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!
Being unmoved by both Failure and Success is the only art you need to master to get through Life
Lead the values campaign at home personally!
Reflections on Life and parenting over an empty nest
When they must go out to follow their bliss, simply let your children fly away…
Yesterday went in a blur. All day Vaani and I were reminiscing the growing up years of our children Aashirwad and Aanchal. The four of us are very close to each other. Yet Aash has been away from home for 9 years now and Aanch too left yesterday.
As parents, we both are experiencing a completely empty nest for the first time. Surely, we are not the first set of parents to feel this way. And undoubtedly we are not the last. Feeling the emptiness at home, however, has been an interesting, learning experience.
Over a drink last evening, I marveled at Lebanese American writer-poet Khalil Gibran’s wisdom and insight. His unputdownable verse – “Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself, they come through you but not from you, and although they are with you, they belong not to you…” – is what is helping us accept our new reality. Besides, as we are realizing, being an empty nester brings a spiritual flavor to one’s role as a parent.
I now recognize that parenting is not just a responsibility. To be a parent is actually a blessing. Because it gives you an opportunity to mold another Life by inculcating values in your child. And then when the child is ready for the world, you give your child wings and let her or him fly away. That’s how you learn to practice detachment in Life.
In Vaani’s and my case, we see another very beautiful dimension playing out. Which is that since children are Life’s longing for itself, Life always steps in to take care of them, even if you as a parent can’t contribute in a given context. As parents, we have not been able to support the college education for either Aash or Aanch. Our enduring bankruptcy leaves us numb each month – we never quite have enough even for our monthly living expenses. Yet, through this past decade that we have been bankrupt, we have had Aash’s under-graduate Program at the University of Chicago funded through remarkably generous people. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) And now Aanch’s grad school tenure is being covered by a very benevolent sponsor who is paying her tuition and related costs. What this essentially means is that Life really takes care of and provides for all that it creates. From this experience, Vaani and I have learnt that if as parents we let go and don’t let our insecurities or ego come in the way of our children’s aspirations, Life will always unquestionably, undeniably, give them what they need.
Also, as we are learning from Aashirwad’s experiences over the past two years, when children go away to pursue their dreams and build their Life their way, they are bound to face challenges. Naturally, as parents, we want to protect our children. But what we are understanding is that you can’t do anything to change your children’s Life design. If they have to go through a catharsis or a challenge, they have to. There is no escaping it. But please don’t conclude that a Life challenge is a curse or a punishment. It is Life’s way of coaching someone to be stronger, wiser and happier. The earlier we recognize this truth about Life, the more equanimity we will have as parents.
Bottomline, we only have one key responsibility towards our children – we must guide and inspire them to be good human beings. We must raise them with the right values and let them go wherever their bliss takes them. While we can pray for them, we can’t prevent Life from serving them crises. So, there’s no point in pining for them or worrying about them or wanting to keep them with us so that we can protect them – because, however hard we may try, we can’t ever live their lives for them!
Look for your Haiku. Reboot!
Focus on what is, than brood over what isn’t!
A reader reached out to me and said she feels so lost, so lonely that she wonders if she is even alive. She said she feels like a shell on a beach. “The shell had a living organism in it at some time. Now the shell just exists. There’s no Life in it,” she said, sounding low and listless.
It is perfectly normal to find yourself, from time to time, in a situation where everything that you dreamed of, everything that you stood for, every value and principle you held on to and practiced diligently, lies shattered, taken away from you and every evidence seems to point that you have been so naive and are on the wrong path, while the whole world seems to be making merry progressing in a different direction. It is okay to find yourself alone. In such a situation, what you need to be doing is surveying what’s left of your Life – focusing on what you have than brooding over what isn’t there. Remember not to focus on what’s not with you anymore but to look at what you still have.
Of the pieces, or threads, that are still with you, pick one that is very dear to you. Maybe your dream. While all your efforts thus far may have been run aground, nobody can take your dream away from you. Even if the world does not value you for the principles you follow, you still are who you are. Nobody can change who you are and what you believe in. Not even you. So, your values and principles are still intact. There may be other threads__someone out there who still believes in you, a glimmer of light that shows the way ahead. As you emerge from surveying what you are left with, resolve anew to pursue. Focus on the smaller, beautiful (the ones you love) pieces than on all your problems at the same time. You have air in your lungs, you have your values intact, your dream’s still in you__these are good enough to reboot your Life’s journey.
