One of the articles that created a great impact on me in my early management years was ‘The judgement of Hermes’ – written by a person I admired greatly from a distance, although I never met him. It was Gaby Mendoza, former chairman of the Asian Institute of Management, Manila, and to my mind, one of the most original and interesting management thinkers in Asia.
In this article, Gaby asks “How do you convince bright young men and women that honesty and integrity are important attributes of the successful businessman when, even before they step out from school into the real world, they hear nothing but the shady deals and corrupt practices that big businessmen engage in, and get away with? When all around them they only see well connected men accumulating great wealth, not by producing honest goods or useful services, but by peddling their influence and looting the public treasury?”
“Men, who are careful with their money are not highly regarded in South East Asia. We look down on them as tightwads. We like a man who likes to spend money, who is lavish with it, who generously dispenses it as if there is no end to his wealth. And as many as can act like this, do so. We tend to regard resources not as something we should husband the use of and conserve, but as something to spend and expend. Something deep inside, some primeval force, born in nature, pushes us to it.”
(We have our own examples of Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi; Nirav Modi and many others who are on the run)
“The idea that frugality is a virtue is not a Southeast Asian concept. It is an intrusion from the dour West, beaten into shape by the wintry parsimony of Calvinistic parsons fulminating against pleasure and wasteful living. It is an alien injection into our value system. And it has not taken root, the immune mechanism of our societies’ soul has rejected it.
It is ironic that most present-day accounts of the Sisyphus legend depict the hero as someone being wrongly punished. However, in the original story, Sisyphus was a con man, who tried to pull a fast one on the gods of the underworld. When his turn came to die, he instructed his wife not to pay him funeral honours.
As soon as he arrived in Hades, he bitterly complained of his wife’s neglect and obtained permission to return to life in order to properly chastise her. Once restored to life, however, he refused to return to the underworld as he had promised.
It was Hermes, whose job it was to accompany the souls of the dead to the underworld, who imposed the punishment of eternal frustration on Sisyphus for his deception. It comes as no surprise to find out that Hermes was also the Greek god of business – a pursuit that requires continuing confidence and trust in one another, if it is to perdure (remain in existence).
There is an insidious spirit that dwells in most of us, “we sons of the soil” of the developing countries of SE Asia. It is a spirit that tempts us to take short cuts, to risk all on the turn of a card, the fall of the dice, to resort to get rich quick schemes. It lulls us into indolence, lures us into mindless ostentation, and leads us into deception and dishonesty.
It is the spirit, which, unless exorcised by a basic change in our values - a realisation that the radical virtues of hard work, frugality, and honesty, must henceforth share our lives and our future - will condemn us and our people, worthy sons of Sisyphus, to remain the ‘‘hewers of wood and the carriers of water’ for the more assiduous, more industrious countries that surround us.”.
N Vittal, former chief vigilance commissioner says “We must be clear about the fact that there is a difference between governance and government. Governance is too important to be left to the government. Since corruption is all pervasive in the system in which we work, it is unfortunate that our governance is designed in such a way that it promotes and nourishes corruption. We need to weed it out completely, but if we can’t do that then we ought to change the system “
How can we contribute to make the big change that India needs so urgently?
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia. His latest 3 books written in collaboration are 5Gs of Family Business; Marketing in a Digital/ data world; and Customer Value Starvation can kill. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)