Revolving door, evolving leadership
Go out an imaginary revolving door and come back into your Life with a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind. That’s how you evolve as a leader.
A recent story, reported by Bloomberg, examined Ola founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal’s leadership style. The story called him “one of India’s most determined entrepreneurs” while, at the same time, calling him “a divisive startup kingpin”.
The story was peppered with anecdotes. One talked about Bhavish “punishing” a manager at Ola’s Futurefactory for a process deviation. The punishment: Run three laps around the plant! Another anecdote talks of him “directing Punjabi epithets at his staff”, “calling teams useless” and “ripping up presentations because of a missing page number”. The story reports that some managers and board members at Ola Electric are “vexed with Bhavish’s management style”.
Here are a couple of relevant quotes, from among a few, that are attributed to Bhavish in the Bloomberg story. They give us a peek into how he is seeing Life currently.
- “Passions and emotions run high and we are not on an easy journey. My anger, my frustration – that’s me as a whole.”
- “Not everybody is a fit for our culture.”
Bhavish could evolve as a leader
My soulmate Vaani and I have had a lousy experience every single time we have used Ola’s ride-hailing service. I remember writing to Bhavish too citing our terrible experiences and sharing our feedback. He never wrote back. Clearly, we are not fans of Ola.
However, even at the risk of sounding like I am defending Bhavish’s leadership style, I believe that he could evolve as a leader in the years to come. Leadership is an evolutionary journey. At 37, Bhavish is the way he is. But perhaps, over time, with reflection, through gleaning learnings from his current choices and attitude, he stands a good chance to evolve into a calmer, more resolute, sharper, and more effective leader.
Aggressive leadership is fine, but a toxic work culture is a no-no
It is quite common to find young people in leadership roles behave impatiently. Now, being impatient and temperamental is part of everyone’s evolutionary journey. This is how we all grow up, how we eventually learn to value being calm and anchored. Similarly, setting a scorching pace is often part of a young, aggressive, leader’s game and personality. And, therefore, demanding high-quality and high-performance from your team is absolutely fine too.
But a leadership style that induces fear, affects the dignity of colleagues and breeds a toxic work culture is a clear no-no.
That’s why a leader must keep their ears close to the ground: Are their team members acting out of a sense of purpose or are they operating from fear? Are they afraid of the leader, of losing their jobs? Are they working freely, happily or are they an unhappy workforce?
The Bloomberg story does allude to Ola’s work culture possibly beginning to turn toxic. This is why it is perhaps a good time for Bhavish, as a leader, to pause and reflect.
Let’s take a moment here to understand leadership – and leaders.
Leadership is not about having power or position or title or money. Leadership is also not specific to a sector – like sports or politics or business.
It works well to have a simple definition for leadership. This is what Vaani and I understand it to be: Leadership is the ability to face any situation in Life and do what needs to be done, effectively and efficiently. Therefore, anyone can be a leader – no matter what role they are playing, or what circumstance they are dealing with, in Life. True leaders, over time, evolve to lead calmly. They learn this art through deep reflection. And this makes them lead with focus, in a hustle-free manner, in any given situation or context.
Deep understanding from lived experiences
This deep understanding of who leaders are and what leadership is comes from our own lived experiences.
I too was Bhavish’s age once. That was 18 years ago. And I too have been angry and frustrated at times when trying to build a world-class consulting firm.
Back in August 1996, as India celebrated its 50th year of Independence, Vaani and I set up imagequity+TM, Asia’s first reputation management firm. We envisioned imagequity+TM with a strong purpose. We set out to be the world’s best reputation management firm by making people realize the value of their reputation. So, everything we did at our firm, and for our customers, we believed, had to be world-class. And it surely was.
We had standards for emails, for presentation decks, for how we were attired when were at client meetings or events, for paper clips, and for the quality of the stationery we used too! We constantly talked to our team members about our purpose, our vision and our world-classness. Every time we had a conversation on who we were and what we were setting out to do, we emphasized on the why behind our actions. On our purpose.
Over the years, we took great care though that our aggression did not manifest as toxicity in our work culture. We ensured that our demand for setting and achieving world-class standards did not induce fear or affect the dignity of our colleagues.
Expunge fear, enable greatness
In his seminal work, Good To Great, Jim Collins, the management thinker, had a name for programs that enabled greatness in companies. He called them catalytic mechanisms.
