Saturday, July 16, 2011

Of Leaders and Writing - in memory of Ranjan, the Acharya

I dreamed of being a writer once. A passionate journalist, at that. My former boss, the departed Ranjan Acharya compared my motivations to write to that of Fabian socialists. Ranjan himself acknowledged the influence of two great people in his life as far as his own writing was concerned. And he used their tips as cannon for the writing fodder. One of them was the Principal Fr. Mascarenhas of the St. Joseph's Boys' High School in Khadki, Pune, where Ranjan schooled. "Break your essay down into simple points" was Ranjan's  fondest recall of Fr. Mascarenhas.  The other was Mulk_Raj_Anand, a socialist himself. Ranjan would take the local train to Lonavla to soak lessons from him in the art of short story writing.  Ranjan would attempt writing in house journals of the Rotract Club, Pune and get reviews on such writing. Mulk Raj Anand was a tough critic. He still got my boss's respect.

Ranjan's other influences in writing were not so live in the flesh for him; literary giants they surely were. One was PG Wodehouse. And, as it struck me last evening, on a walk with my son, that JK Rowling's travails were not lost on Ranjan's soul. His identification with that writer's struggle and the portrayal of the dark side of life, a premonition of sorts of his moods. When I met Ranjan I was less of a writer than a seeker of understanding of human behavior at work. For what I knew then, an entertainer as Ranjan, could easily camouflage his sorrows. Harry Potter the magician released that spirit of thrill with life, and Ranjan admired Rowling for that ability. He had a magic with words himself, whether spoken or written.

Ranjan got the essence of brevity and humor from Wodehouse and the rivets of a plot from Agatha Christie's characterization of Hercules Poirot. From Rowling, Somerset Maugham, Viktor Frankl and Joseph Heller, Ranjan got the engulfment of mood. If you've wondered, numbers, sounds and even odors could trigger a visual sensation of color for some of us. Hear a drum beat in a march, and you may visualize the color blue. Think of time, and it may be ordered as a deck of domino cards placed infinitely in multi-dimensional space. Such are imaginations that are described as synesthesia. Most creative people experience such sensations. People who experience such cross-sensory perceptions are called synesthetes.

As synesthetes do, Ranjan evoked emotionality from music too. From the Hindustani raga, the eccentric RD Burman to the melodrama of ghazals there was a range he related to that I could not comprehend. Yet these sensations gave Ranjan metaphoric symbolism to lead and guide People Capability Measurement assessments. His access to those nuances, the clarity of those sub-modalities, were clearly his strength. I write today, two years after his untimely demise.
Ranjan Acharya

My inspirations came from those who read news on BBC World Service Radio in the 1980s. I had a copy of BBC London Calling as a prelude to what I could tune into. Their diction and flawless flow clearly for me was the virtue of command over language. When in school, Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember Tarzan) had as much effect on me as Gerald Durrel (remember squirrels and mongoose?)  I would see classmates quarrel fiercely over their favorite inspirations of nature, that I vowed never to be victim of such ruthless identification.

I took to reading of the real world. In newspapers of heyday, there was not much to choose from. So I chose writers who had more solemn influence. These included S Nihal Singh and Kiran Thakur. Some writers like Khushwant Singh and Sumant Moolgaonkar would mature like wine. I also fondly remember Abel David of the Poona Herald to have had similar effect. Behram Contractor, the busy-bee and the God of moderation Russi Karanjia in Mumbai were worth observing from their own points of view. Wish someone archives these pre-internet works of journalism for us on the net.

Then came along Chidannand Rajghatta whose place Abhay Vaidya took for a while, as the Times of India correspondent in Washington. Abhay was goaded by Prakash Nair, my cousin's tenant and employee of The Indian Post to mentor me. Abhay still remembers me as a student of Sociology who was advised to take admission to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences than give up that well earned seat for the 'cause' of journalism. Or was it Fabian Socialism that I turned away from? John Scherer the once Lutheran priest reminds me these days that it is never too late to become what I may have been. Choices have their way of churning my insides, I should say.

Today, many tweets have passed me by on the shortest of definitions. Leaders lead. Writers write. And do writers lead? Or do leaders write?  Are these not requisite questions?

As Akio Morita once wrote "I see what I know, when I read what I write". Simple, and yet so profound, the typical Japanese sophistry and understatement shine through. Leaders are humble doers too. Journalists as Abhay were taught that early maxim. His blogs and writing are a testimony to such literary modesty. And curiously a mix of the East and the West?
Leaders are seen and willing to be seen, like fish in the fish bowl. 

Leaders, like writers cannot however live to pretend that they can be safe in glass houses. They embrace reality as vulnerably as fish in a fish-bowl.  Leaders live to be themselves, stoked by their inner sense of freedom to be their autonomous selves. They live to be seen, and being seen they endear others to them. Writers too are opinion makers.Their expressions have an inverse projection from their readership. They first connect in fantasy, and in that image, avail their style and identity with their readership through their writing.

