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When leadership deficit leads to a compromise on values  

It is understandable that our business leaders keep biting their nails trying to beat the competition. But when they chase business goals by compromising on their core values, they eventually get caught in a regulatory web and start losing customers. Their brand image takes a serious hit.

Consider the following instances:

The 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster 

For a space exploration agency of the stature of NASA, revenues and profit were not the motives, but it appears that deviations were indeed made from standard safety protocols because the top leadership put a higher premium on expediency. The now infamous O-ring pressure seals, supplied by a Utah-based contractor, served as the cause of the crash.

The O-rings had been tested to perform in 40-degree Fahrenheit or above weather conditions. On that fateful morning in Florida in 1986, it was only 18 degrees. NASA knew it was an issue, but hours before the launch pressed the contractor to “green light” the launch. Robert Ebeling, heading a team the concerned contractor’s employees experienced with the O-rings debated whether they could knowingly approve that the O-rings would not fail.

In the end, the team wanted NASA to wait until the afternoon when temperatures would be closer to 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to the pressure exerted by NASA—in addition to the wilting of the contractor’s senior managers—the company reversed its original decision and ended up giving the go-ahead for launch.

Alas, Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven members on board.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fiasco

During 2016, Apple was set to launch the iPhone 7. Samsung leaders rushed into bringing Galaxy Note 7 into the market before Apple. Here also, market forces determined the behaviour of the company’s management. In a rush to beat the competition, a design flaw in the battery was overlooked. Safety standards were apparently compromised.

Within weeks of the launch, the phones started catching fire. A recall ensued with over 2.5 million phones sent back to Samsung. The company lost billions of dollars in the recall, let alone billions more in lost revenues.

The Boeing 737 Max Issue

In October 2018, Indonesia’s Lion Air flight plummeted to the ground shortly after taking off, killing all 189 people on board. Subsequently, in March 2019, a crash happened in an eerily similar manner in Ethiopia, killing all 157 persons aboard.

Boeing claims to work on such ‘enduring values’ as integrity and safety.  The company defines integrity as taking “the high road by practicing the highest ethical standards.” Likewise, safety is captured thus: “We value human life and well-being above all else and take action accordingly,” the company suggests, and that “by committing to safety first, we advance our goals for quality, cost, and schedule.”

But to match the launch of A320neo by Airbus, said to be 15% more fuel efficient, Boeing moved fast and launched the 737 MAX nine months after Airbus’s announcement. Regulatory approvals were apparently rushed through, by simply declaring the 737 MAX to be merely a ‘derivative’ model of the company’s cash cow – 737. Technical changes of a material kind were apparently made, but the need for pilot training was never highlighted. The Flight Crew Operating Manual was not modified to reflect the changes. If this had been done, perhaps the pilots might have been in a better position to know what to do should the plane begin to behave unpredictably after takeoff due to the bad sensor data.

The common thread running through all these instances is the leadership deficit these organizations faced at the time. When values become mere words on a company’s website, disaster just lurks around the corner. As technology advances, the human angle can only be ignored at the risk of a great cost to the organization as also to the society at large.

Of revenue-hungry businesses and governments

World over, history has repeatedly taught us that when it comes to the Rajasic world of commerce, truth is a casualty. Cigarette and liquor manufacturers contribute to the exchequer and also keep their own stakeholders happy. Pharmaceutical companies keep peddling drugs which may have serious side effects on hapless patients. After holding up cholesterol as the main villain for cardiac problems for a very long time, suddenly we find that medical research comes up with results which are contrary to the original stand.

A recent example is that of the mad rush to bring in 5-G which rides on a much stronger dose of radiation. Nowhere does one see a reasonable debate on the impending costs of environmental degradation owing to a high dose of radiation.

The risk of data privacy

As businesses and governments go in for higher levels of digitisation, lay citizens who avail of products and services end up living in more transparent fish bowls. Individuals cease to matter. Somewhere in a data repository, they become mere numbers, coded by a binary system and mercilessly crunched into big data; data which is eagerly lapped up by the corporate world.

One who loves undergoing a Virtual Reality experiment is shocked to find that he and even his family members are denied an insurance policy because the body reactions detected during the said experiment indicate that he is likely to be suffering from dementia, a disease which runs in families. One who books a bnb apartment has to not only substantiate his true identity as a living person, but also establish that his past legal record is as pure as fresh driven snow. Personal interactions with a customer have ceased to matter in most digital transactions.

