Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From Mob to Team - The Journey Of The Waves

It is amazing how we can see something all our lives and in one sudden moment of clarity we are able to see a completely different aspect of the same scene. This is what happened to me as I watched the journey of the flood waters from the mountains to the sea. Suddenly the wave became an analogy for a person and the behaviour of the waves an analogy of human behaviour in groups.

As the flood waters tore down the mountains one could see their anger. The mud made them sinister and ugly, their ferocity made them lethal. I realized that the waves were at that moment behaving like a mob, ugly and dangerous. All that the water knew at that time was to make its way down, it tore down anything that stood in its way, no structure or bank could not contain it - the torrent carved its own path leaving behind devastation and brutal destruction, just like sanity does not prevail when a mob becomes unruly. For a mob long-term vision or logic is alien. So too in the case of the flood waters in KP. The water had one short-term goal i.e. get down to the plains and it took any path it could to achieve it.

As the water reached the plains something miraculous happened. Its very appearance changed. The individual waves were gentler, the surface was much calmer. The collective water still had tremendous force, even more so than when it was rushing down the mountains, but the appearance was gentler. Its psyche had changed! From a mob the waves had suddely become a team. Each wave unremarkable and small, but their collective power was awe inspiring. The waves had now a vision - to reach the sea. The strategy to reach the sea was also established - to follow the centuries old natural path that waves of the mightly Indus had always taken. As I observed the waves I was fascinated at how aligned they were - the hallmark of a good team. Each wave was bobbing up and down and moving in the same direction.

One may ask if this was a team then why did it cause so much destruction? My reply to that is it didn't! The destruction was caused by humans not allowing it to follow its strategy i.e. its path. When their strategy seemed to fail, the waves did exactly what any good team would do in a similar situation, they formulated an new strategy and travelled along the path of least resistance with the ultimate goal of reaching the sea.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Flooded With Optimism

Pakistan is witnessing the worst flooding in our recorded history. It is a saga of misery and terror that has been unfolding for over a month now, each day I watch the news and like everyone around the world I am appalled, horrified and heart broken. But there is another emotion I feel as well - is that optimism. You may think I'm either extremely callous or a bit mad to feel anything positive about this misery - I will not make any claims regarding my sanity, however I am not callous.

The Great Flood has been a recurring theme in various mythologies across the globe as well as many religious traditions especially the Abrahamic religions i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We are all familiar with the story of the Noah who was instructed by God to build an Ark and fill it with a pair from every species as well as God fearing righteous people and only those who were in the Ark survived the catastrophic flood which annihilated everything else. Actually given the sparse population of the world and the isolation of the communities at that time a localized event such as the floods of Pakistan which cover a massive area could have seemed like a global event to the people who were affected. The fact that it is repeated in different stories and myths from all over the world could either indicate that spectacular floods have occurred throughout history in various parts of this planet or there could be a more global climatic phenomenon that occurred at some point in our distant past – the academics and the scientists have been researching that for decades and perhaps they will find the answer or maybe we will never know definitively. But I think it’s not important how it happened what is of more value of is what it really means.

Most people look at this event as an indication of God's wrath and how he punished the evil doers. I tend to look at it from different perspective. I feel that this is a story of renewal, regeneration and a new start. Something has to end before something begins. It is a story of change, change at its most chaotic and its most glorious. A change that created a new world.

For me the floods of Pakistan are also the harbingers of change. I am not talking about political change – politics are something which are of no interest to me, and without exception all politicians make me want to shove a finger down my throat and puke vehemently. The change I’m talking about is social. These floods have given thousands of people who were farming on behalf of their landlords for pitiful wages and under great debt, to escape the oppression. When the waters came everyone ran wherever they could find safety, for some people this was the only opportunity they would ever get to take their families out. Then there were people working at the brick factories, who were in essence slaves to their masters and their entire families were made to work so that they could pay off the debts they owed to the owners – for these people traumatic though this event was, it is perhaps as if God has answered their prayers and delivered them. That is why a majority of the people in the relief camps of the big cities refuse to go back.

