Saturday, October 27, 2012 11 comments

A TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADER


I do not usually read  books on organizational or leadership development.  It is not that I am not interested. It is just that I believe  it is something  that cannot be understood  through words but has to be experienced .So what I am going to do now is to try and share with you the experience of working with a  person who can definitely be called a “ transformational”  leader.. 

I saw his picture before I met him. I had just joined this organization in 2005 as part of a new team at a new location. I was given a computer which was used by a couple of others before it was passed on to me. While browsing through the files, I saw this picture of his. He had his arms around an old lady who was very upset at having lost her entire family in the tsunami. The picture was obviously a candid shot – neither knew that it was being taken. There was something very powerful about that picture. I could see compassion and empathy in his eyes – something that is usually missing in all those pictures that  I had previously seen of politicians posing similarly. I asked someone about who the picture was of. This person told me his name and added “ This man NEVER gets angry” .  

When I actually met him and started working with him, I realized how true that little comment was! It is not that he did not get angry but just that he expressed it differently. A man who had such a strong rein on his emotions that it was unbelievable!  He had a quality that I have NEVER seen in any human being ( particularly in someone who was not much older than me )so far – he radiated peace! It reminded me of those paintings of the Buddha.

The situation that he was sent to manage at that time was not a pleasant one. There were a lot of team issues not to mention problems relating to operations. I don’t know how he did it but somewhere along the way things started falling into place. And the best thing about him was that he never blamed anyone for any mess ups but openly acknowledged that whatever happened he was “ accountable” ! After a particularly stressful meeting once where people were unwilling to take responsibility for doing certain tasks for fear of being blamed if anything went wrong, his statement about accountability took us by surprise! I have been his fan ever since!

However, I would not say that dealing with him was in any way  like dealing with the Buddha! He was the most demanding of all the bosses that I have ever  had! And the funny thing about him was that he never actually made those demands. He just got us to perform in a way that we wanted to excel. He unleashed that passion in all of us in the most subtle ways. Something that was a mere task  until recently ,now took on a different meaning. Those were the days  when I worked, reworked again and again on a report until I was satisfied with it! Needless to say the output pleased him too..

A special skill that he had was working under stress –whether it was external as in managing an emergency or a team conflict. There was a joke that used to go around  about how he was particularly good at managing “difficult women” in his team( you can guess who helped him in further honing those skills.) We were three women in his team and while I would not say that we were difficult, we were certainly strong individuals who had our own views on how something ought to be done. I think his skill lay in helping us understand the other’s perspective and negotiate.

A rather quiet and shy man, he used to often get “bullied” by us women in  other ways. PP who was known for her brand of double meaning jokes usually made him her target. The poor man just stopped short of blushing at some of her comments! But that did not mean he did not have a sense of humor. An extremely witty man, his subtle brand of humor was something that all of us enjoyed. The Tamil accent in Chennai used to puzzle him a lot until he decided to “adopt” it - with extremely funny consequences! Lunch breaks used to be like something out of a school as we roared with laughter ( the women’s laughter being the loudest).

A man who had begun his career from an entry level  position in the organization, his special skill lay in being able to understand the challenges faced by people way down in the hierarchy !  It also meant that he knew when someone was lying or trying to fool him about some work. I remember him saying to someone “I have worked at almost all levels in this organization. So I know how things work there.” As someone once said “ It is difficult to bullshit to him” !! He used to be very open about what he did not know or understand, asking people to explain new concepts to him. When the person launched into jargon his comment would be      “ Cut the Angrezi and explain what this is actually all about”. I remember having to do it a couple of times- the kind of clarity  that came in me as a result of having to explain something to him and clear his doubts helped me develop a new confidence in my own abilities!

He was my boss for just two years before he moved on to a more senior position. But those two years were something I will certainly remember- particularly the annual performance appraisals where his review would extend beyond what we did as work to how we performed as human beings.

I think I was sometimes guilty of passing on my stress to him. I realize now that many people have done it and are probably still doing it..! The problems are bigger now as he is more senior but I still see him continuing to absorb them like a sponge.

I also see the toll that this has taken on him physically- a once very handsome man, he has today lost almost all his hair. His health problems have increased his weight. Sometimes I wonder why does he take it all.. ?

Transformational leadership  is  considered to enhance the motivation, morale, and performance of followers through a variety of mechanisms like  connecting the follower's sense of identity and self to the project and the collective identity of the organization. Such leaders are role models for followers inspiring them and keeping them interested while also challenging them to take greater ownership for their work.

He did that and much more.. I will need to write an entire book if I have to analyze it more. I am glad that in the seven and a half years that I spent with this organization that I am currently transitioning from, I had the opportunity to spend an entire two year period working with him.

