Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Desperately seeking Amitabh Bachchan

Because this is a nation where heroes are hard to come by. And when the rare Bachchan appears, what else is to be done but latch on to him?

Whatever side of the political fence you may sit on, this much you must credit Prime Minister Narendra Modi for. He took Lutyens’ Delhi by the scruff of its neck and in one fell swoop pushed through a decree that does away with the red beacon or “lal batti culture", beginning on 1 May 2017. In doing that, he emasculated an all too familiar and all-pervasive VIP culture us Indians have gotten used to. Metaphorically speaking, only an Amitabh Bachchan could have done that.

Why do you think when Bachchan, in that deep baritone of his, drawled in Kaalia, “Hum jahan khade ho jaate hain, line wahi se shuru hoti hai" (Where I stand is where the line begins from), all of us whistled and clapped in admiration. 

Deep down, all of us wished we had the gumption to pull the blokes out of the entourage that accompanied cars with red beacons. Instead, we meekly give way. So, in signing that decree, Modi had pulled off a Bachchan-like coup and reinforced his place in contemporary India as the new Amitabh Bachchan, albeit off-screen. 

Then on the other hand there are tales I have heard—all unsubstantiated—from people who claim to have seen Modi at close quarters, of how ruthless he is, the punishing schedules he keeps, and that when it comes to getting what he wants done, how mean a person he can be. But apparently, everyone loves him.

What can be more intriguing than that? A mean man to whom everyone loves and feels obliged to? 

The question was playing on my mind when I took some time out to read a condensed edition of Principles, by the legendary Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. The full version of this much-anticipated book will hit the stands later this year. With a net worth north of $15 billion, Dalio is among the richest men in the world—reason enough why many people may want to know what his Principles are. 

The sum and substance of his Principles (or Steps, if you will) are aphorisms that are hard to argue against. 

Step #1: Create goals 

These goals must be set and owned by you, not dictated by others. But do you understand yourself well enough to set your own goals? And if you do, how confident are you in your ability to set the right goals for yourself? If you are confident, where does that confidence come from? Above all, do you understand the difference between a goal and a desire? 

Step #2: Have an independent opinion 

You don’t money by going with the consensus. But there is a chance you could be wrong as well. So, stay humble. 

Step #3: Stress-test your opinions 

All meetings at Bridgewater Associates are tape-recorded. The stated intent is that no opinion ought to be voiced behind anybody’s back; it must all be out there in the open for everyone to scrutinize. He calls it “radical transparency".

Step #4: Reflect on your psychological pains 

Dalio insists one of the most critical decisions any human can make is how they react to pain. If they can take it, they grow. Else, they are destined to stagnate. To that extent, he compels himself and his people to stare at it every day until it hurts every bone. 

Step #5: Turn your proven opinions into a machine 

Opinions in place, create a machine that comprises the right people who do the right job at the right time to get what you want with self-correcting mechanisms in place. 

Step #6: Turn the machine on 

Embedded below is a 30-minute-long video of how Dalio thinks the economic machine works and how money can be earned from it. It is a compelling watch, the principles are easy to comprehend and, again, difficult to argue against—more so when you have consistently beaten stock markets across the world and have the monies in your account and happy investors by your side to prove your point. 

*** 

Even as I was poring over all this, some dichotomies were staring me in the face from the pages of Satyajit Das’s book Extreme Money published in 2011. A former banker, now a writer and academic of considerable repute, he used it to convey the irony embedded in the lives of people like Dalio—many of whom he has witnessed from close quarters. 

He dissed Dalio’s management manifesto as “billionaire drivel". His isn’t a lone voice. The pressure cooker and oftentimes quirky environments people work in under Dalio’s stewardship has been the subject of much scrutiny

Consider this passage from an account reproduced from The New York Times by a former assistant of his: “Mr. Dalio had gone hunting with a Japanese client, she says, and when the client shot and killed a ‘very large and unique looking bird’, Mr. Dalio had it stuffed and mounted as a gift. It fell to Ms. O’Grady to see that the bird got safely to Japan." 