There’s a beautiful line in Hindi literature that says, “Doobte hue ko bas tinke ki zaroorat hoti hai”, which means, “The one who’s drowning, just needs a straw, a reeper, to cling on to”. A friend’s Facebook status yesterday read as follows: “Haiku of the morning: “Dad passed away. Feels like the roof over our head’s blown off. But the sunrise is brilliant.”” That’s what a reboot is all about – summoning the right attitude to move on…So, look for your Haiku! And you will surely find it. Reboot! Look out the window. There’s a beautiful sun rising for you. (Or surely, in a while). Just for you. Perhaps, it is time for you to stop mourning, stop moaning and start living?
“Why do wrong-doers always have it good in Life? And why do the honest always suffer?”
Right and wrong arise only from social – or religious – definitions!
As we drove through Poes Garden yesterday, my Uber driver asked me: “Sir, do you see the irony of it all? The working class keeps slogging away harder and harder; the looting class keeps stashing away more and more and yet they get away scot-free. She (Sasikala) may have gone to jail; but our state is in the hands of her clan…so that the looting can continue and the looted treasures can be hoarded and protected. Why do wrong-doers always have it good in Life? And why do the honest always suffer?”
Although these questions have been asked with respect to the murky political scenario in Tamil Nadu – as I write this blogpost the Sasikala faction has won the Trust Vote in the State Assembly – they apply to all contexts and scenarios, to all people, in Life. Why do wrong-doers always have it good in Life? And why do the honest always suffer?
First, let us understand, there is no right or wrong in Life. On a spiritual plane, all actions are equal and are made by individuals basis what drives them, what inspires them and what possesses them at any given moment. Society, for reasons of regulating large masses of humanity, prescribes guidelines that have, over time, led to the classification of some actions as right and some as wrong. Religion has invited itself to this party and has given what it deems right, a God-stamp, a blessing; and whatever it deems wrong has been labeled sinful. So, for instance, a man having sex with a partner outside of his marriage is merely a “normal action that satisfies a physical craving in him and his partner”. But society labels this very basic, physical, need as wrong, brings in a definition of polygamy, prescribes punishment by way of social ostracism and religion labels it adulterous and, therefore, as sinful, punishable in the “eyes of God”. So, right and wrong arise only from social – and, if you will, religious – definitions. In Life, everything, when viewed objectively, dispassionately, is only an action.
Now, let’s get back to my cabbie’s questions. If you look at those that are pissing on democracy in their lust for power, you will realize that they are doing it only because they are very clear this is what they want out of Life. They want money. They want property. They want control. They want position. And they see nothing wrong with the means they have chosen because it is the end, and only the end, that matters to them. The conscientious common folk though want governance, want basic needs met, want some money to eke a livelihood, want peace of mind and, basically, a good night’s sleep. They see their righteousness alone as right and everything else as wrong. To this class, the means is often more important, and sacrosanct, than the end. None of what the common-folk wants is causing them any misery except two things – one, a desire for good governance and two, a desire for Life to be fair to them. Now, what is the point in desiring governance while refusing to participate in the political process actively? By active participation I mean going beyond exercising your right to vote alone. I mean getting involved in the process of citizen activism, contributing to the political process and to democracy as an institution. I mean that just as once upon a time, families sent their children to serve the country through the armed forces, the time has come for us to groom our children to be national leaders and honest politicians. The second desire to want Life to be fair just because you are a class of sloggers, good natured, ethical, humans, is misplaced. Life never promised anything to anyone. Life just keeps on happening. You bring in an expectation of fair-play and so you are responsible for inviting suffering into your Life. Bottom-line: on both counts, you have an option to end your suffering. Just drop this right or wrong debate. If you want to fix the system that is holding you to ransom, go down to work on it. Your suffering, and your ranting about it, is not going to fix any system!
Here’s the nub: those that lack scruples are clear that values don’t matter to them. It is only those who are scrupulous that are confused about wanting to hold on to their values and also wanting all that which comes from being unscrupulous. This confusion is what is causing all the turmoil, the suffering, in them. I sincerely believe in this – if someone can walk without any sign of remorse over being self-obsessed, why shouldn’t the self-righteous walk equally freely – with their head held high? They surely can – if they can resolve the conflicts in them by choosing to be non-suffering!
If you won’t ever feel ashamed having done it, go do it!
Personal integrity is unlike a social rating – it is deeply personal and is not dependent on what others think of you.
At my Fall Like A Rose Petal Talk in Mysuru recently, a man in the audience, asked me, “What is the definition of self-respect?”
I replied: “The ability to look into your own eyes in the mirror is self-respect.”
He repeated the question, a tad aggressively: “What is self-respect?”
I replied again: “The ability to look into your own eyes in the mirror is self-respect.”
He demanded one more time: “….the definition of self-respect!”
I repeated myself: “The ability to look into your own eyes in the mirror is self-respect.”
He was now visibly charged. He said gruffly, “Okay, what is ability…”
I said, “Ability is ability…what you can do…when you are able to look at yourself, face yourself, that, to me, is self-respect.”
He then stated impatiently: “Oh! So, you will borrow money, you will say you don’t have the means to repay and you will say you will learn to be happy despite the circumstances, but what about those who lent you money, what about their happiness?” “I disagree with your whole Talk, your perspective,” he added, laughing crudely.
“You have a choice to disagree. And I respect that,” I said. Vaani added that, happiness here is the ability to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering, despite the excruciating circumstances we are in. I made my point again, that to me, self-respect is the ability to face yourself – despite what you have done, what you have caused.
The gentleman nodded in disagreement, got up and left.
At all my Talks, even as I open, I tell my audiences that they are free to disagree with what I have to share and with the choices Vaani and I have made in our Life. So, I neither had a discomfort with the question the man asked or with him leaving in a huff. In fact, we do have people who tell us they would not have done what we have done – which is, stay on, dig our heels in, and face up to Life and the people who we owe money to, stoically. It is fine if people have a different view of what they would have done in our shoes. To each one their own. Vaani and I have chosen to be happy, despite our circumstances, so that we can keep facing this enduring crisis, keep making efforts to turn our business around, so that someday soon, surely, we can repay all the money that we owe people.
This is where self-respect comes in. Let me explain.
I feel that in any situation, three perspectives are possible: what you, the person in the throes of a situation, feels you can and must do; what the world wants you to do; and what the world thinks you are doing. Maybe there is a fourth. Or more. But these three ring as immediate possibilities to me just now. Among the three, from what Vaani and I have learnt, only the first one appeals to us. Which is doing what you can and must do in the situation. If you have done that, then no matter what the outcomes of your efforts are, no matter what the world thinks of you, you can sleep well, you can look into the mirror and face yourself. This, to me, is self-respect. Self-respect is really about you. Any other perspective that is not your own is a mere perception. If you engage too much with your perception value, chances are you may be very unhappy. Because you are not true to yourself. When you are unhappy, when you are suffering, you cannot function with focus and efficiency. So, self-respect is very important, crucial, in fact, to progress and to endure a difficult, or apparently no-go situation.
Which is why I am sharing this experience and this learning here. I have understood, and experienced, that no matter how “worldly-wise” someone’s point of view may be, how suicidal it may be to do something that may be perceived by the world as wrong, if you feel like doing what will never make you feel ashamed of yourself, go do it. Personal integrity is unlike a social rating – it is deeply personal and is not dependent on what others think of you. It is about what you think of yourself, how much you value your inner peace. To be sure, you can never prove your personal integrity to anyone. Either people relate to you and “feel” your honesty, even when there’s no material evidence, or they don’t. Period. Your personal honesty is your sense of conviction and your ability to face yourself in the mirror. If you can do that, you can last any crisis, endure any situation, no matter how long it takes!
Papa-Mama, Don’t Preach!!!
Can you gift your children their best friend today – “You”?
My blogpost yesterday on parenting had some people write in to me. A common thread that linked all the questions and sentiments was this: “How do you draw the line between being a parent and a friend? How do you decide when is the good time to step in and take charge when your child is drifting away?”
I will answer this from our own experience of raising Aashirwad (now 26) and Aanchal (now 21). We resolved early on to treat them both as individuals, allowing them the freedom to make their own choices from when they were toddlers. When they entered their teens, we told them both that we are their best friends, that we will always be available for them. And, we made it clear to them that in certain contexts, we will surely talk from our experience of what is right for them and what is not. To take our advice or draw from our experience, we said, was always left to them. We often summed up any parenting conversation with this line: “We are your best friends. But if you see us behaving like your parents, remember, you are responsible for it.” Let me tell you, this empowering approach with our children has really worked for Vaani and me. Of course, our children have stumbled, fallen, got hurt, cried and made poor choices – but each time they have come back to us, and continue to come back, for our perspectives.
So, I would recommend that if you want your children to grow up to be mature, intelligent, responsible, good, caring, loving human beings, stop being their parent. Start being their best friend.
