Of Bosses and Butterflies
Sep 30, 2004
Many, many years ago, when I was in grade seven, a friend of mine asked me a question that his kid brother had asked him one morning. "What did Einstein see when he threw the butter out of the window?" When I couldn't answer, he said his kid brother had replied, "Einstein saw the butterfly." It is anybody's guess whether Einstein had to throw butter out of his window to see the butterfly. But my friend's kid brother definitely saw the butterfly.
Ever since that day I have searched for that butterfly outside my window.
I once had a boss who came to work in jeans, sported a pony tail, yelled at us all the time but would regularly invite us for late night parties at his home. This was Hong Kong in the early nineties and my boss was a true rarity in an island of British formality and pin striped suits. Though he had not gotten past a basic college degree he was brilliant and taught me how to trade foreign exchange options. He was the only boss I had who got fired before me. That was the last time I got a bonus. Most of my other bosses were very nice. They were very decent and civilized, had impeccable credentials - magna cumma laude from Ivy Leagues (or whatever they call them in the States), work experience with top tier banks, and Dunhill suits - and were always very polite to me. They never taught me a thing, never gave me a raise, never paid me a bonus and, regardless of my employment contract, always came up with innovative ideas to get rid of the "notice period" in the termination clause of my employment contract. All these guys were great managers, the archetypal Excellent Man, about whom I read in my business school days.
More than a decade ago when I was studying for my MBA - that thoroughly useless and obsolete degree that determines men's careers - I came across a book In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. Actually, the book became a craze amongst the third semester students. I was, in fact, quite confused by the premise of the book itself. To me it raised more questions and frankly, I thought this was an angry rebuttal to the Japanese model. Of course, I didn't say this to anyone for the fear of becoming an outcast amongst my colleagues. (I still needed them for the class notes and case materials done in the class). I remember I had spent one whole afternoon trying to fathom the excellence in "In Search of Excellence"; where was the excellent man who would create an excellent corporation? And above all I was trying to figure out what was an "excellent man" in context of an "excellent corporation". However, I must confess the book was a great stimulant to my thought process.
The guy with the MBA who never missed a day of school and never sat home for a day in between jobs, always wore suit to the office and was very good at flow diagrams and box-charts was the engine that ran the behemoth called Corporation - the American Corporation, or for that matter any Anglo-Saxon Corporation. "The books premise was that young, unskilled MBA (students)" were being led by the old Organization Men and if only these men - these leaders - can become more "innovative" and followed "experimentation" would the corporation get rid of the "myopia" (whatever that was) and ultimately become excellent. The book was a shining testimony to those young well heeled business managers with excellent pedigree and degrees who were not only defining the American socio-corporate landscape but our entire generation in the eighties.
But the book did not talk about butterflies outside the window. I concluded that Excellent Corporations don't have windows and even if they do, excellent men working there don't look out of those windows and even if a fraction of them accidentally look out they certainly don't want to see any butterflies.
And then came the nineties, the age of innovation, the age of desk top computers, neural networks and genetic algorithms, funky financial derivatives and day trading, Netscape and Silicon Graphics and the World Wide Web. This was the wonderful age of butterflies; an age which gave us hope and defined our intellect - and created the Anti-corporate Man, the nemesis of the Excellent Man (or the Organization) Man. It was an age when some bosses started to sport a pony tail, like my boss, though perhaps not in Asia, and gave serious thought to building talented team. This was the age when "talent clusters" sprung up in organizations and these clusters were organized around one very talented individual who was hopeless as a Manager.
For me it was an age of hope and happiness. It was an age when my boss ventured out with me in search of a butterfly!
© Rahul Bhattacharya
This column is written by Rahul Bhattacharya and reflects his own views about life and business. It does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of other members of Risk Latte Company Limited, Hong Kong (“the Company”) and the Company accepts no responsibility for any factual errors contained in the column and strongly advises readers not to pay much attention to it.
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