Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creating The Conformist

The mind of a human child is a miracle of creation. It not only absorbs everything around it like a sponge but also learns to relate with it. It masters how to use and control the body which it inhabits. It forms patterns and associations even from the most abstract stimuli and it learns a whole language by age 3 in fact in multilingual homes it learns more than 1 language. Think about it – if you and I were to learn 2 languages simultaneously how long would it take?

Children can look at the most ordinary object and create a whole new function around it – a spoon becomes a magic wand or gun, a pillow becomes a ship and a chair becomes the space shuttle. Their minds are free to associate and their thoughts uncensored. They are not worried about what anyone will think of them – they are intrepid explorers out to discover the world around them.

Armed with this zest and natural ability children go to schools. And they learn for the first time that there is such a thing as a ‘wrong answer’. Very quickly the censors are developed and they learn that the definition of ‘right’ is whatever the teacher wants to hear. Soon this miracle of creativity starts to conform. The next 15 years or so while the child goes through school and then college are spent in systematically un-learning what was natural – creativity, and acquiring that which was unnatural – a fear of making mistakes.

This now grown up person then enters the work force and their organization hires someone like me to teach them a course on ‘Creativity’. How ironic is that? The very skill which we deconstructed piece-by-piece over decades now becomes a necessity for their professional development. Think ‘out-of-the-box’ is the new mantra these bewildered young people hear constantly at work. One wonders if this was the desired outcome then why was the entire process leading up to this point going in the opposite direction?

To learn is to make mistakes and to innovate and invent requires both mistakes as well as wastage. But from early on we teach kids that both these things are wrong and intolerable. So armed with this fear of making mistakes they go to work where their boss expects strokes of brilliance from them but does not tolerate any deviations. What a hypocrisy their lives become – on one hand they are taught that “to err is human..” and on the other they are expected to work like angels who make no mistakes at all. How can we expect these people to create new solutions and be innovative? Conformists do not create new worlds - that is the domain of the mavericks who dream and have the courage to act on them. But in our society non-conformists are people who need to be 'fixed'. If they do not think like the others, if they do not behave like the others, if they do not have the same aspirations as the others then something must be wrong with them. After all the majority of the people can't be wrong so it stands to reason that the ones who are different must be in the fault. That's the concept of democracy gone mad!

There is no denying that the majority of our children have no access to schools and even being in school does not give them an access to education. But even in the small percentile where they have access to both schools and education the question remains what are we teaching them? Is literacy the be all and end all of education or are life skills just as important? We teach them that to dream is good but we also teach them that importance of ground realities. No wonder when you ask any young person their goals and ambitions they will spout lofty and noble aspirations, but study their body language and you will know that this is just lip service, they don't really believe in their ability to deliver them. Its not their fault, they didn't start this way but as a society we went all out to trim them to comply with our views. We are stuck in the Victorian age where we like gardens to be lined with topiaries, but you know what? Nothing beats the beauty of a natural forest.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Responsibility Of Change

Our 64th Independence Day came and went. This time however, I think it brought with it a lot more reflection on our part than usual, perhaps because there was a lot more to reflect upon than the previous years.

When I was young we didn’t really have such Independence Day celebrations, perhaps because there was just PTV at that time and it too only aired during certain times each day. We didn’t have flags on each house but we did have the whole neighborhood decked with buntings and of course the lighting which still continues. The difference is at that time we didn’t resent the lights because we didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘load shedding’. These days when we see all the government buildings lit up we usually think more consumption means more load shedding for us.

As a kid I remember my mother used to make everyone in the house stand up whenever the anthem was played on the radio or TV. It was the done thing. But then something changed, suddenly it became very ‘uncool’ to stand up for your anthem. This transition was most evident in cinema houses. In the beginning everyone used to stand up, without any hesitation, then we started seeing half the people standing up while the others kept sitting and snickered at those who did. Eventually no body would get up and I think they stopped playing the anthem in the halls after a while (I’m not sure what happens nowadays, I haven’t seen the inside of a theater in decades). How many parents are teaching their children nowadays to stand up for their anthem? There was less hullabaloo in those days but more genuine respect.

