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June 14, 2013

Power Versus Influence

Text by Parmesh Shahani. Published: Volume 21, Issue 6, June, 2013.

Both matter, but perhaps influence is more powerful, muses Parmesh Shahani, as he shares with us stories about two individuals who have influenced his thinking recently

  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Roopa Purushothaman
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Devdutt Pattanaik, Parmesh Shahani
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik

How to win friends and influence people? Dale Carnegie asked this question several decades ago – and spawned a multi-million dollar empire in helping people to answer it. Please note that he didn’t write ‘How to win friends and be powerful’. Instead he wrote about influence. In this, Verve’s annual Power issue, I too want to mull over influence a little bit. How about power versus influence to start with? Power is about authority while influence is about persuasiveness. Power is exercised, influence is wielded. Akbar had power, Birbal had influence. Both matter, but perhaps influence is more powerful?

When you have power you do have the ability to influence. On the other hand, sometimes you may not have power but your capacity to influence may be huge. The era of license raj in our country was all about using influence to gain proximity to power and get your work done. Indeed even politics as it is practiced today, whether in the corridors of power in city and state capitals, or in your local Parent Teacher Association, is all about influence. Those who wield power are often influenced by others. Do reflect on the influences in the lives of the power women that you encounter in this magazine. There are many who might not have made it to this year’s Verve list perhaps because they don’t have enough power, but in terms of influence, well then that might be another story, or another full list.

In my column this month, I want to tell you about two individuals I met recently whose ideas have influenced my way of thinking. The first is Roopa Purushothaman, an economist who has worked with Goldman Sachs and was a co-author of the famous Dreaming with BRICS report. Roopa then relocated to India and she now heads research for Everstone – a private equity fund, besides holding several other positions, such as being a member of the Prime Minister’s advisory committee for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. During the course of her economic research over the past decade, Roopa came to realise that she was seeing some pretty terrible numbers with regard to economic indicators for Indian women, especially in terms of education, employment and nutrition levels.

For instance, India is quite favourably placed up to the year 2035, because between now to then, the proportion of working-age population in the total population will increase due to declining fertility rates, thus giving rise to what is popularly called the ‘demographic dividend’, a phenomenon that in many other countries has led to turbo-charged economic growth and rising incomes. But India may not be able to exploit this dividend because Indian women are not being able to participate fully in the workforce. So India’s workforce participation rate for women is only 20-30 per cent, as compared to 50-70 per cent in East Asian economies, which is rather shocking. Another point that Roopa noticed in the case of India was that workforce participation rate for women in our country strangely declines with increasing education levels, except in the case of very highly educated women. So our country is losing out on a large number of educated women, which is a sobering fact to reflect on.

What Roopa also noted was that post-liberalisation economic growth and the rise of middle-class Indian incomes over the past 20 years had not changed some disturbing indicators for women in India. So, nutrition outcomes, in which India lags even behind most sub-Saharan African countries, have become even worse in the last two decades. Other gender indicators such as the gap in female and male infant mortality, women’s access to assets and property, incidents of physical or sexual violence (the Nirbhaya case may have brought the spotlight briefly on the issue, but not a day goes by without another gory story being reported), are all rather horrible in the case of our country. Another sobering fact to reflect upon, especially while reading an issue celebrating women power.

As an economist, and as an American NRI who had merely relocated to India for work, Roopa needn’t have done much after learning all this. She could have said this is nuts, shifted back to New York, and had a cushy life, riding off her early fame. Instead she chose the hard path – to stay and make a difference. She decided that she wanted to build institutions in India that seek to address this very crucial problem of gender that kept on coming up in her research. She decided that the only way to change the horrifying statistics she was encountering was to empower a generation of women to themselves be the change.

Being an economist, she again did her research and pinpointed on the area of secondary education in which she wanted to make a difference. As she told me when we met, government policies and NGOs all focus on primary education, but very few have given thought to what happens at the next stage of schooling, and this is a problem, because dropout rates for girls in secondary education are extremely high. For example, only one per cent of girls in rural India who start primary education manage to reach the 12th grade. This means 99 per cent drop out. How do we change these odds?

Roopa has founded her non-profit Avasara Academy to do just that. She wants to help adolescent girls from underprivileged backgrounds realise their potential and improve their access to higher education and employment prospects. This all-girls leadership school, when it comes up in Lavale, 10 kms outside Pune, will equip its students with the skills and knowledge to attend the world’s finest universities (Roopa has already got a commitment from her alma mater, Yale), network with mentors and women leaders like Vinita Bali, Kiran Majumdar Shaw and also more importantly, to serve as successful leaders in their communities and effect positive change in the world. Until this ambitious school comes up, she is piloting a special leadership programme at the American School in Mumbai, where young girls from underprivileged backgrounds are brought together for an accelerated leadership journey. These might be seen as small steps when confronted with the enormity of the challenge when faced with the economic numbers, but as Roopa told me, these small steps by individuals like her will all add up in eventually shifting the scary gender indicators. “If I can inspire even one girl to become a world leader, that will be good,” she told me when we met. She’s influenced way more than just one person with her passion and commitment, including me, and I really like her attitude of putting her head down, and making change happen, one person at a time.

