Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice? (1)
As Jack slumped into the chair beside the computer table in his executive suite, he thought, This retreat idea may not be such a bad idea after all. He picked up the program and scanned through it quickly. For each of the following two days, there would be two plenary sessions, one at 9:00 a.m. and another at 3:00 p.m. From the program in front of him, there were fifteen executives in attendance this weekend, and as he surveyed the list, he was amazed at the variety and caliber of folks in attendance. Some of them, he recognized; others he did not. Some were top executives from Fortune 500 companies; some were small business owners, such as owners of coffee shops, gas stations, and daycare centers. There were even a few college professors and regular working folks, judging from the list right in front of him. It appeared that these plenary sessions were facilitated mainly by the leader they call the Fore-giver, followed by another hour of community response, something Jack was eager to find out what it was all about. Then, there would be a time of business networking, a sort of meet-and-greet, which flowed over into lunch. After lunch, there was a break between 1-3 p.m., during which participants were free to use their time any way they wanted. They were even free to leave the retreat center if they wanted. By 3 p.m., there was another plenary session with the leader followed by another community response time. Then, after dinner at five, executives would be done for the day.
After looking through all the programs planned for each day, Jack nursed the hope that it would be a worthwhile time. His only apprehension was the plenary session by the leader. Why did it have to be the same fellow anchoring this every single day? Apparently, for all these big shots, those plenary sessions seemed to be held in much reverence. Jack was told by George that this plenary session was the only time during which everyone met with the leader.
So, it was with a great deal of curiosity that Jack took his seat in the family area for the plenary session. Not quite knowing what to expect, he chose a seat further away from what appeared to be the leader’s chair. If things got really boring, at least, he could get caught up on business updates on his iPad—something he would not want the leader to notice. As much as knew that he may end up not liking this leader’s talk, he wanted to be a good guest; after all, these people had gone to great lengths to make sure every guest here had a wonderful time. Jack glanced at his wristwatch—the time read 8:55 a.m.; five more minutes until the session began. He looked around the circle as all fifteen guests were now seated and introducing one other and shaking hands as each new person joined the group. They all seemed genuinely happy and eager to hear from the leader. As Jack glanced around the theater, he could tell who the newbies were. Just like himself, they did not have that eager, expectant look on their faces. It was mostly a blank or resigned look since they did not quite know what to expect from this seemingly important session with the leader.
At exactly 9:00 a.m., an old, kindly woman of well over 70-years, perhaps in her early 80’s, limped over and sat down. She said, “Good morning, and welcome!” Her voice was strong, warm, and commanding like she was merely 40 years old or something. Jack wondered what this old lady was doing here. As if on cue, some of the guests stood on their feet, clapping as they returned her greeting. Others, probably newbies just like Jack, stared in disbelief and muttered, “Good morning. Thank you.” Great, he thought. George dragged me off my work for the whole weekend to listen to this kindly old lady. When George told him about the leader, it had not even occurred to him that the leader could be a woman, much less an old grandma. After all, what would an old woman like this have to teach these prosperous businesspersons, who are active and in the prime of their lives? Jack held out the hope that there was some mistake of sorts. Perhaps, this old lady was there to introduce the real leader or maybe make some announcements.
Then this person lifted her right hand, supporting herself with the cane in her left hand and said, “Thank you. You may be seated. I am truly glad and honored to see you all; some of you for the first time, and others, more often.”
She paused, looked around the room, and gave the kind of smile that said she was genuinely happy to see them all. Then, she continued, “This weekend, I will be sharing the Fore-giver Principles with you. Some of you are probably expecting some great, charismatic man with a huge oratory gift. I am sorry to disappoint you if that is you.” She stopped to let her words sink in.
Jack thought to himself, Disappointed? That’s an understatement. As far as he was concerned, he did not consider himself sexist, but he also did not see how all these men and women with over $600 billion in net worth could submit to this woman year after year as they attended this retreat. Many of them, from what George had told him, were alpha males at the top of their game. To add insult to injury, the leader was really old. No offense, she should be a happy grandma at home, teaching her grandchildren, and let the younger generation deal with the problems of modern business life. Jack thought to himself, Why did George not give him a heads-up that the leader was an old woman? As if he would have attended had he known that fact ahead of time. Perhaps not, he admitted to himself. So much for being open-minded and nonsexist.
Jack was about to tune out the leader and her speech when he heard the following words from the old lady, “But before I begin, let me welcome those of you who are here today for the first time. May I ask you not to judge what you hear today and throughout this weekend based on my age, gender, or seeming frailty. May I ask you to keep an open mind, evaluate what you hear critically, and then decide for yourself if there is some truth to it. May I suggest that you critically reevaluate some of the general notions of, and presumptions regarding, life at the workplace. Finally, let me suggest that if you decide that there is some truth to what you hear, then, it is incumbent on you to take action, to do something about it.”
