Monday, October 11, 2010

Leadership: Turning Weaknesses into Strengths


The boy was young in years and he wanted to learn judo. Which was fine, except that as a child he had lost an arm in a car accident.

When he approached the old sensei, the Japanese judo master, the master expressed no hesitation in accepting him. The training began immediately and the boy made good progress – he was keen to learn and the drive and commitment needed were there in him in plenty.

However, his enthusiasm received a jolt when he realized that though he has been learning for more than three months, his master had taught him only a single move. He wanted to learn more. He wanted to learn everything that was there to learn in judo.

One day he decided to talk to his master. “Sensei,” he told the master. “When are you going to teach me more moves? Shouldn’t I be learning other moves?”

The master appreciated his eagerness to learn. He smiled at the boy and told him, “Son, this is the only move you would ever need to know.” The boy of course did not understand what that meant. But he trusted his master and continued to learn under him, mastering more and more thoroughly the one move he knew.

And then time came for the judo tournament. He boy wanted to participate and the master was delighted.

His first victory surprised the boy. The master’s reaction was an understanding smile. As though it was no more than expected. And then the boy won the second match. And then the third, though this time with some difficulty. The boy was now in the finals!

His opponent was a veteran. Powerfully built, he looked formidable. He was easily more than a match to the young boy.

As the match progressed, it was clear that the boy was overmatched. The referee was scared that he might be hurt. To avoid that possibility, he wanted to stop the match. But the old sensei asked the referee not to worry and to continue the match.

The veteran was now relaxed. He was sure nothing can stop him from winning. In his carelessness he made his first mistake. And that was enough for the boy. In a quick move, he pinned the powerfully built senior down. Try as he might, he stronger man could not free himself.

The boy won the match, surprising everyone, and more than anyone else, the boy himself. He was now the champion.

On his way back, he asked the sensei, “Master, how did I win the tournament?” And the master said, “One reason: you have mastered the one move you know more thoroughly than anyone else – and it is one of the most difficult throws in judo. And the other: the only known defense for that move is for the other player to grab you by your left arm.’

It was the left arm that the boy had lost in the childhood accident.

His weakness had become his greatest strength.

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And that is precisely what a great leader does. Great leaders convert their weakness into their strengths.

Gandhi, one of the greatest leaders modern times have seen, was great master in converting weaknesses into strengths. It was this ability of his that made him so difficult for the British empire to fight. His choice of non-violence as a weapon in his struggle for freedom was definitely because of his love for non-violence. But there is also a different side to it: his compulsions. He had no army, nor could he raise an army that could match that of the British. Brilliant leader that he was, he turned this weakness into his strength. His struggle would be non-violent, where no army was necessary.

The Mahabharata tells us that while Arjuna was at Indraloka learning advanced weapons and music there, the celestial dancer Urvashi, the apsara, fell in love with him. Besotted with him, she approached him, seeking his love. But he said he couldn’t have her as his lover since she had once been the wife of one of his ancestors, Pururava, and was for that reason his own ancestress. Urvashi argued such relationships counted only with mortals and since she was a celestial and an immortal, they did not apply to her. When Arjuna stuck to his stand, a furious Urvashi cursed him, turning him into a eunuch, a curse that was subsequently reduced to one year of his choice as a eunuch. And Arjuna chooses the year of his life incognito in Virata, which we was bound to live as per the terms of the dice game his brother had lost, for living as a eunuch. And his eunuchhood became his brilliant cover – for as per the terms, had he been discovered, he and his brothers and Draupadi would have had to go into another round of twelve years of forest life and a year of life in hiding in a city.

That is another example for turning a weakness into strength.

Dharma can sometimes be a weakness – especially in the eyes of one’s enemy. In the case of Yudhishthira, on the one side dharma was his strength and on the other it was his weakness too. Duryodhana uses Yudhishthira’s obsession with dharma against him when he invites him for the game of dice. As expected, Yudhishthira is not able to say no in spite knowing that there is treachery involved in the invitation and it is a trap. When Duryodhana is asked what would happen if Yudhishthira obtained back his kingdom after the 12-year exile and one year of life incognito, he says that he would invite Yudhishthira for yet another dice game and Yudhishthira wouldn’t be able to say no because of his dharma. We repeatedly see in the Mahabharata that Dharma is frequently a weakness in the hands of Yudhishthira. And Krishna brilliantly turns this weakness of Yudhishthira into such a strength that it achieves the impossible – eliminating from the war the Kaurava commander-in-chief Drona, a warrior who cannot be killed so long as he hold weapons in his hands, albeit through an act the ethicality of which we still question.

There was only one way the formidable Acharya could be dissuaded from battling in the war: to tell him that his son Ashwatthama has been killed. And if he was not dissuaded, the Acharya was capable of wiping out the whole Pandava army in a day – so furious was he on that day and so brilliantly was he fighting. And, to add to his strength, he had started using magical weapons too, breaking the convention that they could be used only against those who knew them.

Under Krishna’s inspiration, Bhima kills an elephant called Ashwatthama and shouts to the Acharya that Ashwatthama has been killed. The Acharya comes to Yudhishthira seeking confirmation and Krishna has already prepared him to lie and that is what he does. And it has the desired impact on the Acharya.

It is on Yudhishthira’s confirmation that Drona takes the decision to give up weapons, stop fighting and to end his life.

One may question the ethicality of Krishna’s act. Krishna himself admits that what he did was unethical but adds that there are times when unethical means have to be used against an unethical enemy – when no other alternatives are available. So long as this is done keeping the common good as the measuring rod, it is justifiable, says Krishna.

