It is ok for leaders to be human

There was some hullabaloo about the remarks that Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, made about the causes of the growth slowdown in 2016 and 2017. Some say that he blamed Raghuram Rajan and some, like yours truly, think that the evidence was not clear-cut. He called the former Reserve Bank of India governor’s attempt to make banks come clean about the extent of bad loans they were carrying in their books heroic and, in another place, he appears to have likened Rajan’s approach to administering an overdose of Crocin. Perhaps, he was both conflicted and confused. It does not matter. The interesting lesson here is how governments react to economic growth slowdowns.

They claim credit for accelerating economic growth and cast their net wide to find someone to blame for growth deceleration. The reality, when it comes to economic growth, is the opposite. Governments are seldom responsible for positive growth surprises and certainly not in real time. They are more likely responsible for negative growth outcomes. Government actions and outcomes are often asymmetric in nature. Governments carry more power and ability to hurt than to help. That is why their controlling instincts hurt more than their liberating instincts. For the latter to succeed, non-government actors have to do their bit. The former succeeds because it influences behaviour and attitudes of non-government actors more easily. The asymmetry is evident there, too. Most politicians do not get it.

That is why they want guaranteed outcomes, whether it is in the economy or in elections. They deal in certainties and certitudes, no matter how often they fall flat on their faces. With respect to India’s growth outcomes in 2016 and in 2017, both deleveraging—triggered by low credit demand and supply—and demonetization played their part. The government should have owned both as deliberate efforts on its part to cleanse the system with a clear recognition that the efforts would hurt economic growth in the short-term. Instead of being defensive, it should have paraded its decisiveness.

When I shared these thoughts with a friend, he wrote to me: “Governments prefer to be hated for the wrong reasons than speak the wholesome truth, which admits errors of judgement in good faith and they will never understand that people value honesty so much that they forgive honest mistakes!” Beautifully put.

However, if we think that only politicians suffer from this affliction, we will be wrong. Business leaders offer plenty of company. They want guaranteed successful outcomes. When employees offer “under-promise and overachievement”, they raise their eyebrows. They see that as an effort to game the system and garner more rewards for exceeding targets. However, not in all cases, such employee attitudes are driven either by incentives or by the fear of failure and the consequences it entails. Possibly, it is the recognition that there are very few certainties and certitudes in life. Leaders must demand over-performance in effort and employees must offer it. However, demanding guarantees with respect to outcomes and offering it are both signs of hubris. There are other problems, too, with such an attitude.

Such leaders usually come with high self-belief and proud ownership of their missions. Up to a point, these are desirable qualities in missionary leaders. However, they have their downsides. Such missionary leaders are human and humans, without exception, have limitations and are prone to fail from time to time. Such leaders run the risk of being undemocratic, of being untrusting of others to deliver on their tasks, of excessive interference and of second-guessing their employees.

An episode involving two gifted artists, Sivaji Ganesan and Manorama, in the Tamil film, Thillana Mohanaambaal, serves up these messages beautifully. Manorama asks Ganesan to play a note on her Nagaswaram, the wind instrument familiar to most south Indians. After he plays a note, she asks him how he could produce such wonderful music; he replies that it depended on one’s effort and divine grace. Later, in the same episode, she wistfully wonders why such a gifted artist (Sivaji Ganesan) was short-tempered and prone to bursts of anger. He answers that there was no human without blemish. Not only was that scene marked by spontaneous and brilliant acting, but it contained such obvious, yet profound, truths.

In the Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna says that for any effort to succeed, there must be a goal, a doer, skills and instruments. However, above all, he says there must be his support and blessing. It is natural to forget it when we pursue a project or a goal with zeal and sincerity, trusting in our efforts. They are necessary, but not sufficient. Of course, if one does not believe in the existence of a God, one can replace “divine blessing” with “chance”. However, it is there.

Recognizing that, and displaying frailty, is not a sign of weakness but to be human. Mostly, employees will not turn shirkers or slackers because of that, but would relate to their bosses better for being human. Mutual trust will emerge. To be able to balance being a normal human and being a leader is the challenge of leadership. To fail in that challenge is to risk becoming ineffective and unsuccessful. Above all, they risk being lonely in their most vulnerable moments.

This was the text of my column in MINT on Tuesday.

[cross-posted here]

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