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Good is great

  • Posted On: 11th June 2013
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I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and game-playing, and I send that message very clearly. And so, over time, people start trusting each other, and they stay focused on mission, as opposed to personal ambition or grievance. If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.
Barack Hussein Obama[1]
We have been lured by the charm of superlatives used in our management vocabulary. Terminologies like ‘excellence’, ‘greatness’, ‘transformation’ etc. are appealing, but we have, in the process, somehow, lost sight of the basics.
The unfolding global economic meltdown forced me to reflect on what’s at the heart of this painful turmoil. What I found was hubris and greed in the highest levels of decision-making in governments and in the corporate world in general. Countless examples of arrogance, pride and greed have been exposed in recent years causing havoc in the lives of ordinary human beings.
When I started out as a trainer in Pakistan in 1991, I saw that the country’s ambient culture was not conducive to honest and meritocratic behavior. This, I thought was in sharp contrast to what I had learned and observed in the UK, where I lived and worked for twenty years. But I was wrong. What I have come to realise is that ethics and morality are not an east/west thing. Good conduct is valued in all societies the world over. But lately, we have witnessed many lapses with shocking examples of deviant corporate behaviour surfacing in countries like South Korea (Chung Mong-koo[2]); India (B Ramalinga Raju[3]), and many more.
Basic goodness is missing, particularly where it matters; at the top! When I looked up the simple word ‘good’ in the dictionary, I found that it means all those things, the lack of which is causing immense worldwide grief we are witnessing today. Good implies virtue, decency, morality, proficiency, ability, competence, helpfulness and so much else. In this context, title of books like Good to Great by Jim Collins seems to jump the gun. It assumes we are good, and now need to find ways to greatness. Such thought lulls us into complacency. The fact is we have not ‘arrived’… there is still much to be done, just to be good!
Here is an eternal question for leaders like you to keep in mind: what can you do and how should you behave to achieve ever greater effectiveness in your organisation? Learning from nature helps.
Let’s commence by considering an attribute most of us desire in a leader…credibility! Imagine people eagerly and habitually seeking you out for feedback. Listening to you intently, and acting on what you have told them, without any reservation. They always leave you feeling more reassured, confident and satisfied. They trust you implicitly and know beyond doubt that you have their best interest at heart and would never speak about them behind their back. They also know that you only speak to the person or people before you and simply state what you see, without adding or taking away anything. They find comfort in the fact that their secrets are safe with you. Do you know an individual whose standing is as sound as this in his/her community? Is it possible for anyone to aspire to such height?
What I have shared above are the attributes of a mirror… and a straight one at that! Only the image it reflects is inversed.
Your effective and efficient conduct boils down to one simple fact… you cannot be a good manager, without first being a good human being. Slightly over a decade ago, a participant in a workshop asked me, “I thought this was a ‘management’ course! Then, why is my company so keen to invest in my personal improvement and grooming?” I thought that this direct question, although tinged with cynicism, was very relevant and timely. It probed corporate intent and made me think, as I am sure everyone in the room at the time did. “I cannot speak for the company’s intent.” I responded, “But one thing is clear… the more the company cares for you, the more you are likely to care for it by displaying a greater sense of ownership in the tasks you perform.”
Interestingly, such a virtuous circle makes commercial sense. For example, the greater the level of trust people enjoy with each other, across functions, and vertically, the better will be the efficiency and quality of the enterprise. Higher productivity and speed to market translates into competitiveness, which is vital for enduring success. But to build trust with your people, you must act with integrity. This is why being a good human being first, becomes all the more important.
The above discourse led to a brainstorming exercise in which I asked the managers what qualities constituted a good human being in their eyes? What they uttered came as no surprise, and included words like honesty, confidence, genuineness, sincerity, caring, optimism, flexibility, commitment, responsibility, courageousness, curiosity, empathy, consideration, generosity… and a lot more! Can you imagine a ‘good’ manager lacking in any of the above attributes? I hope not! These virtues need to be present in varying degrees in everyone for a society to function. Aren’t managers hired in organisations, not only for their skills and competence, but for such intrinsic worth?