Thanks boss… it was a GREAT experience and this organization is lucky to have someone like you there!
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 8 comments

PARTIPAN KANAVU ( PARTIPAN’S DREAM)


 I am not Kalki  and I am not embarking on  something historical. The title is a bit deceptive.  So read this at your own risk!
We had planned to start out from Pondicherry very early that morning. Our driver  Partipan was not exactly happy with that huge cup of cappuccino coffee I insisted he share with us at Le café. “What is this madam? You are only paying for the foam. Not good for anyone” he grumbled.   And then he disappeared while we were completing the check out formalities at the hotel.  I guess he was worried we might drag him to have breakfast with us. He preferred his own spots for meals- places where the food was more to his liking than what Hotel Surguru  offered. But wherever or whatever it was that he ate that day was obviously not something that his stomach relished. 

We had just crossed Marakanam when this careful driver suddenly started behaving like a formula one contestant.  We held on to our seats as I shouted at A who was riding “shotgun” with him to buckle up her seat belt.  Poor girl, she was obviously not used to seat belts( the streets of Kolkata , her home town have so much of traffic that one can usually walk alongside a vehicle).  She fumbled around for the strap while I tried to instruct her from the back seat dancing dangerously in my semi erect position …!
“ Don’t distract him A. He needs to focus”  I told her as I finally helped her strap herself in.  “ But ma’m  I was not talking to him today”  she protested.  True.. the previous evening she had been  playing    “ English Vinglish”  with him with not so pleasant consequences as he kept losing focus.

But today it was strange. He appeared to be completely focused – actually too focused! He was not participating in any conversation or enlightening me with details of the Tamil movie songs that he was playing .  He had a serious look on his face as he drove on.  When I told him to take the turning from Sholinganallur into the Old Mahabalipuram Road ( OMR), he did not seem  happy. I pointed to our consultant telling him that we needed to drop her there.  
As we drove on in OMR I suddenly decided that I would go to my daughter’s school for a few minutes for her “open day” – a day when the children present projects on various topics to parents.  The school was only a stone’s throw away from the consultant’s house. So, I could easily get down, run in, mark my presence while he dropped her at her house two streets away. 
I don’t know if it was my imagination but he seemed flabbergasted at the idea.  “Madam, it looks like it will pour” he said.  He seemed to have a far off look in his eyes when I insisted, saying it would not take that much longer. 

I usually go to the daughter’s school from the other end of OMR.  Driving from this end was a little confusing as I made Partipan stop  every now and then, starting from Navalur to see if this was the correct turning. This genial man, almost lost his cool with me when I did that for the third time. I wondered what was the matter.  
Finally when we reached the school, my two colleagues said that they would not be coming with me as they were not “ dressed appropriately to enter a school” .  Partipan seemed clearly unhappy when they continued sitting in the vehicle and riding on to the consultant’s   house.  But he seemed relieved when I told him he need not drive through the bad approach road to the school to pick me up after dropping her. I would walk up to the highway and meet him there.

Just as I had expected ,it did not take me more than twenty minutes at the school. As I reached the highway,  I found there was no sign of the vehicle. When I called Partipan, he told me that both the other madams had gone into the consultant’s home at her invitation. He asked me to call and request them to come downstairs. When I did call one of them our consultant grabbed the   phone and  insisted that I come over to her house “ just for five minutes “.  So I called  Partipan asking him to come over and take me there. 
The five minute ride to her house was through extremely bumpy roads. But my charioteer seemed to be in a much better mood and more like himself.  He spoke about the corruption that the town panchayat indulged in when it came to road laying and followed it up with his usual litany of complaints with all elected representatives of the government.  I was happy to see the change.  Obviously, it was the consultant’s presence in the vehicle that was annoying him.

After the initial hospitality our consultant, a typical Indian lady given to making a news out of mere ordinary occurrences told me “ You know what happened when you were away?  Partipan wanted to go doubles and I had to ask our watch man to give him the keys”   For a moment I was puzzled. I wondered if our driver had suddenly decided to switch from driving a Bolero to a BSA ? Otherwise how does one explain the “doubles” ? But when I saw both the girls giggling the tube light in my head came on and a lot of things fell into place.
As we got ready to leave, I looked at him closely. Partipan sitting behind the steering wheel seemed to me  like a man who had achieved his dream. But the moment he saw our consultant he  got into a flurry wanting to leave. He mentioned the weather again- though  not so vehemently this time. He almost did not wait for the door to close when he changed gears and pressed his accelerator. But Ms. N our consultant was something else. She came up to the window and asked him to roll it down. When it was no longer possible to ignore her, he had to do just that . She  in turn peered in asking loudly “ Did you find the key and use the toilet”?  Poor guy, I think he was the most embarrassed person in the world at that moment!