Much like Dalio, Das takes the mickey out of the most admired people on earth and submits that the rich and powerful are mean creatures.

Having drawn the reader’s attention to traits like these, he then contrasts it with their philanthropic efforts and vents exasperation at his utter inability to understand what drives people like these.

Over two decades. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing at close quarters some of the finest (and, if I may add, devious) minds in the country. The closer I got to see them, the more convinced I was about a mean streak in them.

That is why I thought it only appropriate I do a thought dump on a few people who may have some pointers. I emailed them. The note (mildly edited for brevity) is reproduced below. 

Dear friend, 

A few thoughts playing on my mind: 

1. Is there a correlation between success and meanness? Why are successful people maniacal? Take somebody like Ray Dalio for instance. There is no moral ambiguity is his literature, but secondary evidence suggests there is. Much the same thing can be said about pretty much all of the iconic entrepreneurs I have read of. All of them have a messianic zeal as well and their people swear by them. 

2. I have not had an opportunity to deal with those outside India. But those whom I have dealt with from India, whom I used to think of as icons, when witnessed from closer quarters, come across as mean people. 

It shows in their demeanour to people. This contrasts with their harping on being humble and good. Just the other day, for instance, I was with a maverick billionaire. He asked one of his closest associates to pick up a glass of water that was within arm’s reach and pass it to him while he looked at his phone. 

I'd yell at my kids if they asked our domestic help to do it for them at home. But he didn't think it inappropriate. Where does his sense of entitlement come from? 

I was witness to yet another billionaire the other day lose his temper at his top team comprising some of the finest minds from the country after I asked him a question around the perceived erosion of his brand; and whether I would be right if I assumed his entity is being overtaken. 

His yelling at them in front of me, a stranger, looked petty to me. On their part though, they were being taken to task for slipping up. I don’t get it. 

Why do qualified people like these tolerate meanness? 

Why are their quirky traits written off as idiosyncrasies. Is this money and power talking? Or is there something else I do not get? 

3. And the people who work with them—they’ve earned enough to last this lifetime and sustain their next generation as well. Why would they put up with this "meanness"? 

4. Research exists that shows most women are attracted to mean-spirited and rich men.

5. Why do folks like me in the media lap up all of what they say without asking them the tough questions? 

Sincerely, 

~ Charles 

Two people got back to me. 

The first was Gourav Jaswal, a serial entrepreneur and investor whom I’ve known for many years now and hold in high esteem. The other was Kuldeep Datay, a consulting psychologist with an independent practice and who is affiliated to the Institute of Psychological Health. I’ve known him for a few years as well and do the routine dump when I think a course correction is called for. 

Gourav, in his earlier avatar, was editor at the Indian edition of a European technology magazine, CHIP. When he took over, he was in his early twenties. But he had the gumption to dream a dream and then implement it to take the title from zero to 100,000 copies in the late 1990s—an accomplishment at a price point unheard of in India. 

Publishers were eating out of his hands and people on the team swore by him. At its peak though, he decided to move on to pursue other passions. For various reasons, the Indian edition of the title was discontinued. 

Some years later, the title was taken over by a different entity in Europe and India was again on its radar. I was entrusted with the task of reviving CHIP as editor. It was my first big gig and I was over the moon. But truth be told, I could neither replicate the kind of fanatic devotion Gourav managed, nor restore the magazine to the kind of glory he did. But I learnt a lot and found a friend in Gourav with whom I have exchanged many notes over the years on various themes. 

One of the many reasons I called him the other day before writing this dispatch was to figure whether he’d be able to offer me an insight into how people in power operate. Because, at the end of the day, for all the dichotomies that exist—like my perception of mean creatures being the successful ones—there is no taking away from the fact that they are clear thinkers. And Gourav is one heck of a clear thinker. 

More pertinently, as Gourav has told me in the past, and reinforced again when we spoke, he lives the “Designed Life". Simply put, he knows why he is doing what he is doing and how to do it. And by his admission, “it is going according to plan". 

To put that into perspective, in his own words: “If somebody asked me, Gourav, have the valuations of your company grown as far as they could have? No. But it wasn’t intended to. Because that was not how I designed it to be." 

