Friday, November 20, 2009


The time I spent in school will perhaps never be forgotten. I wasn’t referring to myself (who in heavens would claim he can’t remember his own time in school... alright, maybe a former US President), but to the teachers whose subjects I failed, to the administrator whose projector I destroyed, to the provost who rusticated me out of the hostel five times by the time I kicked myself out, and to the Principal who once chased me around the sports ground brandishing a pair of industrial scissors threatening to cut my slovenly two penny hair. All this was pretty fine with me... all, except one boy, whom I envied to perdition. While we both were equally good sports enthusiasts and used to get into all the school sports teams – basketball, cricket, swimming, football, tennis – he would always be made the captain, however hard I tried to prove my sporting skills to the nepotistic coaches.

The frustrating irritation in me knew no bounds – well, the captain used to be treated like an emperor; and obviously, he would get all the, umm, fan mail, if you know what I mean! Driven to the point of galling exasperation, one fine afternoon, I cornered him at the school grounds after sports practice and loudly threw the accusation that it was only because of his connections that he, and not me, became the captain. Not taking a moment, and like a true sophisticated cultured gentleman that all boys in my school were trained to be, he lunged at me screaming bilingual four, five and six-letter words and shouted, “That’s not true. You couldn’t become the captain because you didn’t clear the vision test. You couldn’t even read the first line on the alphabet board!” His answer hit my jaw like a ten tonne truck before his fist did. The pest was right about the test. I had short-sight, but refused to wear spectacles (like all the ‘boys in the hood’) and to accept that I even had myopia. Consequently, I always failed the vision test, while he’d always pass it. But then, given the emotion of the moment, I did start wondering: did such a fabled connection really exist? Did a leader necessarily need to have an excellent vision to succeed?

Well, I won’t even childishly attempt to draw the metaphor up in the real corporate world – as the answer is a resounding yes! Vision is the obsessive compulsion to continuously achieve beyond benchmarks, and is the essence, the soul, the character of great leadership. Without a sustained and sincere visionary approach, not only does the CEO doom himself, he also magnanimously devastates his company’s future irreparably, targeting objectives which will never allow the organisation to become a global leader. But the toughest part in the whole imbroglio is – does the CEO even have a ghost of an idea of how wonderfully visionary could a vision be? Do you?

This boy of 14 dropped out of school and joined his uncle’s store as a watch salesman (as his penury ridden father had passed away due to tuberculosis). He worked 16 hour days, and even learnt English from a tutor during the night, after work! Seven years later, when he was just 21, he borrowed capital from some friends and family members and opened a plastic flower manufacturing company. Nine years later, his firm became the largest supplier of plastic flowers in Asia. Half-a century later, his empire spans across industries like oil, electronics, telecommunications, retails, ports, power, electricity and even health and beauty. The name of his empire – the publicly traded Hutchison Whampoa group (which he acquired from HSBC in 1971) and Cheung Kong Industries (which he founded in 1950), which operates across 55 countries and employs 2,20,000 people. The name of this determined and born visionary – Li Kashing, the richest man in Hong Kong and the 16th richest on the 2009 Forbes billionaires list, his net worth valued at over $16.2 billion, with his empire worth much more – $120 billion in mcap. Can you match his vision?

Born out of wedlock in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to teenage parents who broke-up soon after, this lady’s mother was a housemaid, and her father, a coal miner. Raped by family members when young, imprisoned in detention centres, pregnant at 14 (with her child dying soon after birth), she’s my icon of how vision can motivate one to become the champion of circumstances and business. At 17, she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was noticed by the local black radio station, WVOL, which hired her as a part time radio jockey. That proved to be her baby step into the world of media. After that, she worked with Nashville’s WLAC-TV and Baltimore’s WJZ-TV. Today, her company Harpo Corp. produces The Oprah Winfrey Show, aired in 140 countries around the world, with 30 million viewers a week in US alone. Oprah is the only black woman billionaire in world history, her personal worth estimated by Forbes at $2.3 billion. Can you match her vision?

