Shaping the Future
Arun Maira
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buy *Shaping the Future* online Shaping the Future:Aspirational Leadership in India & Beyond

Arun Maira
John Wiley & Sons
280 pages
February 2002
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

previous review

Although this book doesn’t breathe a word of it, it is really about why business investment flocks to China but is wary of India. What has gone wrong—and right—since India undertook a series of drastic economic reforms due to a reserves flow crisis in 1991? And if India has changed so positively for the better, why does investment in China exceed investment in India my many multiples? 

India’s numbers can be startling: It numbers a sixth of all humanity. It has the fifth largest economy in the world, and a quarter of the earth’s urbanized populace. A third of the world’s people live under its more or less democratic umbrella. It is the second largest among the developing economies after China. And most important, India is the first massive, complex developing country to successfully transit from a socialist to a market economy without massive rural or worker unrest.

India is a modern industrial state, yet lives with ancient roots that still encourage a timeless vision of life in which values of several thousand years ago shape much of today. As with China’s, India’s sense of collective history is a formidable force. It underpins religions, languages, class, caste, and the strong remnants of socialist attitudes from Gandhi and Nehru eras. Despite millennia of conquest and colonization, India has kept its sense of cultural continuity virtually intact. So deep and yet so resilient are its social and religious ideas that art forms one sees today are almost identical to carvings and paintings more than 3,000 years old. Indians have a knack for absorbing useful ideas (like software development) while discarding unwanted ideas (such as accountability in government) like so many saris on the rag carts of history. Every attempt, whether generated within or by transnational entities, to change India into something else has failed. Village life remains very much the same as one reads in the great epics of thousands of years ago (and in the superb novels of today). Even in the fast-paced modern cities like Mumbai and Delhi, beneath the facade of with-it popstyles are age-old obligations and symbols of loyalty. As Daraius Ardeshir, managing director of Nestle India put it while explaining the difficulties marketers face when looking behind the facade of Indian modernity, “Indians are capable of living in several centuries at once. When I visit my father’s house I still kneel and touch my forehead to his feet.” 

China and India are dissimilar in ways that go much further back into history than their newfound interest in Western economic success (if not the ideas that have made it). China’s uniform written (though not spoken) language, ethnicity, and nonsectarian religious sensibility are polar opposites of India’s genetically intermingled and uncountably diverse populace. India counts twenty major languages, and seven major religions. In China there is apathy if not outright antipathy to formalized religiosity. Chinese religion is largely familial rather than institutional, ancestral rather than deistic. India’s religious devotions demonstrate the endurance of institution-mindedness perpetuated through imagery. In China the good life is more important than the good soul; in India the value of religion can be more important than the value of life.

Hence India’s strengths are China’s weaknesses, and vice versa. China changes from within faster than India but the results are more unstable. China has too little law and bureaucracy; India has too much of both. China lacks the structure to manage the entrepreneurialism of its economic energy. India has a great deal of structure but is weaker on the entrepreneurialism.

Arun Maira’s Shaping the Future is a case study in the surprising fact that business leaders are the most idealistic and reform-minded people in India; it is the godmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats who hold the country back. Yet India lacks not for due diligence: Watch a laborer digging a ditch with a pick and shovel in the heat of the late afternoon sun and you will never again think the Indian worker of being lazy.

Yet China still sucks in the bucks. Why?