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Wise leadership means turning your weaknesses into your strengths.

US Steel once had an environmental problem in one of its factories. The coking operations the factory did, which were part of the process of making steel, produced a lot of residue which could pollute groundwater in the entire neighbourhood. The solutions available for the problem were all enormously expensive and could still not guarantee success. It took months for the company to arrive at a problem – but when it did, it was a brilliant solution and what was until then a liability became an asset to the company. The think tanks of the company realized that by mixing this waste in small quantities with the fuel for the furnaces, not only could the waste be got rid of, but it could also be used to produce energy. The wastage that until then was a weakness of the factory overnight became an asset to them.

I live in an industrial city. At one time the leading industry had to deal with the huge amounts of fly ash its operations produced. But now the same fly ash that was a pollutant earlier is used for producing cement, thus transforming a problem into profitable business.

The same company also had huge quantities of high quality heat resistant bricks used in its smelting shops. And then somebody suggested – pave the front yards of the tens of thousands of company houses in the city with these bricks. That would not only dispose of the bricks inexpensively, but would also keep the courtyards clean. The bricks soon were in high demand from employees of the company who occupied the houses and their gardens assumed new shapes with the bricks used to create pathways and patterns.

The backwaters and rivers of my home state in India, Kerala, was once deeply troubled by what was called African water plants that filled whole water surfaces. Numerous ways were tried to get rid of it, but all failed. And then the idea occurred: use it as a fertilizer. And today these plants are no more a menace to Kerala.

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When Alexander attacked India and had to face Puru, the Macedonian conqueror encountered a major challenge in the form of the huge war elephants of the Indian king. Alexander won the battle by using the enemy’s strength against himself, thus turning it into his weakness.

What Alexander did, when his army encountered the huge elephant division of Puru’s army consisting of two hundred trained war elephants, was to order his highly trained archers to kill the mahouts. Rather than focusing on the warriors on the elephants, the archers focused on the mahouts. In a short while the mahouts were killed. Next the archers aimed their arrows at the eyes of the elephants and succeeded in blinding them within minutes. Alexander’s javelin throwers stepped in now, taking the place of the archers. They were masters in throwing javelins with precise accuracy up to a distance of 40-50 meters. Their javelins were soon buried deep into the elephants. The elephants, blinded and without mahouts, screaming in pain sought escape by turning around and running back and in the process killing Puru’s soldiers in huge numbers. The elephants were one of the major strengths of Puru’s army and Alexander had succeeded in converting it into a major liability to Puru.

Just as a successful leader converts his weaknesses into his strengths, he converts the enemy’s strengths into his weaknesses too.

Coca-Cola’s strength in the American market was its reputation as the classic American soft drink, the favorite of generations. When Pepsi wanted to beat it, it used that very strength against Coca-Cola. Pepsi was marketed as the soft drink of the new generation – the Pepsi generation. America is obsessed with youth and the new – and Pepsi created the image that Coca-Cola is for the aged and the old whereas what the the choice of the youth was Pepsi. Yet another example for successful leadership turning the enemy’s strength into his weakness.

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As in so many other things, some of the greatest lessons in leadership could be learnt from flowing water. Speaking of the lessons that could be learnt from water, the Sun Tzu says: "Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness."

Water is a master in the art of converting its weakness into strength.

One of the weaknesses of water is its lack of a rigid from. A rock, in comparison, has a rigid form and that is the strength of the rock. However, water transforms its formlessness itself into its strength. If a rock appears on its path towards the ocean, flowing water splits itself as it reaches the rock and reassembles itself once the rock is passed. If a mountain stands in the way of flowing water, water just changes its direction and moves on towards its goal, the sea. Also, water uses its absence of a rigid form to adapt to the different circumstances it finds itself in. Pour it into a glass, it assumes the shape of the glass, pour it into a cup, it assumes the shape of the cup and pour it into a jar, it assumes the shape of the jar.

While the rock might feel arrogant in its strength as a hard substance that does not adjust to situations, for water its fluidity and its absence of a rigid shape becomes its strength.

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In the Mahabharata there is this beautiful discussion of the way of the bamboo, which is weak in comparison to trees like the teak, and converts its weakness into strength.

According to this story narrated by Bhishma in response to a question from Yudhishthira about leadership, the ocean, master of the rivers, tells the rivers: “'O rivers, I see that all of you, with your full currents, bring away mighty trees of large trunks, tearing them off with their roots and branches. You do not, however, ever bring me a bamboo. Bamboos that grow on your banks have weak stems and are devoid of strength. Yet you do not wash them down. Is it that you refuse to wash them down through contempt, or are they of any use to you? Tell me why you do not wash down the bamboos or uproot them from the banks where they grow?”

It is the Ganga who responds to the ocean’s question. She tells the ocean that mighty trees are unyielding and resist the currents of the rivers and therefore they are uprooted and carried down the rivers. Whereas bamboos, and other canes, act differently. When the mighty currents come, they bend to them and after the currents have passed, they resume their original shapes. It is for this reason, says the Ganga, that rivers do not pull up bamboos and other canes from their banks and let them survive where they are. “Those plants, trees, and creepers that bend and rise before the force of wind and water have never to suffer discomfiture by being taken up by the roots,” concludes the river.

Nature nourishes those who know how to convert their weaknesses into strengths.

A beautiful passage in which the Mahabharata states the wisdom of the Tao ages before Laozi and other masters stated it in Dao De Jing and other works.

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No great leader can ignore the art of converting one’s weaknesses into one’s strengths and the enemy’s strengths into his weaknesses. Mastered well, this becomes one of his most effective weapons in the battlefield of leadership.

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