Archive for May 2007


May 21, 2007



Book Review by Vikram Karve 


The Book: 




ISBN 0-684-80080-2 





Leafing through my beloved books on my bookshelves is one of my favorite pastimes. I love the company, the smell and the feel of books, as I leisurely browse and glance through the varied books I have collected over the years. And maybe select one for perusal.  

This morning I picked up a delightful management classic called Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. I acquired my copy on 06 May 1999 in the Pune Book Fair (that’s what I’ve written below my name on the first page). It is a laconic book which explores the paradoxes of management in an extremely witty manner.  Let’s browse through this wonderful book together.   

In his foreword Michael Crichton writes: “In this book Richard Farson reports more than experience; he gives us …wisdom”.  

The 172 page book has eight parts and thirty three chapters, and as the author says in the introduction, these chapters need not necessarily be read in sequence, but in whatever order appeals to the reader. Let’s do just that.  

“Morale is unrelated to productivity” the author says chapter in 27, turning conventional HR wisdom on its head. He deprecates management practices of pampering and mollycoddling employees (which one reads of particularly in the IT sector), giving gifts, holding parties, recognizing birthdays, gestures of goodwill and other HR gimmicks designed to court employee favor as a calculated morale-raising strategy. Self-actualized people, who were among the greatest achievers in our society, were not necessarily comfortable or happy; they could be ruthless, boring, stuffy, irritating, and humorless and organizations are absolutely dependent on such people. You don’t agree, don’t you? That’s why you must read this book, which turns things you have learnt topsy-turvy and gives you something to think about.  

Effective Managers are not in control, emphasizing the vulnerability requirement in a leader. Absurdly, our most important human affairs – marriage, child rearing, education, leadership – do best when there is occasional loss of control and an increase in personal vulnerability, the author says, and compares leadership with romance. If you know how to have a romance, it isn’t a romance, but a seduction. Not knowing how to do it makes it a romance; it’s the same for leadership, an intangible quality, management techniques don’t work. Genuineness in relationships is the only way to lead professionals.  

Training leads to the development of skills and techniques, and suggests the possibility of control. Education leads to information and knowledge, which suggests the possibility of understanding, even wisdom.  Wisdom involves humility, compassion and respect – essential to effective leadership!  

Training makes people more alike, education tends to make people different from each other, so the first benefit of education is that the manager becomes unique, independent. “Don’t try to train leaders. Educate them!” the author exhorts.  

Planning is an ineffective way to bring about change. Too often it is an empty ritual designed to make management feel there is something going on in that area.  

There are paradoxes and paradoxes, absurdities and absurdities!   

Individuals are strong, but organizations are not! I thought it was the other way around. 

The better things are the worse they feel, says the theory of rising expectations, and that’s why good marriages are more likely to fail than bad ones, and second marriages are better than first marriages, but shorter!  

In communication, form is more important than content, praising people does not motivate them, and the more we communicate, the less we communicate.  

The ‘meat’ of the book is the chapter on – The “Technology” of Human Relations. Exploring the impact of technology on Human relations, the author discusses how technology invents us, develops a life of its own and with every application of technology a counterforce develops that is the exact opposite of what we intended. The danger is that we become so in love with technological applications that we forget its detrimental effects; he illustrates his point with examples of how computer technology increases design capability but stifles creativity. We must focus on Relationship Enrichment rather than acquisition of techniques of management skills, he suggests, since the more important a relationship, the less skill matters.  

The book is replete with startling insights. The author states his message in his introduction: “I believe many programs in management training today are moving us in the wrong direction because they fail to appreciate the complexity and paradoxical nature of human organizations. Thinking loses out to how-to-do-it formulas and techniques, if not to slogans and homilies, as the principle management guides.”  

This is a refreshing, original and thought provoking book, something different from the run of the mill stuff. It’s a management classic, a rare gem in the plethora of management literature. Do read it. You’ll be glad you did.   