For one, India is a minefield of contradictions. It is way ahead of China in self-generated technological prowess—Mahatma Gandhi imprinted his message of self-reliance well—and about equal with China in encouraging entrepreneurs (especially women) to discover and exploit business opportunities. Yet it also groans under horrific and seemingly intractable poverty, a brobdingnagarian bureaucracy, a fault line between the relatively efficient central government (“The Centre”) and dysfunctional, erratic, wasteful, nepotistic, and in some cases monumentally corrupt state governments. On pages 85–86 Mr. Maira describes the corrosive effect government interference with business directorship has not merely on the company but also the economic sector for which the company produces. On page 87 he hits the nail of India’s core problem square on the head:

"... it suffered from problems typical of government sector companies in India .... Salaries were low compared to non-government sector companies. The principal reward that people looked forward to was the acquisition of new titles and perquisites by promotion into higher grades. The company had many levels of managers so that people could be rewarded as they progressed upwards in their careers. Power to make decisions was related to rank. Decision making was encumbered by the plethora of levels that information had to flow through. The directors and general managers sat atop tall organizational pyramids. ... And thus, level-by-level, the pyramids built up. The pyramids were organized by functions with a “functional” director, appointed directly by the government, on top. People within one pyramid did not work easily with people within others. ... [no] one could respond quickly to the changing needs of customers...
That is why China still sucks in the buck.

Into this Mr. Maira jousts. He spends several pages in Chapter 5 describing the recent formation of a new state named Jharkhand almost out of despair at the intractability of the problems in the state of Bihar, which as he puts it, “[Bihar is] regarded as the real-life embodiment of all that can go wrong with democracy and governance.” Yet what rises from the ashes of India’s worst-run state is a phoenix of idealistic, even romantic, business people whose values are more compassionate than any other social class in India. India’s mistrust of globalization is well-founded: its own business thinkers are much more humane.

In fact, Chapter 5 is arguably the best in Mr. Maira’s book, due in large part to the richly detailed case examples he draws upon to make his points. In sum, his message is how to plan and use leadership techniques such as scenario planning to improve organizational leadership. Chapter 5 introduces the complexities of Indian business and society; the rest of the book is devoted Mr. Maira’s solutions. Roughly speaking, and rephrasing as I understand the import of his message, his analysis is this:

Each of us sees the world through a unique set of lenses ground by our personal experiences, responsibilities, and interests. None of us, individual or group, sees reality in its entirety. This fact is reinforced in business structures which organize employees, tasks, and responsibilities into pyramid structures (hierarchies) in which everyone is so preoccupied with their niche arena they tend not to see the company as a whole. Only the top leaders pay much attention to whether the company’s products or services are customers really want.

Myopia except at the top leads to a selective rather than collective sense of vision. Hence marketing managers are psychologically attuned to increasing market share; they tend to focus their budgets on sales and promotion at the cost of developing new products. Accounting managers aim to maximize profits by minimizing superfluous expenditure, usually at the expense of product quality and promotion. Production and design managers want to allocate their budget to product development and manufacturing processes, ending up with market-forward products and great prices with insufficient money left to notify the customers. Even communication styles can conflict. On page 75 he describes what might be called “expertise styles”—the “soft” side goes in for images and examples while the “hard” side demands technical charts and statistics. Such blinkered vision is the result parochial, imbalanced leadership. In poorly led companies it reaches into a company’s top management; one sign of it is management occupying itself more with organizational planning than with success planning.
Shaping the Future addresses these and other managerial flaws. Particularly in chapters 8 through 10 Mr. Maira describes practical ways in which Indian organizations (and by no means that country’s alone) can be transformed from 20th-century command-and-control enterprises into 21st-century context enterprises that merge the enterprise’s resource base with its knowledge base via a series of leadership policies. Mr. Maira suggests that leadership awareness can transform all parts of a company into management resources. Firms with a company-wide leadership-training approach along the lines suggested by Mr. Maira would have less need for the micromanagement of top-down leadership which is so characteristic of the Chinese organization. Leadership culture becomes its own distinct facet of the corporate culture. Leadership management in and of itself is as crucial as product or human resources management. Creating cooperation should be a must for everyone in the organization no matter what their job description.