Inspired by his idea, we too put in place initiatives that invoked soul, provoked thought and inspired constructive, qualitative, action among our team members.
One powerful catalytic mechanism we used was an internal quality scorecard. It was based on a concept called COPQ – the cost of poor quality. It was an idea that we borrowed from quality circles. Back then, the manufacturing industry alone measured the cost of poor quality. We brought this measurement practice into consulting.
Every daily task, breakthrough idea and achievement was rated transparently – and measured consistently. And each month, the team member who achieved the lowest COPQ score – which is, the one who delivered the highest quality – was feted.
We had a Wall of Shame in the office. This was a dynamic leaderboard for COPQ scores. We were an aggressive team. We were brutally transparent too. Our work philosophy was simple: A business enterprise that strives to stay world-class must think, work and deliver like a great sports team. So, you had no place to hide on our team. If your performance sucked, it showed. The Wall of Shame held up a mirror to everyone on the team. We championed this tenet repeatedly: If each one of us was not delivering high-quality, consistently, daily, then it was indeed shameful!
Leaders will receive flak
Surely, I have been criticized and critiqued for my leadership style.
I was blunt and in-the-face. And I certainly lost my temper when there were process deviations. The pressure was always high on the team – to improve, to perform and to deliver excellence every single time. My title at the firm was chiefdreamer. I knew, however, that my team members often called me chiefscreamer – referring to my aggressive leadership style!
Some team members also questioned the idea behind the COPQ system and the Wall of Shame. Do we need them? Why are we obsessing over minor detail? Why shame people into being qualitative instead of inspiring them?
Vaani and I did take every feedback on board. Seriously. But we remained sharply focused on our view that unless we paid major attention to minor detail, we would not be truly world-class.
The results showed. In 2000, our practitioner model for reputation management was rated as the world’s best by the industry’s apex body based in New York. Our clients loved us. They gave us repeat business. And all our new business came only from client referrals.
We also unfailingly celebrated excellence on our team: Some of our team members made their first international trips while they were working with us. In one year, the best performer on the COPQ scorecard even won a new Maruti Zen car!
World-classness is not a one-time feat
Undoubtedly, we had a very competitive, high-performance culture. Yet, while it was demanding, it was never toxic. It also was not fearful. I was pushy, but I was never abrasive. Simply, at our firm, we worshipped world-classness and celebrated everyone who walked that path alongside us.
To Vaani and me, even today, world-classness is not a one-time feat. It is a daily quest. And we firmly believe in this principle: Unless you perfect your game, daily, you cannot stay on top of it, daily.
Therefore, to stay on top of the game, I have been impatient as a leader in the past, in my youth. I used to get frustrated quickly when people failed to understand why we did what we did. In my book, Fall Like A Rose Petal, I tell the story of how I dramatically fired a team member, for consistent instances of poor quality from him, by literally walking him out the door! There have also been times when I have expressed my frustration by banging my fist on the table. On a couple of occasions, I have even smashed my spectacles!
I have also carried my work – and related pressures and stresses – home. This means, I have taken phone calls at the dinner table or when on vacation with the family. Some of those phone calls invariably brought bad news. And I would immediately lose my cool. Unwittingly, I realize now, I have presented my angry side to Vaani and our two children on many occasions. However, I never had reason to be angry with any of them nor have I ever consciously taken out my anger on them.
An awakening, shameful, realization
Every time my anger subsided, I would be gripped by the realization that I could have avoided getting angry in the first place. And when the realization was wholesome, when it was total, it was a shameful and awakening one.
In April 2003, we took a values-based decision to choose the path of integrity and separated from an unethical client. Nothing wrong with that. The way we chose to run our business after this separation, however, led us on a downward spiral. In end-2007, our firm went bankrupt. And ever since, it has been so many years now, Vaani and I have been enduring this bankruptcy. You can read our story here and in Fall Like A Rose Petal.
In the years leading up to the bankruptcy, between 2003 and 2007, I was very lost in Life. I was in my late thirties. I began asking myself important, searching, questions on Life, about me, and about the circumstances we were faced with. It was a spiritual quest. It led me to deep-dive into a spiritual practice called mouna, of observing daily silence periods.
Early one morning, during one of my mouna sessions, I had an epiphany. I understood a simple, powerful, truth about my Life. I discovered that I was intrinsically unhappy being angry and frustrated. I understood that for my world to transform, for my Life to transform, I had to transform. I wholeheartedly embraced this process of transformation. I started seeking ways to understand how I could lead calmly, with focus and equanimity.
