Investing in Infinity
About a month ago I had the opportunity to visit the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad in India. It was my first visit to India, and I was quite impressed with the facilities at Hyderabad, to say the least. Against one of the class room walls, a donor had paid homage to his grandmother, who had taught him that he had to invest in things of infinite value.
More precisely, his homage stated the following: “In loving memory of my grandmother xxx, who taught me that only learning leads to achievement and that there are no limits to either.”
In my mind I translated this to the following:
- Invest in Learning
- Invest in Excellence
- Both are infinite
Looking at some of the old museums and forts in Hyderabad , Ghaziabad, and Delhi, thinking back to the old civilizations, and reflecting on my field of interest i.e. the academic world, I realized the following:
- People are finite. We are born, we live, and we die. We talked about the kings and generals of the days gone by. We ourselves will die, some of us sooner than others. But as we say, the only sure things in life are death and taxes.
- Civilizations are finite. They are created, they grow, and then they self-destruct. Hegel developed his Dialectic Approach to history stating exactly that. This happened to the Greek, the Roman, the Chinese, and the Indian civilizations, among others.
- Knowledge is finite. We speak of the half-life of information becoming shorter, meaning that it loses its relevance for contemporary at an increasing rate. Of what we learnt 10 years ago, more than half is probably irrelevant today, if not just not true anymore.
- Buildings are finite. We can take a look at the level of degradation of these monuments of the past. In spite of man’s best efforts, they wear away slowly but surely.
- Organizations are finite. Have a look at the organizations that are older than 100 years. There are very few of them. Yet when we place a value on them, we assume an infinite life and use discounted cash flow methods to determine the valuation of the company!
Given these realizations, I was very comfortable with the homage I spoke about above, and for the following reasons:
- Learning is a verb. It is something we do. Knowledge per se can become dated. But the ability and the willingness to keep on learning is not finite. If we can do just that, we will learn and relearn and unlearn as we go along, thus ensuring that we stay relevant.
- We can also ensure through learning that we keep ourselves in a position to achieve, to achieve excellence.
I tell my MBA students right at the start of their MBA studies that they need to develop an attitude of learning. If they were there to obtain an MBA, it was a waste of time. It would be better for them to invite me for a week of golf at some or other exotic resort as we would at least enjoy the process more, and their organizations would in any case not notice the difference! As a matter of fact, the real studies start only after obtaining the MBA!
From India I went to Khartoum in the Sudan. During the weekend, I had the good fortune of visiting the pyramids at Meroe. Not only did I get confirmation of the point that civilizations and buildings are finite, but I also got confirmation of the infinite nature of excellence. What am I referring to?
The Sudan was part of the Egyptian civilization that gave us the pyramids and mathematics. They were civilised to a level which was unheard of in their time. Yet today there is not a lot left of this civilization, other than the pyramids and mathematics.
On the Friday evening I had the good fortune of listening to a quintet of violin players from Venice performing Mozart and Vivaldi! This took place in the open desert, with the pyramids in the background, the sun setting in the west, and a full moon rising in the east. Can you imagine the scene?! It was poetic and hauntingly beautiful!
As I was listening to these masters (Mozart and Vivaldi), I realized they have long been gone. Yet their music, their excellence, is still with us and probably more of value in today’s time than in their own! These people, and others like them, i.e. Beethoven, Strauss, Bach, to name but a few, had transcended the finite and performed at a level that had infinite value. I was extremely humbled by my experience, and it will remain one of the cherished moments of my life. A bucket list moment in retrospect!
This aspect gave meaning to me on the investment in excellence part of the homage statement. You need to strive to excellence. We cannot all be a Mozart, a Vivaldi or a Beethoven, but we need to strive towards this level as if we are a Mozart or a Beethoven.
Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to Prof Danica Purg, the founding and current President of the IEDC-Bled School of Management, Slovenia, and the founding President of the Central and East European Management Development Association (CEEMAN), which has 170 members from 42 countries and whose aim is to enhance management development in Central and Eastern Europe. She spoke at a leader’s angle meeting of the University Stellenbosch Business School on 15 Dec 2011 on the topic of the role of art in leadership development.
During her talk, she explained to the enthralled audience how they use music, Beethoven amongst others, to develop the ability of leaders to adapt their leadership styles according to the context, and to enhance their ability to deal with change. It was a fascinating talk. Among others, the following were deemed to be relevant:
- Art is used to develop creativity
- Leadership needs to be holistic and empathetic, which is enhanced through art
- Art communicates, inspires, shocks and provokes
- Art stimulates us to broaden our skills
- Art helps us to see symptoms of forthcoming change, to understand them, and to respond to them
- Art in the form of music also helps leaders to listen
- Art helps us to deal with order and chaos, being prevalent in the environment
- Organizations are more than the sum of the parts
- The relationship with the environment is essential for the final performance
For me this last experience in the middle of December brought the thought process that had started at the beginning of November, full cycle. I now had a contemporary application in practical terms for this homage the Indian donor had paid to his grandmother.
I now understood that the assumption that companies are created for infinity, is correct. People lead and manage these companies, and that is where the problem lies. They think in finite terms, and mostly tend to have a short-term orientation. What we need to do is the following:
- Get our leaders and managers to invest in learning, their own and that of the people of their organizations.
- Get our leaders and managers to invest in excellence, their own and that of their people.
- Get our leaders and managers to transform themselves and their organizations into institutions that strive towards the infinite
Only then will we have organizations that stand the test of time. Only then will we have civilizations that last longer than a couple of hundred years.
Otherwise some or other person will in a millennia or two look at the ruins of our civilization and debate about what had made us disappear, will even use us as an example to make the point that they need to invest in learning and excellence, both being of infinite value!