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Leadership lessons from a pandemic

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The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to change the world as we know it today

It is no secret that businesses went through a hard time during the unprecedented crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. But as the vaccines bring hope in 2021 and companies begin to regain their balance, there is much to learn from what top industry leaders did to stay afloat during the lockdown and handle the challenge. With inspiring case studies outlining the importance of lessons like rising above self-interest during a global crisis and being open to failures, Disha Chhabra has put together Inflection Point, a book which has won high praise from several leading members of the corporate world and which can serve as a guiding light for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow.

In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, the author spoke of what motivated her to write the book and how the process unfolded. Excerpts:

Q: What led you to write Inflection Point during the pandemic?

A: In April 2020, I was perplexed by how the pandemic was changing our lives and habits. The way we lived, ate, worked, played was all altered. The resulting lockdowns of countries had brought national economies to a standstill. Salary and job cuts are happening throughout the world. ‘Lives versus livelihood’ was a constant debate. No one living in these times has experienced a crisis that can be remotely equated to this one, and things were still unfolding.

Covid-19 had also impacted every sphere of the corporate world. I was curious about the different challenges leaders across industries were facing, how they were thinking and organizing themselves through this. Which of these challenges were common and which of these were unique? Which leadership and business lessons from this crisis will be taught as crisis management case studies in B-schools? Which of these lessons will be permanent armours for future leaders? And does the learning differ depending on which side of the revenue curve a company finds itself? Does leadership need to be reactive? All of this led me to think about Inflection Point during this period.

Q: How was the process of interviewing such a varied group of leaders? Any favourite instances which stand out?

A: It was quite a humbling experience, to be honest. I had imagined it difficult to get a spot on their calendars. In times when your servers are crashing or your inventory is stuck, where would you find the motivation to talk to an author? But nevertheless, I found people very approachable. When they learnt that my intention behind writing the book was to capture their leadership lessons for a wider audience, they made themselves available for all my research. And the best part was that they were extremely candid in these conversations. I felt they shared their hearts out.

While all the interviews were extremely engaging and taught me so much, I would say interviewing Anil Rajput, Sr Vice President, Corporate Affairs, ITC, was very special. A person of his stature, with more than four decades of experience, was extremely down-to-earth, honest and willing to share anecdotes from this crisis and comparing it with the other crises that ITC has seen during its long existence.

Q: Were there any challenges you faced while working on this book?

A: A book is a long journey and there are times when one feels like giving up. I had to deal with my own challenges. While working from home, with no house help for a long time, finding the time to do this was sometimes a challenge. I spent many nights on the manuscript and mornings at work. What kept me going was a constant reminder of why I wanted people to read such a book. When I saw what potential the book had, in terms of leadership lessons for a lifetime, it kept me going.

Q: What are the biggest lessons that a reader can take away from the accounts in the book?

A: The leadership in this crisis was all about the human spirit and leading with compassion. As one of the leaders said, “When crises like these happen, one does not think of top and bottom lines.”

Q: Is there a particular business leader—whether a part of this book or not—who has been an inspiration for you, personally?

A: Leaders who inspire me personally are those who stand by their people, build businesses for the greater good and also have a passion for bringing social change through their work. Being a corporate professional for more than 14 years now, I have had the opportunity to meet many such leaders who became my mentors, idols and coaches. Some taught me the hard skills at work and others led by compassion. One learns so much through the journey of these individuals. In that sense, it is hard and unfair to pick one name.

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Book Beat

The Break of Dawn

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Khan Mahboob Tarzi, translated by Prof. Ali Khan Mahmudabad

Penguin Random House, Rs 399

It’s the searing month of June, the rebellion against the British has just begun and Awadh is up in flames. Hindus and Muslims have joined hands to overthrow the foreign rulers and set India free. Some Indian rulers have started to enter into alliances to fight the foreigners, while others have thrown in their lot with them. A young soldier Riyaz Khan saves a group of Britishers from fellow ‘mutineers’ and escorts them safely to Lucknow. In this group is Alice, who falls in love with him and eventually becomes an informer for the rebels. Khan Mahboob Tarzi wrote the novel on the centenary of the uprising. Its English translation is done by Ali Khan Mahmudabad.

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Death in Colaba Bay: A Colonial Bombay Mystery

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Ambika Subramanian

Rupa Publications, Rs 195

Three young girls go missing from a prominent ‘native’ Bombay school. Their families are frantic with worry. Tara Bai, a young widow and heiress, with strong social connections, is an alumnus of the school who agrees to help the grieving parents. Police officer Arun Rao is assigned to the case. Soon, one of the missing girls is found dead on the shores of Colaba. It has uncanny similarities to older cases from Central India involving the royal family of Jaiwar. A chance encounter at the home of one of the victims brings Tara and Arun together who unmask the murderer.