This kind of got Jack’s attention. This lady may have been old, but she was not stupid. She knew there were people like Jack there who may be prejudiced against her age, or even gender, and would choose not to take her seriously. Therefore, Jack sat up and decided that he would at least hear her out in this first session. He would listen and decide later if his time had been wasted or not.
Now, the old lady had really gotten started with her conversation, or as she described it—a brutally honest conversation with friends and associates. Jack had always admired people who were honest and direct. A person who can look him in the eye and tell the honest-to-God truth, no matter how painful, had always won Jack’s respect. He always thought there are just too many people around who lacked the courage to say what they meant and meant what they said. If this old lady called this a “brutally honest conversation with friends and associates,” then Jack would pay attention.
“During this week, I will introduce you to a set of principles that have changed my life and business practices for the last four to five decades. I encountered these principles when I was but thirty years old. I was young, ambitious, and headed in the wrong direction until I came in contact with a man who changed my life. He taught me life principles that, according to him, could make a person truly successful in the business of life. My mentor taught me that living by these principles is what makes you a Fore-giver. For the next few days, I will describe these attributes of the Fore-giver that changed my life. I will cover just one aspect of the Fore-giver principle during each of the sessions.”
She continued, “Today, I will discuss the first of these principles: Giving people the gift of unconditional acceptance and freedom to be fully and uniquely human. Accept our collective humanity and give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt. The Fore-giver gives people the most important intangible currency in life before they need it or even ask for it. What is this intangible currency? It is unconditional acceptance of our mutual humanity and giving others the benefit of doubt and second-chance opportunities. You approach every relationship—marriage, business, co-worker interpersonal relationships, employee-employer, and student-teacher relationships—knowing that those individuals are human just as you are, and hence, give them prior allowance to be fully human. Here, two things are important. First, what is given—the gift, namely, the permission or freedom to be human and offering others the benefit of the doubt. This is the first gift that the Fore-giver gives. Think about human conditions in which you have thrived or even excelled. They are invariably conditions in which you were fully allowed to be you—a unique human being, with unique talents, abilities, but with quirks and weaknesses. There is no greater gift that we can give to another human being than the freedom to be fully human, the liberty to be authentically themselves. The second element is this the timing of the gift. This is the fore in the giving—the gift of second chance. This is the gift of allowing people to be uniquely human is given before there is a need to receive it.”
Jack thought about her words for a moment. His mind was awash with many thoughts. What does it mean to allow another person to be completely human? Human beings, he knew by bitter experience, are quick to take advantage of one another. What if they unleash the very worst of their human propensity? If that is what it meant to let another person be authentically human, then he was not having any of it. There is a place for rules and regulations to which we must conform; otherwise, businesses would be subjected to various caprices of the dubious human nature. Surely, we cannot let people be who they really are at work? Things will get out of hand. Control is inevitable. Punishment is desirable to keep people in check and diminish mistakes at work. It is even more important for big businesses to make sure the place functions as an efficient machine, where individual managers are not just being fully ‘human’ but subjecting their humanity to the overall goals of the company. At the end of the day, the profitability of the enterprise is important. Systems have to be followed and meticulously duplicated for the efficient running of big businesses. See what happened to him for letting his “friend” take the rein freely at his company for just a few days. It was almost ripped completely out of his hands. So much for embracing our collective humanity. As far as Jack was concerned, a large part of humanity sucked big time.
Jack shifted uncomfortably in his seat. If this good old lady is wise as these successful business folks take her to be, then surely she ought to know this crooked aspect of humanity. Jack was not a religious person, but even he had heard some preacher quote from the Good Book during one of the few times he had ever been near a church that, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” You cannot be all idealistic and naïve when it comes to running a business. People are important human resources, we call them; resources, nevertheless, to be channeled and directed. Apparently, this lady hadn’t worked with people like Mike; otherwise, she wouldn’t be talking about giving others the gift of being fully and authentically human.
Finally, Jack willed himself to continue to listen to the old lady. After all, that was the commitment he had made to George and to himself: to listen first and to analyze later.
The old lady was asking an important question this time. “Did you know that you have been wrong about 65 percent of the time since you started your business, and you are most likely to be up to 65-70% wrong in the future decisions you will make as a business executive?” The old lady paused to allow this to sink in with her audience. Even Jack now sat on the edge of his seat in complete attention. Was the old lady kidding them? Did she mean to tell say that this room full of some of the most successful business persons in the world may have been wrong 65 percent of their business lives?