As a tribute to Ranjan, and the spirit of writing, here's a link I invite you to read What do you think? Are writers more powerful than we think they are? Are leaders more influential than writers? What could leaders do with writing? What could writers do through leading?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Five Questions you will see life in

I recently wrote a blog on implications of designing for organizational effectiveness. It was a nascent attempt to know how readers may take to the blog space for such a topic. At least two senior professionals in my field of passion, who’ve spent more years reading organizations than blogs thought it was a decent attempt. One of them, Terrence Seamon wrote that it may also imply if people from the field of Organisation Development ask enough questions. Do we ask enough questions irrespective of field we come from? My thought streams began this way, until I realized that it is after a certain point of quantity that the questions we ask would become questions of pertinence. Questions that are pertinent and persistent are the most powerful ones. I bring you a book review about questions that fall in that sweet spot between pertinence and persistence. The book is “Five Questions That Change Everything – Life Lessons at Work” by John J. Scherer (Bibliocast, 2009).

When evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris contributes a foreword, Mark Victor Hansen of the Chicken Soup Series writes a recommendation, there’s got to be a higher reason that John unites them in, beyond the biology of the birds and the bees. So as Sahtouris claims “science taught as mechanistic reductionism in which all life is seen blindly evolving mechanism”, this book looks at human beings as part of a co-creative force in a cosmic perspective. Many of us who come to this moment from the unquestioned assumption of science serving the guiding post in human affairs,  have also seen the transformation of science serving ‘practical’ marketplace economics. That ‘practicality’ consumed India with linen for the cardamom pod in one era, and makes China the global factory today for almost anything in living memory.

So what would such a perspective of life giving or life-affirming dimension be? It could be your GPS. No, not your geo-positioning system; but your Greater Purpose Statement. That comes about in an intuitive joining of dots from the author’s own life. John has bared much to let his thoughts merge into that of the reader’s from a framework of 5 simple Questions. They are as below, and sequenced as such in the book’s plan:
1.       What confronts me?
2.       What am I bringing?
3.       What runs me?
4.       What calls me?
5.       What will unleash me?

Irrespective of which part of the world we wake up to the sun from, John’s sharing casts light on your shadow too. His premise is surprisingly simple. He considers the workplace as the system that needs to be lived into by inviting us to be our authentic selves in relationship with others there.  With a worldly immersion between Kenya’s Merreushi community of the Masai tribe, Poland’s contemporary industry professionals, the US Navy and deep learning from Masters of human processes in the USA (I can’t stop counting how many well-wishers he has there), and countless moments in various ports of call, John carves out a distinct self-perpetuating inquiry code necessary for life. Riveting text comes with portions of autobiographical narration, which however, every reader may not take to as spontaneously.

For me Chapter One on Facing the Tiger (read What Confronts me?) is an appeal to courage and possibility. To quote John “If you are not facing one of your tigers, it is already eating you”. Now for a moment again, we may dismiss the obvious metaphor saying we’ve led the tiger to near extinction in the physical world. In a racy society of materialistic oomph, consciousness may slip such a metaphor too to its extinction.  Yet, in a curiously symbiotic way, I wish to see the tiger live and face it before the force of the metaphor itself dwindles out. Chapter Five begins dealing with the Question ‘What runs me?’ Living life on automatic is a very kinesthetic symbol, that John reminds us to be wary of. Whose life is one living with all the inner world perspective we shore inside in the tides of change?  John takes us through a conversational trip on how we unwittingly carry themes that we enslave ourselves to – the Positive, Immediate and Concrete (PICs) and the ones we get less often - the Negative Immediate Concrete lessons (NICs). Our default pre-conscious leads us to a selective interpretation in our conscious state, John argues. In that conscious state we act as we choose to, depending on our addictions (PICs) and terrors (NICs). Not a question one will forget or have answered as in ‘forever’.

That is when we begin to be shown to the power of our shadows (our ignored selves).  The book’s magic also comes through with the active use of Polarity Management as a discipline in thinking through issues and teasing problems to be solved from polarities to be managed. For readers not hungry enough to visualize who they seem to be becoming, this part of the book can do no more than tickle their curiosity. The constructive part of the book comes from the dealing of the remaining 2 questions. And this becomes the difficult part for the reader who has been used to a human face to such personal growth questions. That is where John’s triple pulls of Self, Others and Cause is a useful framework to our identity. Overexposing oneself to any one pull in the trio could diminish the other two.  In Chapter 18, comes a set of deep bone questions. Sample these “What deep need does the world have that you would give anything to see met or addressed? What is something you deeply want to see happening in the world three generations from now because you had been alive..?.” That is how John takes us to his construct of the Greater Purpose Statement that integrates your Charism, Your Shadow Stretches and Your Impossible Possibility- The so That.

His last Question “What will unleash me” is about dealing with Pain and Possibility as parents of Transformation. Eventually chaos is the birth canal through which human evolution is presumed, true to Sahtouris’ preface. John has shown a deeply experienced promise in narrating the movement from living life on an ‘automatic’ to living authentically. Given that leadership is now increasingly seen as a process between members who enjoy the choice; this book is a consistent companion in process. For those who want a self-help manual, this is a tough read. For, as John writes of the workplace, “Your faculty is always there – the ones you like and the ones you can’t stand. ….the ones you don’t particularly like are the most important ones for your development”. Ever thought about that one? 311 pages long, it may take some a lifetime to complete reading. But as those questions change everything by brining one back to oneself, our personal ‘home’; it is one I’d like to have in hard copy than browse on an electronic screen. John’s punch in such contribution comes from sharing how his own statements look like and even baring the purpose of his book from the questions he asks. That is not an ordinary feat to pose as premise of a book! The essential question then is “What am I becoming?”