I am Anonymous
The Mass Rapid Transit, or MRT, is a rapid transit system forming the major component of the railway system in Singapore, spanning most of the city-state. The MRT network encompasses 199.6 kilometres (124.0 mi) of route, with 119 stations in operation, on standard gauge. The fully automated North East, Circle and Downtown lines out of the total eight lines form the longest fully automated metro network in the world. What interested me, during my recent visit to this country, however, was the art which seemed to blend quite beautifully with the architecture of the railway stations. What particularly caught my attention was the art at the Upper Changi Station on the Downtown line. Titled “ I AM ANONYMOUS”, this imposing piece of art was like no other – comprising of only enlarged fingerprints, they were spread across an entire wall inside the station building on very elegant looking Metallic tiles. What was even more fascinating was what could not be seen at first glance. There were “emotions” of various kinds – nearly hundred unique ones, which could be noticed when each enlarged finger print was viewed from a particular angle (like a Hologram). Boo Junfeng, a filmmaker and artist based in Singapore, was the creator of this art. His works explore the human side of situations and subjects, and this art was clearly a great expression of this passion of the much awarded young artist.
“ I am Anonymous” comprised of the prints and texts collected from nearly 300 students of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), who upon graduation would be pursuing their dreams. They were simply asked to complete the statement “I am ……”. Some of the responses were Different, Cool, Green, Adventurous, Intelligent, ADHD, Happy, Magnificent, One with Life, Obsessed, Confused, Determined…. These responses from the youth articulated their nature, aspirations, concerns – with which they identified. These emotions which were written in their own handwriting, expressed with their finger prints alongside, had one curious side to it – there were no names. Yes, they were anonymous. Yet, the artist presents this art as a “public disclosure” of the realities of youth at the crossroads of life, and hopes that the passengers viewing them would be able to relate to these sentiments while passing through this station. To me, this art is a “Masterpiece of Diversity” of the world we live in and love – of character, emotions, mindsets, personalities and abilities.
The question which occupied my mind each time I passed by this art (at least ten times during my brief visit) was “would we deal better with people – their character, emotions, mindsets, personalities and abilities (CEMPA), if they were anonymous?’ That to me holds the key to the other part of the D & I conundrum – Inclusion!
The Legacy of Lincoln
In 1982, forty-nine historians and political scientists were asked by the Chicago Tribune to rate all the Presidents through Jimmy Carter in five categories: leadership qualities, accomplishments/crisis management, political skills, appointments, and character/integrity. At the top of the list stood Abraham Lincoln. He was followed by Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. None of these other Presidents exceeded Lincoln in any category according to the rate scale.
Mindful of Lincoln’s legendary place in American popular culture, he is accorded similar encomiums by historians for what he accomplished and for how he did it. Such was his commitment to preserving the Union and to vindicating democracy that it did not matter what the consequences to him were. Because he understood that ending “slavery” required empathy, patience, timing, shrewd calculations, a firm resolve and endless persistence, slavery was indeed finished in the USA. This master of inclusion, Lincoln, in the process of saving the Union and killing slavery, managed to define the creation of a more perfect United States, in terms of liberty and economic equality, which then rallied the entire masses behind him.
Because he understood that accomplishment of both great causes depended upon the combination of visionary presidential leadership with the exercise of politically adroit means, he left as his legacy, a United States that was whole, free and largely inclusive. He couldn’t have done it better because he truly strove to deeply understand people – their character, emotions, mindsets, personalities and abilities (CEMPA).
The greatness of Marcus Aurelius
Considered to be the last of Rome’s ‘Five Good Emperors’, his rule would prove to be the last of value to the empire, because it underwent a rapid decline after Aurelius’ death in 180 AD. His influence during his life, and work for Rome was phenomenal. He was a superior general, a popular politician and an able strategist. However, it is his body of philosophical reflections, known to us now as Meditations, that has stood the test of time and secures Marcus Aurelius as one of history’s finest thinkers. Born Marcus Annius Verus, later becoming Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, he was born into a family known for political prestige and military might. Governance, to some capacity, was always destined for Marcus. The young to-be-emperor was known to be reserved, humble, and successful in his studies too. Before the age of 17, Marcus was tipped to be future co-emperor alongside fellow adopted brother Lucius Verus. What is rather incredible is that Marcus insisted that he rule along with Lucius Verus, despite being offered sole rulership in 161 AD. Which other ruler would demonstrate such virtuosity?