This social change is also evident in the change of the mindset of these people. Suddenly we are hearing people criticize their elected officials by name openly for their apathy and haphazard working – something quite alien to our rural society. But hunger and desperation sheds all inhibitions and this is perhaps the best thing that these floods have brought. I do feel that gone are the days when the politicians could be assured of their wins in their traditional constituencies, they will find that they will need to jump through the hoops for their votes now.

The women who have been displaced bring with them marvellous talents of traditional embroidery, handicrafts, pickle making etc. If we could open centres for them in the relief camps where they could work on producing their talents and make money, it would not only ease the government’s burden of providing for them but also open a whole new economic avenue for their families and give women a sense of economic freedom. Economic independence for women is essential if we want to change the social fabric.

Interestingly the flood affected area of Sindh is also a hotbed of tribal and clan wars where the slightest thing can gurantee several dead bodies in both camps. However the flood is a great equalizer - enemies sitting side-by-side on high ground fighting not each other but for survival. Many of the clans have also now been broken up as different families ended up in various cities and camps - some will return some will not. Yet another chance for this land to leave the past behind. When the waters have washed away all their material possession surely the load of enemity is too heavy a burden to carry.

The complete inefficiency of our bureaucracy and government departments has also become blatantly clear, perhaps now they will find it hard to keep up their policy of “look busy do nothing” because the people are certainly not being fooled any more. The floods have washed away the bureaucracy’s fa├žade of competency and aloofness which they had spent decades in cultivating.

Perhaps once again God has intervened – not to punish us but to give us another chance for a new beginning. Our challenge now is to stop running like headless chicken and clucking ‘we have no money’ ‘we can’t cope’ and implement strategies which can leverage this event to the nation’s advantage. God has done his part but we have to meet him half way.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pharaohnic Leadership Part - 2

2 - Leaders Are Immortal

Every Pharoah had various titles and names by which he was referred to but his principle name i.e. the name by which he ruled always appeared in a cartouche. These cartouches appeared profusely on everything that Pharaoh constructed and it appeared on the walls of his tomb as well as on his sarcophagus. It was believed that as long as the person’s name was spoken his soul was intact, he was alive, he was immortal.

The biggest act of vengeance that could be conducted in ancient Egypt was to remove all evidence of a person’s name. The destruction of a cartouche meant the end of his soul, in essence the end of his after life. This punishment was allotted to only the most hated people, who it was believed, had committed such a heinous crime that paying for it with merely their life was not enough, the punishment had to continue till eternity.

Two Pharaohs who were allotted this punishment were Hetshepsut and Akhenaten. Upon the death of his stepmother Hetshepsut, Tuthmosis III went on a rampage and ordered the removal of her name wherever it appeared. A similar fate was awarded to Akhenaten the Pharaoh who dared to change the very religion of Egypt to an almost monotheistic one, that of the worship of Aten - the Sun God. Such was the hate with which the nation and especially the priests regarded him that his name was even removed from his coffin. Amarna, the city that Akhenaten built had too many cartouches and images of Akhenaten to be vandalized individually so the entire city was destroyed.

What Immortality means to the modern leader

If speaking a person’s name after his death ensured the immortality of the person in ancient Egypt, then what does it mean for the modern leader? Simply put it is the legacy a leader behinds in the organization they serve. This legacy is not carved in stone, nor is it recognized by the plaques on the wall of the organization’s head office. Instead this is the legacy a leader leaves behind by strengthening the organization and enhancing its capacity. The well timed decisions taken by a leader, the capability enhancement of his/her team and the empowerment provided to them, the vision that sets the organization on the path of future success are all parts of this legacy. When leaders stop to think about their pay cheques and job security and take bold steps to ensure that the future of their people and the organization they serve is secured and bright, when they have the courage to think beyond the short-term and are creative enough to think outside-the-box that’s when their name lives on long after they leave the organization and that’s when they become immortal.

