Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Strength of Vulnerability

A few years ago there was a motor accident on a highway. I was a part of it. It was more theatrical than my recent interesting accident at a children's party but it involved zero, yes zero injuries. That it was a miracle is probably an understatement. Soon after that incident I was in zone calm. Cool as a cucumber I took care of all matters at hand including attending the customer meeting I had to attend; but post that, when trying to sleep at night, I relived those moments of impact and I was troubled. How bad it could have been, was a realisation that struck me only then. The extent of grace I had received was astounding. So the next day, after an important meeting that had people coming in from out of town and had been scheduled weeks in advance, I took the day off and came home. I needed to get the aftershocks out of my system and that would only happen if I spent time with myself understanding what really was causing the discomfort. I would not be the most effective, efficient or authentic leader if I did not know myself first. And so my biggest learning post that incident was that it is ok to take time to regroup and get clarity.

This time I was injured and I could feel the extent of the damage. I knew this would be a long road to recovery, so this time I regrouped while waiting to go in for my x- ray. I decided to use my limited energy only for the most critical decisions. Priority one was the upcoming board meeting. I had an email from the team with some updates and some points needing discussion. So that was my first call. Having sorted that, next was to inform my boss. I did that. Then came peers and that box was ticked too. By then my phone battery and my stamina, both were in the red and so I sunk into the wheelchair, closed my eyes and tried to regroup myself again. The call to the audit partner would need to wait.

As reality of an impending surgery started to sink in, thoughts started to smoke my mind. I was not reliving the moment, no I had learnt my lesson in the futility of that attempt; it was the ongoing and future hows, what and when that were burning a small flame. All the family around me were either tired or worried and some even both, though no one showed it. I did not think it wise to have them inhale the smoke being generated from the flame.

I was weary of being wheeled in to a room filled with sharp instruments, drugged into oblivion, cut open and fixed with multiple metal pieces that would become a part of me. I was asked by the anesthesist if I had any objection to being intubated. I wanted to retort asking if I had an option, but kept quiet. With the little energy I had, I read the consent form I was asked to sign and understood that in short I was giving up the right on my own life for those few hours. So be it. I signed, but the smoke got thicker. And that's when I decided to ask for help. I took my phone and messaged a friend who I consider as a more honest person than me, with faith stronger than mine. All I could manage to type was "Injured. Need prayers." Despite the short message, somehow trusting that one person and asking for help made me feel better. I was now ready to sit out the night.

Why did I trust him? There are reasons that will digress from this post and so are currently immaterial; but reaching out and asking for help gave me the strength to clear the smoke so that my visibility at least was no longer clouded. I was now in control while the silence had only bred anxiety.

In the operation theatre I was clear that I was not lying down until sedated. The pain, in that movement, was far too great in the upper left extremity of my body. I knew my limits and was not going to be pushed beyond them. Of course I was vulnerable and one of the doctors on the team tried to push me into a lying down position before I could be sedated. So I screamed. That was my only defence mechanism. To my relief that is when the surgeon rushed in. I was sedated in a sitting position and then I only have the repair work to gauge what happened. But I made my point that Sunday morning - yes I was vulnerable, I was at their mercy and I was in pain; but I would not let anyone disrespect my threshold of tolerance, exploit my dependence and misuse my trust.

The acceptance of vulnerability and reaching out for help gave me comfort and clarity at a time when I had to lead the most important person in my life -  me myself. More than outside support, even from those who love you more dearly than their own lives, it is your own advocacy that helps you row in troubled waters. Your own faith, conviction and confidence are most essential in successfully navigating a storm. And in this if you to turn to a trusted comrade and say help me beef up my reserves so that I may succeed, it only seems sensible and rational to me.

Some of the most successful leaders have left legacies because they acknowledged their vulnerabilities. An acknowledgement of feelings, doubts and fears allows a leader to connect more transparently with her team. It lends authenticity to interactions which builds on trust. But it takes strength of character and a shedding of ego to accept that as a leader one may not be perfect.

Lady Thatcher resigned because she saw how vulnerable she was and what that was doing to her party. Her voluntary resignation allowed for a more popular candidate to be nominated and the Conservatives ran the government for another seven years. Whether or not it was effective governing is a matter of another discussion, but the leader's realisation of a weakness helped the party and earned her respect if nothing else.

