The ability to handle greyness is an important test of one’s leadership skills.

M. Chandrasekaran

The Indian soap weepies offer great entertainment to a vast majority of TV viewers who wish to see nothing but incomprehensible plot lines, contrived situations, constant staring into the distant horizon, oodles of bathos and a compelling reference to a greatly exaggerated binary mind set.

This reaches its acme, when it comes to relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. The two are cast as fierce antagonists who are given no choice other than being in descending order of virulence: MIL being the bully, both being bullies, DIL being the bully.

Positions are taken and the rest of the screen family is tossed around in the undertow like limp dolls.

These relationships are seldom governed by nuances that normally suffuse our every day real life where positions are seldom so clearly defined.

Leadership brings in its train a host of issues that need to be managed and a critical one is the ability to handle greyness.

Early in one’s career, one is instructed and it is easy to do what one is told. The consequences of any such action rest on the others who direct us. Life is black and white and manageable.

As we rise through the hierarchy, the input versus output certainty co-relation that we all bank on starts to unravel in geometric progression. Greyness starts to expand at increasing speed.

Today’s context where the rate of change is accelerating and external circumstances are murky, only amplify the problem.

Idealistic beginnings

We all start out with idealism in our hearts and, in many cases, ideological purity determines our stance and informs our actions.

Along the way, we see others start to dilute such purity to get things done and naturally enough there are times when our resolve starts to weaken.

On many occasions such a dilution does not seem to harm the career prospects of such people and in some cases even accelerates their position vis a vis our own.

The natural question arises as to what price purity if the results seem to favour those who win by consciously mixing in some impurity in their actions.

I am reminded of the time when eating out was a rare treat and as students we used to relish street food. At home, we would get a scolding that street food was unclean and not good for our health; our response was that it was perhaps the dirt that made it so much more interesting and tasty!

Does it mean that one needs to be opportunistic and it is ok to dilute one’s principles in the race to get ahead? Not really, would be my submission.

Greyness, a part of the continuum

This is where an appreciation of what greyness represents in our managerial thinking becomes crucial. The main problem arises when greyness is viewed in a binary fashion: yin versus yang, good versus bad, strong versus weak. The whole premise changes if we view greyness as part of the continuum that makes up the colour spectrum that stretches from white to black instead of an abrupt transition from one colour to the other.

This does not imply a need to be completely opportunistic and be blown with the wind at all times, which may achieve forward momentum but may land one in an unenviable and unwanted destination. Wisdom lies in using the motive power of the wind and the sails effectively to be driven in the direction of our choice.

We see daily evidence of what we believe to be abject cave-ins by people we work with and we form a judgement as to their professional fibre and the nature of the system that encourages such behaviour. Pragmatism and the need to get results must dictate our actions but this can be done without sacrificing principles.

Consensus does not necessarily mean compromise and fudge. It is possible to manage contradictions and embrace inclusivity in our thinking and actions by starting out from the area the Venn diagrams converge and working outwards to increase the areas of agreement. This requires an ability to seek consensus rather than confrontation so that all parties come away winners.

It reinforces the need to view greyness as an ally that helps us take nuanced positions that help achieve our individual and corporate goals without sacrificing principles. The key issues are the motivations that underpin our actions and our ability to convince the others involved in the process about this. It is as much about the reality as it is about our ability to successfully project this reality onto the perception plane.

In Thervada Buddhism the Middle Way crystallises the Buddha’s Nirvana-bound path of moderation away from the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification and toward the practice of wisdom, morality and mental cultivation.

A similar approach in treating greyness as the middle way will go a long way in our professional lives and lead us to situations that can help make it a victory for all concerned and equally, for our organisations.

The Tyranny of OR needs to be replaced with the Joys of AND.

(The writer is a director of Manipal Education and Medical Group and 3i Infotech and advisor to IDFC PE.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 16, 2009)
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