Article: The hags of Indian business

InFocus

The hags of Indian business

There are plenty of life tales of India’s business captains and promoters. They invariably paint the lead character in heroic or saintly colours. What are we losing without balanced biographies of business leaders?
The hags of Indian business

When I started my career, biographies of Indian business leaders were rare and restrained. Since then, both the number of such hagiographies and the virtues apparently possessed by their subjects have reached astronomical levels. The current profusion of such books is inversely proportional to the readers they attract – bar the hapless denizens of the corporation the subject heads and for whom the volume is complimentary and the reading of it is compulsory.

I use hagiography (hag for short) here not in its traditional meaning as the life of a saint or prophet but in its more colloquial usage as a biography purged of all complexity, criticism and colour. Since such sanitization particularly afflicts biographies that are commissioned, authorized or written with the hope of eliciting future favours, business leaders and tycoons in India rarely have biographies that are believable or of anything but the most marginal learning value. As Indians who well know the value of spice in food, it is strange that we expect only the blandest and sweetest of descriptors in business biographies. Unlike food without masala, moreover, blotless biographies are not blame-free.

The harm of hags

Samuel Johnson’s words ring true even today. "If the biographer writes from personal knowledge … there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness, overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to invent… [W]e, therefore, see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyric, and not to be known from one another." [1]

Admittedly, reading business leader or promoter hags for pleasure is not a problem in itself. One may only suggest, if hags are indeed the preferred means of passing time, that far greater profit and upliftment may be derived from the reading of the gods and saints described by Valmiki, John Foxe [2] or even Jacobus de Voragine [3] rather than the riches-to-yet-more-riches stories of corporate chieftains. There’s no accounting for tastes, however, and I shan’t quarrel with (though I may sneer at) the business leader hags people pick up. The difficulties commence when readers attempt to follow the purported lessons from the hags in their own careers – with varying degrees of failure. The kind of failure readers face and their consequences vary depending on the manner in which they treat the fictionalised, fault-free account contained in the hag.

The least damaging way of dealing with the paragon-of-virtue profiles contained in hags is to ignore them for all practical purposes. The books can then serve to provide book-case ornaments that are particularly impressive when everyone and his uncle have billion-book backgrounds for video interactions. Even if one is constrained to read the hag, compartmentalization is easy. One uses the hag for quotes and anecdotes from the blemish-blanked life while running the mouse marathon as ruthlessly as one would have otherwise.

The damage increases to the extent people start taking a hag seriously and use it for distilling their experiences and character evaluations. Not only does this make all actual leaders fall short, thus preventing a demanding but realistic expectation-profile to develop, but all judgements tend to become binary. When such Black & White mindsets extend to interpersonal dealings, not only are people deprived of rich friendships but their interactional repertoire becomes circumscribed and dysfunctional. After comparing against the hag standard, the majority of people are written off as unmitigated villains, preventing further reciprocity or redemption. Sinner that I am, I have almost invariably found those capable of conduct that falls just this side (measured in microns) of propriety to be the best company, having the most to impart and, (on rare occasions) even capable of changing for the better. The white side of the B&W error can be even more dangerous. People plastered up as saints are permitted unlimited access to the hag admirer’s secrets and vulnerabilities. Since there are few real saints in the corporate world, some degree of exploitation (with consequential disillusionment and distrust) is inevitable.

The most damaging results occur when the hag reader is realistic enough to know every character is flawed and has sometimes resorted to unwholesome means but still tries putting a hag to use. 'So what', goes the reasoning, 'if the author left out the unfit-for-public-view bits from the hag? We need only the nice bits to inspire us and provide a model for imitation'. This form of magical thinking is, in a way, more infructuous and frustrating than simply treating the hag as a fairy tale. When one attempts to attain goals similar to those glorified in the hag, while using only the kosher methods it reveals, they turn out to be impossible to achieve or, even if attained, accompanied by consequences the hag hid. The only choice then is to cut one’s losses (as well as the collateral damage) and get into the compartmentalization mode – but after wasted time and counterproductive effort. Moreover, without knowing how the hag hero restrained or redeemed flaws, the reader is free to imagine worst-case scenarios of hidden 'hamartias' and underfoot means. The blank, liability side of the hag account of the protagonist’s ledger makes it that much easier for ambiguous events and vague innuendos doing cocktail circuit rounds, to be negatively misinterpreted and retransmitted as definitive narratives. Not only does this cast doubt on the perfectly justified positives of the hag but licences the reader to concoct characteristics. In the business context, the most frequent such blank filling is the attribution of authoritarianism to any person who has achieved a lot in a little time and paves the road to sultanism with hagstones. [4]