The old lady continued after a brief moment. “I did not make up that figure. For many years, I had told you that a majority of the decisions we make in our lifetime are wrong by hindsight. Only a few decisions we got right have brought many of us the successes we see today. But now, a three-year study from Harvard Business School involving executives in a hundred big corporations found that roughly 65 percent of decisions made by these executives were wrong by hindsight.2 Do you know why their decisions turned out to be wrong? The answer rests on the simple fact that their assumptions about the issues were wrong 70 percent of the time. Do you see any correlation here? Our decisions about other people are wrong because our assumptions about others are often wrong, the majority of the time. In fact, a newer study from Case Western University found that about 90 percent of our assumptions about other people are often wrong.
This was the big lesson my mentor taught me long ago, even before all the data supporting this fact came to light.” The old lady continued, “When I first learned these facts, two things became obvious to me. First is the need for humility. The knowledge that I am likely to be wrong 65 percent of the time brings a needed dose of humility and realism into my life. I might have been a smart person and even smarter investor, as some of you well know, but I have been incorrect some 65-70% of the time, not only in my decisions but also in my assumptions about other people. That humbles an old woman like me even more now than it did decades ago when I first learned this.
The second implication of this revelation is its direct impact on the Fore-giver Principle #1 that we are discussing today. If I am likely to be wrong up to 70 percent of the time about other people, it means I am probably wrong about my current assumptions of the people working with me. My current assumptions about their worst inclinations coming out unchecked at the workplace without attendant rules and regulations and strict control, may well be wrong. Think about it; I have been wrong about my decisions and assumptions about people 70 percent of the time, and yet, people have believed in me well enough that I have built a prosperous business and following. If that is true for me then, could it not be true for you, as well? After all, we are all human beings with the same propensities to err as any other. If the 30 percent of the times I got it right in terms of decisions have made such a positive difference in my own life and business, why wouldn’t I be content to let others bring in their best, even if they stumble along the way?”
Framed that way, Jack thought he could see her point. It was indeed humbling to learn the fact that he had probably been wrong just about 65 percent of the time. Jack was no longer listening to the old lady. His mind was now deep in thought as he reviewed the fact with which he was just presented. He looked at his life in the last twenty years or so. He had been the one person in his family who did not seem to know what he wanted out of life. However, that was not the case regarding his brother, Jake. Although Jake was younger by two years, he always seemed to know exactly what he wanted. By age 21, he was already admitted to medical school, having completed his pre-med requirements and earned a biology degree. On the other hand, Jack had tried three different majors—from chemistry to philosophy and, finally, to business administration. By the time his brother was already practicing as a doctor, Jack had only held several odd jobs here and there. He believed fully in himself and knew he would rather own his own business than work for someone else. While others assumed he was a lazy lay-about, he knew that he wanted to do something big, to make a difference in the business community. His mother constantly worried about him. He was often teased about the fact that while his younger brother was already a successful doctor, he spent most of his time reading business books, day-dreaming, and trying different odd jobs to pay his bills. Now, it all seemed so clear to him: his father never wavered about his belief in Jack. His father never spoke of him as a never-do-well. In fact, he tended to sharply intervene when others remarked about how Jake seemed to be doing better than Jack. He always said that Jack had a different path and would get to his own destination. He always said it gently but firmly enough that others knew that was the end of the conversation. Was that why he gave more than half of his estate to Jack in his will, his own way of allowing Jack to be completely and uniquely human? Was that his way of giving Jack the most intangible currency, the gift of letting another be fully and uniquely human? It was two full years after that tragic accident that killed his parents before Jack decided to enroll at Harvard for his business degree. He figured that if he was going to try his hands-on business, he might as well learn as much as he could before going in that direction; after all, he was not getting any younger. Jack could see it clearly now: while he had made many poor decisions or no decisions at all, the two decisions he made to get an M.B.A. and to invest almost all of his inheritance on this one business idea had dramatically changed his life. The right decisions he had made, which got him to this place, had been less than 10 percent if he had to be honest with himself. More importantly, they had been enough to get him here. If his father never gave him the chance to be himself, to make his mistakes, and to fail forward, all the while allowing him full freedom to be uniquely himself, he wondered if he would have made the few right decisions that got him so far.
His mind was now in hyperactive mode. He reviewed the tens of staff members he personally hired to work directly with him in the business development unit he had personally overseen since day one. Looking back now, he could see how wrong some of his assumptions about these people were. He hired many of them with one role in mind, but for many, as they started to work for him, he noticed that they seemed to have different skills and strengths than the role for which he had originally imagined them most suitable. At first, it irritated him to no end. He constantly wondered why these folks would not just stay in their place and do what was assigned to them. Take Jana, for example. Jack hired her as a business development professional, helping to establish relationships with new content publishers. Jack had always felt like choosing actual content for the site was his job, along with a few of his folks in the product development team. Nevertheless, Jana tended to be more interested in recommending specific content from prospective publishers, rather than focus on winning the publisher’s contract. In fact, her report was often much more detailed and focused on the product selection aspect than on the actual business development relationship. At first, Jack simply ignored her suggestions on product selection. But after an extended conversation with Jana, in which she had insistently pressed that Jack include particular content for the site, he relented. As it turned out, that particular content became a bestseller content on the site and was downloaded at a rate of over a million times per month. After that, Jack began to take note of her product selection advice and eventually made her head of the product development unit. Yet, when he hired her, she seemed least likely to understand what readers would want. Talk about our assumptions of people being wrong most of the time. He sighed to himself. There must be something to this #1 principle, after all.
