The classic Indian mantra of

Raghuram Rajan – Some People ARE Indispensable!

Ever since the controversy over Raghuram Rajan – the governor of the RBI, I’ve been hearing a lot of statements like this:

“No one is indispensable”
“India has lots of talent. Replacing Rajan is easy”
“The RBI will survive anyone’s exit”
“No need to make such a fuss over a single individual”
etc, etc

Now I’m no economist, so I will simply go with the popular consensus amongst his fellow economists that Raghuram Rajan was an outstanding governor of the the RBI. Like the debate on global warming, in the absence of high expertise and years of study, I’ll just defer to the experts in the field. So that’s the premise. That Rajan was a great match for the job.

However, this mentality of “No one is indispensable” reveals a lack of respect for an individual’s contribution and treats them like Lego blocks that you can pull out and replace without affecting the integrity of the structure. It’s a very “Indian” way of thinking, and I’ve heard it often. Management is encouraged to treat employees like uniform units, not to bend over to any individual’s whims and fancies, and everyone is taught to be a good worker bee. Uniform. Non confrontational. Boring.

Except, that talent – true talent – is always going to be eccentric. There’s a Latin saying “Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementia fuit”, meaning “There is no great genius without an element of madness”. And if companies and organizations want to hire – and retain – the best talent, they will simply have to put up with those eccentricities and fight to retain them.

Because people matter. Great talent is rare. And even rarer, is great talent with the courage to do what is necessary in the face of criticism and personal risk.

Recently I was reading about the demise of Yahoo!, and how its great failing was the reluctance to hire the very best programmers in the industry. Yahoo became a company of “suits”, treating all programmers like interchangeable parts, going with the philosophy that “no one is indispensable”. On the other hand, companies like Google and Facebook actively court and struggle to retain top talent. They fight amongst themselves. Good programmers are courted, indulged, given leeway, and paid tremendous salaries. They know the value of good people. And their organizations benefit as a result.

It’s a characteristic of Asian countries (and perhaps even Europe), to treat the individual as less important than the organization or country they belong to. The hive mind. The blending in. The “be modest and keep your head down” mentality is glorified. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. “Don’t stick your neck out”, “Don’t draw too much attention to yourself”. “Don’t brag”. Organizations in India don’t strive for the best talent. They don’t glorify it. But the very best companies know its true value. Companies like Tesla, Amazon, and Twitter lay out the red carpet for talented individuals.

Can the RBI survive without Rajan? Of course! The RBI building will still stand. The organization will continue to exist. But will it be as effective? Do we just want “ok ok” performance, or do we want the very best? If we want quick turn arounds, and great performance, then we have to be willing to give up the “no one is indispensable” mindset. Not just the RBI, but all our government institutions will need to scour the length and breadth of the land to attract better people. Do whatever it takes to bring them in. Indulge them, pay them through the roof. And reap the benefits.

But if you treat people like replaceable Lego blocks, then you will have mediocre organizations. Because great people are hard to find.

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