One of the most revered companies, Apple Inc. was founded by Steve Jobs. But it is also common knowledge that he was unceremoniously sacked from his own firm by his own board because he was unable to see how his decisions were taking the iconic enterprise down. The man post his dismissal conceded he was wrong and began to relook at his work. He acquired and grew Pixar; and when Apple needed him back, he joined the company again but only as an advisor and then interim CEO. This time his ego was not on the high pedestal it was in the first stint. As his cancer was diagnosed, he started to hand more power to his trusted team member Tim Cook. The tremendous success Apple enjoys has been seen only after Steve Jobs' death.

Closer to home, the man who wrote history, Mahatama Gandhi or Bapu as the nation calls him was known to have accepted his limitations and weaknesses. In fact he even stated that the biggest battle was fighting his own demons, fears and insecurities. He stuck to his core beliefs and values and did not fail to apologize when wrong. It was this honesty and conviction that led not just a nation but a generation to be inspired by him.

I am writing this today as I am forced to wonder if in the corporate world we have missed the importance of this disposition and considered it solely to be a weakness for far too long. For how long do we expect senior leaders and senior management to always have all the answers, to always be right and to always win? When will it be ok for corporate executives to be human and let their teams know that they are susceptible to the same fears as the team, and that they trust the team enough to help find a way out? Will it ever be ok to make a mistake, apologize and still retain the helm with head held high? Will the world driven by profits and stock markets ever fully appreciate the truth of the statement - "there is nothing so strong as gentleness and nothing so gentle as real strength"? Will vulnerability ever be truly appreciated as a strength on resumes?

Sunday, 12 February 2017

A broken bone and a grateful heart

Even in my worst nightmare I would never wish even fifty percent of this experience on anyone. But if anyone has a similar mishap, I would wish them every bit of the luck that I had.

It was a beautiful winter Saturday afternoon. The rays of the sun peaked from the clouds as the hide and seek between the warmth and the cold continued. Breaking the dominance of the chill was the heat emanating from the aromatic masala tea. Pink Roses, orange Trumpet Creeper ( yes Google these gorgeous flowers), violet Snapdragons and green trees adorned the garden. Butterflies hopped from flowers to soil to trees while the birds flew above in search of a meal. Children played with pizza slices in hand and we adults ferried food from the kitchen to the tables outside. It was a perfect party for my nine year old angle. Everyone he wanted and everything he desired was around. 

With a whining ankle secured in an ankle binder, I was having my share of fun when suddenly the bouncy collapsed. Yes it's an air filled structure, and perhaps that is the reason that there was no tragedy. From a height of at least 8 feet the deceptive monster collapsed and along with that six nine year olds were on top of me. I was on the ground, unable to breathe for the first few seconds and in the next many all I could feel was myself sinking and seeing the entire galaxy swimming in my brain. I could not react and then I heard my little angel call out to Pape Smurf; the one person even I go to for advise when in doubt. All he could say was, Papa look at her, Papa look at masi (aunty). 

I don't know how long it took, but as I gathered my wits and courage I could feel the pain wrecking havoc on my left upper body. Attempting to get up, I moved my left shoulder from the ground and saw my left arm hanging as if detached from the rest of me. That's when I knew I needed a hospital immediately. Hugging my hand to my body I got up, asked for water and sugar and took in some deep breaths; this was no more a solo adventure. 

PS helped me on a chair and gave me sugar water. I felt somewhat human. Sequoia came out; I have no idea about her expression but her voice was reassuring and calm. As Sequoia called the orthopedics known to her, PS boosted my courage as it was I who had walk to and sit in the car. We managed; PS, Sequoia and I. How, I don't know; but we reached the hospital with one decision, mother and father would be informed only after a conclusive medical examination. 

It is amazing how the human body reacts to trauma it suffers. Except for certain movements, as long as I was seated I felt almost normal. That changed only when I went in for an x-ray and my hand was moved and then I was made to stand. At that moment I felt as if I was the deflating bouncy, ready to hit the ground and end up in an unmanageable heap. PS held me and got me a stool. Once I sat, I felt connected to planet earth again. 

Well the rest of the misery is a long story best forgotten. So let's talk about my luck amidst this chaos. The x-ray suggested a humerus broken in two requiring surgery. But a straight forward surgery it would be. The doctor at the hospital we were at, was unavailable till Monday which was a good day and a half away. Luckily my orthopedic surgeon in Mumbai was available on the phone and told me that if I could get to Bombay he would patch me up on Sunday itself. Just his assurance lifted my spirits. He is an incredible soul not just a great doctor. But shipping me to Bombay, with a bone broken in two, was not an option that was the first choice. And so the family in Delhi was called for reinforcement. 