3 – Leaders Govern

Ancient Egypt had one of the most organized civil services that the world has known. Projects like the Pyramids of Giza or the tombs of the Valley of Kings don’t get completed without precision planning and meticulous execution. Contrary to the Hollywood portrayal of thousands of slaves toiling night and day in abject conditions to transfer a Pharaoh’s egoistic building dream into reality, these building projects were the work of the most highly paid, well looked after master craftsmen of Egypt. To work on the Pyramids or the tombs of the Pharaohs and their queens was not just an honour but a career employment which benefited the entire family. The remains of the workers’ villages near Giza as well as the Valley of the Kings is evidence of this fact.

Although some slaves (largely the outcome of military escapades) were employed for the manual labour, most of the work was completed by Egyptian citizens who came from all over the land mainly during the dry season when there was not much to do but wait for the Nile to break its banks and make the land fertile for the next crop. In essence it was the Pharaoh’s way of providing employment during the lean period and it was the way in which people contributed their share of ensuring the Pharaoh’s immortality and hence maintain the equilibrium between prosperity and chaos.

There was a chain of command for these construction projects especially the Pyramids of Giza, through which each instruction was passed to the relevant person correctly, each stone and each brick was accounted for, the rations given to each person were recorded meticulously. And at the head of this hierarchy was one person who ruled supreme – not The Pharaoh Snefru who built the first Step Pyramid at Maidum, or the Red and Bent Pyramids at Dashur, nor was it Khufu who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, it was Imhotep. The Chief Architect and Vizier to the Pharaohs. A man so powerful that ancient Egyptians revered him as a God, an honour unknown for any other mortal except the Pharaoh. It was Imhotep’s genius which gave us the last remaining wonder of the ancient world. The Pharaoh’s who employed Imhotep trusted his abilities so much that they deployed much of Egypt’s resources towards the creation of his ideas.

Hence to say that the Pharaohs were a bunch of egomaniacal, decadent people who were whimsical and only concerned with being pampered seems to be another false conception brought about by ignorance and Hollywood.

What Governing mean to the modern leader

The Pharaohs realized that at the end of the day it was not his special magical powers that got things done – it was the people. And people need to be taken care of and each project executed in meticulous detail. In the modern world governing means selecting people with the right skill set, setting up proper execution plans, allowing for communication to flow through the team, monitoring the project (but not interfering with people’s work) and allowing people to express their unique abilities. Only leaders who are secure in their own capabilities allow their team to flourish. An insecure leader will not let his/her team test out new ideas, an insecure leader maintains unnecessary controls and checks on the team which mostly become counter-productive as it stifles their ability to show initiative. An insecure leader wants to hog all the credit. A secure leader shares the credit realizing that when the team delivers the leader automatically gets the credit. Imhotep may have been the genius behind the Great Pyramid but it will always be known as Khufu’s (Cheop’s) pyramid.

4 – Leaders Tell Great Stories

Hieroglyphs and Egypt are synonymous with each other, every temple wall, every tomb is covered with these texts along with the images of the Pharaohs performing various royal tasks. One would imagine that only religious texts or religious acts are carved on these walls but that is not true. One frequently comes across images of Pharaohs being victorious over their enemies, e.g on one of the walls of the Temple of Karnak Seti I is shown annihilating his enemies. There are other images which show the Pharaohs as loving family men and yet others which portray their divine lineage. So what was the purpose of these carvings? Were these images only designed to be decorative? Or were they a means of appeasing the Pharaoh’s ego? Perhaps both but there was one more important reason for these, they were like permanent billboards. Temples were at the centre of Egyptian life and anything carved on these walls ensured that a large number of people would see them. The purpose of these images was to portray the humane, religious and martial side of the Pharaoh. The images were designed to inspire love and trust. Many of the scenes were exaggerated accounts of events some even untrue but the purpose was that when people saw their Pharaoh’s life on these walls they would feel secure in the knowledge that they were in safe hands.