Going out the revolving door and coming back in
In his book, Only The Paranoid Survive, Intel founder Andy Grove talked about an idea that helps with reviewing and taking stock of decisions and situations. His idea deals with going out an imaginary revolving door and coming back into any complex situation with a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind.
What will you change about yourself, your choices, your decisions, to change your current reality? What must you do to be happy with the Life you have? What must you do with all those aspects of your Life that make you unhappy?
These are the questions I asked myself during my mouna sessions.
It was around this time that Eknath Eswaran’s book, Gandhi The Man, came into my Life. Reading this book helped me realize that anger was energy, which when channeled, could be deployed very constructively. What I learnt from Gandhi, the man, holds the key to my own personal transformation. I decided to channelize my anger for me to be spiritually stronger, wiser and, importantly, happy.
You see, anger is just plain, raw, energy. Like all other forms of energy, it too can be used constructively or destructively. We become angry when we dislike an experience intensely. And because we cannot immediately control what is happening to us, around us, we express ourselves angrily. Now, in such situations, we throw our anger at others around us because we are not channelizing this energy. When we are randomly angry, we are not in control. But when we channelize this energy and deploy it for a purpose that is larger, for making ourselves and our world better, we have the opportunity to leverage our anger constructively.
Now, being aware, being mindful, helps with keeping a watch on your anger – daily. In the real world, you cannot hope to dissolve your anger completely. You will have to overcome the temptation to be angry every time there is a provocation or upheaval. I still have those moments when some situations incite me. But my awareness alerts me instantly. And I drop anchor. I then let go of the choice to be angry. I enjoy those times when I have thwarted the urge to lose my temper! I celebrate my small wins daily on an equanimity scorecard that I have devised for myself.
To be angry is not wrong. But throwing anger around indiscriminately is wasting precious energy. Channelizing anger with a sense of purpose is living intelligently.
True leaders evolve with deep reflection
I am in my mid-fifties now. I certainly understand myself and Life better than when I was in my twenties, thirties and forties. I also know that my leadership style has evolved for the better through these years.
Clearly, you don’t always begin your leadership journey with either equanimity or wisdom. Your experiences, your choices and decisions, their outcomes, the learnings you glean from them through reflection, and all the course corrections you make along the way – all these contribute to your evolution as a leader.
Without the torrid test that we have been through over the last 16 years, Vaani and I would not have evolved to be the calm and anchored leaders that we are today. By going out the revolving door and coming back in to reflect deeply, through deploying anger constructively, and purposefully, our leadership has evolved. It has transformed us from being failed entrepreneurs (that’s what the world calls us!) to being the happynesswalasTM that we are today. We are not just surviving, we are thriving. We are living a Life of purpose – Inspiring ‘Happyness’ TM – among all those who care to pause and reflect!
Now, looking back, would we have liked to make some changes to the way we led and lived our Life? Actually, how can anyone undo the past? It was what it was. But, yes, we recognize that a dramatic, loud, standard like the Wall of Shame may have been unnerving for some. It was definitely avoidable. As it was to squander precious energy being angry and frustrated. But such is Life. All the choices we made have led to our evolution. We would not be who we are without being who we once were.
This is why I believe that leadership is an evolutionary journey. This is also why I am hoping that Bhavish could evolve to be a calmer, purposeful, leader.
Additional, relevant, links:
- Rise In Love – a 2015-documentary, made by a young filmmaker Shalu C. While focusing on the journey of Vaani and AVIS, the film explores how love thrives in the face of adversity. Viewing time: 30.18 minutes.
- Fall Like A Rose Petal – AVIS’ first book. It is the true story of AVIS’ and Vaani’s Life. It captures learnings from the excruciating, fascinating, Life-changing, experience – a crippling bankruptcy – that they are still going through.
- Click here to know more about the happynesswalas TM, Vaani and AVIS.
- If you wish to seek Vaani’s and AVIS’ perspectives on a Life challenge you are faced with, please reach out here – Let’s Talk Happyness TM!
On being a witness
To transform, you must feel the urge from within
Transform ‘your’ world – one act of Happiness at a time!
Experiencing Zen with a cup of green tea
When you are merely activity-driven, you are never present in the moment!
