Thursday, June 7, 2012

Smoking hot thought leadership

Holy Smoke

As I approached the office building, friendly hands variously greeted and beckoned me to the corner where half a dozen of my Indian colleagues stood smoking.

My European brethren smoke profusely, using the celebrated laid back continental culture to wake up ever-so-slowly to the perils of nicotine. In Holland, such awakening often result in switching allegiance to cannabis. And as in any shared passion, the more menacing the merrier, simultaneously lighted death sticks often make for casual camaraderie.

But, my Indian colleagues have taken the art of destroying one’s lungs to the realms of a community ritual. They convene around conflagrant cigarettes in hordes, several times a day, twice an hour is not too optimistic an estimate. The most important members of their ilk ride down the elevator and emerge outside as mighty leaders, shrugging off their own subservient client-facing selves in the recesses of the work place. A number of junior workers tag along, join the ceremony, some even if they do not smoke.

“Lots of interactions and knowledge sharing take place in the smoking zone,” Ankit, the assistant manager, had explained to me – leading me to wonder whether there was a humorous strain under the ultra-serious exterior. “You should join us once in a while.”

Till today I had deprived myself of this marvel of teamwork, citing my sensitivity to smoke. “This smoke does not reach our lungs” Ankit had reassured. “It just stimulates the roots of our thoughts.”

Jaydev, a fresh faced recruit two years out of college had taken me aside a couple of days earlier and explained some of the intricacies of the smoking breaks.

“Ankit lighting a cigarette is like the Piper of Hamlyn blowing into his instrument. The rats follow … Some think it is time out from the rat-race, but actually it is like the pit stop of the racing car. Our tires are aligned to the vision of the leader. Lubricants flow relentlessly. I call them the alignment sessions. If you pay attention, you can hear me herding others out when the leader decides to smoke saying, ‘Come on folks, let’s get aligned’.”

“So it is a case of no smoke without 'fired'?”

“Absolutely. Especially in this market. But there are other considerations as well. Appreciation, allegiance, silent nudges and hints about appraisal and promotion. Again, the main purpose is to be aligned to Ankit’s vision.”

My confusion had persisted. “So, Ankit talks about the company vision?”

Jaydev had nodded, “He is an Assistant Manager – that makes him one of the thought leaders. He leads by telling us what he thinks – about more or less everything in the world.”

“And you listen?”

“As I said, we align ourselves to the thoughts. Our opinions are always tuned to the vision of our thought leader. You should join us once in a while …”

I had repeated my concern about my lungs …

“Pick a windy day and stand upwind. The next few days are especially interesting.”


“No. Ankit has expended all his thoughts about the Dutch rental laws he had been so vocal about till a week back ... because his landlord has agreed to repair a leak. You may still hear him expounding about his exemplary man management skills that ensured this miracle, but chances are remote. If you are into gadgets, now is the time to attend a few smoking sessions.”

The Gadgeted Manager

“I am not particularly into gadgets …,” I had begun.

Jaydev had shushed me. “That’s about as non-aligned as you can get. You see, the company believes that the world is moving into a hand-held age. Upgrade or die. The vision of the management is for every Manager to communicate and keep abreast of projects, clients, opportunities, business trends and that sort of thing through blackberries, podcasts and the rest of it. According to the metrics of the grapevine, the number of tweets from Senior Managers have just overtaken the total number of times ‘proactiveness’  was mentioned in last year-end review.”

“Very forward thinking I must say.”

“As far as the tweets are concerned, they are more about ‘forward’ than ‘thinking’.”

“That’s what you discuss nowadays? Gadgets?”

“Ankit discusses. We align ourselves to his wisdom. Right now he is very excited about the Blackberry he purchased recently.”

This had confused me.

“But, aren’t Blackberries handed out to Managers for free?”

Jaydev had nodded. “There. You have put your finger on the snag. Blackberry is indeed the current day fruit of labour. But the problem is that the handsets are given to the grades of Manager and above. Ankit is still only an Assistant Manager, and anyone who has come in contact with his waves of thought leadership will know that he craves a promotion. He dreams about it more than Martin Luther King ever did. He could not really wait any longer. He was too eager to see the ‘Sent from my Blackberry’ line under his emails. Apparently, adding the same while sending a mail from the laptop does not work. People tend to find out. So, he bought one for himself. Perhaps it will go down as an argument for being ready for the next level.”

