Monday, 7 November 2011

The Curse of a Blessing

I read with interest an Opinion piece from the New York Times about the recent troubles engulfing a millionaire who till then had been the poster boy of the American dream. In his article entitled "The Reckless Meritocracy", Ross Douthat shares his views about the pitfalls of a meritocratic system and how it reinforces the entitlement mentality and breeds over confidence. At the same time, he warns against over reaction and the possible knee-jerk to replace "arrogance with ignorance". As the pendulum swings, there is a tendancy for it to swing too far in the opposite direction, yielding different but equally offensive results.

This brings me to the title of this post. As we look around at success stories we see in government and in corporations, there is more than an even chance that many who hold positions of leadership feel that they deserve to be in the positions they are in. Many have been blessed with superior intellect and their abilities allowed them to rise to pinnacle posts in their respective organisations. Perhaps, they have even been described as "visionaries". Being a "visionary" necessarily involves "out of the box" thinking which is often contrarian in nature. It is this difference in thinking and doing that has allowed these super achievers to stand out from the crowd. It has been their recipe of success and would at the very least shape their world view or at the extreme become a life principle.

So, can we blame someone for behaving in a way that has made them what they are? Mr Douthat suggests that the solution lies in "intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution". I suspect that this is an oxymoron of sorts. Super achievers have immense self belief. That is why so many people believe and follow them. When they fail, that same self belief is characterised as over confidence or even arrogance. Perhaps the solution is that a different type of leader is needed altogether. One that does not fall into the super achiever category. One that is not cursed with the blessing of great ability.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is broken

This is an appealing mantra that I have used before. Never really thought too much about it, because it seemed like a reasonable paradigm. Recent events however, have caused me to reconsider this position. One such event is the recent revolt in Egypt. Analysis abounds on the reasons for the revolt and its timing. Much of the focus is on the role of social media and the spread of unrest in the Middle East. What I found interesting however is to look at it from President Mubarak's perspective. By the time he realised the perilous situation he was in and tried to intervene, it was already too late. This is the danger of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" ideology. By the time "it" is broken, it is possible that it would be too late to fix.

But this realisation by itself is not particularly useful, because at the other end of the spectrum you would have incessant tinkering, which is also not helpful. So the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The challenge then is to allow changes to take root so that they can generate consistent results, yet not leave them too long till it is too late to change. Consider an analogy from the electronics industry. If Apple had stuck to the hugely successful iPod, I doubt it would have reached the success of today. It continued to innovate bringing in products like the iPhone and iPad. Then there is Microsoft. The shine of Bill Gates is waning and I guess only time will tell if this giant can reawaken or has it passed the point of no return.

Sometimes, we have to fix the things that are not broken yet. In fact, a more appropriate metaphor to me now is a swinging pendulum.