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Scare Me If You Can

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Sivan Singh

Tree Shade Books, Rs 350

At a spooky-themed resort in Mahabaleshwar, best-selling author Sivan Singh conducts a workshop on advanced horror writing. On its final day, the nine participants, influenced by their eerie experiences during their stay, along with an enigmatic writer, go all out for the story narration competition ‘Scare Me If You Can’. Jump on board this thrilling roller coaster that promises a screamy ride with mysterious prophecies, sinister sequences, and brutal acts of revenge. The 10 stories are based in different Indian cities, the horror quotient rising with each story. Let your head spin around, as you see everything going wrong and horror becoming a reality.

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Sita: Now You Know Me

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Rupa Publications, Rs 395

Sini Panicker

Set in the Vedic times of ancient India, Sita narrates the story of her turbulent life intimately, detailing her deepest despairs, grief and horrors, and her profound love for Ram. This is a spirited and enduring Sita calmly recollecting her transformation at various stages of her life, from an abandoned infant to a cherished princess, a delightful bride to a dissolute hermit in exile, a captive of an enemy to a queen, and culminating as a poor, homeless mother of twin boys in an ashram. Ancient India’s geographical, social, intellectual and cultural portraits accompany Sita gracefully, throughout her journey.

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How to survive in a big fat Indian family business

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In her new book, Priyanka Gupta Zielinski shares a five-point toolkit to encourage younger generations wishing to enter their family businesses.

In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, Priyanka Gupta Zielinski, the executive director of MPIL Steel Structures Ltd and author of The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide, shared her insights about the challenges and privileges of family businesses and how younger generations can be more passionate about them. Excerpts:

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: I joined my family business right after completing my education in the US. Quickly, I realised that it was incredibly challenging to work with my own family, especially my father. When the founding generation is still involved in the business, it is still their baby. So while they are very keen to bring in their children, they are not always prepared to do so. At home, we talked about the business all the time, but in the workplace, there are a lot of tensions and conflicts. I had almost reached the breaking point and thought I would have to quit. But I managed to survive, which is why I wrote this book. Younger generations joining family businesses often need a guide or story to rely on.

Q: What are some major lessons you wish to pass on to younger generations and women who may consider joining their family businesses?

A: Family businesses are a huge resource that they should leverage. They may use it to branch out and bring in their own interests and passions, even steer it in a different direction. The resources already exist and they don’t have to start from scratch. There is a legacy of information which should be taken forward instead of losing it. There is also a lot they can learn from their background. Despite our business moving to the southern and western parts of India, my father draws from a lot of Haryanvi wisdom to work with greater agility and troubleshoot problems. Every state and culture in India has so much to offer and one does not need to look only at Western knowledge — it might actually not be suitable for Indian contexts.

For women, family businesses are an immediate platform and resource to tap into. There is a certain flexibility available to them, regarding when and how they enter it. It is an automatic launchpad, which they can then tailor according to their interests and capabilities and personalities. A woman in her 50s, who has seen the family business, will have a much easier time starting her career there, rather than in a different corporate setup. It caters to young women too. Daughters-in-law joining a family business have a good two-way opportunity, which does not disrupt their careers despite the move from their parents’ to their in-laws. There is support they can enjoy.

Q: But such support is a major point of privilege and this throws up questions of how family businesses encourage nepotism.

A: That is a frequent charge against family businesses and the perception is right in a way since there are privileges and things are handed down. But, say in my case, my brother and I grew up hearing about the business, visiting the workplace, understanding it and being groomed unknowingly. And we really wanted to join it too! In this context, there is also the ‘professional nepot’, as defined by Prof John Davis who is a pioneer in family business management. But if one is neither trained nor interested, it can have an adverse effect on the business and surely a non-family member can do the job better. So, it depends from family to family too. However, family members may be more suited to handle certain situations, especially diffuse tension at work. And there is an element of legacy and longevity associated with them, which tells shareholders that they can count on the business.

Q: Given the fluctuations in the economy due to the pandemic, how can your book help family businesses right now?

A: My book presents a practical, usable toolkit for younger generations, especially for times of scarcity and unpredictable situations like now. Family businesses are used to working against all odds. They have inherent skillsets. With this, I have drawn from my experiences and from academic research to give them five tools they can use. For instance, the metaphor of the multipurpose helmet I have used to show how you have to take on different roles in different situations. The book also tells them to be passionate about things outside of work and learn how to incorporate those.

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Book Beat

HOW NEHRU DEFENDED INDUS WATER TREATY

Jawaharlal Nehru signed the Indus Water Treaty with Gen Ayub Khan of Pakistan in 1960. The then Prime Minister defended the agreement in Parliament and explained to its members why it was a good deal for India.

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Jawaharlal Nehru had witnessed it all. The bloody Partition, the canal disputes, the exchange of letters with Lilienthal and Black, the droughts of 1957-58 that saw agriculture losses in India as high as 50 per cent, the long years of water negotiations and the uncomfortable task of having to deal with the seven prime ministers in Pakistan who were sacked from 1947 to 1958.

