the mix for the party to continue. I am sure if my grandfather was alive, given that he patiently built a small business from ground up, I wouldn't be able to explain to him my occasional enthusiasm about building businesses towards a dramatic 'exit'.

Truth be told, I am deeply sceptical about the notion that the human history has suddenly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution, and with each passing day, things are happening faster (and hence the boring consistency of the middle class life is a handicap). This scepticism has nothing to do with the achievements of enlightenment science (indeed, all my heroes are enlightenment figures) but the limitations of a short view: The wheels may have taken a long time to craft than Internet, but they, in their humble way, may have moved forward the civilisation no less dramatically than the Internet.

Indeed, some of the inherent arrogance in this implies has enlightenment roots. The enlightenment science placed the humans as the masters of the universe, and eventually this translated into taking an individualistic perspective about all success, 'how I made it' celebrationism. The fact that individual success is often a combination of different factors, including sheer chance, and contributions of many other individuals, was completely forgotten. The celebration of individualism is apparent in the life of a man such as Ben Franklin, but a good biographical tale, such as Isaacson's that I own, always put the narrative in the perspective. 

The other problem with such individualistic perspective of success is that it does not only create a false impression of how success came about, it also creates a false sense of where we are going. This whole 'British Lion' approach of our political leaders, exemplified almost too perfection in David Cameron, is too closely predicated on a myth of a strong leader, who must stand above everyone else and listen to no one. Indeed, the cerebral, consensual style of leadership seems to be passe, and from India, to Japan, to Russia, we are opting into the myth of strong individualist leaders. I shall argue that this is a wrong view of what leaders must do moving forward.

The 'strong leader' concept is based on execution, that someone who can make dissidents come around and get things done. However, this works only as far as what needs to be done is clear. This perspective changes when the future is uncertain and we are supposed to figure out what is to be done in the first place. One can see a straight-line progression from industrial revolution to present, but if anything, things are less than certain in the aftermath of great recession, government bankruptcies and huge growth in inequality. At times like this, one needs perhaps a leader as a 'sheep-dog', in C K Prahalad's metaphor, a leader who has a sense of the future and commitment from all fellow-travellers, but one who is willing to listen and learn - and not just talk. The populist models that we have now are too focused on manipulating (nudge is perhaps the right word) than listening, and we are losing the whole concept of listening as we get too confident about being able to change minds.

This rambling thought (this is why I called these posts, 'conversations') sets the agenda for my next three months' focus: Developing a view about leadership. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to focus my individual endeavours into themes, so that even if I am not studying formally, I am able to develop my own knowledge and skills. I have been teaching a course called 'Leadership Journey' for the last two years, and I am planning to make a summary of all the discussions I have had around this, and follow this up with a series of biographical and theoretical studies. My objective is to develop an understanding of a leadership model useful for my own leadership journey, and indeed, I would like to develop a course or write an essay around it some day.




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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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