That background out of the way, and after having read my note, Gourav got back and told me upfront, “There is a subtle problem in your framing of the question." 

“And what is that?" I asked him. 

“A mean person and a maniacal person are two very different people. A maniacal personality suggests a character who obsesses about something. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Maniacs can create positive outcomes because of their relentless focus on the task at hand. People who go on to accomplish great things are maniacal about what they do. But mean people are spiteful, unkind and will cause harm for pleasure." 

This subtlety wasn’t obvious to me until he put it in as many words. “Yes, indeed," Kuldeep said as well. “I am with Gourav." 

That said, Kuldeep suggested I go one step further and understand the idea of transformational leadership as well. He illustrated it by way of an example. “Hitler is an outstanding example of a transformational leader, but with the wrong goal." 

Kuldeep’s point was, Hitler transformed the destiny of an entire generation. All he had on his side was charisma and the gift of the gab. But he lacked empathy and was a narcissist to boot.

But he was as focused as a maniac and had set his sight on an evil goal. These are tragic characters who can cause much damage because their dials are set wrong. But if a maniacal mind has empathy turned on it will focus on just the right goals for the greater common good.

“But where are these characters to be found in contemporary India?" I pushed him to think of a few characters he could think of in a contemporary context.

“The current Dalai Lama comes to mind," Kuldeep said. But when pushed to the wall, he said it’s a little too early to bet on whom he thinks of as a transformational leader.

From contemporary business, Gourav thinks highly of Bhavish Aggarwal, the co-founder of Ola. “For somebody as young as him, what he has accomplished in an Indian context is staggering and we haven’t given him due credit yet."

I argued it’s too early in the game. Gourav remains unwilling to relent. Be that as it may, I asked them think up names from contemporary Indian history whom they thought of as transformational leaders.

Both agreed on Indira Gandhi as a character they would consider. Yes, she looked the other way as her son Sanjay Gandhi systematically went about sterilizing Indian men to control the population. It was one among the many excesses she committed during the Emergency in the late 1970s. 

Yet, most ordinary people thought of it as laudable. Because she played a card—that she was emasculating the powerful to empower the disenfranchised. But she played her cards a little too long and lost the elections to a bunch of men who in hindsight, says Gourav, “now look like a bunch of clowns masquerading as leaders".

It was inevitable then that Indira Gandhi storm back to power with a landslide margin in a nation that had no heroes left, and wanted one desperately. 

The problem with maniacal heroes though, when looked at from a philosophical prism, Gourav says, is that what got them there can kill them as well. By way of example, he asked me to think of Icarus from Greek mythology. He was driven by the idea of flight and wings. And he built them. But in spite of being warned against going too close to the sun, he did just that and died. 

The same metaphor can be extrapolated to Indira Gandhi. It shows up in that the significance of empathy was lost on her. That is why when militants were holed up inside Harmandir Sahib, the holiest of Sikh shrines, she mounted Operation Blue Star after bypassing advice from the chief of army staff. Instead, she replaced him implemented what she thought was right. 

Sikhs were outraged. The nuances of how badly it could scar the psyche of an entire community was lost on her. By the time she figured how she badly she had erred, it was too late. Four months later she was assassinated. 

Gourav was young then and lived in Delhi. An avid student of political history as well, I asked him what could she possibly have done better. He was agreed that success and a maniacal approach are related.

But, by way of a caveat, he said, “A leader is a dealer in hope," quoting Napoleon Bonaparte. But to peddle hope, oftentimes you have to deceive yourself as well when the odds seem loaded against you and all seems lost. 

To bolster his argument, Gourav pointed me to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a Sicilian writer most famous for his only novel, Il Gattopardo (published posthumously in 1958, translated as The Leopard). He famously wrote: “The faculty of self-deception is an essential requisite for anyone wanting to guide others." 

“So I wouldn’t think of a lot many people like Indira Gandhi or those whom you wrote about in your note as mean people, but as thoughtless ones. I guess it is a function of the fact that they have so much complexity to deal with," Gourav suggested. 