We met a young lady recently who is obese, has hypertension and complained of her inability to stay focused. As we sipped some filter coffee, she tucked into a badushah (a sweet doughnut!). But even before she had finished eating it, she had checked her phone a few times, she had looked around the café and exclaimed that her Life had become monotonous, predictable and dreary. She confessed that she is simply not able to prioritize and manage her time and tasks effectively; she wondered what she must be doing to fix her “poor attention span” problem.
Many people are in this young lady’s situation – grappling with their home and work schedules, unable to find time for themselves, coping with lifestyle-related challenges like diabetes and hypertension and, overall, just going through the paces of Life, never really being able to live it fully! There’s only one way such people can “re-invent” themselves. They have to learn to be mindful. It’s not a method, it’s an art – and it can be mastered with understanding and practice.
Mindfulness is the ability to just be, to be in the present moment. Many a time, we keep doing stuff – cooking, cleaning, driving, smoking or eating. We don’t concentrate on what we are doing. Our mind is elsewhere. Our activities then are just chores. Our actions are not mindful, they are really mindless, mechanical. Which is why we are unable to “see” that some of what we could be doing is “ruinous”. We know, for instance, that smoking is ruinous, over-eating is ruinous, not exercising is ruinous, worrying is ruinous. But we go on doing these things. Mindlessly. Which is why observing your own Life, and viewing it dispassionately as a third party, helps. When you observe yourself you will realize how mindlessly you go through your days. You simply are going through hurried motions. You are not present in any of your actions. You are merely activity-driven. You are never in the moment. For instance, you are working overtime to send your kids to school – but never pausing to celebrate and enjoy their innocence. You are rushing to finish your bath – but are never enjoying your body. You are eating in a rush – but are not tasting and relishing your food. You are texting away madly – but are never celebrating how much smaller the world has become thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp. You go on worrying endlessly – without realizing that worrying doesn’t solve any problem and only keeps you away from enjoying whatever you have! It is only by being mindful in each moment that you can really understand what about you needs to change.
Try a simple exercise in mindfulness. Make yourself a cup of green tea. And drink it patiently enjoying every sip. Feel the tea energize you as it enters your body. Don’t let your thoughts wander. Be focused on experiencing the tea travel within you. Examine how you felt while drinking it. This experience of being one with the tea, this feeling, is what mindfulness is all about. This is what is Zen. Practice this in everything that you do. When cooking, focus on the recipe and its preparation, on the aroma, on the taste! When driving focus on the road and the joy of navigation; if the traffic is messy, don’t complain, just soak in all that you observe and be grateful for your ability to see, to drive, to own a vehicle or simply to even be in a vehicle – compared to so many others who don’t have all that you do! When on Facebook, celebrate the opportunity to connect with the world, your world. Every time your mind wanders, to a past event and makes you feel guilty or to a future event and makes you anxious, bring it back to attend on whatever you are doing now. Remember the human mind is like the human body. It will resist any change first. But repeatedly bringing the mind back to focus on the present, you can train it to let go of the past and to not indulge in the future.
Please don’t treat this suggestion of the “green tea experience” as a one-off experiment in Zen. Every once in a while step aside from your Life and observe yourself. As a third party. You will then discover how much you have to change for your Life to change! Conversely, only when you are fully present in each moment, are you alive in it. It is only then that you are living the moment fully. When you live each moment fully, you will realize its value. And through this realization, you will be able to transform yourself – your priorities, your work, your health and your Life!
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What I learnt from Gandhi, The Man
Gandhi taught us the power and value of living intelligently!
A friend’s Facebook post caught my attention yesterday and set me thinking! My friend announced that he would unfriend anyone who made racist or unqualified remarks about Gandhi. And sure enough he did what he promised – he promptly unfriended those who shared unfounded sentiments about the great man! I liked my friend’s in-the-face approach. Over the past couple of decades, I have been noticing a disturbing trend. People seem to revel in Mahatma-bashing. From calling him names to questioning his ideology to even doubting his relevance, it almost seems like it is fashionable to shred Gandhi.
I have obviously not met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. But I have studied him – not the Mahatma, not the Father of the Nation, not the political master strategist, but Gandhi, The Man.
My study of Gandhi almost never happened. Way back in 2007, there used to be a bookstore called Connexions opposite my office in R A Puram, Chennai. This was basically a gift store, with a collection of books that the owner personally curated. One afternoon, while browsing through the store, I found Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi, The Man, staring at me. I liked the way the book defined its purpose – ‘to tell the story of how one man changed himself to change the world’. Around that time I was embracing mouna, the practice of observing silence for an hour daily. I had begun an inner journey, to understand my Self better even as I was asking several existential questions of me, of Life. While the book interested me, I did not pick it up. I had not heard of Eknath Easwaran then. And I didn’t think then that there was anything new a book could tell me about Gandhi, that I didn’t already know!