As he came to from his deep thought, the old lady was rounding up her talk. “So, the important thing isn’t that our decisions or the decisions of people around us would be wrong 65 – 70 percent of the time. The important thing, of course, is not that our assumptions of people may be wrong up to 70 percent of the time. The important take away is that we make as many wrong decisions and still stick around and are welcomed long enough to make the 30 percent of transformational decisions that change the organizations we lead for good. That is why the Fore-giver Principle #1 is to give people the gift of unconditional acceptance and freedom to be fully and uniquely human. Allow people to fail and to fail long enough that they fail forward. We are humans, and with that comes great possibilities. But, that also means that we can make mistakes. Your secretary can make mistakes. Your immediate supervisor can make mistakes. Your employer can make mistakes. Your direct report can make mistakes. Yes, people around you will make mistakes, some of them rather vexing mistakes. To recognize this human inevitability and make allowance for it ahead of time is the principal wisdom of the Fore-giver. Moreover, the freedom to fail forward ultimately results in innovations and a great bottom-line. Stifle opportunity and freedom to fail, or punish every mistake, human or logistic, and you set yourself up for big failure. Did you know that even juries, on which our judicial integrity depends, get it right only about 87 percent of the time or reach an incorrect verdict in at least one out of eight cases? (3)
It pays to plan ahead for human errors and difficulties, not in a cynical way, but in a compassionate and practical manner. It is called being proactive. Another reason why we fail to make accurate decisions most of the time, apart from wrong assumptions, is because we often plan with immediate horizons in view. To grow and make better decisions in the future and to be productive, we need to plan long term. Focus on long-term rather than on short-term thinking. The brain is wired to think immediate gratification, but force it to visualize the far-off future better than the average person does. What would you like your company to be in thirty years? What kind of team do you want to build? What role would you like to play in the organization in twenty years’ time? Visualize the future in more detail. Does that future involve a raucous, bitter, and stifling work environment? Or, is it a beautiful work environment where you have successfully resolved most, if not all, interpersonal conflicts and errors? Focus on that big picture, and ignore the daily-ness of human foibles and mistakes.
Plan ahead to give the benefit of the doubt, to absorb the shock of betrayal and backstabbing. One effective approach to planning ahead this way is to simplify the decision-making process before it gets complicated. Studies have shown that this approach of simplifying the decision-making process ahead of time is a major step towards successful decisions. In a recent study, Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and her colleagues found that the more information people were given about a 401(k) plan, the more participation fell off; from 75 to 70 percent as the number of choices rose from two to 11, and to 61 percent when there were 59 options. Why? Because people felt overwhelmed and opted out.(4)
When you think and plan long-term in making allowances for human mistakes and failures, you are acknowledging human imperfection and prioritizing the big picture over those minute, annoying times that your coworker, colleague, or friend exhibits their humanity in a hurtful horizontal plane. Because the decision has been made ahead of time, when a vexing situation arises, you are more likely to respond calmly and rationally. Think vertical; think long term. Keep focus on the most important things. Focus on the big picture. Making allowance for humans to be human, to fail if need be, until they reach their productive ‘mojo,’ is the wisdom learned from the Fore-giver. Thank you for listening to this old lady.”
The place erupted in a round of applause. People were on their feet, clapping and waiving. Some even had a tear or two running down their faces. It was not so much what the old lady said, although true and moving as it turned out, it was the way she said it. It was apparent that she was not just spewing out some idea that was being tested out on the crowd. There was something about her that told the audience she lived this for more than forty odd years and was still going. Jack could tell that, though she deeply loved these people and they loved her too, she was not naïve about human nature. Her call to make room for people to fail and to accept them for who they were was not an exuberant call from an untested, idealistic executive. This was an old woman in every way who had seen life – seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, so to speak. Her description of the Fore-giver Principle #1 was anything but speculative. Jack concluded that, although he did not know much about this Fore-giver way of doing business, he might just have a thing or two to learn from the old lady. Maybe, it was time he paid close attention. He was now especially curious about the community response time that would follow her “conversation.”
1. Proverbs 7: 1
2. https://hbr.org/2009/02/why-good-leaders-make-bad-decisions & https://www.wesst.org/2013/01/assumption-in-the-workplace-a-deadly-combination/
The preceding is an excerpt from the business fable, The Fore-Giver. Available on Amazon and others places: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DMGYY24/