Mr. Maira does not stint on examples to support his views. Chapters 3, 5, 7, and 9 are filled with examples both from the real world and the worlds of metaphor and scenario. Chapter 7 might be called “The Metaphor Chapter” because Mr. Maira draws on so many unorthodox—even startling—real-world examples in which to plant his thesis. His drawing business leadership notions out of the diverse worlds of music is a classic in transcultural thinking. On pages 80–81 he recommends establishing positive working relationships with NGOs. (Non-Governmental Organizations are often charities or faith-based entities working for social change whose foreign, humanitarian, or religious overtones make them suspect in the eyes of politicians.) Mr. Maira rightly points out examples of how NGOs provide global solutions to local problems that governments and businesses could well learn.

Adept choices of examples keep his writing brisk and entertaining—something one cannot often say of books about leadership management. This said, there are some improvements that might be made in his next book. A minor but distracting irritation is a too-copious and superfluous use of exclamation marks—they turn a message into a fist-pounder. (In all fairness, though, the renowned physicist Richard Feynmann did this in his middlebrow popularizations of heavyweight theoretical physics, and if he can get away with it ....) Chapter 6 is the weakest in the book, not for content but for style reasons; it reads as though written for a different setting and injected here. The chapter’s line of discussion is platitudinous and the examples lusterless (tuning knobs on radios). Pages 110–11 present information is so elemental a form it reads like prattle. Mr. Maira is so good at story-like case examples his abstract philosophizing comes off as other-worldly. There is too narrow a focus on the Boston Consulting Group—no other consultancy is mentioned in the Index or text. And the Index—this is the worst I have ever seen; you could do better riffling through the pages and hoping for the best. It appears to have been generated by the word-processor used to write the text and leaves out a sizable number of references that are not directly named in the text. For example, the four scenario-planning image-models he suggests on pages 170–75 are not indexed by either their own names or as a thematic citation. To read the Index you wouldn’t even know they existed, yet they are vital to his theme.

And what is that theme? To sum up in my own words what I perceive his message to be:

  • Most organizations are loathe to restructure completely—the painful errors made during the “Reengineering the Corporation” era of the mid-1990s has made everyone twice shy. Yet many senior managers still chafe under the fact that their firm’s management structure fosters progress-stifling behavior. If there is a solution to this, they want to know what it might be. Mr. Maira proposes that leadership training become a core element in the firm’s culture.
  • If an organization wishes to adopt a “strategic alignment” approach to achieve its management objectives, the prospective leaders themselves must devise the environment within which the alignments can best function. The emphasis is on the word “themselves” for true leadership comes from within.
  • While hierarchical management retains responsibility for deciding which ventures are to be undertaken, they must lead by to allocating specific projects to particular teams and defer to these teams in the matter of how to reach the preset objectives; i.e., keep their spoon out of the pot.
  • Leadership by coaching and mentoring rather than pyramid-structure authority leadership should be built into the firm’s organizational structure rather than relying on classroom-type instructional models.
Last December at the 2001 India Economic Summit, Mr. Maira summarized his broader view of this message at the forum “Human Capital: The New Competitive Advantage,” stating, “While India has been able to produce high capability individual human capital, it has not been able to derive advantage from this at the group or society level.” [At this same conference, a Mr. Jagdeep S. Chokar, Professor and Dean at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, came up with the marvelously Indian idea that “Every individual, whether he works or owns an organization, has to ask himself whether he is functioning as an investor of human capital or a speculator of human capital. If an individual is ready to leave his job for a better offer elsewhere or if he is willing to sell his company because he is being offered a good price, he is functioning as a speculator and should not expect anything different from those working with him or under him.” No job-hopper he. Yet consider the implications of the terms “human capital investor” and “human capital speculator.”

For those who may be interested in pursuing the broader perspective of Mr. Maira’s ideas can go to the website and download the “Minutes Of The First Meeting Of The Council of Indian Industries Colloquy on Multinational Companies” which took place in New Delhi in August 2001. The entire PDF download is an informative read for those interested in the zeitgeist of the modern liberal Indian enterprise, and Mr. Maira’s points, though too many to detail here, are certainly worth the read.

As is this book.

© 2002 by Dana de Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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