All Indians have extended families and every extension comes with multiple memories. The Evergreens as I would like to call them have not changed in the last three decades. The eldest on mother's side, they have always been there for everyone. And so Mr. Evergreen was contacted. He would not hear of a transfer to Bombay. Of course he would speak to the surgeon who had done his surgery and then Noddy's and would ensure his niece was taken care of. So off PS went to have me discharged from hospital X. 

The mere mention of discharge had everyone from the junior orthopedic surgeon to the HOD, trying to convince PS and Sequoia not to go to another hospital. I was a lamb that the cash machine would slaughter. Insurance companies would be sliced as well. A meaty meal, I could not be let out of the cage. Well but Sequoia being in the medical profession knew how to open the lock of the cage and have me moved to a more humane care environment. So I was a free being for a while again. 

PS with his own back in pain and Sequoia leaving all her work behind, once again started to drive me. The car was going no faster than 20kmph and PS ensured all pot holes were missed. Sequoia regularly provided support to my arm, how did she do that from the backseat only she knows. She and PS were my rock of Gibraltar that day. 

At the Evergreens' surgeon, Mr EG came to me. Face tense, eyes laden with concern, he put a hand on my head and said, "God what happened beta (child)". In the next instant, the tension melted into affection and the care into strength; he cradled my cheeks in his palms and said , " this too shall pass I promise". His love gave me new found strength. I was reminded of grandfather and gave in to being operated in Delhi. The surgery was scheduled for 830am on Sunday. It was 12 hours to being fixed...

Every Indian has an aunt or an uncle who has filled in for parents at some critical juncture. Another beauty of the extended family. And that's where the Everpresents come in. Older than mother, she has been there through my most celebrated illness of childhood. She detected my jaundice and cared for me for a month and a half even as Noddy made my life miserable. I had been infected with jaundice only because Noddy being naughty refused to carry water for his little sister to the skating rink. That's another story and I think my brother Noddy needs a book dedicated to his antics and theatrics. As he is lawyer, without permission, I refuse to put myself at peril. 

Mrs EP and Noddy came to the hospital soon after I entered my room. While Mrs EP was concerned about my comfort and food intake, all Noddy wanted was to make me laugh. When the nursing staff of 3 could not locate a vein on my hand to draw a blood sample from, and had finished twisting my arm in every direction, Noddy very sweetly asked them," is it your first time?". His manner and candour were such that everyone, including the nurses, burst into laughter. Mrs EP and Noddy stayed on until after midnight till mother and father arrived. After that mother, or universal Florence Nightingale as the Evergreens call her, took over. 

Surgery over, I was brought to the recovery room. As consciousness started to emerge I became confused. I was surrounded by everything white. Where was I ? I was freezing with teeth chattering. Had ice age really dawned on earth!? I spotted a green sphere at a distance but had no voice to call out. Eventually the green sphere started to float towards me and when it came by my bed side, reality hit me! Surgery was over and this was my doctor! 

As I was wheeled back into my room, which just to list all facts was in the children's ward, I heard the Indulgents. Younger than father, Mr Indulgent fulfilled all my food cravings as a child. Mrs Indulgent to this day showers endless affection on me. I was overwhelmed. They were all here out of concern, care and compassion. What more could I ask for? In this time of pain I had so much love and so many blessings that the injury became a welcome reminder of all that I need to be thankful for.

The next three days in hospital I did not feel ill even for a minute. To start with my very own Florence Nightingale took care of all my needs. Mrs EP not only got delicious home cooked food of choice daily, but also Mr EP pampered me with home made masala tea and freshly squeezed orange juice twice a day. Mrs EG came regularly to visit with anecdotes that made me smile. The trio of sisters, father's three multi talented sisters, came to see and bless me. Each reinforced my faith that the Benevolent One is taking good care of me. Cousins came, friends did, as did those who need not have taken the pains to. 

I was cocooned in a nest made of tender feathers of loving care which only got cosier at home. My two angels fed me, hugged me, drew for me and in every way demonstrated their relief that I was alright. 

Back in Bombay, HP spoilt me with gorgeous white lilies and lavender. The Farmer came with the team and a bouquet of red roses. My Mini Mouse came with her husband, laden with fruits that I should eat and left with a promise of more goodies to come tomorrow. 