There cannot be a better summary for this section than another statement of Samuel Johnson (quoted by his own biographer): "If nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in anything. The sacred writers, (he observed,) related the vicious as well as the virtuous actions of men; which had this moral effect, that it kept mankind from despair, into which otherwise they would naturally fall, were they not supported by the recollection that others had offended like themselves, and by penitence and amendment of life had been restored to the favour of Heaven." [5]

 The Man of Steel – with some cracks below the surface

While business leader hags are no less an Indian speciality than chicken tikka, less worshipful societies are filled with ungarnished tales – even for business leaders who were greatly admired. Let me expand with an example.

Andrew Carnegie was one of the great captains of US industry. David Nasaw’s masterful biography does justice not only to Carnegie’s unique and towering achievements and his largeness of heart but also reveals the less admirable sides of his character and actions. [6] While the book by Nasaw (all quotes in this section are from it and will not be separately referenced) is an exemplary business biography, it is not the only one of its kind. I hope this section encourages readers to explore many more such on their own.

Above all else, Carnegie must be honoured for being a truly extraordinary philanthropist who publicly committed himself to giving away his fortune to the community early in his life. None of us can avoid feeling a thrill of admiration when reading Carnegie’s declaration "that his research institution in Washington should 'discover the exceptional man in every department of study whenever and where found…and enable him to make the work for which he seems specially designed his life work.' " Carnegie’s declaration to give away his vast wealth went hand in hand with his horror at the evils of inherited wealth. Nasaw quotes Carnegie’s criticism of those who leave "great fortunes to their children. If this is done from affection, is it not misguided affection? Observation teaches that, generally speaking, it is not well for the children that they should be so burdened…. Looking at the usual result of enormous sums conferred upon legatees, the thoughtful man [i.e., Andrew Carnegie] must shortly say, 'I would as soon leave to my son a curse as the almighty dollar,' and admit to himself that it is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires these legacies." Unfortunately, Carnegie also felt that his mission to return his wealth to the community enjoined on him the duty to earn as much profit as he could – not always by scrupulous means.

One of the ways Carnegie adopted to earn more profit was not just to curtail but to bring down the wages of blue-collar workers and increase their working hours (from eight to twelve a day)., Over a period of time, he and his team perfected a painful process to attain this goal. "The firm would make impossible demands. When the union rejected them, the company would cut off negotiations, close the works, lock out the workers, secure the plant with sheriff’s deputies and/or Pinkertons, and then, after an indeterminate pause, reopen under armed protection. The workers would be invited to sign individual contracts and return to their jobs; those who refused would be replaced by scabs." Things went badly belly side up when a variant of this method was tried, somewhat ham-handedly at the Homestead steel plant by his lieutenant, Henry Frick, but with the tacit approval of Carnegie. At the end of the imbroglio, ten men lay dead. While Carnegie distanced himself from the decisions made on the spot (he was in Europe at the time but in telegraphic touch) he did not reverse the higher working hours or lower wages that had been imposed on the workmen as a result.

