Of the many responses to the pieces I wrote on the Mumbai attacks, one was brutally honest. It came from AB, a Mumbaikar who had recently moved overseas.
He wrote, “What disturbs me most are exactly the points you’ve highlighted. Today, I am most angry at myself because I stand guilty of living through other terror attacks Mumbai has witnessed by indulging in the ‘Mumbai is a resilient city that bounces back from any adversity’ reaction, and then moving on to completely forget that these attacks ever happened. The sheer apathy with which we as citizens have reacted to these incidents once the media hype subsides is disgusting, to say the least.
“I have personally resolved to change that at my own individual level. The challenge I (and others like me) face is figuring out which initiatives will be sustained and where one can get involved.”
These are the words of a successful professional.
AB’s comments on the Mumbai attacks carry two messages—the first and straightforward one is the need to care, to really feel the impact and then resolve to do something tangible about it, not assume that it’s someone else’s problem or forget about it the next day. In other words, an important message (albeit a possibly turning off sermon) about morality and responsibility.
There is a second message as well—about personal growth, and looking outside the box of one’s own life to make it more rewarding.
The odd thing about being an upwardly mobile professional is that the more successful one gets, the more conservative one becomes.
Taking on something completely out of the ordinary such as figuring out what to do about the attacks, or volunteering for community work can shake us out of the straitjacket of our lives: no rules, no hierarchy to enforce, no “power” to wield, no boilerplate colleagues. And in the process, two things happen: The first is that we begin to see new challenges that exist outside our cubicles, and discover people with completely different motivations than us—very driven and possibly more passionate about their work than we could ever be. The second is that we become more creative at our own work.
Both are desirable outcomes; the first being more radical, with potentially discontinuous consequences (“I also have an idea to change the world!”), while the second is a less turbulent way to integrate a sense of change into our lives. Incidentally, none of this needs to happen because a person is “burnt out” or becomes guilt-ridden about the vices of the corporate sector. One can still enjoy being a hard-charging marketing executive or a target-oriented sales manager.
The phenomenon of the white-collar employee and the modern corporation is relatively new in India, at least in its current form. As a result of this nouveau globalization, professionals in the corporate sector don’t really have “role models”. By default, therefore, they have fabricated a false construct of a successful professional career built around the monorail of the corporate ladder.
As the Indian corporate sector matures, more and more individuals will realize that there are multiple ways to build successful careers. Many of these begin with allowing creativity, diversity and unexpected challenges into one’s life. It’s a win-win: You can do good, and you can do well at the same time.
Take a look at the following statistics from a survey on community involvement by James Austin, professor of business studies, Harvard University, called the “Invisible Side of Leadership”. Of at least 9,800 Harvard Business School graduates and 316 Fortune 5000 company CEOs:
• 81% were involved with non-profits and 57% were board members
• Community service was not just a late life phenomenon; it began early and grew. At least 60% of recent graduates (25-29 age group) were involved with non-profits. This rose to about 90% by age 55, at which point board membership reached about 70%
• CEOs were heavily involved. They generally served on four boards, double the number for the average executive, with 30% sitting on 5-11 boards; most spend 5-20 hours per month, twice the average
• Community service was an integral part of executives’ lives and careers; 63% considered their non-profit involvement to be “very important” to them and another 35% “moderately important”
Sometimes, this might require change not just at an individual level but also at the level of the organization itself. It’s hard to want to try different things when the organizational ethos is not enabling. In the US, a 1993 Conference Board survey of 454 companies revealed that at least 90% have formal volunteer programmes for their employees and that 86% encourage their executives to serve on non-profit boards. Indian companies may need to make it easier for professionals to make space for these activities, even if for purely self-interested reasons such as nurturing better leaders.
Maybe there is more than one reason not to forget 26/11.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org