Rajeshwar Upadhyaya


The First Thing We Must Do to Deserve Better Leaders

Rajeshwar Upadhyaya

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A 2012 survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) showed that about 78% of executives in Indian organisations sleep less than six hours a day due to work pressure and resultant high stress levels. It also highlights a worrying trend where 21% of corporate executives suffer from depression, which is apparently more prevalent than high blood pressure and diabetes. Despite  stories of tragic losses of highly capable leaders like Ranjan Das of SAP India making the front page of most newspapers, India INC. is not really waking up to the challenge at hand. According to Towers Watson’s Asia-Pacific Staying@Work survey conducted in 2013, only 38% of Indian organisations see improvement in the emotional well being of their employees as a top priority of their health productivity programs. And the number should be much skewed given the fact that most Indian organisations do not even have formal health and productivity programs.
If we take a step back and examine the term ‘work stress’, it sounds paradoxical. Work is supposed to be an integral part of our life that links us to the path of self discovery and provides financial security for us and our families. It is not supposed to be alien to our instinct of collaborating with other individuals to achieve a shared objective. This is how homo-sapiens have heavily outscored other animals in the game of evolution. Yual Noah Hrari said in his rather interesting TED talk, “…we control the world because we can cooperate flexibly in large numbers,” and he added “…as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, the same values.” The key part being ‘everybody believes’. However, people in our organisations are often left perplexed by organisational values because they do not really see them getting valued around them. Many of them do not really see where the organisation is going and how their work influences it. Worse still, many individuals do not know what exactly they are expected to do. 40% of the employees in the Tower Watson’s Staying@Work survey find ‘unclear or conflicting job expectations’ as the top stressor at work!


While there are a whole range of reasons why it happens, I would argue that the most significant one is the fact that individuals who eventually find their place in these organisations do not have personally relevant and meaningful objectives they have set for themselves. Most of what they do is prescribed to them by their bosses, board of directors, investors, and in worst case scenarios by the consultants. In best of the organisations, top management communicates the vision of the organisation, which was carefully crafted in a closed boardroom meeting whose minutes are locked away in a safe. Not enough effort is made to help individuals find meaning in their work or by the individuals to find meaning in their work. Performance Management System (PMS) however, ensures they do their bidding, albeit mechanically. And mechanically they drag themselves to work, hoping to pass the set standards they had virtually no say in setting.
It all starts in the schools. Individuals go to schools dressed up in standard uniforms. They memorise concepts that a standard syllabus dictates. They reproduce what they memorise in a standardised test. They continue to do so in universities. Any and every variation to this script is punished. Our education system rewards individuals on meeting standards which they had no part in setting. Quest for ‘personally relevant’ and ‘meaningful’ objectives is further crushed under the mountain of parental expectations, which more often than not, are for their off-spring to meet the set standards in the most splendid fashion. We take up perfectly normal human beings and put them in the mould of set standards and turn them into their standardised versions. However, after getting done with the painstaking standardisation process in schools and universities they still remain unemployable in the real world! According to an assessment by Wheebox and People’s Strong in collaboration with Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), 66% of approximately five million fresh graduates in India lack necessary skills required for any role in the industry.


When the employable 34% finally come out to join the workforce in the real world, hierarchy takes over from where education had left. Whatever little inclination for finding ‘personally relevant’ and ‘meaningful’ objectives that still exists, gets crushed under heavy boots of feudal ethos that remain stronger than ever in our country. It is not uncommon for even the senior bureaucrats to be publicly rebuked by the ministers if they do not toe the exact line that is being dictated to them. Those who still persist, like Ashok Khemka did, get transferred 45 times in a service spanning 23 years. The slightest deviance from the set party line gets even the senior-most ministers a show cause notice. In the corporate world too, it is not difficult to find examples of individuals with independent bent of mind to be denied promotions and eventually fired after being labelled ‘bad culture fit’.
In many organisations, including some MNCs in India, employees still follow the unsaid rule of leaving for the day only after their boss leaves. On Monday mornings in corporate offices with beautiful glass facades, it is not difficult to find young subordinates lurking around the meeting room hoping to catch boss’s eye because they need some input; the suggestion of knocking and asking for a minute scares the living daylights out of them. Disagreement is a bad word and dissent is a career-ender here.
While productivity at work has been the buzzword for many decades now, meaningfulness of work is yet to find its place in our vocabulary. One of my consultant friends was once asked by someone from the senior management team of an old-world organisation for a mechanism to get their employees to exhibit ownership and he replied, “No such mechanism exists. It is not possible to drive ownership in your employees because they are employees, not the owners.” And it makes tremendous sense. Till the time, individuals will not see personal meaning and fulfilment in the work they do, they just cannot be expected to own their work.
Most individuals who grow in this ecosystem end up managing tasks but find it difficult to lead other individuals. Manager and manage, both words have their roots in an Italian word maneggiare, which literally means controlling the horses. That is what we get at the top of our institutions, individuals trying to rally other individuals with methods best fit to control, not lead. And the result is for all to see. While 30% of Indian population lives below the poverty line, a sizeable chunk dangerously hangs marginally above the poverty line. To my mind, this so happens because someone somewhere at the top of the food chain said, “it is easier to change the definition of poverty line than to eradicate poverty.” No wonder, according to 83% of those in India regard dishonest leadership as a serious issue.
So, for us to deserve better leaders we must to allow and encourage individuals to explore personally relevant and meaningful objectives for themselves. It will take a lot of doing but beginning to think about it is a good place to start.


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