We are all screwed by Archimedes. He just jumped out of a tub and cried “Eureka!” That is not how creativity works. It is not the lighting of a bulb, it is the gentle sunrise. That’s why one of my favourite books is The Agony and The Ecstasy, by Irving Stone, a biography of Michelangelo that is also a study of the creative process. Michelangelo said “The statue is inside the block, I am just chipping away what is extra.”
Entrepreneurship is hypothesis testing; you cannot prove anything right, you have to prove it wrong. Entrepreneurship is closest to the creativity process.
I first read the book early in life — my grandfather’s dog-eared copy — and I have read it many times since then. It shows how creativity is not an event; it is a process. I meet so many people who say, “If I had the right idea, I would quit my job.” That is not how Michelangelo came up with David. Like entrepreneurship, creativity is a process: Ideation leading to prototyping, leading to testing, and leading on to a real one. You have to get out there and start off rather than be dazzled by the complexity of the world, you have to learn, and come up with that answer.
Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, is about how eight diverse groups — Apple, Lockheed, etc. — became important over time. It talks about the elements that make a high performing group.
It is a very interesting study of groups in different settings, not necessarily business, and it made an early impression on me — especially the importance of choosing a team and teamwork for scaling ventures. Growing older, you realise these concepts of team or vision or strategy are common across all organisations, businesses, non-profits, etc.
Most leaders suffer from the fatal flaw of trying to hire people like themselves — they look like us, they went to the schools we went to. Organizing Genius was an early lesson for me on how diversity in the team does not happen on its own; you need to go out and seek diversity.
The other lesson was that great groups are those that aspire to do more than make money; they have to have a big goal. In the long term, companies that have a broader sense of purpose are easier to sustain and scale than those which just aim to meet financial requirements. I think these objectives are not contradictory. As you get older you look for a blend in returns: Financial, spiritual, impact returns. TeamLease has been more interesting than our first company, India Life, because we have had a broader sense of purpose. There is no contradiction between doing well and doing good here.
I have also enjoyed Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicolas Taleb. It says: Do not confuse luck with skill. Most of us confuse being at the right place and time with skill. I think this book is a humbling story for people to recognise. The rising tide in India is lifting even the leaky boats.
When you come out of B-school, you are into reading business and management books — Kotler, Porter — but as you get older, you read differently. I truly believe now that non-business books teach you more about leadership and business.
How-to books are the weather of the moment and then they pass. How many people remember Re-engineering the Corporation?
If you want to teach M&A, to my mind, you should read the biography of the Duke of Marlborough [Malborough: His Life and Times: Volume 1 &2, by Winston S. Churchill].
Or if you want to teach negotiation, you should read The Integration of Indian States by V.P. Menon, and learn how he had to work with 500 egotistical maharajas who had nothing to give but just wanted to take.
(Co-ordinated by Nilofer D’Souza)
Ex Libris features business leaders on the books that influence them