My Favourite Military Autobiography – A Soldier’s Story by Omar N Bradley

May 10, 2007




[Book Review by Vikram Karve] 




I love reading autobiographies, as there is nothing more inspiring and authentic than learning about the life, times, thoughts and views of a great person in his own words.  

It’s a lazy hot Sunday afternoon. I browse through my bookshelves and pick out A Soldier’s Story by General Omar Nelson Bradley, one of my favorite autobiographies, and certainly my all time favorite military autobiography. Come Dear Reader, sit with me for a while, and let’s leaf through and peruse this fascinating book. 

General Bradley (1893-1981) known for his calm and resolute leadership and affectionately called the “Soldier’s General” commanded the largest American combat force in history and rose to be the first Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

This is a story, not of my life, but of a campaign…I have sought… to tell a story of how generals live and work at their chosen profession the author says at the beginning of his memoirs which focus on his participation in World War II. 

Candidly written with remarkable humility in beautiful expressive language it is a wonderful memoir embellished with interesting episodes and lucid characterizations of many renowned military personalities. 

 In this book I have tried to achieve one purpose: To explain how war is waged on the field from the field command postTo tell a story of how and why we chose to do what we did, no one can ignore the personalities and characteristics of those individuals engaged in making decisions…..Where there are people, there is pride and ambition, prejudice and conflict. In generals, as in all other men, capabilities cannot always obscure weaknesses, nor can talents hide faults…General Bradley writes in his preface which concludes…I could not conscientiously expurgate this book to make it more palatable…if this story is to be told, it must be told honestly and candidly… 

The author writes in a wonderfully readable storytelling style and starts his riveting narrative on September 2, 1943, driving to Messina along the north coast of Sicily when, suddenly, General Eisenhower summoned him to tell him that he had been selected to command the American Army in the biggest invasion of the war – the liberation of Europe from the Germans. He then goes back in time and starts his story with vignettes from his early formative days of soldiering. He describes how, from General Marshall, he learnt the rudiments of effective command which he himself applied throughout the war: “When an officer performed as I expected him to, I gave him a free hand. When he hesitated, I tried to help him. And when he failed, I relieved him”  – isn’t this leadership lesson valid even on today’s IT driven world where delegation seems to be taking a back- seat and excessive monitoring, interference and intervention seem to be on the rise. 

Rather than encourage yes-men, ego-massage, sycophancy and groupthink, General Marshal sought contrary opinions: “When you carry a paper in here, I want you to give me every reason you can think of why I should not approve it. If, in spite of your objections, my decision is to still go ahead, then I’ll know I’m right”. 

When it was suggested to General Marshall that a corps commander who had an arthritic disability in the knee be sent home rather than be given command of a corps in the field in war, he opined: “I would rather have a man with arthritis in the knee than one with arthritis in the head. Keep him there”. 

“For the first time in 32 years as a soldier, I was off to a war” he writes on his assignment overseas in February 1943 to act as Eisenhower’s “eyes and ears” among American troops on the Tunisian front in
North Africa.

He vividly describes the chaos after the American defeat at Kasserine, the arrival of Patton on the scene who growled “I’m not going to have any goddam spies running around in my headquarters” and appointed Bradley as his deputy, a defining moment which was the first step of Bradley’s illustrious combat career. 

This is easily the best book on Patton’s stellar role in World War II, complementing General Patton’s Memoirs War As I Knew It and Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago. Though his admiration for Patton is evident, General Bradley writes about his long association with Patton with fairness and honesty and reveals unique and remarkable facets of Patton’s leadership style and character. 

Sample this – Precisely at 7 Patton boomed in to breakfast. His vigor was always infectious, his wit barbed, his conversation a mixture of obscenity and good humor. He was at once stimulating and overbearing. George was a magnificent soldier. (Can there be a better description?) 