My two colleagues began giggling again. S said “ Ma’m we did not want to go upstairs to  N mam’s house but Partipan was absolutely insistent that we go”  I realized why…!
Yes, it seems like a joke when it happens to someone else, but think about a time when it had happened to you..There is even a Tenali Rama story along these lines where the court jester is supposed to have told King Krishnadevaraya that  finding a toilet when desperately in need is like a dream come true. The King had thought it was sheer cheekiness to answer like that  until he was in a similar situation!

So Partipan found his dream in an apartment complex off OMR..! It  was another thing that it became common knowledge among his passengers. I wish I could tell him to stop feeling embarrassed about it. But I think if I broach this topic he would dig a hole and bury himself there. So, the best thing would be to ignore his dash towards his dreams.  After all, aren’t dreams just fleeting experiences ?

 

 

 

 
Sunday, October 14, 2012 14 comments

WINE AND WOMEN


I have always found it funny the way wine and women are associated together as vices- and by implication I suppose the message that goes out is that women who are around wine are of character that is suspect! Consider a social event where alcohol is served- how many women are offered a drink? Yes I know times are changing but generally, in India, women who drink are viewed in the most suspicious way!

Now, let me make this clear, I am not in any way promoting alcoholism – if drinking is bad then it should be bad for both men and women! However if drinking is something that we do at social events then  why exclude one group of adults from it? There is ofcourse that personal choice people can and do exercise by saying “ NO”  when offered a drink. 

I remember travelling alone to Kuala Lumpur a few years back. The stewardess was asking passengers for their drink preference. When she came to me ,the choices she presented were all fruit juices. So I asked her why she was not offering me any wine or beer or whatever? She seemed a bit surprised and then asked me if I would like to have any of those.  Though I am not a teetotaler I selected a fruit juice. Why? That was because of my co passengers – two conservative looking Tamil men on my left and two young fellows on my right!  All  these four strangers were eyeing me curiously during this exchange. Of course I was least bothered about what they thought about me but considering I was travelling alone, I did not want to expose myself to any bad behavior  that might be triggered from what was going on in their minds!

This is one of the biggest stereotypes that our society has when it comes to women who drink!  That they must be “ loose” ! This is something that both men and women think And probably the only reason why many women avoid drinking socially ! I had a very shocking experience once when a senior colleague of mine after an office event ( where he was drinking quite liberally) told me “ I never knew you drank. I have now lost all respect for you!”  This from a man, who regularly pollutes the environment with his chain smoking and indulges in all kinds of gossip about everyone ..  I was wondering what exactly did this word “respect “ mean for him? After that I have studiously avoided drinking until I was sure I was in a crowd where people would not attribute such screwed up meanings for the word ‘respect” !!  I guess that is also the reason why men avoid offering women alcohol at social events-the fear of being misunderstood. It is a special kind of friendship between the sexes that promotes this solidarity of having a “drink” together without getting misunderstood or being taken advantage of. I share that only with two of my colleagues.  At any other social events I drink only if my husband is with me and neither of us drink if we feel the crowd is not familiar  or is  conservative!

So, it was quite a funny experience last week when  travelling back from Pondicherry some of us decided to buy   wine. I was with two young female colleagues and they were absolutely insistent about not leaving the place without procuring some wine. So, I asked our driver to stop at a shop that sold alcohol. He seemed a bit uncertain..”Enna Madam?”  he muttered. But unable to bear the pestering from the back seat he pulled up near a shop and all three of us marched in.

The staff in the shop were rather surprised ( to put it mildly). And being women, we have a certain style of shopping that I guess men do not have!  We women as you may know, like to examine all the products that are on offer before we make the decision- the shop assistants in Nalli/ Pothys/ Fab India are quite used to that. But their counterparts in the liquor shop were completely baffled as we asked them to pull out bottles from the various shelves examined them ( the bottles I mean) inside the shop, took them outside, read the label, looked for expiry dates and asked for explanations about differences between dry wine and sweet wine! Not enough, a couple of us also made calls home to ask what should be bought.  When S called her father and asked “Daddy, do you want red or white wine”   the shop assistant looked shocked! And of course, I made my own contribution to this shock syndrome by carrying on a conversation with my better half and simultaneously asking for various brands and bottle sizes until I confused the sales guy completely!  Then we wanted the bottles packed safely-A examined the packaging closely before she exhibited her displeasure saying she wanted the packing changed. “Why is the neck of the bottle sticking out of the case” ? she asked. “ Madam, that is how it is – the bottle is too long for the case” the sales man offered timidly.  She asked for someone to look for a better package and finally when nothing better could be found she had to be content with this. All this while, the other seasoned customers in the shop were eyeing us closely –me with my  big bindi and the girls with their shrill voices and backpacks- guess we did not look like Silk Smitha! We emerged out triumphantly armed with plastic parcels as though we were carrying grocery bags!

