India is a hierarchical society. And without getting tempted to dwell on the ills of it, and debate on it, almost one-sidedly, I suspect hierarchy in our society in its original and pristine form may have to do essentially with discipline and efficiency of execution. So while the Indian socio cultural mores have quite clearly defined the hierarchy of authority, what is worrying is its collateral influence on the hierarchy of knowledge. Evident in the fact, that for long, parents, teachers, village elders (I never cease to get amused by this term), bosses, corporators, minister and even heads of state were all expected to know it all. Know it in full. And know it every time. So while it is naïve and bordering on idiocy that we expect this of them, a more dangerous fall out of this is that these positions of authority and influence are forced to play this out in daily life since they have to live up to these expectations of them. Result: very few of them seek any knowledge from their immediate environment.
It is only after Obama became President that the world got to see and hear a leader of stature admits that he did not have all the answers. Admit that he has and can make mistakes. Admit that he is acutely aware that there are so many smart and competent people around him that not just makes his job easier but stimulating too in the planning and execution. He was disarmingly self-deprecating in his admission of not possessing a wand or being well versed with the art of magic. And all this in a strange sort of way reeked of absolute power. It revealed the might of a supremely secure man. Secure about what he knew and what he did not. Of what he could do and could not. Almost Daniel Craig-esque!
What is it that makes the admission of fallibility and inadequacy so damn drawingly appealing when it comes from a person in a position of leadership and power? Is it because it allows a peek into a mind that is in constant quest of perfection and knowledge? Is it because he comes through to you as an unabashed pursuer of what he needs to get done or is it because he lets his reputation be subservient to the primacy of his responsibility? Maybe all or some of them; but they all compel you to be in awe of what he is trying to do.
And this is what brings me to what we need to change in our socio cultural political paradigm – to encourage the culture of seeking and listening. While this does not sound mint fresh, my belief is that ‘listening’ has for far too long been advocated to all types of leaders from varied spheres of lives almost only as a way to collect intelligence or to be seen as compassionate and connected. This is not just flawed but unwise too. And I suspect Obama knew this and knew this well. He listened because he knew he did not know it all. He listened because he knew he was just a mortal with finite competencies however many they were. He listened because he wanted his ideas to get better. He listened because he respected and importantly acknowledged his colleagues as more than worthy noetic equals. He listened because he wanted to; not because he needed to. And so for the first time we saw a leader who did not want to come through as infallible. And in an inexplicable way, his on-his-sleeve-fallibility made him seem even more powerful than the President of The United States of America.
Most seasoned leaders know that there is far more to be gained by placing your ear on the table than thumping on it. In fact in this age of task hopping, everyone seems to be in such an impatient DIY mode that they fail to realise what can be gleaned from the minds of others. And so, perspicacious leaders are constantly figuring out newer and better ways to seek and listen. Like my dad once said, God gave us two ears and one mouth and surely there was more than the design rationale of symmetry to it.
We surely need a change in mindset. To change the thinking that anybody in a position of influence who asks and listens is weak or ignorant or confused or under equipped or all! While in fact knowing what he does not know is a sign of heightened awareness, and knowing who he could get to know what he does not from, is a sign of extreme smarts.
We need to make parents, teachers, sarpanches, corporate bosses and leaders in public life know that they are no less respected or loved if they were to seek and listen. Can we attempt to rewrite our feudal social narrative of the ‘provider’ archetype who should and must have all the answers all the time? Can we over time try and lessen the socio cultural pressure on any position of authority in India to spew knowledge on tap and to think and behave as being flawless, all knowing and infallible? And over time, hopefully neutralise the debilitating role that this can play in an individual’s, family’s, company’s and indeed even a nation’s real progress.
And as I come to a close here, it just struck me that men not asking for directions may have very little to do with Mars or Venus!
(The author is CEO, Lowe Lintas & Partners. Views expressed are personal.)