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TRIAL BY FIRE
- How individuals, companies and countries rise from the ashes

Individuals, institutions and countries sometimes encounter great adversity, crisis and even tragedy. Individuals might then sink into depression, breakdown, mental illness, suicide or vengeful retaliations against all and sundry. Others appear to overcome and commence afresh, but suffer from occasional mental and even physical disabilities. A few discover latent and hidden talents in themselves that they mobilize for renewing and even reinventing themselves. Institutions that fall into adversity could go bankrupt or merge with another or get taken over or sell their assets and downsize. Some find ways to transform themselves to new success. Countries in such situations might deflect the attention of their people by curbing freedoms, closing their borders to movement and ideas, by going to war. Some emerge stronger than before.

A multi-media dance-theatre production was staged in the last few weeks in major Indian cities in November 2003. It epitomized one woman’s personal experiences in dealing with great tragedy. It was by the Canadian Bharatanatyam dancer of Indian origin, Lata Pada. The programme was unique. It seamlessly wove together multiple sounds and music from many parts of India, Canada and elsewhere, with visual footage on the screen from as many sources and live dance by a troupe of dancers led by Lata Pada. Technology has never been used in this way before in India and enabled her to tell a complicated and tragic story within eighty minutes. In coming years, it is bound to lead to other attempts in India to marry technology and live performances.

Even more extraordinary was the complex and personal story it conveyed. It was of a happy childhood in India, marriage, motherhood and domesticity in Canada, the loss of husband and two teen-aged daughters in the explosion, off the Irish coast, of Air India’s Kanishka in 1985 on its way from Montreal to Bombay, the agony, anguish and loneliness that followed and the social abhorrence of widowhood in India. It shows her reinventing herself to become within a few years a major figure in the arts in Canada, with many students, performances and honours. It took courage to present the story. It took enormous fortitude and determination to overcome and emerge calm, compassionate and dignified after this ordeal by fire. Tremendous artistic talent combined with technology to do this within a short performance. It is not surprising that it received critical acclaim in north America and in India.

The tragedy led her to a transformation and a new beginning. The prime factor was her intense focus on Bharatanatyam, which she had studied and performed since childhood. After the tragedy, she immersed herself in it. She went on to start a school for teaching and performing dance. Her ability to introspect and question her life-experiences helped her to push the envelope, explore uncharted territory in her art, take risks and define her life and work on her own terms. Her message is that everyone has it in himself or herself to face disaster and tragedy and rebuild his or her life.

Germany and Japan are two examples of countries destroyed by war that reinvented themselves. They built on the skills that already existed in their countries. Japan decided to model itself on the United States of America, used foreign aid, its low wages, artificially low currency values and hard-working nature of its people to become low-cost manufacturers. Japan also used drastic measures to bring down the then high population growth-rate.

When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak republics some years back, no one gave Slovakia a chance. The Czechs had the education, talent and resources. Slovakia appeared to have nothing. But today Slovakia is a vibrant and growing economy. The same can be said of the land-locked African republic of Namibia. The saga of Singapore after its conquest by the invading Japanese and then the departure of the British rulers, owes everything to the vision and determination of one man.

Each of these countries owes its rejuvenation to leaders who harnessed the small strength of its geography, people or resources. They transformed their countries after crisis and decline. Such leaders do not have to be charismatic, but they must have the creativity to redefine their countries, and possess intelligence, determination and the support of their people.

Companies periodically fall from pedestals. Only a few rise again. TVS Motors under Venu Srinivasan is an outstanding example of such a phoenix that rose twice. He and his people proved the financial analysts wrong by reinventing their company each time. They did it by re-examining who they were, what they wanted to stand for and worked out a meticulous plan for getting there. When the moped market shrank, they had no other product to offer. Their alliance with Suzuki and their ability to absorb Suzuki’s products quickly and fight in the market gave them a reprieve. The second time was when the market was changing to motorcycles, and Suzuki tried to bargain for control in return for their help. By then TVS had the design and development skills to go it alone. It took great courage, but they backed their own product although they had no prior market experience with it. They put all their resources behind it and succeeded.

Arvind Mills under Sanjay Lalbhai focused on one product — denim cloth — based on their own development work. They had been a reasonably successful textile-mill known for the quality of the large range of their fabrics. It took courage to go after a worldwide market using untested technology. But they did, and succeeded for a while. Many copycats soon followed. Markets became very competitive and margins fell. Meanwhile, the company put a lot of its cash into the stock-market to take advantage of the boom at that time. The market collapsed at the same time as margins were falling on denim. The hubris from success drove the company into imminent bankruptcy. Lalbhai was written off. But he persevered. He learnt his lessons and changed his business model without giving up his goal of globalization, but went after domestic markets as well. He offered a wider product range. Arvind is once again a darling of the stock-markets.

Ballarpur was a company that had been written off for many years. No one imagined it could revive. Vikram Thapar was given it to run and believed he could do it. He did. ITC had its back to the wall in the early Nineties when the media for months front-paged the alleged wrongdoings (now proven wrong) of its top managers. Today ITC, despite being primarily a cigarette-manufacturer, is a major power in the stock-market. It is highly respected and very successful. It is becoming less dependent on cigarettes for its profits.

Leadership is vital to transform and revive dying institutions and troubled countries. The leader does not allow his people to wallow in despair when things go wrong. He goes back to the drawing board to design a different company or country from what it was, with different and stronger skills and a new image. He takes risks into uncharted territory, but his confidence is convincing. He has the courage, determination and a clear plan of action for doing it.

Renewal requires leaders with clarity of goals, courage, integrity and the ability to inspire followers. It requires imagination, determination and guts to take on the job of changing the fundamentals. Not everybody is tested by the kind of fire that Lata Pada was. But there are smaller disasters, tragedies and crises. People, institutions and countries have it in them to revive after such events. They have to draw on innate skills and strengths to do so. They have to be creative in redefining their lives and of their organizations on their own terms, not of some outsider. They must be compassionate, demanding, and clever to build a supporting network, as necessary as enormous stamina, and high personal integrity. That is creative leadership.

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