Executive as Hero

An old building collapses in a metropolis killing many people. A wave of sympathy rises for the victims. Cities are flooded during the monsoon. Thousands are rendered homeless. There is outbreak of epidemic in the unhygienic parts of cities. A crammed bus fall into a river killing picnic-going school children. An overloaded boat sinks in a river drowning many men, women and children. Such is our daily diet of news. They no longer shock or move us.

Onions are exported in February. Hurrah for earning foreign exchange. Six months later they have to be imported at a much higher cost. Tons of them rot at the port because of some bureaucratic hassles. Sixty cold storage facilities are out of order in just one state. Three-fourth of the x-ray equipment in district hospitals is out of order in another

The Corporate Sector

On the business page of papers you find that a company which declared high profits last year shows a staggering loss this year. A firm shows extra-ordinary increase in productivity one year. Next year there is a breakdown because it wasn’t shut down for maintenance last year.

An undertaking announces an increase in the salary scale of the employees. Promotions are given to some people on the eve of the departure of the boss on transfer or on retirement.

There is a common thread running through all these occurrences. These organizations are run by human beings. They are all endowed with varying degrees of ego. It impels them to claim as much as the credit as possible during their tenure. This necessitates sub-optimization –that is, pursuing short-term personal ends instead of long-term organizational objectives. In other words, all these incidents occur due to the neglect of routine functions, which by definition are unexciting and monotonous.

Generally all the day- to- day functions and periodic checks and inspections are laid down in the respective organizational manuals. It is a common sight to see fire extinguishers in the corridors of most government offices. A periodic drill is prescribed to check whether the system works and whether the employees are familiar with the required procedures. However, in most cases one finds that the fire extinguishers are overlaid with dust and the buckets of sand hanging by their side are used as ashtrays by passers-by. According to the Secretariat and District manuals, the superior officers are expected to periodically check various registers. But those who do that are dubbed as persons lacking in vision and concerned only with the nitty gritty. An organization to promote industrial ventures boasts of the number of venture it has sponsored. The fact that a large number of the earlier ones have become non-performing assets is never mentioned or never asked. That is considered destructive criticism. Then one day the corporation becomes sick and faces closure.

Neglect of Routine

The moral of all this is that in all bureaucracies – government or private — it pays to neglect the dull routine and, instead, to take up the unusual and the dramatic. When a city is struck by an epidemic those guilty of cumulative neglect of preventive steps are not hauled up. The entire attention of the community and government is then focused on how to get rid of the problem. Huge amounts are readily sanctioned. The ‘villain’ who ought to be punished becomes the hero who has brought succour to the suffering people.

To a large extent this myopic and cock-eyed view is built in to our system. All bureaucracies have a tenure system. They administrators and managers hold their jobs for short terms. Their accountability is limited to that period. They are judged by the results for that duration. That narrows their vision and limits their concerns. Very few civil servants or corporate heads bother to make a long- term contribution. That is so because that will bear fruit after they are no longer upon the scene. The credit will be hogged by the person then in the driver’s seat. That won’t get them noticed by their superiors and the public at large. The building of the institutions is a far more challenging task than creating a four-day wonder or enacting a one-day drama. But that is not rewarded. The prize is for the short-term results.

The Successor Syndrome

And then there is the successor. He too has his own ego and immediate concerns born out of that. The successor will seldom concede credit to his predecessor for having creating the structure or even added a brick to it. All of them stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, but most like to proclaim that they are taller than normal.

This happens in the political system also. In history, the Mughal Empire collapsed three decades after the death of Aurangzeb. The Congress was routed in Indira Gandhi’s own time. MGR in Tamil Nadu and NTR in AP were commemorated in giant cutouts but left their respective states virtually bankrupt. Today it is the populistic measure, which gets passed in the legislatures a jiffy. Often a piece of legislation is pushed through without the public debate and consultation envisaged in the somewhat long-winded process of legislation. The argument given is that the people can’t wait and we cannot be bogged down by delays devised by a ‘colonial system’. The result is that crucial legislation is introduced either through an ordinance or after a short debate in the legislature—from which the Opposition is absent because of a walkout. Later, when the shortcomings and the difficulties emerge, amendments or even reversal are made. The typical cases in this category would be the introduction of Prohibition in Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. The ordinance for the amendment of the Prasar Bharati Act by the U.F. Government would also fall in the dame category. In all these cases the governments acted in haste –and, in the case of Prohibition, repented at leisure. Lessons from the experience of others were not heeded. There is nothing like making one’s own mistake and learning from one’s own experience. Measures both in the parliament and state legislature which aim at winning immediate applause always supercede those which have a long-term perspective. That is because we are all human and human life is short. It is shorter in political offices. In bureaucracies in many cases it is shorter still. In the case of the civil service, its length is rooted in arbitrariness. No wonder then that we are all bothered about ‘our period’. It is that space of time in eternity which we want to be remembered and to be associated with our name. It is not realized that there will be a successor who will start with a blank slate, reinvent the wheel, and dismiss everything done by the person before him. ‘After me the deluge’, is the second part of the boast of which the first is: ‘Before me, nothing’. He will then proceed to launch his own pet projects with great fanfare – again to be completed within his tenure.

The ‘Law’ of Heroism

Our system of appraisal and evaluation is also based on short-term perspective. The holders of short-term offices appraise and review the work of other holders of short-term tenure.
Is there a way out in which the solid, long-term and in many cases ‘invisible’ contribution of persons at the top can be properly judged? It is said that such judgements are passed by posterity. But by definition posterity comes after one’s death. And who is bothered about that? So, we will continue to ignore the measures, which can contain natural calamities. We shall glory in tackling them after they have occurred. We shall resort to limited damage-control exercises, which make heroes out of villains. It is a tragic play in the Greek sense except that the tragedy is not for the hero, but for the spectators.

Thereby hangs a ‘law’ for the executives— ‘if thou wouldst be a hero, live and work for the day; for in the long run, thou wouldst be dead’.