But just the next day, I read a newspaper interview in which Rajnikanth, yes – the Tamil film Super Star, named two books that changed his Life. One was Living with the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama and the other was Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi, The Man. I had known of Rajnikanth’s spiritual side, but didn’t quite imagine he would read books. Nor did I ever expect that he would name a rather unheard of book, that I had just stumbled upon the previous day. I rushed back to the bookstore and found Easwaran’s book still there. I bought it!
The book changed my Life.
I had for long been dealing with anger. People on my team called me chiefscreamer – punning on my title, chiefdreamer! That’s how lousy my reputation was. Reading Gandhi, The Man, helped me realize that anger was energy, which when channeled, could be deployed very constructively. I also learned from the book how beautifully Gandhi separated the issue from the people connected with it. He famously said, “I don’t hate the English, but I hate the way the English rule my country.” In a way, he practiced ahimsa, not just as non-violent action, as is popularly perceived, but as non-violent thought. But all of this, I realized, Gandhi ingrained in him thanks to his meditations of the Bhagavad Gita. The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita ends with unveiling the highest state of consciousness a human being can attain. Krishna, replying to Arjuna, says (presenting here only the relevant extract that Easwaran too shares in Gandhi, The Man):
“…He lives in wisdom, who sees himself in all and all in him,
Whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed
Every selfish desire and sense-craving
Tormenting the heart.
Not agitated by grief,
Nor hanker after pleasure,
He lives free from lust and fear and anger.
Fettered no more by selfish attachments
He is not elated by good fortune,
nor depressed by bad.
Such is the seer….”
Gandhi, according to Easwaran, meditated on this verse for 50 years every morning and night and devoted all his life to translating it into his daily action. This was the key to his self-transformation.
I have internalized the essence of this verse too. And I have seen myself transform from being stressed out, angry, worried and insecure, to being centered, anchored and at peace with myself and my Life. I am happy with what is. I work daily on continuing to remain unmoved and unfrustrated about all that which happens to me, around me. I owe this transformation in me to Gandhi for leading the way and to Easwaran for telling me, through his book, how Gandhi changed himself first before attempting to share his way of Life with the world. Just for this one reason alone, though there surely are several other reasons, I feel none of us must ever question Gandhi. We don’t have the right to do that unless we have achieved what he had in his lifetime – which is, to be the change that we wish to see around us!
Don’t squander your energy – and time – trying to change people who don’t want to change
In a relationship conflict, consider preserving your inner peace first. That’s what matters most.
A young lady we met recently talked about her failed marriage. She said when she saw the relationship withering away, she took time off to think things through. And then she came back into the relationship to give it one more chance. But when her spouse refused to see value or reason in her efforts, she said, she just decided to move on. “I didn’t see the point anymore. I knew I had to go on to live the Life that was waiting for me,” she explained.
Break-ups are never easy. Surely not when you have made every effort to make things better. But prudence lies in thinking the way the young lady reasoned with her situation. You can try to wake up someone who is asleep. But you can never quite wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep. So, if a relationship must work – any relationship – both parties must be ready and willing to change. This is not about being willing to adjust or accommodate alone; it is about being to relate to each other’s points of view. I don’t think there’s anyone who will be unreasonable or unwilling to change themselves if they see, agree and relate to the other person’s point of view. The tragedy is that most of the time they don’t relate to what you are saying. And so they refuse to change. Therefore, in such cases, it is just best you move on instead of hoping, pining and waiting for the other person to change, losing precious time in Life doing this, and often suffering through the process.
A fundamental understanding we all need to cultivate is that nobody is good or bad; no one is right or wrong. It is just that each of us is a product of the time – in Life – that we are going through. So, in some phases in Life, people refuse to see what’s evident, what’s simple and what’s best for all parties concerned. They just think that what they are thinking is right, they believe in what they are doing and they understand that their way, their reasoning, is the only way. So, when dealing with such a situation, when the parties involved in a relationship conflict are refusing to see each other’s point of view, it is best to not press on. This is not giving up, this is not being selfish either. This is being practical, logical and sensible. This is about wanting to preserve your inner peace and choosing to be happy.