We seem to have become a society that is addicted to events – whether it is a tragedy like the floods of 2010 or a happy occasion like 14th August, we come alive and rally together only to go back to our slumber when the occasion ends or the novelty wears off. This is a nation which has a lot of excess energy and events bring us the mechanism to release it. If we could find ways of channeling this energy on a more consistent basis we could change this country. We seem to be all asking questions these days, how to focus our energies? How to bring about change? And then we ask the BIG one and draw a blank – who will bring this change???

I belong to a generation which witnessed the fall of Dhaka. I was very young at that time, but old enough to notice the pin drop silence in our entire neighborhood when the news came. The initial reaction was disbelief, then the shock of acceptance followed by brief and eventually shame. Those who didn’t live through that time can’t even imagine what it was like; it was the height of shame and our lowest point ever. But we eventually came out of it, we survived and came back on our track. If we could survive that blow to our very existence I’m sure we can survive the internal chaos and rampant corruption we are facing nowadays. When one hits rock bottom there is nowhere else to go but up. However we will need to take some responsibility for this change. I am alarmed at the discussions people have nowadays in front of their children. Negativity, pessimism, a send of hopelessness and helplessness is the gist of conversations in most homes. I am not saying that we become ostriches but at least we can ensure that these messages are not being absorbed by children. It is the job of parents to instill confidence, values and focus in their children. That’s what responsible parenting is all about.

We may not know who will save us from the present chaos but we definitely know that the future of our country is in the hands of the generation that is still in schools and they are the responsibility of our generation. So the next time you wonder who will bring change to this society look at your kids, it could be one of your sons or daughters and then ask yourself if you are being responsible as a parent of the future leader?

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Corporate Leaders' Guide To National Leadership

I have spent nearly 20 years of my life reading, observing as well as teaching leadership and teamwork. That’s all I know. Probably I paint a pretty pathetic picture in a social setting when everyone around me is discussing politics and I appear completely clueless. Give me a dysfunctional organization and I can probably give you a clear diagnostic of what’s wrong along with a blueprint of how to rectify the issues. But can the same skills be used on a macro level i.e. a dysfunctional nation?
Let’s start with the most basic of concepts in leadership – team dynamics and the responsibilities of a leader at various stages of team development.

Stage 1 – Formation or Pseudo Community

Observable Symptoms
  • Over enthusiasm on part of the team members
  • Focus on ‘niceties’ and being polite
  • No goal is too big for them – they can touch the sky
  • A picture of cooperation
 Reason – the team at this stage is high on motivation but low on competence. They really don’t know what the goal achievement will entail. They are operating with limited information.

A Leader’s Responsibility 
  • Explain the goal and objectives at length 
  • Let people know what their role will be in achieving these objectives 
  • Chalk out the strategy and let the members know of the potential challenges ahead
 Result –  members start to understand the complexity of the task at hand and what kind of effort will be required on their part. This realization sets the stage for Stage 2.

Stage 2 – Storming or Chaos

Observable Symptoms 
  • Blaming each other for lack of results 
  • Passing the buck when it comes to responsibility 
  • Forming cliques amongst the team 
  • Talking in innuendos and having veiled discussions 
  • Blaming the leader for playing favourites
 Reason – the team has come face-face with reality and are going through a phase of low motivation and low competence. On the surface it seems like a regression of the team, but this stage must come if the team has any chance of emerging as a strong cohesive unit at the other end. 