Hapless customers and citizens are no longer kings and queens; they are jacks of all trades who master none, let alone themselves or their own thought processes.

Political parties have already perfected the art of using Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics to shape public opinion en masse. There are no bad politicos and good politicos. Scratch the surface and one would find that underneath they are all the same. In many countries, democracy is touted as a virtue, but just beneath its soft velvety cover can be discerned the cloven hoof of dictatorial tendencies.

Caveat emptor (or, buyer beware) is the only way forward!

Some lessons from Bhagavad Gita

Smart CEOs can perhaps look up to this ancient scripture to find some ways out of a quagmire of this kind. We explore this theme in the next part.

 

(Inputs from an IT expert and an aviation expert are gratefully acknowledged)

(Related Post: https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2019/09/07/the-challenges-of-industrial-revolution-4-0-part-1-of-3)

 

 

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Much like a proficient swimmer participating in a competition, a smart CEO needs to operate in two  diametrically opposite styles at the same time – one of attachment and another of detachment. She needs to be an enthusiastic participant in the operations and swim along with the current. Often, she also needs to sit back on the banks of the river, keenly observe the direction in which she is headed and make a detached and objective assessment of the situation. There is thus an inherent duality embedded in her role. Her role as a passionate participant must always embrace that of the intellectual spectator. The “who” and “why” of her concerns should constantly enfold the “what” and “how” of our methods.

With maturity, a person gains the ability to detach from passionate participation in the operations and do a pitiless analysis of the overall shape and working of the system. Successful CEOs know that after all the analysis is done, they still have to throw themselves back into the mix. One may call this art a hybrid style of functioning.

Detachment in Action

A sense of detachment, as brought out by Bhagavad Gita, is not about one losing the sight of the objective sought to be achieved. Nor does it recommend a defeatist attitude in one’s life and career. Rather, it is about handling successes and failures in a balanced manner. Smart leaders, who have achieved a spectacular success, do not become complacent. They remain humble. They determine the critical success factors and store these at the back of their minds, ready to be recalled when necessary. When faced with dire failures, they shoulder the blame, get requisite feedback and take steps to ensure the failure gets avoided the next time round. If they lose interest for some time, they bounce back with renewed enthusiasm and work towards delivering results. In other words, detachment helps one to be more objective.

Peter Drucker, when he dished out advice to CEOs, invariably acted as a dispassionate observer. He was critical but fair, assisting some of the best brains in the American corporate world in their crucial jobs of scaling up huge businesses so that their vastness became an asset rather than a liability. He refrained from developing a sense of attachment towards any of the CEOs he interacted with and maintained a critical detachment. He studied and commented upon the latest key issues without selling universal truths to his clients, followers and managers everywhere. This was one of his key qualities which added to the greatness of his thoughts.

If one were to go through the history of the Apollo series of missions launched by the National Aeronautical Space Agency of USA during the 1960s and 1970s, one would be struck by the kind of tenacity and equipoise demonstrated by the participating astronauts. Despite losing several of their colleagues in accidents, they remained committed to the overall goal, delivering some spectacular results for our scientists and technocrats to work upon. The same trend continues till date. Airspace disasters notwithstanding, we keep sending missions to Mars and to Sun. The quest of humanity to explore our universe continues unabated.

Inner Resilience and Equanimity

Attaining a state of detachment gets facilitated if a professional were to improve upon her levels of Inner Resilience and practice Equanimity. This is what Bhagavad Gita says in this context.

योगस्थ: कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय |
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्यो: समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते || 2.48||

Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.

Professionals need to know not only what is to be done, but also how it has to be done. Lord Krishna does not fail them. He recommends an ‘evenness of mind’, the tranquility of inner composure in handling all the pairs of opposites in their careers and lives – success and failure, praise and reprimand, hiring and firing, sprees of expansion and down-sizing, products and services which are at opposite ends of their life cycles, mergers and demergers, favourable and unfavourable circumstances, and the like. This, indeed, is held to be the real ‘Yoga’.

In the process, we need to give up our false expectations, wrong imaginations, daydreams about the fruits of our actions, anxieties for results, resistance to change, and fears about future events which are still in the womb of the universal force called Time.

The traits of a Super Leader

Hers is a balanced personality, free of unreasonable desires which pose the danger of her losing sight of her sense of righteousness. She does not have a binding attachment with her emotions. Nor does she have a jealous preference for her pet ideas or for her pet people. She scoffs at any signs of nepotism. She encourages her team members to be nay-sayers, so voices of dissent could be heard and judiciously dealt with. She radiates positivity all around her. She is committed to the organization’s goals and looks after her team members much like a lioness would protect her cubs.

