True education is the harmonious development of the physical, mental, moral, and social faculties - the four dimensions of life
At senior leadership roles, the focus is not on educational qualifications while hiring or promoting internally
CASE 1: The appointment of Smriti Irani as the Union Minister for Human Resources Development drew huge criticism from various sections of the society. The main bone of contention was that a person who is not even a graduate will now have to deal with chief ministers of various states, vice chancellors of various universities, heads of several research institutions, intellectuals from different disciplines and several subject matter experts. Would she still be able to deliver what’s expected? Would India need a better qualified person to lead education out of its current mess? Is it fair that an undergraduate who has no experience in the education field is appointed as HRD minister? Why can’t we prescribe minimum qualifications for various critical roles like these?
I am not a politician and I have very little understanding of the subject. So I will deal with this subject purely from an HR point of view. While I was reading about all the controversies surrounding the adequacy of the educational qualifications of the HRD minister, I was reminded of several highly successful individuals who had inadequate or no formal education. However, they were very successful in their lives and made spectacular contributions. Let us look at some of these highly distinguished personalities.
Abraham Lincoln, U.S. president, finished only one year of formal schooling; he taught himself to become a lawyer. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, was born in an aristocratic family but could not complete higher education past his schooling as he did not have an aptitude for studies. He is the only British Prime Minister to have won the Nobel Prize and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of USA.
Rabindranath Tagore did not attend university and yet he established one. Benjamin Franklin— inventor, scientist, author, and entrepreneur—was primarily home-schooled; he had no degrees or certificates of proficiency. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, phonograph and more was home-schooled, then joined the railroad when he was only 12 years old. William Shakespeare and Michael Faraday are some more examples of those who did not complete formal education. I am told that even Srinivas Ramanujan was not formally educated.
From the world of business, there are again several examples. Michael Dell, billionaire founder of Dell Computers, which he started out of his college dorm room, dropped out of the college. The late Steve Jobs is among the most celebrated innovators of the last century. He abandoned his studies at Portland’s Reed College after just six months. Yet his designs and inventions helped construct one of the world’s most pervasive technology empires, Apple Inc. Even Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak did not complete college. Larry Ellison of Oracle Corporation is another case. Before Larry became the world’s third-richest man, he abandoned his studies at two different universities. Having departed from the University of Illinois, Ellison enrolled in the University of Chicago. After just one semester, he dropped out of college. Bill Gates, America’s richest man, is also arguably the world’s most famous dropout. After enrolling at Harvard in 1973, he never formed a definitive study plan, choosing instead to spend his time in the campus computer rooms. By his sophomore year, Bill Gates made the decision to leave Harvard and start his own company, Microsoft.
I am not trying to make a case against formal education. However, the purpose of giving the above examples was to highlight that while formal education is helpful and desirable, informal education such as right aptitude and attitude, skills and capabilities, optimism willingness to learn, total commitment and focus and passion to excel is equally or possibly more critical and necessary.
There are two kinds of roles:
Type 1 – Certain minimum education qualifications/certifications are absolutely necessary or are prerequisite for appointments. These are typically specialist roles where knowledge of the technology and associated processes is absolutely crucial before you can take up these roles. For example, the qualification/certification of roles such as an electrician, a boiler operator, seafarers, doctors, pilots, fire fighters etc. need to be reviewed from time to time for their appropriateness by the respective authorities/regulators.
Type 2 – There are other roles wherein certain qualifications/education is desirable but not necessarily essential. In this case, desirability of the education is established by the employer on the basis of past experience. Here, the employer assumes that formal education enables a person to acquire certain knowledge, skills and capabilities to perform successfully on the given role.
Education is not about studying and getting good marks and a degree certificate. It should lead to the discovery of new things that we don’t know about, increase our knowledge in specific areas of pursuit. A formally educated person is expected to have an ability to differentiate between right and wrong or good and evil. The process of formal education is expected to develop power of reasoning, systematic thinking, power to make well-informed decisions and thereby prepares an individual to lead a matured life. Education in the broadest sense is meant to aid the human being in his/her pursuit of wholeness. Wholeness implies the harmonious development of all the potentialities innate in a person. True education is the harmonious development of the physical, mental, moral, and social faculties - the four dimensions of life.
One can argue that informal education – from parents, mentors and life experiences can as well do most of these things. Acquiring knowledge of a subject is relatively easy; however, to develop a balanced personality as referred herein, is very difficult and not many educational institutes today either focus on it or are good at it. College doesn’t necessarily prepare you for life; real life experiences and wise mentors do. Indeed, college doesn’t make you smart or hard working. Being smart is a function of curiosity that cannot be taught. You need a right attitude for that. Similarly, hard work lends itself to achievement in the working world, but formal education can’t teach hard work. A degree or diploma is just a credential that at best says you have passed certain examinations.
While formal education is important, this does not mean that the person who has received formal education is likely to succeed in the roles mapped against his/her qualifications. A formally educated person is likely to get a kick start in his/her career by way of entry in the organization, but this may or may not lead to success. We have time and again seen highly qualified people failing in their roles while those who are not professionally qualified succeeding.
For several decades, HR professionals have used formal educational qualifications as an easy means of shortlisting candidates. In addition, the pedigree or institute/school the candidate is from becomes another criterion for shortlisting and selecting apart from grades and marks. The assumption is that if the student gets admission in a most sought after institution, he/she must be smart, must have high IQ/Calibre and must have acquired adequate subject matter knowledge. In turn, they get the best jobs as well. Hence, this has resulted in formal educational qualifications becoming extremely important.
Coming back to the educational qualifications of Mrs Smriti Irani, we should really look at her ability to connect with the common man, her leadership skills, capabilities, skills, aptitude and passion rather than get worried about the educational qualifications. Her conceptual skills, political savviness and interest in the area she is leading is very crucial. Since she is not a subject matter expert and biased about the current state of education, she may be able to take a much unbiased independent view. She can also seek inputs from the experts surrounding her but the final decisions will be that of her and no one else.
At senior leadership roles, unless these are high technology roles, we in the corporate sector do not focus on educational qualifications at the time of hiring or internally promoting people. Bulk of the weightage at the time of hiring is given on multiple dimensions of leadership, skills and capabilities.