So a week and twelve hours post a great hurdle and a painful obstacle, I am lying in my bed writing this post, and staring at the ceiling with only a constant humming in my mind - 

Here you are, standing there, and loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my past in childhood
I must have done something good.

PS: the best thing that has happened to me is winning the parent lottery

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A Thought Cloud

To catch a flight I need to be at the airport well in time. I do not like to rush and run to board. But unfortunately this morning I was just in the position that I always avoid. Mumbai airport, bright and early, looked like there was a free fare to Las Vegas and everyone was there to grab their own special seat.

At the check-in the serpentine queues were lazing as my anxiety was slowly awakening. But before I could start palpitating, thankfully, a call was made for passengers on my flight to move to the front. Finally I was able to check-in, get my boarding card and proceed to the security check points.

Like I said, it was a free fare and so the security check queues also meandered around. One look at my watch and I was hyperventilating. 30 minutes to take off. A frequent flyer, somewhere I knew that with a boarding pass issued and checked in bags accepted, it would be rather unlikely that the flight would leave me behind. Yet I wanted to be seated inside the aircraft, 25 minutes before departure time, which is when boarding technically closes. And so I requested the women in the never ending ladies queue if I could kindly go ahead of them. Most had no problem. Some said thank you for asking. A few joined me as they were on my flight. So we came to the point where we dropped our bags on the security conveyers, ready to move to the frisk check queue. And suddenly there was an uproar. 

"How dare you cut into the queue?" A non-natural blonde glared, ready to eat me alive.
"Am sorry, but I asked the women in the queue as my flight is in 30 minutes. Only when they said yes have I moved ahead. So technically I have not cut in but have been generously allowed to jump ahead." I was factual and polite.
"I am on the same flight and you have no business to jump the queue." 
"Sure you go ahead of me."
"Yes I will, and you must stand and wait for your turn."
"Yes I would have but then the flight would have left given how long the queues are and hence I asked. But you please go before me."
"That I will, given I was here before you; and you stop being argumentative!"

I stepped aside, a little perplexed. Was she upset because I had jumped ahead, was she unhappy because she had stood patiently for a long time or did she just not like my face! As I awaited my turn for being frisked, a lady in a black tunic and red scarf patted me on the back. "My dear, it's ok. You have a flight to catch. We understand. It's alright." She smiled and my turn came. I was stunned by her gesture of assurance. Empathy from a stranger reinforces that emotions are maybe still alive in the world. 

The gate was a little far and I made a dash for it. The injured ankle also had to start whining just then. Promising to wear the ankle binder as soon as I was on my seat, I solicited cooperation of the little joint. In some pain but in one piece and with all hand luggage with us, we - my ankle and I - reached the boarding gate. That is when the phone started ringing. Who ever it was would have to wait. 

Coming to my seat, I put the hand bags in the overhead bins, sat down and was about to put on the ankle binder as promised when came another interruption. 

"Am really sorry to bother you. My husband and I are travelling together. I have been upgraded to business class and he has not been. Would you mind exchanging seats please." Now that was sweet and welcome. 
"Sure. Would you mind if I was to just wear my ankle binder?" 
"Absolutely not. Please let us know which are your bags and my husband will help you move them." 
"Oh thanks! But really not needed."

But my not needed was not heard and my one laptop bag and my little Prince's birthday gift were both taken to their new storage hold. As this action was happening, the woman sitting across the aisle looked at me and said, "She really wants to give up a business class seat to  travel with her husband! Must be newly married!" The couple heard this and the wife smiled, "Not really. We have been married for seven years and I don't think that two hours of petty luxury is worth leaving time with my husband." I smiled at her; a true heartfelt smile. That is my kind of a woman; and I moved up front. 

As I took my seat, settled in and began to relax; a thought started clouding the skies of my brain. Is human emotion really getting depleted? Perhaps not. Because while I had three examples (including myself) of selfish behaviour, I had two simultaneous samples of acts of emotional warmth. And if I added HP's call wishing me a safe flight, it is three acts. 

As the cloud was taking shape, the flight took off and I found myself staring out of the window. The Mumbai local trains, the red buses and the cars were running on their designated routes. Flanking the roads and rail corridor on either side were concrete structures ten to twenty stories high. Slowly the heights started to slope downwards till I could see the vast spreads of the slums and eventually the creek and then the expanse of the Arabian Sea. 