Such a person of steady wisdom is described in Bhagavad Gita as a Stitha-Prajna. Consider the following:

दु:खेष्वनुद्विग्नमना: सुखेषु विगतस्पृह: |
वीतरागभयक्रोध: स्थितधीर्मुनिरुच्यते || 2.56||

One whose mind remains undisturbed amidst misery, who does not crave for pleasure, and who is free from attachment, fear, and anger, is called a sage of steady wisdom.

Two concerns may arise here. One, could there really be persons who could be held to have all these qualities? Two, is it really possible for one to be free of one’s basket of desires and one’s ego?

In his book ‘Beyond the Last Blue Mountain’, R M Lala quotes the case of Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the Tata group of companies. It was he who gave the group a unique position in India. In his later years, he did not ask ‘What enterprise is the most profitable?’ but, ‘What does the nation need?’ Since the answer in his times was steel, hydro-electric power or an institute of science, he made his best efforts to fulfill that need.

He is reported to have once said something very basic:

We do not claim to be more unselfish, more generous or more philanthropic than other people. But we think we started on sound and straightforward business principles, considering the interests of the shareholders our own, and the health and welfare of the employees the sure foundation of our prosperity.’

Alfred Sloan is reported to have once remarked, ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America.’ J R D Tata always thought the other way round. ‘What is good for India is good for Tatas.’

Theirs is only one example of a business house which is clear in its goals and in its priorities. Several others could be quoted in the current context, like N R Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys.

Getting rid of desires and ego is no cakewalk. A CEO may introspect and fine tune her desires so the same are aligned with the values of the organization she works for. In the process, her personal desires take a back seat. Likewise, getting rid of one’s ego completely has a flip side. One could end up becoming a doormat and getting taken advantage of by all and sundry. Arguably, her wisdom and intuition can help her to retain her individuality even while letting go of the ego. Ask any CEO who has ever worked in a single-owner driven company, and she would attest to the basic principle of leaving the ego at the office gate itself!

Professionals who remain undistracted by transient entrapments have the ability to be rational and calm. They are steadfast in reaching their goals and go on to make successful business leaders.

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Many of our globe trotters these days complain of long duration flights across continents, cooped up in a metal tube which cruises at a height of 35,000 feet or so. They might simply shudder at the prospect of hopping across to the Moon, or undertaking inter-galactic travel on some future date.

One cannot be really blamed at feeling overwhelmed at the courage, conviction, perseverance and scientific precision with which Homo sapiens have been doing just that – undertaking perilous journeys into deep space. With each such sojourn, they enrich the knowledge we have about the planetary bodies around us.

Yours truly recently had an opportunity to visit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Manned Spacecraft Center, where human spaceflight training, research, and flight control are conducted.

Some of you may like some snippets from the visit.

General

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission Control Center

 

 

The place is getting refurbished, so as to be ready in time for the 50th anniversary of the first human being stepping on to lunar soil in 1969.

Special Vehicle Mock-up Facility

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experiments which leave one dumb founded.

Saturn V: A rocket which was never used

 

 

 

 

 

On our way out, we were shown the area where memorial placards have been put and trees planted for each one of the astronauts and their family members who are no longer alive. A touching tribute and a truly humane gesture.

Mars already holds sway over human imagination. The sun is also under a closer scrutiny. Besides USA, Russia and China have already learnt the art of propelling men and women beyond the narrow confines of our planet. India is also planning to put a human being in space by the year 2022, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its independence.

As a lesser mortal, one can merely wish all the space scientists across the world a great innings ahead in all their endeavours in the decades to follow, advancing the cause of scientific research and extending the boundaries of our knowledge about our universe.

One also wishes that our social scientists can match these efforts by building mental rockets which would propel our masses beyond the narrow confines of attitudes relating to caste, colour, creed, sex and nationality, hopefully prompting our politicians to work together to lower national barriers.

(Note: A note of gratitude is in order for the benevolent elderly couple who drove me down to NASA, followed by a drive through Galveston, a city by the side of the Gulf of Mexico. A ferry ride was the surprise part of the package!) 

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/living-on-another-planet-a-2112-fantasy

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2014/11/22/time-to-start-dismantling-the-invisible-walls)

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