Bradley vividly describes how Patton transformed the slovenly and demoralized II Corps into a fighting fit formation. “The news of Patton’s coming fell like a bombshell on Djebel Kouif. With sirens shrieking Patton’s arrival, a procession of armored scout cars and half-tracks wheeled into the dingy square opposite the schoolhouse headquarters of II Corps…In the lead car Patton stood like a charioteer…scowling into the wind and his jaw strained against the web strap of a two-starred steel helmet.” 

General Bradley writes superbly, as he describes how Patton stamped his personality upon his men and by his outstanding charismatic leadership rejuvenated the jaded, slovenly, worn-out, defeated and demoralized II Corps and transformed it into a vibrant, disciplined, fighting fit organization that never looked back and went on winning victory after victory in most difficult circumstances and against all odds. 

There are bits of delightful humor in this book. Commenting on the ingenuity and improvisation abilities of Patton’s staff, the author writes: “…Indeed had Patton been named an Admiral in the Turkish Navy, his aides could probably dipped into their haversacks and come up with the appropriate badges of rank…” Though, at times, the author appears to be in awe of and enamored by Patton’s larger than life charisma, he is candid, dispassionate and, at times, critical when he describes how he was bewildered by the contradictions in Patton’s character and concludes: “At times I felt that Patton, however successful he was as a corps commander, had not yet learned how to command himself.” 

Their techniques of command varied with their contrasting personalities. While the soft-spoken unassuming Bradley preferred to lead by suggestion and example, the flamboyant Patton chose to drive his subordinates by bombast and threats, employing imperious mannerisms and profane expletives with startling originality; and both achieved spectacular results.   

Many of us are at a loss for words when asked to qualitatively appraise our subordinates. See how easily General Bradley lucidly evaluates his division commanders, bringing out their salient qualities, in so few words with elegant simplicity and succinctness: “…To command a corps of four divisions, toughness alone is not enough. The corps commander must know his division commanders, he must thoroughly understand their problems, respect their judgment, and be tolerant of their limitations…among the division commanders in
Tunisia, none excelled the unpredictable Terry Allen in the leadership of troops…but in looking out for his own division, Allen tended to belittle the role of others… Ryder had confirmed his reputation as that of a skilled tactician…his weakness, however, lay in the contentment with which he tolerated mediocrity…the profane and hot-tempered Harmon brought to the corps the rare combination of sound tactical judgment and boldness… none was better balanced nor more cooperative than Manton Eddy…though not timid, neither was he bold; Manton liked to count his steps carefully before he took them.”
 Aren’t the author’s understanding, observation and articulation remarkable?


Throughout the book, we find honest, frank and incisive appraisals of characters in this story – superiors, peers and subordinates – most of them renowned and famous personalities. He writes with candor about the problems of command during the planning of the invasion of
 From then on the story gathers speed and moves so captivatingly that one is spellbound as one reads the author fluently narrate the events of the campaign with remarkable preciseness and detail, one realizes what an engaging and compelling book this is – it’s simply unputdownable! 

All important events, turning points, and personalities are vividly described with the aid of maps, charts, pictures and appendices; from D Day (the Normandy Invasion) to the surrender of the German forces. Towards the end of his memoirs General Bradley reflects “Only five years before…as a lieutenant colonel in civilian clothes, I had ridden a bus down Connecticut Avenue to my desk in old Munitions Building… I opened the mapboard and smoothed out the tabs of the 43 US divisions now under my command…stretched across a 640-mile front of the 12th Army Group…I wrote in the new date: D plus 335…outside the sun was climbing in the sky. The war in
Europe had ended.”

While this autobiography is a “must read” for military men and students of military history, I am sure it will benefit management students and professionals for it is an incisive treatise on Soft Skills encompassing aspects of Leadership, Communications, and most importantly, the Art of Human Relations Management in the extremely complex and highly stressful scenario of War where achievement of success (victory) is inescapably paramount. It is a primer, a treasury of distilled wisdom, on all aspects of management, especially human resource management.  One can learn many motivational and management lessons from this book. 