At the heart of good corporate governance lies ethical conduct imbued by a belief in managers of the value of corporate social responsibility. It remains a real challenge for companies to conform to the demands of building and nurturing principles that capture the soul of good conduct. Obama’s philosophy of leadership brings us back to the forgotten fundamentals: “I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and game-playing, and I send that message very clearly. And so over time, people start trusting each other, and they stay focused on mission, as opposed to personal ambition or grievance. If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.”
Consider this hypothetical scenario: what would you be willing to pay, for a 15 seconds course that will change your life forever? The amount of money you decide to fork out will go into a bucket. The total amount gathered will be given to a worthy cause of your choosing! I hear you asking, “How can a lesson of 15 seconds be so transformative?” It can be! Just be honest and fair in all your dealings! How long did that take? And is this short edict not life changing?
Back in 1994, I was addressing a senior management team of a well-known local company in Karachi. At one point during the discussion, I remember posing this question: can you think of a person who exhibits qualities of loyalty, stamina, strength, cleanliness, speed and dignity in his/her everyday behaviour? At first, there was a thoughtful silence. Then one of the directors pointed to the portrait in the boardroom and said, “Our Chairman!” Another remarked, “Jinnah!” I went round the room and heard more notable names. Once everyone had had the opportunity to contribute, I invited further reflection on the theme. “Gentlemen, imagine an organisation in which every employee – from top to bottom – was a living symbol of these six attributes. What kind of organisation would that be? Outstanding remarks instantly filled the room: “An excellent organisation!” “An admired and respected enterprise!” “A profitable company.” “A growing and successful business!”
By now, I could see a look of puzzlement and amusement in the dozen. Time was ripe for me to metaphorically share what I had in mind. “Gentlemen, the six attributes I just mentioned are embodied in a horse! Based on what you have said, why not fire everyone and hire horses instead?!” Stunned silence followed. There was a touch of embarrassment on a few faces. What ensued was a lively discussion on what it meant to be human.
Our faith tells us that if we wanted to, we could be better than angels, or worse than animals. The foregoing discourse served to highlight a serious malady prevalent in our society. Why is it that we tend to look far and hard for a few prominent names who in our view encapsulated the six attributes and that too, of a horse? Why don’t we see such qualities and many more, within ourselves?! Could it be that some of us have fallen below the level of animals? Could our ignorance be blinding us?
It’s worth bearing in mind that animals behave as they are programmed to by nature – they lack free-will. A snake is a snake. A lion is a lion. A deer is a deer. A fox is a fox. A sparrow is a sparrow. A dog is a dog. What they are intrinsically is what they project. In short, animals are true to their nature. They are honest. Can the same be said for all human beings? I think not.
Unbridled intellectual sophistication and cleverness in people has lead to vile acts of cheating and deception to attain selfish ends at any cost. The prevalence of ‘hidden agendas’ in some organisations is an ugly manifestation of this. One is forced to read between the lines to decipher the true meaning of what is being said. The amount of wasted time and energy and the ensuing inefficiency this causes is scandalous.
Investors, and the public at large, were left further bewildered after Bernard Madoff’s mega swindle was exposed. “Lawmakers took a hard look Monday at the alleged $50 billion investment scam engineered by Madoff that has sent shock waves across the nation’s already fragile financial system.”[4] It left us wondering who to trust? Who to believe?
In these dramatically uncertain times, what we need most of all, is people in organisations that can be relied on, not only for their capability, but for their authenticity. Is this asking for too much?
As corroding examples of misdemeanors become rampant across the globe, ‘good’ will certainly do as great!

[1] Time Magazine, – December 29/January 5, 2009 (p.40)

[2]Chairman of Hyundai Motors. “State prosecutors are investigating the creation of slush funds worth tens of millions of dollars. They say the secret money was used to bribe politicians and government officials to reduce the debts of troubled subsidiaries.”

[3] Founder & chairman of Satyam Computer Services confessed to a $1.47 billion fraud on its balance sheet.

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