“Men and their toys.”

“More than that, Simon. You see, in the seventies and eighties, there was considerable amount of social prestige associated with a gazetted officer. This was a highly ranked public servant, who could stamp documents and photocopies and attest them for lesser mortals. In the nineties we entered the open market and such social norms went for a toss. Industries were privatised and the public servants remained powerful in their own way, but their esteem was dwarfed by employees of private companies who earned much more. At long last, the system has reached an equilibrium at the other end. From gazetted officers, the cornerstone of social status has shifted to the gadgeted managers.”

Thoughts go up in smoke

Indeed, as hands now waved at me, I could see the fist of  Ankit, proudly clutching the flat, black handheld device for me and the rest of the world to see. Jaydev’s curious socio-linguistic explanation seemed to  make a lot of sense.

The invitation in Ankit’s manager-in-waiting eyes was somewhat difficult to refuse even at the peril of putting healthy lungs through six simultaneous draughts of exhaled smoke.

“Simon,” the thought leader exclaimed eagerly, eyes shining at the sight of an approaching receptacle for his ideas and opinions. The hand continued to wave, and the Blackberry continued to totter on the brink of things, ready to be thrown into the conversation. I relented.

“Enjoying your time with the new baby?” I asked pointing.

“Of course,” Jaydev piped in from the side-line, where he had possibly aligned himself. “Everyone likes to play with his tool now.”

I shot him a worried glance, but he was unfazed. With reason too, because the innuendo sailed harmlessly over Ankit, only fanning his fervour further.

“Of course. This is the way the world is heading. That’s what Ramesh himself said in the thought leadership meet last week,” at the mention of the hallowed name, a resonated rush of reverence shot through the gathering. “Gone are the days people had to open their machines to get their work done. It’s possible to work even in crowded trains. You know, Simon, I reviewed a full power point presentation on this – er – baby as I was coming to office in the Metro. A crowded Metro.”

He paused and looked around, to soak the admiring gazes into his psyche. Around him everyone was well aligned to his thoughts and the resonance that rippled about in the rush of lubricants was of fascination.

“Simon, you should consider getting one.”

Jaydev later told me that the proper answer according to well established protocol would have been, “Heh heh heh heh, Ankit, if I earned even half as much as you I would have got myself one …” and in ritualistic dance patterns the response would have been a half-pleased protest that his salary was not that great, and there were many earning more – undeserving ones who had been promoted before him because of reasons deeply political.

However, the Dutchman uninitiated to such indigenous customs, I pursed my lips and said, “Well, I think I’ll pass. I generally read in the trains, and when it is crowded, I like to think.”

Obviously there was something amiss in my alignment. There was almost a resounding gasp as breaths were drawn in all at once. Ankit batted his eyelids for a few muted moments before rolling his eyes and exclaiming, ”Think? Where’s the time to think?”

The modern day thought leader shuddered at the idea and stubbed out his cigarette – signalling the end of the ceremony.

1 comment:

  1. Being a smoker myself, I was pretty excited to read what Simon had to say about my community :P . After reading, what was revealed to me was that I haven`t had such an experience till now even though I do work in a similar milieu. Or may be, I am still at the extreme end of the IT ladder and haven't yet reached the "pinnacle" of being a thought leader and being followed around by a bunch of yesmen, or I have unconsciously not become a yes-man to a thought leader.

    At times my smoke break becomes a impromptu gathering of fellow smokers, both Indians and Europeans. The conversations are mostly about the soccer game last night or the trip last weekend or a new movie or something. Nobody really wants to talk about the project or anything related to that. Candid confessions have actually revealed that smoking a ciggarette for us is today merely a substitute of a coffee break or a water cooler break. We actually prefer taking a smoke break because it has become much more private and peaceful due to the ongoing osctracization of smokers from office spaces and generally all public areas.

    That being said, I still look forward to having an experience like this one and laughing my guts out. :)


Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands