The Lens Did It

Boat 1

One evening a colleague of mine stopped me in the corridor and related an interesting incident. “I was stuck at this crossing “, he said “and there was this chappie driving a fancy car in front of me who had cut across and wedged himself in front of me. I was boiling mad. To make matters worse he slowly started rolling back towards me. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do. I tried blowing my horn at him, even yelled at him in frustration fully confident that he was going to back into my little box of a car and crush the front. It was only when I looked out of the side of my car and to my horror, realized that it was not he who was rolling backwards but my car that was rolling gently forward on an almost indiscernible downward slope. I had an epiphany. His earlier act of cutting across me had got me so mad that I had assumed that he was rolling towards me, while the truth was that it was I that was rolling towards him. I had subconsciously chosen the lens that I wanted to wear and it took a reality check to jolt me out of the lens!”. Thankfully his lens had the sense to change itself in time! Reality helped of course (apart from the fact that he had a faint suspicion that it is highly unlikely that the whole world around you could move backwards simultaneously. Perhaps, his brain told him -it is just possible that you are moving forward?)

The lens I wear is to do with my attitudes, my beliefs, the stories I tell myself from my life experiences and my judgments as was powerfully evidenced by my friend

I have, over a period of time discovered that this lens wearing is a fairly insidious business. Half the time I don’t even realize that my world view is being strongly driven by the lens that I am wearing, and the other half I don’t even know I am wearing a particular kind of lens! The power of the lens though is that it can cut both ways.

'Whoa! Half empty! Definitely half empty!'

The beauty is that the lens can take you up or take you down into the depths of despair. In fact, I had a cousin (yet another relative in my list of teachers of life’s lessons. I plead guilty to a nepotistic ascription of wisdom to my family) who had the ability to find something positive in every sling and every arrow of misfortune big or small. It was infuriating to all the rest of us. “How can he not find it upsetting? How can he pretend that the mess he is in is fine? He is not being real “All of us siblings, once removed, would constantly be at him to see the stark reality for what it is, so that he could recognize that the world is not always nice and that around every good turn there is a bad one lurking waiting for you to come around the corner, rubbing its hands in evil glee. It was all water off a duck’s back. “One day he will learn it the hard way” The man didn’t relent or change his worldview.

And the inevitable happened. He did extremely well in life and most importantly, continued to deal with life with joy and equanimity! What the rest of us realized over time was that it was we who were wearing the wrong lens. His lens was ” glass half full all the time” and ours was “glass half empty most of the time”. We therefore missed seeing the opportunity in adversity. He learnt life’s lessons well; while we missed most of the chances to learn, to reinvent ourselves, to beat the mickey out of the chappies in the ancient Fields of Punishment who dole out misfortunes in decent sized doses (Sisyphus will testify).

Nature can only present me with situations. What I can potentially make of it depends on my worldview-  my Lens. If I am miserable, in a bad place, feeling down and out – My Lens did it. If today you are happy, you have arrived and you are as close as you can be to your aspirations- Your Lens did it.


Humor without Uniform, No Peacocks please !



Gavaskar once when asked how he liked to play the dreaded West Indian pace quartet, replied “From the non-striker’s end” . And this came at the peak of his reputation as an opening batsman who had in a certain sense tamed the fiercest of pace-attacks. What a wonderful way of showing yourself as a vulnerable human being! In an endearingly funny way it connected us – the ones who can’t hold a bat to a monkey throwing nuts- to the great batsman himself.

And did it reduce his stature as one of the greatest opening bats in the world? If anything, it enhanced it. Here was a guy who conquered raw fear, extreme nervousness and performed and vanquished not only the fear but also the fear mongers. Respect elevated.

Great leaders, more often than not, seem to have a healthy degree of self-doubt and a serious sense of self-deprecating humor. I have seen this pattern in many of my meetings with CEOs and CXOs, especially the better ones.

I had the good fortune to work with a very senior person in the Pharma industry.. This gentleman was brought in to clean up, resurrect and accelerate the growth of the Indian acquisition of a foreign multi-national. His resume and track record were impeccable -Impressive was not the word, in fact impressive paled and withered at the starter’s end.

Fully expecting a reasonable amount of self-respect I found a person unassuming, very eager to learn from every person he met and dealt with. Even more impressive was the compassion and connect with which he dealt with his people even when required to take some extremely tough decisions. And typically, all his humor had one target – himself. Though this did not make him a pushover. He was assertive, competitive and fueled with ambition both for himself and the organization. His self-doubt engendered his eagerness to listen deeply and learn without if with all his experience- he knew best. His ability to laugh at himself threw open windows to a freshness and authenticity that made him extremely approachable and engaging. No signs of his general’s uniform excepting when the occasion demanded it

These traits allowed him to take the hard decisions needed to turn the company around. It also allowed him to take them in a manner that was least damaging to the organization and the individuals concerned.  A general without his uniform adapt to the new environment, could use his experience with wisdom and learn, connect and succeed.

Unfortunately, very often I see senior leaders in corporations consumed by hubris.  Once, I was in a conversation with a fairly accomplished CEO. In a very short while (roughly three blinks of my right eye, the left one is a bit laggard and therefore doesn’t count) I figured this was a conversation about me, mine and myself. For some strange reason, very difficult of course to figure out, I had visions of a peacock consumed by its own dance.. He was so good he couldn’t have enough of himself. Failing to get a word in edge-ways even twice folded, I soon settled on a beatific (or so I think!) smile on my face. Little did he know that I was admiring the peacock with its feathers unfurled. Here was I face to face with the exalted one and all I could see was peacocks. Very disrespectful of me, I am sure, but left me wondering how many of his ‘boys’ saw peacocks on a daily basis. The problem with peacocks is that after a while you only see their feet and your respect and awe begin to wilt like a diva on a hot summer afternoon.

In my interactions, I increasingly hear the word Agility as a key requirement to survive the VUCA (Volatile,Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Agility is deeply connected to learning and learning if I may stretch a point, in turn to self-doubt and a dash of sense of humor.

So no uniforms and certainly no peacocks, please!



Tyranny of Shoulds


I have been a fan of Wodehouse ever since I could toddle up and say boo to a goose. Not that geese were willing and indulgent listeners in the parts where I grew up. When you look at vintage Wodehouse, his humor more often than not hinges on the concept of Noblesse Oblige (Take for instance Bertie Wooster’s inability to square up to his aunts and his consequent spiral into humorous tangles).

Wikipedia describes Noblesse Oblige as “a French phrase literally meaning ‘nobility obligates’. It denotes the concept that nobility extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person of status, to fulfill social responsibilities, particularly in leadership roles”.

Noblesse Oblige is a whole bunch of Shoulds that society, community, family, and our own conscious and sub conscious self ingrains in us from the time we are born. Noblesse Oblige operates as a deep belief in most of us who live in civilized societies (may be in uncivilized ones too for that matter, especially when it comes to first dibs at the communal cannibal pot!). And it operates in incredibly insidious ways.

I saw this in a session with a senior member of  a leadership team in a mid tier start up experiencing vigorous growth.  The technology team that he led consisted of some young blood, which caused work-ethic dissensions.

And he found it extremely difficult to relate to the fact that the millennials have scant patience for the business of slogging in the trenches. He was exasperated at their sense of entitlement,   their poor dedication to work and an unending anxiety to pursue multiple interests at the same time. “They don’t stay late or work on weekends even if we have severe deadlines”, he retorted. ” However he could not deny the fact that they delivered at the same pace as the rest of the workforce. . What he sought was a connection, a way to motivate them.

It took me a while ( quite a while in fact) to get him to see  the possibility that it might be his problem and not theirs. While his attitude towards this age group was a case in point, it actually  demonstrated  the way his belief system had ossified his thought and caged him in the tyranny of the Shoulds over time “they should be like this and they should be like that ;they should put work above everything else ;they should be patient; they should put in long hours, juxtaposed with the familiar  “this is how we did things things in our times and therefore we progressed”

He was racked by the belief that anything in life ‘should’ be earned the hard way and over a period of time  sans any short cuts. This had come from the struggles of his own life and career and anything else was inconceivable to him. Through the conversation it became evident to him that most of his ‘Shoulds ‘ were a burden he carried, that got in the way of his ability to derive the best out of his team and his own self; He realized the inescapable truth  that this disability manifested itself in almost all spheres of his life. In short his ‘Shoulds’ had tyrannized him into responding in ways that had made him less effective and more miserable.

On the one hand a consciously adopted belief system can strengthen moral fiber and lend clarity to action. For instance, his belief that as a parent he is responsible for exemplifying and role modeling the values of kindness and compassion to his childrenOn the other hand not being aware how sub consciously adopted beliefs debilitate and misdirect response to an environmental stimulus. For instance in this specific case, the anger/frustration emanating from the violation of his ‘Shoulds’ leading to his rejection of the non-conforming youngsters ( but were effective at their jobs nevertheless), and consequent lack of empathy leading to an uninspired and uninspiring team.

In other words, imbibing a little less of Bertie Wooster and a little more of Alfie Dolittle from My Fair Lady ( who seems to have had very few shoulds except having fun in life ) would further being  a more effective human being and an inspiring leader.