Marcus was a naturally gifted individual. There existed before him many good emperors, so what is it that causes Marcus to stand out as truly great? Emperors such as Julius Caesar were celebrated warriors who expanded Rome’s borders and left an influence on an empire that lasted generations. But those men built legacies that existed only in the epochs of that empire – they conquered lands. Conversely, teachings of Marcus Aurelius, through his work Meditations, extend into the 21st century and he has rightly earned the title of “philosopher king” made popular under Stoicism. Stoicism, in brief, is the belief that virtue has its place above all things, and that to be good – in action and in thought – is the key to welfare and inner peace. Marcus Aurelius ruled alongside an adoptive brother he could have easily been rid of; made peace with hordes of barbarians – Rome’s greatest and longest-running enemies, in an effort to secure Rome from within; loved his wife truly and wholly, despite spending the majority of their married life outside of Rome; he lived a simple life in a home, not a palace and loved his subjects.
Marcus was among the most powerful men in the world of his time and still took nothing for himself; choosing only good for goodness sake. Marcus personified the virtues of wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage above all other factors. His masterwork and his legacy, Meditations, remains an incredible inspiration to millions across the globe. Today we understand that Marcus Aurelius personified greatness – not because he conquered vast territories or slaughtered thousands – but because he was simply a good man of the highest honour, who prioritised humble virtue and the natural morality of the human spirit. Worth mentioning at this moment, is his most fitting quote: ‘Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.’ It can be observed through his life and work that he deeply cared for people – their character, emotions, mindsets, personalities and abilities (CEMPA).
The Vision of Jaipur Living’s Chaudhury
Let’s see if the principle of understanding people – with their character, emotions, mindsets, personalities and abilities (CEMPA), can be applied to profitable businesses.
In 1978, Nandkishore Choudhary borrowed about INR 13,000 (about $200) from his father, and bought two looms, telling him he was not interested in a nine-to-five desk job, though the bank job he had seemed to be far more “secure” at that time. Having initially worked at his father’s shoe shop at the small village Churu in the Rajasthan state of India, and noticing that it did not have much potential to grow, and then finding the desk job at the bank too mundane, he had finally realized what he truly wanted to do – work through the power of communities in these villages. So he got an old bicycle and started travelling to the villages of Rajasthan, living, working, and sharing his time with people in India’s most marginalized communities. Initially looked down upon for doing this and facing a lot of resistance from his own family and neighbours, he kept soldiering on, asking, “How could these people—the so-called untouchables in backward society—be any different than you and me?” The answer was clear: “They’re not. And these individuals, like me, were in need of jobs, a way to make a living.”
Being determined, Chaudhary learned how to weave, and started sharing these skills with the communities. It came to his notice that even after villagers perfected the art of carpet weaving, the artisans were compelled to sell their rugs to middlemen who would exploit them, paying only a meagre wage—while themselves selling the rugs for a huge premium by exporting them. In 1986, he decided to become that middleman, but with a critical difference- rather than exploit the artisans, they would receive far greater return. Also selling directly to customers in Europe and the United States, Jaipur Living became an exporter. In two years, he scaled up his home-based carpet factory to six looms. He started taking on small projects for exporters, but realised he would have to look for other ways of expanding soon. There were a few small villages close by and he wanted to install two-three looms in each. That was the first step in the creation of his network of weavers. Soon he expanded his reach to Jodhpur. And, within eight years, Nand Kishore covered almost all of Rajasthan. Having learnt that the government was keen to promote carpet weaving in the tribal belts of Gujarat, he expanded to Gujarat and soon ended up building a network of 10000 weavers. The company has been working for over four decades now with village artisans and has a presence in over 45 countries where it sells hand-knotted rugs, and brings in over INR 170 crores ($25 million) a year. Chaudhary desired to improve the lives of talented rural folk living in extreme poverty, and that desire unexpectedly led to connecting them to global markets – working directly with artisans and empowering them and their communities with sustainable livelihood, Jaipur Living now works with over 50,000 artisans from rural India, who work on 7,000 looms across 600 villages.