As fate presented, Nehru, a model of democratic leadership, had to sign the Indus treaty with Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator. There could not be a greater irony. But now, in front of the House, Nehru had to respond to the sentiments of the Opposition as well as some of his party members in what probably was one of his biggest defences, on an issue which had bedevilled him for long. Some of his cabinet members had expressed strong reservations over the financial and strategic implications of the treaty. These included the incorruptible and the very austere finance minister Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon, the defence minister, who was being disparagingly referred to as “India’s Rasputin”.

After having patiently listened for almost two hours to the speeches of the members, Nehru rose to speak on the fateful day on 30 November 1960. As the leader of the House, exhilarated as he always was on such occasions, Nehru began a shade aggressively by expressing his disappointment over the members’ view on the issue.

A host of critical questions had been put forward by the House broadly signifying India’s foolhardy generosity, its unnecessary commitments and inability to settle the Partition debts. Concerns over the Kashmir issue, dispute regarding the Rann of Kutch, status of “Azad Kashmir” where the Mangla dam was being constructed by Pakistan while India’s proposal to build a dam over Chenab was put on hold owing to Pakistan’s insidious pressure, were ventilated by the members with a full sense of their responsibility. Nehru had his plate full, had made notes while carefully listening to the speakers and with “passion but not with malice” set about answering it.

Nehru agreed that the events since the canal dispute of 1948 had not been a pleasant period and one of great frustration, but in the same breath humbly submitted that “it is a good treaty for India and I have no doubt about it in my mind”. While assuring the House that close attention was paid to each detail, he tactfully praised the engineers who fought for India’s interest strenuously. As the prime minister, “I got only the broad facts,” noted Nehru and the engineers were the “experts in this matter”.

He came back to the canal dispute explaining that the time and circumstances then were radically different, “It was not a detailed examination; it was a broad approach. I regret to say that that approach was not followed later by the other side, as it often happens”.

The role of the World Bank was a less controversial issue to respond to, given that the House was not categorically vehement about the World Bank’s role except for some pointed observations by (Odia writer Surendra) Mahanty.

For Nehru, the World Bank’s engagement in the negotiations was an ‘ordinary thing to happen’, least of all alarming; “they were not becoming arbitrators or anything”.

Recalling his conversations with Lilienthal and Black on the active support of the World Bank, Nehru said, “It was only a question of an attempt, if you like, at the most, to help in our coming to an agreement between ourselves. They could not impose anything.”

From his disappointment on what he felt was the ‘narrow mindedness’ of the House on the treaty to his explanation of the circumstances of history and the complexities of the issue, Nehru enlightened the House on the question of consulting Parliament. “Are we to come at every step and ask Parliament?”

Allowing the rhetorical question to seep in, he then elaborated, “Very wisely, the Constitution and convention lay down that in such agreements, Government has to stake its own judgement, its future, on it. There is no other way. One takes a risk; maybe that Government may go wrong. But there is no [o]ther way to deal with it.”

However skilfully Nehru tried to separate himself as the carrier of a ‘broad perspective’ from the nitty-gritty of the negotiations that the engineers engaged in, there was an undeniable Nehruvian internationalist mindset to the entire water issue with Pakistan. Nehru’s interest in international problems was well known. His ideals of oneness, though, clashed with the realities of power politics and interest-oriented relations which he understood but adamantly refused to accept. More than a decade ago, he had hoped for an emergence of Asia as an influence on world peace, which soon fell apart.

Later, his famous enunciation at the Bandung Conference in 1955 that laid the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement, “let us not align ourselves but have a line of our own”, was immediately contradicted by the creation of two military pacts, the SEATO and the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO). On the Indus treaty, having heard the diatribes, he asked the House, “Is that the way to approach an international question?”

And in a pedantic tone expressed, “Something is done because it is considered, in the balance, that is desirable… In such matters there has to be give and take.”

Nehru did regret the fact that the negotiations were long-drawn and that he had anticipated a year at best to reach a settlement. But there was no remorse in stating, “We purchased a settlement, if you like; we purchased peace and it is good for both countries.”

Nehru excused himself from the House as he had to accompany the crown prince and crown princess of Japan who were on a visit to India, but not before he clarified the issue of consultation with the state governments on the negotiations, “Whenever any proposals were put before me, I asked the Commonwealth Secretary [M.J. Desai] . . . Only when he said ‘Yes’, did I look into it… It may be that what the Commonwealth Secretary reported to me was due to some misunderstanding. He thought that they agreed when they had not.”

It is a pity that Nehru did not stay on for the entire length of the debate as Vajpayee raised an important question on the Indus Commission. He cited Ayub, who soon after the treaty was signed had said, “By accepting the procedure for joint inspection of the river courses, India has, by implication, conceded the principle of joint control extending to the upper region of Chenab and Jhelum, and joint control comprehends joint possession.”

The excerpt is from the book ‘Indus Basin Uninterrupted’ (published by Penguin Random House).

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