In one of his recent columns, Fareed Zakaria (who was reinstated at Time and CNN recently after being suspended for plagiarism) took credit for someone else’s work.
This was unexpected of Zakaria, given his stature. After all, he had been through many good years as the editor of Foreign Affairs (a bimonthly journal of the venerable Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank) after he was groomed at the world’s preeminent centres of learning, including Harvard University. But unfortunately, in succumbing to plagiarism, Zakaria lost sight of the fundamental fact that the foremost deliverable for a leader is to live the high ground.
Yet, by no means is Zakaria alone when it comes to high-profile disappointments. Take Rajat Gupta. Nature showered him with the age’s prized education and cleared the way for a career with the top job at the admired advisory firm, McKinsey. But Gupta thought all those achievements were his alone. When the questionable nature of his conduct became obvious, instead of bowing down modestly, he rallied by drawing on every resource to his defence. Such is egotism.
Then there is the other recent case involving the previous chief of the IMF, who, instead of being a role model, abused his powers. Gen X hasn’t lagged behind, and here Yahoo!’s former chief went as far as faking his CV to win the top job.
Humbled, not humble
Whatever the proximate reasons, the individual quirks of these people are the deeper causes of their disgrace. Individuality manifests itself in expertise, power, titles, authority, charisma, and so on.
Discernment — which is extremely subtle — is then impaired. Quite clearly, it is not as if those cited above didn’t bear anything good at all, but as the Greek philosopher Plato wonderfully captured the subtlety: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” That subtlety is dependant on what a person has chosen for his guidance: individuality or humility. In the above examples, however, their individualities — as prominent personages who can’t err — clouded them from the most fundamental insight that in the larger scheme of things individuals actually count for less and less.
Those, however, who have great qualities within them, neither gloat nor defend themselves when their status rises, or falls, or comes under criticism. Sobriety is their guiding star. They are guided by the firm, quiet knowledge that they are always held in generous consideration. This demeanour brings rich dividends, for it keeps the psyche clean and bolsters the very qualities for which people look for in their leaders for inspiration.
The insistent pianist
Here is another example in a different context but one that further drives home the harmfulness of individuality.
A distinguished piano master was asked by his pupil: “How long do I need to get my notes perfectly right?”
The master replied: “Four years of practice.”
The unsatisfied pupil shot back, “What if I practised twice as longer each day?”
The master replied: “Then it will take eight years.”
The pupil was surprised. The master explained, “You are in a hurry to perfect the notes because you crave to be acknowledged as a top pianist. Your focus then is no longer on playing the piano, but on fame, for which getting the notes right is a mere ticket. This distraction stands in the way of perfecting your notes. On the other hand, if you trained without attributing gains to your individuality, your notes will turn perfect much sooner and more naturally because you are then able to give 100 per cent to what you are doing: playing the piano.”
Individuality dampens our ability to work honestly. As a result, a chain of inevitable consequences linked to mediocrity follows, leading eventually to the forfeiting of the very thing — the distinguished poise — that was intended to be preserved.
Unfortunately, many — including those who are exceptionally talented — find the basic realities briefly discussed here to be beyond their grasp.
A starting point is to ask oneself: ‘Why is it that, of late, while there is no dearth of longing for distinction, yet there is so little sustained distinction?’ Somewhere, something is fundamentally wrong. We will then discover that many of us strive out of pride, and not enough out of humility. Today’s leadership, more often than not, emphasises that winning is all that matters, no matter how. Even if we were to live a few steps in humility and move a little away from unrestrained individuality, much of the agony would disappear. In its place would follow compassionate, passionate leadership.
(The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer.)