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Nitish Mukherjee

The author is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion

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Dark Roast Double Shot: Up-Close Or Afar?

The sentiments and emotions whether expressed or repressed are never entirely captured in numbers. Great leaders know that those are key determinants in choices that they need to make.

Photo Credit : India Picture Hub


It had been three days now. After the first, electricity briefly sputtered, then died. By the second day back-up inverters had also petered out. The third day diligently put to rest all communication devices of any kind. Steaming dark roast double shots had given way to the comforting hot brew in a moka pot. Yet the rain seemed unstoppable. Clouds  moved constantly, with a purposive randomness that would defy all predictability. They raced down to shroud the valley and then mushroomed up to obliterate anything and everything other than its omnipresence. An unceasing tattoo on the tin roofs both lulled us to sleep at the oddest hours and roused us from slumber with the ferocity of a hundred alarm bells. Kumaon was facing its worst rains in over a hundred years.

The news that had filtered in was disconcerting. Landslides were wreaking havoc. Roads, habitation, and human lives were crumbling against the relentless onslaught of water. For the last few hours, with electronic communication no longer available we did not even know what was happening around us and how long we would be safe.

Two black dots were bobbing in the far distance, moving our way. As they came closer, we realised it was two people braving the rain coming down the village road skirting the property. We had met them a few times working in the fields cultivating potatoes. A few days ago, as we stopped by, they told us how the crop would be ready in a few days to be shipped to the mandi (wholesale market). We hailed them from the veranda enquiring if all was well with everyone in the village below. The village they came from was safe but in the neighbouring village people had lost lives, homes, and livestock. Entire swathes of land had washed away. We asked them if their fields were safe. They said the fields were safe but the crop would mostly rot. They shrugged their shoulders, lowered their head against the rain and disappeared into the downpour.

Over the next few days, we saw first-hand the extent of devastation and the concomitant misery. Amidst the debris were stories of loss, suffering, irresponsibility, bravery, sharing and the indomitable human spirit that was working hard to press the reset button. Images and sounds got etched into the mind that would change the response to a million headlines that I had seen earlier or would live to see and read. Once again, I had experienced the power of proximity. Seeing something up-close gives you a view and an understanding that no amount of information or briefings can ever give you. There are layers that you cannot explore without watching it at close quarters or experiencing it.

It has been a decade of rapid changes and the unique circumstances of the last two years accelerated those changes and altered and shaped behaviour like never before. The digital revolution catalysed, we were forced to work from home and many of us have embraced it as our future preferred way of working, big data and analytics is spewing out realms of information and dashboards are getting updated every second, AI and machine learning can even take decisions and action based on the data, cyber wars and even real ones are activated from remote locations. Distances seem to have lost all significance and many of us have great comfort with the detailed knowledge at our fingertips. There is a whole universe to explore there, whilst being just wherever you want to be. Where then is an argument for the need to move close to understand anything? 

Even with expensive, detailed, and continuous monitoring with advanced satellites, for the best of intelligence agencies one of the most valuable assets is their on-ground human intelligence. It helps decision making and increases the chances of operational success of their campaigns. Smart politicians too, talk to their agents on the ground rather than just rely on the pollsters. The truth is, that while technology helps you create scale and access many data points with high frequency, behind their outcome is the human interface that determines the direction. The choices that are made influence the results. So, even the most independent and neutral data is not without its biases. Sometimes it can tell you the ‘what’ and ‘how’ but the ‘why’ is still an inference.

People close to the action or situation on ground have a deeper understanding of the situation and in critical issues can validate or invalidate an accepted view, based on which decisions would roll. All our decisions involve people, their beliefs and their behaviour under varying circumstances and socio-cultural differences. The sentiments and emotions whether expressed or repressed are never entirely captured in numbers. Great leaders know that those are key determinants in choices that they need to make.

With margins under pressure, the requirement to scale up with speed is today’s gold rush. Large businesses coupled with digital enablement and technology generate vast amounts of data. It is true many answers lie there, but only many or some, not all. Many leaders have found great comfort in the last few years on decisions taken based on information that is served to them. Increasingly many leaders are enjoying what they believe is the ability to manage businesses remotely. This belief over time will cause immense damage as decision makers distance themselves from not just the reality of business but also their employees and stakeholders.

Negotiating the space between remote and up-close will be at the heart of empathetic leadership. You cannot afford to miss the Big Picture but it is equally important to know the brush strokes that make it. So, if you ever hear yourself say “I am a Big Picture guy” know that you have only half the story. You are a good person to have around but it is best for everyone that someone else leads. 

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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his opinion.)

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