The “system” didn’t break, we did

Ms. Sobti, my old high school history teacher once recited this rhyme,

As a rule, man is a fool,
When it’s hot, he wants it cool;
When it’s cool, he wants it hot,
Always wanting what is not.

I am reminded of this when I read the news. In the 1990s India bounced from one ineffective coalition government to the next with alarming frequency. Everyone here longed for the stability of a two party system like the US. There we felt, at least one party would get a majority and be able to do something, anything. In our policy paralysis nothing could be done as it would alienate at least one partner in the fragile coalition.

Compare this with the recent US election, where many US citizens appalled by the two choices they were presented with cried out for a multi-party democracy.

The Indian political confusion also spawned a fan following for Hitler with a boom in sales of Mein Kampf. Publishing house Jaico sold more than 100,000 copies between 2003 and 2010. Let me clarify that as far as I know almost none of the Indian Hitler enthusiasts are anti-Semitic. Also, for the most part they are ignorant of the true horror and long term corruption of the Nazi regime.

What they really want is a “strong” leader. Somebody patriotic and incorruptible who can “whip” the system into shape. That they have chosen Hitler as their poster boy is a sad testament to how poorly history is generally understood in India. (Especially when you consider the last Indian leader to “whip” the system was Indira Gandhi and nobody longs for her. We are still waiting to see how far the current regime will go.)

My take on all this? What does it really take to reform “the system”?

In my first job, the company I worked for (now extinct) was going through the pains of rapid growth. They were on a process creating spree. A process for documentation, a process for application, a process for project review, a process for performance review etc. It failed. People paid lip service to the process, ticking the boxes and moving on. All metrics were satisfied but the intent was lost.

It is very difficult to couple rapid growth with tight quality control. So while we had many extraordinary people, we also had a lot of mediocre people, lots of political people and lots of people who just tried to get by with the bare minimum work they had to do.

No process is better than the people who run it.

Whether it’s a company, a community or a country, what matters is always the people, the people, the people. In 1984, Prof. William Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina said, “we cannot expect our President to rise very far above the level of thought in the political culture”.

We don’t always get to choose the people we have to work with. But we can choose how we handle them. I’ve seen good managers get consistently high results from mediocre teams. I’ve seen handful of engineers change the entire organization culture. Gandhi said,

Be the change you wish to see in the world


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