That said, it is the philosophy and its execution which made all the difference, propelling them to being one of the largest rug manufacturers in the world today. They ensure that weavers do not have to travel to get the raw materials (mostly yarn and weaving templates). Rather, they have deployed staff that travel to the weavers, as needed, and deliver the materials. This, the weavers have expressed, have had a huge positive impact. Why? Jaipur Living sees this approach as a way to preserve village life. In India, most people living in rural households have two options: stay in the countryside and try to eke out a modest living, or travel to the cities seasonally, looking for work opportunities. Chaudhary didn’t want people to have to migrate to the cities to work – that would have negatively affected the dynamics and the long-term health of both, their families and the villages.
A strong advocate of for-profit solutions to social issues, N K Chaudhary articulates his philosophy as: “Give people a way to make a living, not just charity. In this way, your efforts are sustainable, and so are the livelihoods of all the people you touch. That thinking has helped me over the years, as I learned how to build a business consistent with my values”. One can easily observe that the inclusion of people from all classes, regions, social and economic backgrounds and skills has led Jaipur Living to weave a beautiful success story.
The largest Diversity – Biodiversity
Coming to weaving, let us understand that Biodiversity is our safety net. The incredible variety of animals and plants and insects on Earth, and the places they live, together, is called biodiversity. And, together, they provide us with essentials like food, drinking water, clean air, medicines, shelter and health. The World Wildlife Fund organization suggests “Think of all the different species and places on our planet as threads in a net. The more threads that intertwine, the stronger the net – and the better nature can provide for us and cope with threats such as climate change.”
Thus, the most diverse organization in the universe is our own Planet earth. All we need to know about diversity can be learnt from the planet which has existed for millions of years even before we appeared. Unfortunately, humans have been undoing the safety net for decades. Humans have flattened forests to make way for farming; netted fish until their numbers collapse; and bulldozed wetlands so that collectively this has wreaked havoc by way of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, hurricanes, diseases and many other natural disasters. The good news is that for the first time in human history, we have the knowledge to understand the impact we’re having on the natural world we love and depend on − and we know how we can start to mend the net. But do we have the wisdom to reverse this loss of nature – we need to act now or face catastrophic change.
“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – The World, indeed, is a family (say the magnanimous minded). This declaration is a part of a verse from the Rig Ved (holy scriptures of India), which by itself is a very significant, yet relatively small portion of the entire ocean of wisdom.
And yet, these two words capture so much meaning, including the theme of interconnectedness, or even the larger subject of Systems Thinking. The message hidden within is: Everything that affects others, affects us. Business which does not grow, declines, and yet no business can survive, let alone thrive without the talent of its people. There is enough evidence to show that diversity of the workforce in terms of gender, ethnicity, generations etc help businesses grow faster and better. When highly esteemed Leaders of the Corporate world, or its managers proclaim that we have a lot of catching up to do, in consciously embracing diversity of employees and greater inclusion of women or the specially-abled or transgenders, in the workforce, they are right. The direction is correct but action has been inconsistent. Considering the enormous potential of a wide pool of talent in the world, we are clearly lagging behind. That said, on inquiring how they propose to bridge the gap, the approach is unmistakably about following the best practices of the developed nations.
This can be attributed to both the lack of imagination of our professionals as well as to a lack of awareness about what’s already available in older civilizations such as China, India or even the African countries. After all, isn’t the most basic diversity the diversity of mindset, multiplicity of perspectives and the variety of ideas? And yet, most HR professionals barely go beyond the beaten path of “best practice”. This scarcity of perspectives must change. Most of all, we must look deep within our hearts than intellectualize the D & I dialogue. Let us look at one last illustration of Inclusion.