While all of this was fun as we did it together, I doubt if any of us would have done it alone- the reasons being the same- we do not want to be misunderstood by a society that has different yardsticks for measuring what is right is for men and what is right for women. Unfortunately it is a “civilized” society that introduces these hypocrisies. In tribal communities both men and women drink during festivals.

And it is not just the stereotyping about women–there is another stereotype which exists about people who drink. Someone exclaimed“ You are vegetarian but you drink?”  Why not? Madira paan can be  compatible with satvik food too- just as  girls in Chennai wear a bindi/pottu with jeans!

So let’s get of this mind set- Cheers Girls !
Friday, October 5, 2012 19 comments

FIFTY SHADES TOO WEIRD



The book shop had a 15% discount if I took all three parts of the book but conservative spender that I am , I decided to first try out the paper back version of Part 1 costing Rs 399….. and thank god for that ! It is one of the wise decisions that I made on that day…!

Those of you who have read it obviously know what I referring to- yes it is the now (in) famous best seller aka “mommy porn” – Fifty shades of Grey by E.L James!

I am not a prude and I have  in my four decades of  life read many “controversial” book starting from D.H. Lawarence’s  “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to Erica Jong’s  “Fear of Flying”.  But this …!!!

The story begins in true M&B style, rather simply- it is about a young college graduate Anastasia Steele who finds herself getting very drawn to Christian Grey a young millionaire when she goes to interview him for a college magazine. There is some sort of instant chemistry between them and we have Christian turning up around Anastasia making cryptic comments. She on her part is a very inexperienced girl and finds herself very confused by his interest in her. The simplicity unfortunately ends here

He takes her to his apartment one weekend and makes a proposition to her to sign a “No Disclosure Agreement” and enter into a relationship with him. It is then that Anastasia realizes what the relationship would involve. Christian Grey enjoys kinky sex which involves, bondage, domination, pain etc including use of various gadgets! He has an agreement prepared which lists the activities that they would do together should she agree and consent. The agreement lists him as the “Dominant” and her as the “Subservient”!  It is while discussing the agreement that he realizes that Anastasia is sexually inexperienced and a virgin and then begins his “training” and “ induction” of her into his world- a world where he himself had been inducted to as a “Sub” by his mother’s friend when he was just fifteen!

While the book is sexually very explicit in terms of its description it just about misses being classified as “pornography” because of the language – which is rather good! A lot of its non sexually explicit parts deal with emotions of the heroine which is well articulated!

However what is disturbing about the entire book is the way kinky sex has been portrayed as something fascinating! We have this young girl who does not want to agree to the terms of the so called “contract” but finds herself so attracted to this man that she cannot say no as he takes her from one act to the other and tells her that she needs to let her herself  go and explore her sensuality until she finds her own limits!

Now, as a concept, I am all for people exploring their sensuality but what is very off putting is the entire dominance –subjugation thing! The sexual act ( of the consensual type) as I understand is something extremely intimate between two human beings. While sex itself may be physical it has the capacity to bind those involved emotionally and mentally. But  the sexual act does have the risk of becoming a power game- demand and denial both included!  Yes, men are often conditioned into being the dominant partner but to actually include acts where the woman has to beg for something-disgusting!!! And all this is being presented as a consequence of an attraction that consumes her..!

Question is, do women enjoy being dominated? No! So why does Anastasia get excited by it? The author tries to justify the hero’s behaviour by explaining something about his past because of which he is supposed to be able to only enjoy this kind of sex! Sure, I can understand that .. but what makes a young woman want to get into a consensual relationship that only  involves acts like this? Absolutely beyond me!!!

I wonder if the author is trying to imply  that despite being in a world which is supposed to be heading in the direction of women’s sexual freedom, a woman in reality enjoys being dominated and subjugated ! When her reality goes towards equality, domination by a man becomes her fantasy? 

The book is supposed to be extremely popular with women of my age group- hence the name “mommy porn” ! I cannot believe it! I mean, I can understand that women like me who are in their middle age may have a mid life crisis and may want to get into sexual relationships outside of marriage but why should this kind of thing be fascinating with a generation of women who are highly educated and hold important jobs..! What is this social conditioning that makes women who have tasted professional success to suddenly get into a stereotypical role that makes men like Christian Grey seem extremely attractive?  Or is it just the way media keeps a hold on us as we see extremely attractive male models in ads who behave in a certain dominating way..?

I don’t know and I am baffled at the success of this book..! While “Lady Chatterley’s lover” that dealt with a woman’s sexual longing and subsequent affair with a game keeper and “Fear of Flying” where the protagonist Isadora has multiple relationships can be called “controversial” within the time and space of their publication, they did deal with women’s sexuality and sexual freedom in some ways. But “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a regressive effort that tries to send women back to the stone age period where she is attracted to cave man qualities.. definitely a book that I would not recommend !

 
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