There is nothing to surpass the experience of learning history first hand from a man who lived and created it rather than a historian who merely records it. The Art of Leadership is better learnt from studying Leaders, their lives, their writings, rather than reading management textbooks pontificating on the subject and giving how-to-do laundry lists.   

The Art and Science of Management owe its genesis and evolution to the military. Modern Management theories, concepts, techniques and practices emerged from the experiences and lessons learnt during World War II [particularly in The United States of America].  

It’s ironic isn’t it? It was the military that gave modern management principles to the civilian corporate world, and today we see military men running to civilian management institutes to “learn’ management and get the coveted MBA which the sine qua non and all important passport for entry into the corporate world. 

I love reading stories, all kinds of stories, fiction, fantasy, parables, fables, slice of life. I like Life Stories, biographies, particularly autobiographies, as there is nothing more credible, convincing and stimulating than learning about the life, times and thoughts of a great person from his own writings. It’s called verisimilitude, I think. 

‘A Soldier’s Story’ is a magnificent book. A masterpiece, a classic! It’s enjoyable, engrossing and illuminating. Read it. 












Teaching Stories

May 9, 2007





Everyone loves stories. So whenever I want to drive home my point or communicate a message, I like to do so through a story, a teaching story, rather than pontificate. It is more effective, as wit and humor are excellent vehicles for transmission of views and values, besides they do not bore, annoy, or hurt egos. I am, therefore, always in search of such stories, tales, and parables, which impart wisdom and produce spiritual growth, and there is plenty of ancient wit and wisdom around, oriental and occidental. 


Teaching stories are not mere jokes. They relate events that are funny, foolish, bemusing, and sometimes even apparently stupid. But they usually have deeper meanings. A good teaching story has several levels of meaning and interpretation and offers us opportunities to think in new ways. At first you may just have a good laugh but as you think about it the significance becomes more and more profound. Each story veils its knowledge and as you ruminate, the walls of its outer meanings crumble away and the beauty of the previously invisible inner wisdom is revealed, and you begin to identify yourself in the story, and to acknowledge that you too could be as foolish or as lacking in discernment as the characters in these classic tales. An example of the concept of teaching stories is embodied in the tales of the inimitable Mulla Nasrudin narrated by Sufis to illustrate aspects of human behavior which are relevant to both our personal and professional lives. 


Last week I told someone this Mulla Nasrudin Story: 


Mulla Nasrudin’s donkey died and he went into deep mourning weeping inconsolably. A friend seeing Nasrudin crying bitterly consoled, “What’s wrong with you – you didn’t weep and mourn so much even when your first wife died.” 

“When my wife died all of you promised to find a younger and more beautiful wife for me – and indeed you did. However, nobody has promised to replace my donkey.” 


And I’m sure you have heard this one: 

One night, Nasrudin was on his hands and knees searching for his key in a well-lit area in the centre of the street. Some of his neighbors came to see why Nasrudin was on his hands and knees. 

“What are you looking for, Nasrudin?” enquired one of his neighbors. 

“My door key,” Nasrudin replied. 

The helpful neighbors dropped to their hands and knees and joined Nasrudin in his search for the lost key. 

After a long unsuccessful search, one of the neighbors asked: “We’ve looked everywhere. Are you sure you dropped it here?” 

Nasrudin answers: “Of course I didn’t drop it here, I dropped it outside my door.” 

“Then, why are you looking for it here!” 

“Because there is more light here!” responded Nasrudin.  


When one reads or hears several Nasrudin tales, they can have a compelling effect. You can reflect, introspect or take them with a pinch of salt – the choice is yours! You may ask the storyteller: “You relate stories, but do not tell us how to understand them” – to which he will reply: “How would you like it if the shopkeeper from whom you bought a banana ate it before your eyes, leaving you only the skin?” One of the great bonuses in learning through humor is that even as you have a good time and doubt that you have learned anything, the lessons penetrate subtly, and stay with you, to come alive when the need arises.  


