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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Leaders eat first

Leaders eat first

As popular notions go, the sky is not always blue, perfection must be aimed for, there are many bad people and leaders eat last. Seriously?

Those who insist on a clear line of sight are plain pig-headed and not cut out to be either chess-players or leaders. Photo: iStockphotoPremium
Those who insist on a clear line of sight are plain pig-headed and not cut out to be either chess-players or leaders. Photo: iStockphoto

It’s that time of the year when everyone starts resolving to make a resolution for the New Year. Most are clichés. Clichés that pretty much puts into perspective a surge in gym memberships after the binge drinking in December. Studies from various parts of the world report 8 out of the 10 people who sign up for gym memberships, stop by the end of January. I stand by the altar of the guilty as well. 

Last year, though, I shied away from a fitness resolution. Instead, I filed away two altogether different resolutions. The first, that I will practice meditation for at least a half hour every day. The second, that I will either meet one new person, or latch onto a new book every week.

I am happy to report that for all practical purposes, my resolutions stand executed. I do not intend to make any this year. Because there is much work to be done on these old ones.

December is as good a time as any to reflect on the learnings and outcomes that have emerged until now. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I know three things.

1. When confronted with silence, the head is a very noisy place.

2. Between listening deeply to people share their stories one-on-one, and reading from the pages of a book, listening beats what is embedded in books.

3. There are no bad people. Only circumstances. It is just that each person responds to fortune and adversity differently. That is what makes each one unique.

A caveat must be filed. The reason I stated upfront that “I think I know" is because these learnings are basis my perceptions so far. As that saying goes: “When the facts change, I change my mind." There is no consensus around who said it first.

Regardless of the mutability of facts, the things I’ve learned in conversations with the people who have earned my respect over the year are these.

The sky is blue

When it came to meditation, one of the first things I was told was to practice sitting in silence, meditate, and focus on just breathing in deeply, and exhaling completely, to the exclusion of everything else. When starting out, I was told to attempt the exercise for no longer than 10 minutes before progressing to longer periods. “Sounds ridiculously simple," a voice in the head suggested.

That this is extremely hard dawned on me only when the practice started. That was also when that phrase, “the mind is like a monkey" started to fall into perspective. It is the kind of creature that can tease, provoke, anger, amuse, infuse thoughts of all kinds—and do it all at once.

Over time, I could begin to see what those who are close to me have always told me—that I am a difficult person to be with. And that the demeanour I put on with those who don’t know me too well of being an easy-going bloke is a façade. In attempting to stay silent and focus on the breath, I could, for the first time, see myself in the third person and witness that I am indeed a difficult person.

My mind is constantly “chattering". It has an opinion about everything. I could hear myself talk and opine all the time—until even “me" started to get infuriated by the voices in my head. Can’t I just shut up?

Some conversations with an experienced practitioner of meditation offered pointers.

Such behaviour, it seems, is difficult for people who cannot deal with ambiguity. People like me need a clear line of sight on what must be done. But life does not offer such luxuries. It plays itself out. The best of plans can go awry. You adapt and go with the flow.

Those who insist on a clear line of sight are plain pig-headed and not cut out to be either chess-players or leaders. They can get cranky and are inevitably difficult to live with. To understand that better, I was asked to look up at the sky. There are days when it is cloudy. Then there are other days when it rains and dark clouds appear. But anyone who has been on an airplane knows that the clouds are only an obfuscation. And that once you cross the turbulence, there is a clear blue sky. Clouds, by its nature are transitory. It comes and goes with the wind.

Getting agitated then is an exercise in petulance if you implicitly understand that the sky is blue. All you need then is the patience to let the clouds pass, and develop a mental muscle memory not to do anything stupid when it gets overcast.

GyShiDo over perfection 

I am, so to speak, frequently conflicted. On the one hand, I admire perfection and remain convinced nothing must go out until, as it were, that greatest of artists Michelangelo himself may approve of the perfection in it. Then on the other hand there is the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) embedded in my head.

Personally, I can trace the roots of this conflict to my days when I used to report to a team of editors based out of Munich. When looked at from their West European eyes, they’d cluck their tongues in disapproval at the slightest hint of tardiness and convey their displeasure in no uncertain terms. They wanted perfection down to the last detail before the product could roll out.

Then on the other hand, my training as a business journalist, conversations with entrepreneurs of all kinds who make things happen at scale, getting hands dirty in a newsroom where deadlines are tight, and in attempting to take things off the ground, it suggests GyShiDo—a polite way to say, “Getting your shit done"—is the way to be.

Over the last year on the back of experience and multiple conversations, I now veer towards that view that perfection can wait. GyShido comes first.

By way of example, men like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs are celebrated for their obsession for being perfectionists. But what is not spoken of much in the public domain is that Steve Jobs’ quest to find perfection also made him a jerk. He bullied people, was a control freak, and had no moral qualms about building a monolith by exploiting cheap Chinese labour. I am still to read Walter Issacson’s biography of Leonardo. But there is no taking away from the point that his quest for perfection made him a procrastinator and his worst enemy as well.

When looked at from that perspective, it is possible to argue that the quest for perfectionism is an ideal pursuit, and one that must be a lifelong one at that. But while at it, implement a minimum viable product that gets you off the ground. You iterate and fix things as you go along.

If any evidence of the viability of this process is needed, look no further than what is apparently the most evolved of all businesses: Software. Each time a new version is released, it is touted as an improvement over the previous one. Nobody complains. Instead, everyone complies and upgrades.

There will be naysayers and doomsday predictors of all kinds. Pay heed to their voices for all that it is worth. But at some point, you’ve got to take a call and roll with what you have. Ideologues talk from pulpits. People who make the world go around place a premium on GyShiDo.

There are no bad guys

Contrary to what popular narrative would have us believe, there is no such thing as “us" and “them". Only different ways of looking at the world. The world needs ideologues who stoke debates and the kinds who make things happen. Both are fiercely motivated and believe deeply in what they are invested in. So even if you subscribe to the GyShiDo manifesto, it would be outright stupid to dismiss ideologues.

Because at the end of the day, there is no getting away from the reality that perfection is an ideal state. And one must do all that it takes to get there. It is a journey. The issue on hand is, which path do you take to get there the fastest. That is where decisions must be taken.

But how do you choose? Which path do I take? I asked an entrepreneur who subscribes to GyShiDo even as he keeps track of where may perfection lie, how does he manage.

His answer was a simple one. He does not judge people. He only evaluates the idea. In doing that, he asks himself some questions.

1. If I adopt this suggestion, is the outcome reversible? 

2. If the outcome is reversible, how fast can a new iteration be created? 

3. If the suggestion is irreversible, what may the possible outcomes be? 

4. How many people can potentially be impacted by a negative outcome? 

5. Does an option exist to an irreversible suggestion? 

The answers to these questions are ones he cannot obtain by consensus and in a democratic manner. It is his cross to carry. Whatever be the outcome of his decision, it is conveyed and executed. But his decisions have to be made in real time. People look up to him. To that extent, he is a very lonely man.

But to stay the course, he is also aware he must also perform at his peak potential at any given point in time. To do that, he needs some creature comforts. That includes right of way and an implicit mandate to eat before the others do.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing. His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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Published: 16 Dec 2017, 11:28 PM IST
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