Born nearsighted, a dyslexic, a school dropout, a failure in the first two business ventures he started, this man started a magazine called Student to cater to young demographics. To cover postage charges, his mother donated four pounds. Working from his basement, Student debuted in January 1968 (The first feedback he received for the magazine was from the headmaster of his previous school, who wrote: “Congratulations! I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionair”) Within 25 years of that letter, this visionary put into place a diversify ed group with more than 150 companies, spread across six continents; and much to prove his school headmaster wrong, became a billionaire! With businesses ranging from comics to airlines, from colas to mobile telephony, Richard Branson’s personal wealth now amounts to $2.5 billion, and his fame to something much beyond! Well, can you match his vision?

A few years back, the Stanford University paper (Vision, Key to Creating Shareholder Value) quoted Lord John Browne, then CEO of the oil behemoth BP, “You have to remember what your vision is, and you have to be disciplined about sticking to it in order to create shareholder value!” When Browne became BP’s CEO in 1995, the company’s annual revenues were $26.95 billion. In 2007 when he resigned, they were a spectacular $274.32 billlion – a stupendous rise of 917.88%! Browne’s successor, Anthony Hawyard, has kept the visionary approach as rampant – the revenues for 2008 were a mind blowing $367 billion! That is vision!

The brilliant management guru Jim Collins, using a 70 year long study as a basis, showed in his best selling book Built To Last how ‘visionary companies’ gave stock returns that were almost 700% more than ‘comparison (not so visionary) companies’. The findings of a huge research by the well known Ken Blanchard Group (covering 2000 odd worldwide respondents between 2003-2006) show how “failing to communicate the vision in a way that is meaningful,” is the biggest mistake that leaders make when working with others. Noted author Jim Heskett, in a Harvard Business School paper (‘How much of leadership...’), writes, “Companies growing value the most are the ones with leaders that have a clear vision, continually communicate that vision, and then get out of the way!” Are you such a leader?

Clearly, it’s not just about what vision you have, but about the vision you make your followers believe in, and work towards! In summary, fanatic vision is about targeting objectives fantastically beyond what your normal potential would ever allow – devastate and destroy all current pretensions, processes, procedures, and assumptions that stymie the power of imagination and passionately work towards the fantastical objective like a delusional zealot, believing completely in the fact that you will achieve the quixotic target, at the same time ensuring that all your followers believe as fanatically in this prophetic atom-smashing finality!!! That, my CEOs, is being a visionary!

Coming back to where I started, back in school, post the jaw breaking fight, I ended up over a few months actually becoming friends with the truant captain, given our common roguish antecedents. One day, we both decided to skip school and watch a movie in the nearby theatre. The moment the movie started, I was stunned to see him take out a pair of spectacles from inside his bag and wear them. I was totally dumbfounded! With my mouth agape, I garbled to him, “But you said you had perfect vision?!?” The devil of the town coolly looked at me, and spoke, “I never said that. I just said that you never were able to read out the alphabets on the eye test board... while I used to mug them all up!” Geez, where was it that I started this editorial?...



  1. Sir, Don't you think this article is contrary to your 'ZERO VISION' Concept?. I still remember your lecture on Zero vision. A CEO should have a Zero vision. Because the primary objective of a ceo is maximizing shareholder value. Anyway its your contrary views on traditional concepts make your writings and lectures very interesting.

    Clarification reply may be sent to:

  2. A very good question Paul.

    Well, no. This concept is quite similar to the Zero Vision concept. In Zero Vision, I had said the CEO's vision is extremely short term focused on primarily the shareholder's m-cap rather than on a long term focus on the company's other financial parameters. If you search for 'long term' in this editorial, you won't find it :-) The closest you'll come to is 'sustained and sincere vision'. But even that is towards shareholders' wealth only. :) Tc

  3. Great! Thanks for the reply, sir.