20 Feb 2020 19:01 IST

Kambala speedster inspires with self-awareness

Think about the level of humility and down-to-earth wisdom. What can we learn from him?

Social media was abuzz last week with news of the Kambala buffalo-race hero, Srinivas Gowda. Netizens were going berserk about Gowda’s 13.62 second run as a buffalo race jockey over the 142 m course. Calculations were quickly made that he’d covered the first 100 m in about 9.55 seconds, stunningly ahead of Usain Bolt’s world record time of 9.58 seconds. Adulation poured in, with none other than Anand Mahindra pitching in on his behalf. Visions of an Indian athlete finally blazing to an Olympic gold were already being conjured. There was talk of Sports Authority of India trials. Amongst all the ballyhoo, there was one head that seemed to sit on wise and settled shoulders — that of Srinivas Gowda himself. He seems to have kept his cool and not only displayed maturity, but a lot of wisdom in how he responded. He said that his skills and strength on the kambala track did not naturally translate into performance on the athletic track. He said: “In (a) Kambala race, heels play an important role whereas it is toes in a track race. Not just jockeys, but even buffaloes have a role to play in Kambala. In (a) track race, this is not the case.”

Think about the level of self-awareness, humility and wisdom in his response. What can we learn from him?

Do these strengths transfer?

Not all our strengths transfer easily. Just because I was great in sales does not mean I will excel as a sales manager where skills such as people management become more important. In The Peter Principle, Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull wrote about rising to your level of incompetence. A strength gets you promoted, but the same strength does not transfer easily to the requirements of the new role. This happens to individuals. This happens to organisations where leaders fall prey to the same thinking.

The recent case of Oyo and its expansion is a lesson here. With the explosive growth in India, Oyo was sure that same success could be easily replicated in other markets. Japan, home country of their biggest investor Masayoshi Son seemed like an easy win. The target was stunning — hit one million rooms in a year.

The hotel team and the apartment rental business were both led by Indian expats — always a bad idea to kick start in a market like Japan where local knowledge, flavours, the ability to understand the layers within layers play an important role. Hiring was done on full thrust.

The results were a far cry from the ambition. Almost a year after the one million rooms target was set, the apartment handling unit has just managed to get to 7,500 rooms.

“Many entrepreneurs want to do a land grab, and it’s often the right thing to do, but you have to balance between your desire and ability to do it,” said Ben Narasin, venture partner at New Enterprise Associates Inc, in his diagnosis. Or as one of the leaders at one of my organisations used to say: “We shouldn’t have the eyes of a tiger while we still have the stomach of a chicken.”

Sometimes, strengths do transfer well but leaders should be brutal in their assessment of which ones will and which ones won’t.

Are there other variables at play?

Are there other variables at play? Success as the saying goes, has many fathers but failure is orphaned. It takes true inner strength for Srinivas Gowda to have credited the buffaloes, implying that their speed was really a big part of the performance. He even credited the owners who took such good care of the buffaloes to ready them for the big day. In the corporate world, where the focus is often on stealing credit, rather than giving it away, his example is a wake-up call. A rising tide lifts all boats and as Warren Buffet would rather graphically say: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you realise who’s been swimming naked.”

Often an upward swing in the market gives an air of triumph to even mediocre efforts. A great team makes a leader look like a permanent winner. A government subsidy may be the force behind a powerful surge of growth. Leaders need to look hard in the mirror and discern where their impact stops, and other variables are at play. With this honest insight they can then decide which strengths are real and which illusory. An exaggerated sense of performance can delude a leader into making wrong decisions. Expanding into a market when the people and processes are not ready. Acquiring a company even when the fit is grotesque. Leaders must look at the whole context. This is usually a habit when things go wrong as leaders search for variables to blame for the failure. But it’s also a good habit in times of success — to look at the variables that could have played a role so we can honestly recognise where our strengths made a difference and where they didn’t.

Is this what is important for me?

Gowda also indicated that while he was not averse to checking out athletics, his passion was buffalo racing and he was happiest on the mud tracks and the paddy fields. He believed that was where he excelled. His sweet spot.

As the placement season tapers to a close, many MBA students have landed their prize jobs. The metric that most use is the compensation package they have been offered. This narrow focus sometimes leads them down poor-fit-career-paths. They swell with pride at the size of their pay cheque but there is a gnawing emptiness at not being in their sweet spot. Later, after the thrill of the killer job has faded, they are filled with regret at turning down that ‘passion’ role. That’s why even before the placement season, MBA students must ask themselves “What’s important to me?” “What do I value?” “How could I best contribute?” “How could I best learn and grow at this early phase in my career journey”. Those questions are likely to lead to better decisions than just looking at the pay packages. I am always edified to see some students, even late in the placement season, who have refused to be tempted by just big offers. They have held off, waiting for the company and role in line with their passions and values. They often end up happier and more successful.

Gowda’s strength of character should help us in our journey as leaders and guard us from the peril of rising to our level of incompetence.