Another vulnerable patch on Carnegie’s heel was how closely he sailed to permissible boundaries of the law in attaining his ends. Granted that the standards of business conduct were somewhat more relaxed in his time, Carnegie’s initial fortune came from practices that were unsavoury if not illegal. In cahoots "with his former bosses, Tom Scott and J. Edgar Thomson, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad… [Carnegie] organized a series of companies – with Scott and Thomson as secret partners – that were awarded insider contracts to supply the Pennsylvania Railroad with raw materials and build its iron bridges." Evasion of the Sherman Antitrust Act was an even more risky transgression, with the Carnegie firms exploiting their financial strength to jettison even the traditional honour among thieves. "… [T]hey could afford to periodically break the pools, lower their prices, expand market share, drive the weaker firms out of business, and then organize new pools, in which they would have a larger share of the market." Then there was the tariff on steel, which permitted US manufacturers to make huge profits. It was publicly justified, in part, to protect the employment and wages of US workmen though, as we have seen, both were sacrificed to enhance profits.

Among the remarkable talents Carnegie developed assiduously over the years was a passion for reading (literature and philosophy in particular), a knack for original thinking and the ability to convey his views clearly and convincingly. While several of his ideas were impractical to the point of being Quixotic – such as his proposal for a political union between the US and Great Britain – there were some that anticipated progressive thinking of the future and many became a reality thanks to his munificent funding. But, once again, there is a dark shadow behind the glare of his achievements. On occasion, his writing is marred by his selective recall of events and the use of casuistic arguments that serve to justify his position or reputation. Here is just one instance from his autobiography that shows the degree of subterfuge bordering on self-deception that Carnegie could adopt. "In later years Carnegie would insist that he had never traded or manipulated or speculated in stocks, but had made his money from manufacturing iron and steel products. His Autobiography backs up his assertions, but only by carefully editing out a critical period in his business career. Carnegie would accumulate the fortune that was later reinvested in his steel mills by doing precisely what he would later condemn." The gap between preaching and practices was even wider when it came to employees. "Contrary to Carnegie’s promises in the 1880s, his workingmen did not share in the firm’s remarkable prosperity. On the contrary, there was, through the 1890s, an inverse relationship between the firm’s revenues and profits and the amount of money distributed to the workforce as wages. … [W]hile the value of the goods shipped from the Carnegie mills increased by some 226 per cent in the seven years following the strike of 1892, the percentage of revenues paid out in wages decreased by 67 per cent."

If I have picked out the less savoury side of Carnegie in this section, it is not because I do not share in the admiration that he has rightfully received. He remains, to my mind, one of the greatest builders of industry the world has seen and I cringe when I hear him classified as one of the 'robber barons'. It is precisely because I hold him in such high esteem that I have chosen his example and these episodes. Which of us would not trade the compromises he made for the sake of his achievement record? True, his burning ambition to give back to society led him to be ruthless and to blur the bounds of ethics in acquiring the means wherewith to do so. But once we realize this failure, not only do Carnegie’s string of successes become more believable but his personality and struggles come to view. This can only enrich our appreciation of his character and provide us clues to emulate him (even if it is in a very small way) while avoiding the flaws that have become apparent with hindsight and that a hag would have whitewashed out of sight.

 Lives to learn from

To be of practical developmental benefit, the life a biography describes must be:

  • Aspirational: inspire readers with the impossible heights to which a human can rise.
  • Accessible: provide a deep understanding of the torments, temptations and risks that accompany great deeds.
  • Attainable: reveal the steps, missteps and varied paths that lead to extraordinary achievements.

Hags have no problem describing the aspirational aspects of their subjects. However, it takes a balanced biography to make the mental musculature of the subject sufficiently accessible for people to learn from it, and then it takes at least infant steps to make some imitation of those great models attainable.

Our country’s hags deny us the benefit of learning from homegrown heroes (and heroines) operating in the environment with which we are most familiar. It is time they left their haggage-baggage behind and provided us with real biographies of business beacons from India.

Notes:

[1] Samuel Johnson. The Works of Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 60, 13 October 1750.

[2] John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Reformation Publishers, 2010.

[3] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, Princeton University Press, 2012.

[4] Visty Banaji, Music and management, People Matters, 5 February 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/music-and-management-24574).

[5] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Classics, 2008.

[6] David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie, Penguin Press, 2007.

 

 

 

 

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