We were pained to hear about a tragedy in a Kolkata hospital where 89 persons died, most of them patients, due to a fire. We were even more shocked when we read a story in the Times of India that many of them could have been alive today only if the guards had responded more quickly and positively. From different stories narrated by relatives of the patients, the guards asked them not to raise an alarm and assured that it was a minor blaze. When one of the relatives pleaded to let him in, they were adamant and refused him even to go near the gate. When people from nearby slums scaled the boundary walls and were trying to get into the hospital, the lights were switched off.
We are not privy to the guards’ side of the story, but the utter callousness is so obvious. We can safely assume that if only the guards had thought & acted differently, the outcome may have been quite different. Under normal circumstances, the guards are supposed to be strict to protect the hospital and its property. However under such rare and abnormal situations as above, they need to think and add differently. In the absence of any senior person, they had to act swiftly and appropriately on their own.
After the initial shock and anguish had subsided, my thoughts turned to the wider significance of this incidence to different walks of our life. Whether at home or work and for people of all ages the main focus is on normal routine transactions. How often do we think of and prepare ourselves (and others) for the unusual, the exceptional. Isn’t the preparedness really critical for such rare incidences where absence of an appropriate response can have a huge cost?
As I was writing these lines, I saw a news flash on TV informing about two nurses working at the hospital who saved lives of half a dozen patients though in the process they sacrificed their own lives. This was in stark contrast to the attitude and actions of the guards. Obviously this depends on individual qualities & values. But there may be one possible lesson for us in this difference. The role for nurses is to care for the patients. Day in and day out they are their thoughts & actions are directed by this. So in case of danger to patients their instinctive action would be in line with caring for the patients. The guards’ case is different. While performing their normal duties, their thoughts & actions are on protecting the hospital and its interests. The patients are not their focus. At times some patients may come across to the guards as trouble-makers and in an adversarial role. This possible difference brings out the need for extra attention while preparing for unexpected eventualities, in cases where the demands in special circumstances are quite different from the behavior under normal circumstances.
What about the role of leaders at all levels; whether it is as parents & grand-parents at home, teachers & principals at schools & colleges or as managers & leaders in business organizations?
There are three possible approaches a leader can take towards those whom he leads.
- Believe that he knows what is best for those he is leading, and therefore take actions to ensure that they do what is told to them or expected from them
- Believe that he may or may not be the best person to decide what is good for those he leads, and therefore focus his attention on helping them to help themselves
- Believe that once he has told what is expected from those he leads, and therefore leave it to them to figure out how to go about delivering the results
Generally it is found that both the first and last alternatives have their flaws and can lead to clashes & confrontations; whereas the second alternative takes much greater maturity patience and tolerance but produces better results and greater harmony.
As more news about the hospital tragedy is pouring in, it is becoming apparent that there were problems with many parts of the overall operation. If and when more details are available publicly, it would help to take a systemic view which may provide additional learning from this incidence which we could use in other walks of life.
As we are currently on vacation in New Jersey US, we had an opportunity to witness the high drama around Hurricane Irene this weekend. There have been only five major hurricanes around New York in last century and half, of which the last one was twenty five years back. Irene was expected to be the next one; hence there was a lot of worried anticipation. There was a heavy news coverage starting a few days before. Three days back, first we saw shots of devastation caused by the hurricane in Bahamas and remembered our visit there last year. There were a few familiar landmarks but they were hardly recognizable. Over next three days, the tempo kept building up till it passed over New York yesterday.
Like everybody else we also sat glued to the TV. Now that it is over, I remember a few snippets which had some interesting takeaways, which I would like to share.
Surprisingly there were no visits by politicians and celebrities to the shelters or hospitals, with news cameras in tow. Right from a city mayor to a governor to the president everybody just repeated the checklist of things to do and not do. There checklists were distilled from the past experience in similar situations.
The preparations and their communication at different levels were meticulous; whether it was sealing of doors & windows in low lying areas, the evacuations, presence of met staff to collect live data at large number of locations or the arrangement of shelters.
As is human nature, despite repeated warnings some people had gone into the see and started drowning. The 911 call resulted in quick help with life jackets saving their lives. But after they were taken out to safety, as mayor Bloomberg sternly mentioned in his address over TV, they were served summons for diverting scarce & critically resources while at the same time commending the efforts put in by the rescuers. This was in stark contrast to children falling into tube wells requiring hours of efforts by police & even army with apparently no action being taken against the landowners who carelessly leave their tube wells uncovered.
Steve Levy the executive of Suffolk County mentioned an incident in 1986 when after the last major hurricane there were shortages of essential commodities and again as is human nature those who had supplies tried to make a huge profit by charging exorbitant prices. Steve was a legislator then and he mentioned that they were very angry and created a legislation to take stringent action against unscrupulous persons during such special situations. He said that those measures are currently in force and warned the people not to take advantage of the situation as they would be dealt with quite harshly.
After the eye of storm had passed over New york city yesterday with much less damage than was anticipated as a couple of hours back it had turned from a category-1 hurricane into a tropical storm, Mike the TV anchor on weather channel almost ruefully but jokingly said that this was almost a letdown. To which the met guy on the boardwalk on long beach mentioned that they did not have enough data of a category-1 hurricane over the eastern coast to accurately predict and hence probably overestimated the impact. Next time with better data they may not need to evacuate to such an extent in similar circumstances. To this there was a comment that next time it may turn into an underestimate. On the whole, these few days were quite interesting.
