One of the tragic consequences of Covid has been the number of funerals and virtual memorial meetings many of us have been attending. It is ironical how much you can tell about how a person lived, by what happens when he has died. One funeral I attended had little signs of grief from the attendees, they seemed to just want to get on with it and finish. The person who had passed, while extremely generous in his younger years had grown bitter and withdrawn in his later years. And that, it seemed was how people remembered him.
At other memorial meetings, the tributes kept coming and it was easy to see the impact, the persons who had passed, had on the lives of those who grieved and now paid tribute to them. Our leadership — the way we practice it every day would be deeply enriched if we asked ourselves this question — How would I like to be remembered? What is the one sentence that I would like engraved on my tombstone?
What do you stand for? This is something people will remember you for. If you have taken a stand for your principles, then inevitably you would have had to pay a price for them. I remember at the funeral of my friend’s mother — her principle seemed to be that for those in need her home was their home. Extended family, friends found support, refuge and a helping hand. The tributes just kept pouring in as people remembered her affection, her big heart, her willingness to help. I’ve written before in this column of the epitaph on my grandfather’s gravestone which simply says: “He gave even when it hurt.”
His principle was that his generosity could not be convenient — given only out of plenty but held back in hard times. He gave even when it cost him. Decades after his death, people still remember his generosity. I recently lost a former colleague, many years my senior, but I remember him as a person of integrity. I knew that there were several temptations to make a quick buck, yet he chose to steer clear of the path many of his peers took. He was willing to spend time with a younger colleague like me and even stand by me when some opposed decisions I had taken.
Decades later I remember his principles with gratitude and admiration. Contrast that with the principles of business leaders at the helm of India’s best known hospital chains, who have used Covid to profiteer, to exploit patients, even to the point of guiding them onto crowdfunding platforms to raise vulgar amounts of money that they then gorge on. Specific estimates at different corporate hospitals for patients have ranged from ₹32 lakh to ₹40 lakh to ₹72 lakh. Principles have been compromised for profit.
People I’ve touched
As Clayton Christensen put it so powerfully in his HBR article, “ How Will You Measure Your Life ?” — “I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”
This is what I heard at several memorials. “Rajan * would spend time so attentively with you when you were talking to him, he would never be distracted. He would be completely focused on you.”
“Peter* taught me that relationships matter, that you have to work on them, that you have to make time for them.”
“Chetan * would drop everything and come if I needed help.”
Each tribute spoke of lives touched and transformed by acts of kindness, acts of selflessness, acts of love. As we lead, we must realise, that often the sum of our lives and our leadership will be the sum of our relationships. Have our interactions left people better than the previous versions of themselves? Have we helped others around us grow? Have we helped people feel better about themselves? This is a P&L that will be never reported on, until those tributes happen when we are no more.
As two of the men on the world’s top ten richest list discovered,when their wives divorced them — all their wealth could not keep their families together. They could not buy relationships or the happiness they bring. People who spend their lives accumulating assets and wealth or building vain testaments of triumph, will realise that none of those things can attend your funeral…only people can.
My purpose and passion
In the often-forgotten gem of a movie — Motherless Brooklyn, written, directed and starring Edward Norton, there’s a tense exchange between the private eye, Lionel Essrog (played by Norton) and the City Parks Commissioner Moses Randolph (played by Alec Baldwin). Moses is feted by many as the builder of many of the city’s parks, but he does this at enormous human cost riding roughshod over poor, often black families, destroying their homes so he can build his parks and of course earn handsome profits on the side.
Moses Randolph: Very little I’ve achieved in my life has relied on legality. I’m not about to lean on that slender branch now when things matter most.
Lionel Essrog: So, you’re above the law, is that it?
Randolph: No. I’m just ahead of it.
Essrog: What’s the difference?
Randolph: Well, the law’s a rule book we make for the times we find ourselves in. You rebuild the city, in my experience, the law will follow you and adapt to what you do.
The arrogance of Randolph’s purpose and passion is brutally evident. His parks and bridges stand as brute testimony that might is right. Business leaders will often face these choices — a new factory has to be built, a highway has to be laid to carry supplies or product. Is this done by crushing the lives of the poor or oppressed? If yes, then it is a cursed, superficial achievement that has come at the cost of harming the voiceless. As business leaders we will come across these choices, as a slide in a PowerPoint deck, a page in a report.
The cost benefit analysis will show us the dollars, but not the destruction, our decisions and actions will cause. As young leaders beginning our careers, we must commit to never making or supporting decisions and actions that harm the poor or marginalised. That would be an act of cowardice not leadership. Imagine if a highway had to be built that required the demolition of Antilia, the towering residence of Mukesh Ambani — Asia and India’s richest man.
Would that highway ever get built; would those plans ever get approved? However big the benefit to the country, the world, the economy — no action would ever be taken by any Government or any business that harms the interests of the rich and powerful. The poor are easy targets. In fact, it requires the true courage of real leadership to stand against actions or decisions that harm the voiceless and powerless. That’s what will be remembered over any other triumphs we leave behind.
In the final analysis this is what will count — principles that we stood for, people we touched and the way we changed the world even in a small way by pursuing a purpose truly bigger than ourselves. Those are the real legacies that will outlive us.
(* names changed)