What story telling means for the modern leader

In the modern world leaders who are able to inspire their people towards a shared greater glory become great story tellers. Inspiring people requires communicating with them, instilling a sense of security and a vision of the future. These leaders can motivate their teams to overcome the most difficult of challenges and emerge victorious because they believe that they can. No one but the leader can perform this task, this is one thing the leader cannot delegate. Leaders realize that their emotions are contagious and if their teams sense that the leader is not convinced or feels overwhelmed, the team will respond in the same manner. Leaders can lead because their teams want to be led by them, and we want to be led only by people who know what they are doing.

Hence good sound principles stand the test of time. The face of leadership may change but the leadership itself does not change.

Pharaohnic Leadership Part - 1

As a management consultant and trainer most of my time is spent talking about, studying and training on the subject of leadership. There are as many theories as there are authors, each has their own take on the subject and each one has certain overlaps with the other theories. Most say the same things with unique semantics.

Since my first love is ancient history I wanted to see if there are certain themes which have continued over the millennia and are still passing the test of time. And where better to start this search than ancient Egypt – the cradle of civilization, whose leaders managed to turn a group of small nomadic communities into the most powerful empire of the ancient world. To study the leadership of the Pharaohs is not a simple matter of reading books on them, as they are spread over a period of almost 3000 years and over 30 dynasties. Some of them we know about at length, the others are just names discovered through various sources. Therefore in order to study the leadership principles of the Pharaohs I had to study the evidence of their power and the recurring themes of their art and architecture. Some of the most prominent themes and their modern day parallels are as follows:

1 – Leaders are Divine

Divinity of the Pharaoh was the fabric which wove the Egyptian Empire. The origins of this concept are rooted in the story of Osiris, Isis and Seth, a story which closely resembles the later Judaic, Christian and Islamic story of Cain and Able. Osiris, the firstborn of Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky) was said to have inherited the kingdom and took Isis as his wife. Seth who was Osiris’ brother and symbolic of violence and chaos murdered Osiris. The forlorn Isis managed to find his body and with the power of her love managed to resurrect him and conceive their child Horus. To cut a long story short, in the end Horus defeated Seth and took his place on the throne of Egypt.

It is this story that drove the Pharaonic culture. Horus became symbolic of the Pharoah i.e. the living Pharaoh was Horus incarnate. It was believed that once the Pharaoh died i.e. ceased to be Horus he will be resurrected and would live with Osiris and Isis in the heavens.

Interestingly Syrius the star associated with Isis has a heliacal rising of 70 days i.e. each year it disappears under the horizon for 70 days and then appears in the night sky once again. This heliacal rising of Syrius corresponded with the inundation of the Nile hence bringing fertility and life to the land. This 70 day period did not go unnoticed by the Egyptians as the mummification process took exactly 70 days. The idea was that just as Isis dies and comes back to ensure the fertility of the land, the Pharaoh will also rise from the dead in 70 days and look after his subjects and the land from the heavens. If this cycle of resurrection was not followed there would be drought, famine and chaos in Egypt.

Hence the divinity of the Pharaoh meant that he was a force which brought order and prevented chaos. Like Horus the living Pharaoh defeated the forces of chaos and maintained calm in the land and his divine duty continued after his death.

What Divinity means to the modern leader

The divinity of leadership still continues, not the trappings of divinity but the responsibility of divinity. A good leader must ensure that his/her team is aligned and focused even in the worst crises. It is the leader who must remain calm and inspire his/her people to overcome the challenge. It is the leader who people still turn to in troubling times for answers and assurances. Each time a change occurs the forces of chaos are not far behind, the bigger the change the more pronounced the chaos may be. To manage change successfully is to keep chaos at bay. To lead the team to a higher level of performance by providing, stability, direction, motivation and inspiration is the primary responsibility of the modern day leader, just as it was for the Pharaoh.