The Wisdom of Herb Kelleher
Encylopedia.com has the following to reveal about Herb Kelleher’s growing up years “As the last child at home, Kelleher formed a special bond with his mother, who became the biggest influence on his developing work ethic. The two sat in the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning discussing business, politics, and ethics. Ruth Kelleher was a working middle-class Irishwoman who instilled in her children the importance of treating people with respect. She taught them to be egalitarian and to judge on merit rather than appearance.” Kelleher soon discovered how right she was, as he told Fortune magazine: “There was this very dignified gentleman in our neighbourhood, the president of a local savings and loan, who used to stroll along in a very regal way up until he was indicted and convicted of embezzlement. My mother said that positions and titles signify absolutely nothing. They’re just adornments; they don’t represent the substance of anybody” (May 28, 2001).
Southwest Airlines’ business performance since it began as a public company in 1971, is the stuff of legend – in more than 45 years, in an industry famous for losses rather than profits; and high-profile bankruptcies rather than success stories, Southwest has never had a money-losing year — ever. Harvard Business Review published an article on the legacy of Herb Kelleher – “Thirty years after Southwest went public, Smart Money magazine concluded that ‘it had been the best-performing stock over those three decades — better than IBM, Merck, or other alluring names. A $10,000 investment in the Southwest IPO was worth $10.2 million thirty years later.’” So how was this legendary organization created? Even though Herb Kelleher passed away recently, he has left behind his valuable legacy. Southwest Airlines was never just a company, it was a cause. The purpose was not just to keep fares low and fly to more cities and keep the cash counters ringing. The purpose, in his words, was to “democratize the skies” — to make it as easy, affordable, flexible, for the average American to use air travel as it had always been for business travellers and the affluent.
Further, the HBR article states “It’s not what you sell; it’s what you stand for”. That’s the title of a book by Texas advertising legend Roy Spence, one of Herb Kelleher’s closest business partners, and the force behind so many of Southwest’s memorable ads. Kelleher insisted that Southwest was in the freedom business — its purpose was to give tens of millions of people “the freedom to fly,” even if that meant building a company that defied industry conventions at every turn. His purpose never changed even in the most difficult times. So even though budget airlines have all been inspired by his Business model, they have been unable to feel the intensity of his passion for the purpose. By the way, that “everybody” is important — and a second essential piece of Kelleher’s legacy. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Herb Kelleher and Southwest knows about his fun-loving antics and the company’s high-energy culture. But what all of us can learn from him, even if we don’t share his sense of humour, is that great leaders make an explicit connection between what they are trying to achieve in the marketplace and what they are building in the workplace. That’s why, in a company devoted to giving its customers “the freedom to fly,” Kelleher and his colleagues identified the “Eight Freedoms” that defined life inside airline, from “the freedom to learn and grow” to “the freedom to create financial security” to “the freedom to create and innovate.” “
Kelleher and by extension, Southwest, epitomizes the culture of inclusion. But this was made possible by this tall leader because of the values instilled by his mother that led him to place great emphasis on connecting with people along with their CEMPA.
The Bible, on Inclusion
The parable of the Good Samaritan highlights some important lessons on inclusion:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25, ESV)
Jesus asked him what was written in the law, and the man responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, ESV)
Pressing further, the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”
In parable form, Jesus told of a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbers attacked him, took his possessions and clothes, beat him, and left him half dead.
A priest came down the road, saw the injured man, and passed by him on the other side. A Levite passing by did the same.
A Samaritan, from a race hated by the Jews, saw the hurt man and had compassion on him. He poured oil and wine on his wounds, bound them up, and then put the man on his donkey. The Samaritan took him to an inn and cared for him.
We can learn from the parable or art at the downtown station of Singapore or from N K Chaudhary of Jaipur Living or the legacy of Herb Kelleher. They all share the following common threads:
- We deal better with people when we strive to understand them deeply – their character, emotions, mindsets, personalities and abilities (CEMPA)
- True inclusion must be inspired by a purpose of connecting the world through people – independent of their names, status or title
- Diversity, as we know it, seems to be conceptualized from the intelligence of the mind, but Inclusion has to be from the heart – which cannot differentiate – between one and another.
- Nature provides us the greatest lesson in inclusion – diversity has been thriving for billions of years because all the life forms co exist and support each other
- At organizations, we have a responsibility, to bring out the greatest talents of our people. Inclusion is not a business practice but a daily personal practice.