We went on to talk of a few names from business and government that all of us in India are familiar with. It ended up in our agreeing these people soak enormous amounts of pressure and it is difficult for them to stay centred.

They have a lot many things to deal with and staying fit is just one among that. It is inevitable then that they become thoughtless. But that raises a question. Why do accomplished people not recognize this trait as undesirable?

Between Gourav and Kuldeep, they made a few interesting observations. 

a. (Usually) there are no consequences. And no feedback. Who is there to yell back at them in much the same way I would at my kid for what I perceive is mean behaviour? 

Gourav told me, “The people you speak of, are hypothetically beholden to 10 people. However, there may be 990 people who are beholden to them. How they behave with the 10 people they owe something to will be very different from the 990 who owe them something." 

b. Add to this the pressure on their time to stay grounded. They are acutely aware of it and have to work at it because if they don’t, they will lose all of what they have built. It is something they grapple with every day. 

c. And finally, what attracts fanatical devotion to them? Why are people fine with it? Why are women so attracted to personalities like these? 

“Why just women? All of us are attracted to strength, aren’t we?" Gourav asked rhetorically. “Ours is a weak generation. People are seeking strength. They love bombastic statements. But people who throw these statements know just what they are doing. As long as there are shepherds, there will be sheep." 

“I’d go as far as to say ours is a nation that desperately needs heroes and idols to worship. Why are we always debating how many gods we have? Does it matter? My limited submission is as a country and people, we are afraid of offending anybody in power. We derive our power from the source of power. So, a gangster’s flunkey who flaunts his power does it on the back of the don. Take the don out and the flunkey is lost," he said. 

Some more questions now emerged. Between Dalio the billionaire, Gourav the entrepreneur and Kuldeep the psychologist I needed more perspective. 

Where would someone like Gourav fit in, for instance? Much like all of the characters described above, he attracts fanatical devotion and it was tough to find somebody who could give me an objective perspective of what he is really like. Because there were a few things Gourav said in our conversation that got my attention and were playing at the back of my mind. 

1. On average, most people working with him are at least 15 years younger. 

2. He does not believe in the idea of work-life balance. 

Why? 

By his own admission, he is a workaholic, and that all of what he stated is his version of the truth. Whether his hypothesis of what he believes in and who he thinks he is holds true is something I ought to verify independent of him. I lucked out and found somebody who has known him. After having explained my position and Gourav’s take, I was told a few things about him.

1. There is no mean bone in him. But there is no taking away either from that he is maniacal and will get done what he sets out to do. 

2. While he may not be a billionaire, it is because he didn’t want to be one. That fits in with what Gourav told me earlier of his life being a designed one. 

3. As people grow older, the more independent types who question his assumptions usually don’t hang around. Not because he insists on having his way or is averse to wise counsel. But because the voices of the fanatics who follow him drown that of those in the minority. Whether it is by accident or was deliberately “designed by him" is unknown. 

4. “And what about his work-life balance?" I asked. “He lives and works in the salubrious environs of Goa. How much better can it get for him and everyone else?" 

Here again, an interesting perspective was offered. Most people in his team are young. If everything is designed, is this by design as well?

It is entirely possible much thought may have gone into it so the personal and the professional merge. “Isn’t that what happens at places such as Google and Facebook? But what if I want to work for only a certain set of hours and would much rather cook in my room than eat at a fancy canteen? Do these cultures allow me that or are they deliberately designed to captivate me? I suspect it is the latter." 

This theme is now under much scrutiny and has got a lot many people interested because it increases productivity at the workplace. I did not probe Gourav on this because it occurred as an afterthought. 

The characters Amitabh Bachchan etched on screen, and whom we rooted for were for us to see in black and white. But those who crafted these personae knew exactly what they were doing—crafting characters to fit an audience hungry for heroes. And those in leadership roles are masters at the art. 

Those like me miss the trees for the forests. Because I am among the masses in a nation desperately seeking Amitabh Bachchan, for direction, and purpose.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, a digitally led media and learning platform for entrepreneurs. He tweets on @c_assisi

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