True friendship is the ability to speak your mind, without being overbearing, and yet being available without being emotional or nasty or preachy with a regrettable “I-told-you-so”. The only way we can enjoy parenting without worrying and being anxious, is by being our kids’ best friends. Remember: they are your children. They are intelligent. They like to be treated with dignity. Sit with them. Have conversations. They will want to go back to Facebook. They will want to be on the phone for hours together talking silly nothings. They will want to run away for a movie than stay back and do the dishes. Don’t lose patience. Friends don’t. Parents do. And sometimes, despite your advice not to do a certain thing__like enter into a relationship or take up an extracurricular activity that will distract from the core academic curriculum__ your child may do it and then will come back home, heartbroken, defeated and want to cry on your shoulder. At that time please don’t say, “I-told-you-so!” Say instead, that you know what it means to feel lost in Life and that you say so, because you too have been there, done that. That’s how friends talk to each other. Tell your child you know what it means to be in her or his shoes. Watch the difference in your child’s attitude. See the learning, the awakening happen.
At the same time, good parenting is also being firm and steadfast on values. Your conversations with your child must be always full of anecdotes and not just preachings. You must lead the values campaign at home by example. If you want your child to know what integrity means, then demonstrate it. Don’t expect your child to practice integrity if you both are going to watch a pirated movie downloaded illegally online or if you are going to bribe a cop on the street (in India) because you parked wrongly! If you want your child to understand dignity and equal opportunity, practice that with your spouse first. If you don’t want your child to smoke, you must quit smoking yourself. If you don’t want your child to drink and drive, you stop doing that first! Of course, children will want to experience sex, sooner than we would want them to. Again your conversations help here. Don’t stop them from doing it. Tell them instead, when is it a better time to do it. And why.
And then take a few positions on what’s a no-no as far as your family is concerned: swearing in public, drugs, being rude, dishonesty, lying, whatever, lay down certain ground rules and make sure no one __ that includes you __ breaks them. Despite this if your child breaks one or more of them, get back into conversation mode.
Our parenting doesn’t make a child rebel. Our being unavailable when they want us is what makes them rabid. Fundamentally understand that children are human too. They have their own independent view of a world they are waiting to explore. Let us allow them that space while we remain available to them. Let us not bring our anxieties, insecurities and experiences into limiting their lives. If you believe you are a good human being, despite all that you have seen and been through in Life, know that your child too will eventually emerge as one.
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Pissed on and passed over? – Never confuse being compassionate and being firm
Forgiving someone for a transgression and yet being firm on the issue need not be mutually exclusive.
A young manager I know is in a quandary. His boss has been harassing him at work – to the extent that the young man went into depression. His colleagues advised him to report the boss’ behavior and to seek a new role within the organization. The manager got himself assigned to a new project within the company over some months but he has chosen not to complain about his ex-boss. Over coffee the other day he asked me if was right or wrong in a. forgiving his boss and moving on and b. not reporting his boss’ behavior to his company’s HR leadership on grounds of breaching an organizational value – ‘respect for the individual’. “I am not sure I can be forgiving and also report him,” he confessed.
As I have learnt from Life, you can – and often must – do both. There’s a warm and compassionate side to each of us. We are, by nature, willing to forgive people for their transgressions. But often times our softer side is viewed and interpreted as our weakness by people who trample upon our emotions or deny us our freedom or even basic, fundamental, human courtesies. In such situations, it is absolutely fine to stand up for yourself, look the someone who is bullying or harassing you in the eye, and say that you will not take this treatment anymore. Besides, in this particular manager’s story, it is important that his boss’ behavior is reported. Because it conflicts with an organizational value and if left unchecked it may cause serious emotional injury to other employees and also impair the organization’s culture.
Important, when you are forgiving someone, you are gifting yourself freedom from the trauma that following any pain that has been inflicted on you. Forgiveness frees you of suffering. But fighting for the injustice meted out to you in the first place, that’s issue-based. So if you choose to stay firm, and unrelenting, on not allowing such an issue to arise again, either to you, or to anyone in the future, there is no conflict whatsoever.
I have learned this from Swami Sathya Sai Baba: “In any relationship between two people, one may well be a cow and the other, a bull. There’s nothing wrong in being either. Each has a role to fulfil and each has something to offer the other. But at any time that the bull starts taking advantage of the cow’s benevolence, mistaking it for meekness, the cow will be well within its rights to assume the ‘avatar’ of the bull. In taking a stance, in your own interest, there is no right or wrong. Just be true to yourself – do what you believe must be done in any context. The cow need not perpetrate any acrimony, aggression or animosity. But the cow shouldn’t suffer any of these either.”
In essence, while to make a mistake is human, and to forgive such a mistake too is human, to suffer in silence and sorrow is both unjust and inhuman. It is the biggest hurdle to inner peace and joy. So, don’t confuse being compassionate and being firm. They need not be exclusive. Simply, no matter who it is, don’t let anyone take you for granted, trample upon your self-esteem, piss on you and pass you over. Remember: if you don’t stand up for yourself – chances are, perhaps, nobody else will!