While I saw all these man-made creations up above from the skies, I could not spot one human being! Not the car driver or the train passenger. Those dwelling in the sky scrapers were as invisible as those living in the slums. The boats that dotted the creek and the ships that adorned the sea seemed equally barren and devoid of human life. And so my cloud started to take a new shape. What is the use of materialistic possessions and gains without having a human eye to appreciate them? What value does success hold if not cheered by an excited human voice? What can help overcome a bout of disappointment better than a soothing human touch? 

And just as the sun started to light my internal skies we started our descent. Climbing down from thirty thousand feet above the ground, coming closer to land, I could see someone walk across the field. Closer to the landing strip I could spot children eagerly watching the plane land. And just as we touched down, I saw the directions being given by an air traffic personnel. 

There definitely is something about emotions and closeness. What it is I cannot articulate. But whatever it is, it is that which makes the world a better place.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Two Lives and A Wish

It was my first board meeting and the first meeting with the independent directors. This was a subsidiary company and so a meeting with its directors had not been the most pressing matter soon after joining. But now that I was meeting them, I wanted to make a good first impression. Fond of ethnic Indian clothes, I chose to wear my favourite salwar kameez that day. And that is what led to my first conversation with Mr. Interesting.

Mr. Interesting was the last independent director to arrive. He had just turned 90, but his appearance did not give away his age. When he spoke he maintained eye contact. When he read he caught the main points first. When he listened he had a smile on his face. But he ate or drank nothing. A strict Brahmin, he ate or drank only that which he got from home. It was the secret of his long life and energy. 

A few hours later, we broke for lunch. As he would eat nothing, he walked up to the next floor to sit in one of the cabins and wait for the others to finish. I do not recollect why, but for some reason I walked up to that floor as well. As I walked in, through the door, he was standing there. He smiled at me and said, "nice salwar kameez." I thanked him and smiled back. It was then that he looked me in the eye and said, "if I may, I want to tell you three things. Please always wear a bindi. Never wear rings on any finger other than the ring finger and lastly always wear bangles. Your wrist should always be adorned." 

All he said were things I had heard before. Some from my grandparents and some from others. Mother was the one who had gifted me her own rings to wear. So none of this was new; but coming from an almost stranger, replete with the affection of a grandfather and laden with the authority of a scholar; the impact was different. Every time post that encounter I attempted to ensure that I listened to his advise as often as I could, and if not always with all three, I would comply with at least two every time I met him.

Why did he tell me these things on the first day that he met me, I don't know. Now I will never find out, ever. A fortnight ago he passed away, and today comes the first board meeting of the subsidiary without him. This entire realisation has struck me as I am putting on my bangles and bindi after having worn a saree today...

I am sure I wore sarees to board meetings when Mr. Interesting was around, but another board member of the parent company could only keep asking me. 

Dr Artsy had been a renowned banker in her days and had been on the board for many many years. A strong willed and free spirited soul, she battled cancer for several years. She underwent multiple chemotherapy sessions and surgeries; yet her zest for life maintained its highs. Oh we would hear a loving but an earful if her favourite potatoes were not cooked for lunch on the day of the board meeting. She would call to remind that taking her out for a drink was overdue ,or she would call to simply say that living next door you had no excuse not to pay her a visit. She enjoyed every living moment!

After one board meeting, as I was helping her to the bathroom she very quietly said, "I am due for my next check up. This time I am worried. What if the dastardly thing is back?" I looked at her and gently reassured her that even if it was she would fight it back as always. I don't know whether it was a premonition but yes the beast had reared its ugly head again. 

Given the recurrence of the illness she decided to step down from the board. Given her long association with the organisation, a farewell dinner was planned. At the AGM before the dinner she chided me for not wearing a saree and warned me for trotting up at dinner in anything but a saree. There was no time to go home and change into a saree that day and so I rocked up to dinner in my work attire. Resplendent in a bottle green saree she looked at me and said, "if I have been able to wrap a saree and enjoy it, you have no bloody excuse not to be in one!" 

Now, even if I want I cannot fulfill her wish; she passed away last year. Dr Artsy, I am sorry I could not wear one while you were around, but today this saree is dedicated to you.

Two incredible lives lived with tremendous aplomb and grit. One was regimented and the other a free bird. Two gentle lives that were equally fierce. One curated and the other wrote. Two lives that were fertile with insights and experiences. One content to stand in the wings and the other always center stage. Two lives I think of, feeling humbled to have known. One I wish could answer me and one I wish I could respond to...