Another person who has influenced not just mine, but also our country’s literary landscape is the mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. Devdutt spent the first half of his professional life as a medical doctor and then a management consultant, but on the side, he was researching and writing about Indian mythology. Two things happened some years ago that influenced his own life significantly, so that he could then burst on the public scene and influence ours. The first was his encounter with Kishore Biyani of Future Group, who appointed him as Chief Belief Officer, an intriguing perch for him to engage the corporate world with his mythological interpretation of how business ought to be done. The second was the TED talk about Western versus Eastern world views, which catapulted Devdutt on to the world stage. Now of course, we are in the midst of a mythology fashion wave at least among writers who write in English – there are authors like Amish Tripathi and his Shiva trilogy and even others like Ashok Banker, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni or Ashwin Sanghi who are using mythology successfully in their writing. But Devdutt was writing much before it was cool to do mythology, and this rootedness has now resulted in a mini-mythological empire that includes his books, columns and TV shows on business channels as well as entertainment channels, including the immensely popular Devon ka Dev…Mahadev.

I’ve known Devdutt from before the fame wave. The first time I saw him, in photographer David D’Souza’s house at a party, he spontaneously spoke about Shiva, and hearing him sent shivers down my spine – even after reading most of his books, in my mind he will always be first a master oral storyteller and then a writer. Then as I discovered and read his books, I realised that his writing was quietly revolutionary. I had previously stayed away from reading anything associated with mythology as I associated it with religion and that too with being conservative, something that was an antithesis to the ‘modern’ perception I had of myself or rather the person I was projecting myself to be. But reading Devdutt enabled me to both widen my world-view and at the same time confidently embrace my Indian-ness.

In Jaya for instance, his synthesis of the Mahabharata, Devdutt is quite radical and progressive in the way he interprets gender and sexuality in the epic. Likewise, in The Pregnant King, his only novel, Yuvanashva, the king, mistakenly drinks the potion meant to make his wife pregnant and becomes pregnant himself. Later, he impregnates his second wife naturally. Thus he is both a mother and father, and he starts questioning many things regarding gender and power. In the same book there is the character of Shilavati, a princess who can’t be king – even though she has all the leadership qualities – just because of her gender, and years later, when faced with her son’s dilemma she herself fails to be understanding, even though she was herself victimised for being different, thereby repeating the pattern of discrimination. I see Devdutt’s writing as an attempt to create space for ambiguity, in the hope that people might see the recurring patterns and expand their minds a little. I know that I certainly have.

I hosted Devdutt last month at the Godrej Culture Lab and we had a fascinating conversation about his latest book Business Sutra. The book begins with the statement that human hunger is unique. As Devdutt has written, a plant craves sunlight, food and water. In the animal kingdom, the animal runs and chases something to eat to satisfy its hunger. The animal chases the plant, and the plant cannot run away. So not only does the animal consume, it consumes another living creature. But animals can and do run away when a human or another animal tries to consume them. So, a new relationship emerges – prey and predator. In the case of human beings, as Devdutt writes, this hunger transforms dramatically because now humans have imagination. As Devdutt told me during our conversation, “My hunger becomes imagined hunger, not just hunger to satisfy my stomach. My hunger is for today, tomorrow, for 10 years later, for my children, for the next seven generations. My hunger now is infinite. It never ends because I’m constantly consuming. Once this is understood, business is understood. Whose hunger are you satiating? How much of it are you satiating? What is a shareholder’s hunger? What is an employee’s hunger? What is a consumer’s hunger? What is a vendor’s hunger? Unless I understand this hunger, how do I know what food to produce?” This is one of the business sutras, which in Devdutt’s book, then bursts forth into a whole bunch of ideas.

The book has many other sutras, and is very unlike any other management book I have read. One of the most moving parts of the book to me was the last chapter, where Devdutt talks about ‘Yama’s Balance Sheet’. What does life all mean in the end, when we have to do our personal accounts? I’ve been seeing a therapist for some time as well and it is interesting how this act of personal accountability that Devdutt describes resonates across disciplines – philosophy, spirituality, mythology, and also now, of late, psychology and psychiatry.

As Devdutt told me during our chat, he thinks of the book as a “very Indian approach to management”. Indian because it breaks away from the Western management language of win, lose, competition, rival, take market share, et al. The whole notion of grab, capture, colonise, control is like a battlefield. But as Devdutt told me, when he delved deeper into mythology, he came across alternatives. “In heaven, there’s a king called Indra. Indra has everything he wants but he is insecure. He is afraid that Laxmi will run away, that too towards Vishnu. So Indra chases Laxmi but Laxmi chases Vishnu. Indra is always in a rannbhoomi, a battlefield, a war where he is fighting to grab Laxmi. Vishnu is always in harmony or rangbhoomi, a playground, sitting on a beautiful boat cradled by the ocean and the waves, swinging where everything is fun. And so, Laxmi comes towards him. So I said, business can be rangbhoomi as well.” It is a powerful thought – something that influenced me deeply, and reminded me again of the difference between power versus influence. I’ve decided that from now on, I’m going to try and constantly be in rangbhoomi mode – not rannbhoomi mode. If in life, as Devdutt likes to say ever so often, ‘sab maya hai’, might as well be playful about it, no?

VERVE EDITOR-AT-LARGE PARMESH SHAHANI HEADS THE GODREJ INDIA CULTURE LAB. HE IS A TED FELLOW, MIT FUTURES OF ENTERTAINMENT FELLOW, UTRECHT-IMPAKT FELLOW, THE AUTHOR OF THE NON-FICTION BOOK GAY BOMBAY (2008) AND OFTEN SPEAKS ABOUT INDIAN CULTURAL SHIFTS AT CONFERENCES ALL OVER THE WORLD.

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