To summarize watching the whole chain,
- The data from past was used to improve prediction and converted into practical checklists which were effectively and specifically communicated & reinforced with repetition.
- The attention was not unnecessarily diverted to politicians & celebrities grabbing limelight & attention by announcing relief using public funds.
- The good work was promptly and publicly appreciated while at the same time publicly warning the offenders diverting critical resources of consequences.
- Learning from experience, suitable legal structures were put in place and invoked when there was the need.
- Last but not the least, there was a realization of the importance as well as limitation of data in future predictions.
Last week I was reading a newspaper article about rampant unauthorized mining in one of the Indian states and its effects on the environment; one term “intergenerational equity”, which in this context means unsustainable use of resources now and depriving future generations, caught my attention. It triggered the thought process to explore what this concept would mean in other contexts.
Then I read another article by Rajni Bakshi in Times of India which examined the less known aspect of “civilizational Gandhi” as he posed certain fundamental and troublesome questions about the development models. The essence of her interpretation was one of differentiating between what we need and what we want. The exercise of exploring “the vase realm between the extremes of involuntary deprivation and born-to-shop consumption” can be quite “creative rather than frustrating”. She took the example of the recent catastrophe in Japanese atomic reactors and explained how taking the conventional approach to development leads to “comparative review of risk assessment between different forms of energy, whereas the model based on needs and not wants would force a collective introspection – not about specific technologies but about basics” of how much energy do we really need and how much is wasted. Though she did not specifically mention how this model would help future generations, the connection was obvious.
Then I remembered a talk which I had attended some time back by Dr. Harish Chandra who is B.Tech (IIT-Kanpur) & PhD (Princeton, USA) and is an expert Internal Combustion Scientist. For last few years, he got interested in Vedic scriptures and currently devoting his time to research and talks on this subject. He talked on a variety of topics from Vedas & Upanishads which are relevant even today. But one such area which caught my attention was the basis on which the professions were categorized in those days and each person was free to choose the profession based on his passion and capabilities. These professions were broadly based on the need of the society to take care of the three basic shortcomings. “Adnyan” meaning lack of knowledge, “Anyay” that is lack of justice and “Abhav” which is shortages. The expectation was for each professional to understand how his profession helped to tackle one or more of these shortcomings and together work towards removing them so that every member of the society could lead a better life.
If these concepts are adopted by the organizations of today, they will certainly help the future generations of employees & customers. It will avoid many cases of sudden and rapid growth followed by an equally sudden fall which we have witnessed recently. It will lead to a more sustainable growth and higher employee & customer satisfaction over longer periods of time.
I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.
This week I read in Times of India, Sunday edition, an interesting article by Shaun Gregory where he talked of “Stability instability paradox”. I looked up on the net for what exactly it means. I found that Wikipedia has put it succinctly as “The stability-instability paradox is an international relations theory regarding the effect of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. It states that when two countries each have nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases. This occurs because rational actors want to avoid nuclear wars, and thus they neither start major conflicts nor allow minor conflicts to escalate into major conflicts—thus making it safe to engage in minor conflicts”.
This paradox was noticed after the Second World War and was proved again & again during the days of the cold war. It still continues to be the basis for nuclear strategic planning of most countries. However, with emergence of certain new nuclear states there is a twist. Those countries which view nuclear capability as a deterrent would be averse to any possibility of major conflict. But the bar for these new states is much lower and they like to engage in managed instability to tilt the balance in their favor. This creates a big challenge for others. The author of the article has brought it out well but not offered any solution.
That aroused my curiosity and set me thinking. Is this phenomenon limited to just the nuclear domain or has a wider significance? I believe it does. We see umpteen examples of both types of situations in organizations, families, friend circles, societies and even in politics. If both the parties in a conflict have lot to lose, when there is a major escalation, they remain in balance and minor conflicts and arguments continue with not much damage to either. But when one of two sides is so structured that it is either not affected much or doesn’t really care, then the other side is in a tight spot. The most common example is of terrorism. The terrorists are so thoroughly brain-washed that they stop seeing the reality and live in their own world. An interesting version of this is of extreme patriotism.
These are glaring examples but we see plenty of cases in other walks of life. What is the way to deal with them? When the threat continues and becomes unbearable, the frustration forces the person to act violently and he would either win because now he is in the same category as the other or he may become a martyr. You may recall seeing many such cases in novels, films and TV soaps.
But this is an extreme option which is adopted more by need for survival rather than by choice. Are there better options? Can we apply systems thinking to get over this dialema. I am not aware nor can think of any at this stage but I am very keen to know if you have come across a solution either from your experience or have read somewhere. If you let me know, I will share with others, because I feel it is a major problem and each of us faces it from time to time in varying degrees.
Kindness does not require big efforts; rather it’s about being kind to others in small ways in all walks of everyday life.
Being kind to others obviously helps improve relationships because everybody likes people who are genuinely kind to him. But I was surprised to know that kindness actually creates certain chemical changes in our body which greatly help us to achieve and maintain good health. I became aware of this when I saw a couple of days back an interesting short video by Dr. David Hamilton at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYyNq6Ezs00 about “Why kindness is good for you”. You may enjoy watching it. He explains how the acts of kindness help relax the arteries and improve blood flow in turn reducing blood pressure. It also helps remove free radicals from the system which are a cause of cancer.