 A Leader’s Responsibility 
  • Holding the members accountable for their results – regardless of who cooperated or not the person responsible for the task is also accountable for it.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open amongst team members – if 2 members have a problem with each other the leader’s job is to get both parties together to discuss and resolve the issue. The leader can mediate but should not devote his/her time to listening to complains from members about their team.
 Result – if the leader manages to lead his/her team at this stage then the team moves forward to the next one.
Stage 3 – Norming or Resolution

Observable Symptoms
  • The team members have learnt to work with each other and come to realize that they don’t have to ‘love’ their team members, just be able to work with them
  • The team will have a tendency to draw attention of the tasks they have done well 
  • There will be an effort to draw the leader’s attention away from the areas in which they still haven’t been able to produce the desired results.
Reason – the team is currently going through a period of variable motivation and variable competence. They have started to get some success but there are still areas which are proving a challenge to them. Where they succeed their motivation goes up, where they struggle the motivation is still down.

A Leader’s Responsibility
To celebrate the team’s success but keep pushing them to take on further challenges. If the leader become complacent at this stage or lets the team rest on their laurels, the team will slip into a cycle of mediocrity. The leaders actions at this phase propel the teams into the fourth and final stage. 

 Stage 4 – Performing or Production

Observable Symptoms 
  • The leader becomes first amongst equals – a figure head who steps in only when the team goes into regression for any reason 
  • The team members are open and candid about issues 
  • Conflicts are taken as positively and resolved within the team 
  • The team has learnt to ‘think together’ i.e be able to arrive at decisions through consensus and candid debate
 Reason- the team is now at a stage of high motivation and high competence. They know what to do and are confident of the outcome. 

 It doesn’t take a keen analytical mind to come to the conclusion that as a nation we are stuck in Stage 2 – Storming or Chaos and this stage is becoming more and more pronounced each day due to the complete lack of leadership. The term ‘political leadership’ has become an oxymoron in our country. We simply have politicians – available in all sizes, small, big, large, XL and XXL. Leadership on the other hand is completely absent in this mix. 

In an organization even the worst leader is at the end of the day held accountable for his/her results. No matter how good they are at playing office politics at the end of the day it is their contribution to the organizational goals which leads to their success.  The vehicle which drives this accountability is the Performance Appraisal System. Granted in many organizations it doesn’t always perform at its optimum, personal biases, pressure of conforming to the bell curve etc all lead to many disgruntled employees. However it is a tool that by far and large does serve the organization’s purpose when people are trained to use it effectively.  

The appraisal system for the democratic government is of course the ballot. However this system seems to have one important column missing – Contribution To The National Goals. The few citizens that chose to use this system (and the numbers dwindle in each election) appraise the candidate on the basis of : a) which party do they hate the most, so its opposition gets the vote, b) which community do the candidates belong to. Most of us however stay at home in the comfort of the knowledge that our physical presence is not really needed, our vote will be cast.
It is no wonder that no political party has ever bothered to take a hard look at its leadership style and try to improve it. At the end of the day we never hold them accountable for their contribution to the nation’s goals and objectives. Perhaps because we really have no idea what our goals are? 

We spend so much time in fire-fighting that we really have lost track of where we want to be as a nation in 5 or 10 years time. Any organization which has managed to turn itself around has done so by setting a very clear Vision for itself. This vision then gets translated into Key Performance Indicators which are then further distributed down the line as departmental and individual goals and targets. But does any one of us really have an answer to where we want to see Pakistan in 10 years time? We are great at slogans and rhetoric, but that does not and has not gotten us anywhere. 

The day our government develops a vision even a myopic one, I would be happy. But right now it’s the blind leading the blind. The government has no vision, the opposition’s visions is just that – opposition. The people are too tied down with the effort of day-to-day living to be able to take a step back and assess their future.
Only a strong vision can set everything else in motion. It is the start of any good leadership initiative in the corporate sector, everything else stems from it. We as a nation need a unified and strong vision as well, because when people have something to look forward to they are willing to expend inordinate amounts of energy towards its achievement. Even the best of teams succumb to inertia and disintegrate in the absence of a goal.