A few years ago, while walking home one evening, I stopped for a browse at Mumbai’s famous Strand Book Fair, held every January, at

University’s Sunderbai Hall near Churchgate. I saw a book – Tales of the Dervishes – and began browsing, so engrossed in the Sufi teaching stories that I lost all sense of time, that before I realized it, the clock struck eight and time to close. Seeing the crowd, and in a hurry to get home, I decided to come the next day to buy the book, but when I did come the next day the one and only copy of the book had been sold. 

Since then I have been hunting for this rare elusive book and I was delighted to find a copy at Landmark Bookstore on

Moledina Road

in Pune Camp a few days back. Dear Reader, permit me to tell you a bit about this book. 

Title: Tales of the DervishesAuthor: Idries Shah (1967)Arkana Penguin (1993)ISBN 0-14-019358-8 

The author has collated a very meaningful selection of Sufi Teaching Stories ranging from the 7th century to the 20th century and has given chronological references to sources which comprise Sufi Masters, classics and manuscripts. I’m sure you may be familiar with a few of these classic tales of wisdom, or versions of them, like The Three Fishes, How to Catch Monkeys, and The Blind Ones and the Matter of the Elephant, but there are so many unique gems of wit and wisdom. 

I recommend that you must read each teaching story thrice. Yes, thrice! 

Read the story once. It may entertain you; maybe produce a laugh, like a joke. Read the story the second time. Reflect on it. Apply it to your life. That will give you a taste of self-discovery.  Read the story again, after you have reflected on it. Carry the story around in your mind all day and allow its fragrance, its melody to haunt you. Create a silence within you and let the story reveal to you its inner depth and meaning. Let it speak to your heart, not to your brain. This will give you a feel for the mystical and you will develop the art of tasting and feeling the inner meaning of such stories to the point that they transform you. 

I’ll end with another Mulla Nasrudin teaching story: 

On his way from Persia to
India, Mulla Nasrudin saw a man selling a small long green fruit which he had never seen before.  Curious, he asked the vendor:  “What is this lovely fruit?”

            “Chillies. Fresh Green Chillies,” said the Vendor. 

            Mulla Nasrudin gave the vendor a gold coin and the Vendor was so overjoyed that he gave Nasrudin the full basket of green Chillies. 

            Mulla Nasrudin sat down under a tree and started to munch the Chillies and  within a few seconds, his mouth was burning. Tears streamed down his cheeks, his nose watered copiously and there was fire his throat. 

              But, utterly nonchalant, Nasrudin went on eating the chillies and his condition began to get worse and worse.  

            Seeing his pitiable condition, a passerby asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you stop eating those hot Chillies?” 

            “May be there is one that is sweet, “Nasrudin answered. “I keep waiting for the sweet one!” Nasrudin said and he kept on eating the fiery Chillies. 

            On his way back, the passerby saw that Mulla Nasrudin’s condition had become even more terrible, but he kept on eating, and the basket of Chillies was almost empty. 

            “Stop at once or you will die.  There are no sweet Chillies!” the passerby shouted at Nasrudin. 

            “I cannot stop until I have finished the whole basketful,” Nasrudin said, croaking in agony, “I have paid for the full basket   I am not eating Chillies anymore.  I am eating my money”.             




Dear Reader – Read this story once more, think about it, let the story perambulate in your mind, reflect on it, and apply it to your life. Don’t we cling on to things that we know we should let go [at first hoping to find ‘sweet one’ and even when we discover that there is no ‘sweet chilli’ we still continue to shackle and bind ourselves to material things, memories and persons who we know are painful, harmful and detrimental just to ‘get our money’s worth’ when we should ‘let go’ and liberate ourselves]. 

Hey, there I go pontificating again! It’s time for you, Dear Reader, to tell me a Teaching Story!