“Good Chairman are born, not made”: a debate

(Long post alert!)

My late father’s words resounded in my head as I accepted the invitation to debate as “second opposer” on the motion in the headline. He used to remind me that in Hindi, the words for “courage” and “foolhardiness” were separated by a syllable and when I was young I was often precariously balanced on that syllable. You will see his wisdom in context when you know I had last debated before I left secondary school and yet accepted the challenge where the proposer Page Nyame is a former President of Cambridge Union, which, to the uninitiated, is the oldest, continuously running debating society in the world.

Organised by Non-Executive Directors’​ Association, the 2023 Annual NED Debate was hosted in the City by Willis Towers Watson and chaired by Barry Gamble, who is a well-regarded and experienced chairman of debates.

The crux of my argument

To believe truly in the motion in front of the house is to signal an aggressive commitment to two things: Status conferred by birth, and Stasis by choice

Birth is an accident, lucky and unlucky. We are likely to never hear from the unluckily born leaders so how can we judge whether they would have been good or not. We hear from those who have had access to education, resources, and power networks. But if this access does not bring change in a person’s abilities, what is it good for? 

I do not believe in Status.

To argue for Status conferred by birth is to argue for Providence over Human Agency, for Accident over Autonomy.

Status can change by just entering a room where someone else whose status is deemed higher than the one conferred on a person by birth. It can thus be deprecated through no choice or action of an individual. Which is fair enough. That status was after all conferred on the individual through no choice or action of their own. So was the other person’s and if you believe in its ascendancy, well, in for a penny, in for a pound. 

Or as Omar Khayyam wrote: “The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on:

In other words, Status signals Status Quo — another name for which is Stasis. 

Stasis is a belief disconnected from the reality of humanity. 

One of the things that was not on my bio for this event was that I teach. I teach decision making and critical thinking to upcoming generations in India.  

To argue for Stasis is to deny the lived reality of human existence — it is not about immutability but about evolution and growth, about teaching and learning and coachability. The paths my students have taken in the world are a homage, a testimony to all that. 

As human beings, we see potential in one another and grow from another’s experience and attention.

Which is what good Chairing is about. 

Eliciting the best from all those around the table, with the goal that in the contact sport that is governance, the outcome evolves to suit the questions arising not the questions that once arose. 

We are after all dynamic interrelated beings — not static entities that were born a certain way. 

Conversely it has to be asked: if chairmen are only born and not made, does that mean they experience no gainful growth in their life, no evolution as a thinker or feeler, no improvements, no greater understanding of life’s realities – how do born chairmen ever get better at anything? 

Do “born chairmen” even comprehend and function in a rapidly changing world as we all must admit we are living in? If born chairs can adequately tackle a changing world, they clearly do it with the finite tools they were born with. Are those tools even relevant? 

A commitment to stasis is utterly unsuited to the dynamic and volatile world we inhabit. 

Nobody steps in the same river twice, at least nobody who is reflective and embraces the truth of experience and makes peace with the discomfort, the cracks where, as Leonard Cohen said so poetically, the light gets in. The light that shows us how we could consider our ways of approaching complex, evolving issues and how we could do get better. 

In other words how we could be made better than we were born. 

Reflecting on Robert Browning’s invocation: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what is heaven for? 

What the House said

The house had views — and questions — which were solicited by the debate chairman and a wide range emerged.

The most important question was raised first: Can you teach integrity? We as debaters were not to respond but in the post-debate conversations, I shared with the asker my scepticism about MBA level ethics courses as it may be too late.

Another view was that wisdom is to be gained and a person cannot be born with it. A couple of persons endorsed the view that a person’s abilities are crystallised by age 5 or 6, while another questioned whether leadership was some kind of immutable artefact.

Yet others sought to draw out fine points about where one was born, about innate talent, while some argued for the importance of both birth and experience gained through life aka making.

The role of motivation in success cannot be underestimated, said another. The importance of experience, especially adverse experiences such as having dealt with bully CEOs (mentioned more than one in this segment) and having endorsed the wrong strategy, in shaping a person was mentioned a few times.

Indeed one person present asked if it was some miracle that all Chairman candidates were born in the developed world. A good question indeed.

That we should have engaged more on definitions of born versus made was suggested too. This is great advice and would have addressed many points about e.g. whether nurturance begins in the womb or only when one comes out of it. The ambiguity of what “born” means was brought up more than once.

It was also stated that the well-regarded NED Awards have dispelled any myth about people being “born” to do anything but that they “became” though learning and growth. One asked if we could encourage candidates to step up, and wasn’t it all about both being “born” and being “made” aka innate skills and learning?

The remark that stayed with me: if children are indeed set by age 5 or 6, can we identify good chairman of the future at age 5 then?

The outcome of the debate

There was a vote in the house before and after the debate:

Indicative/ before %: For 7.3, Against 91.5, Abstention 1.2

Final/ after %: For 34.7, Against 50.1, Abstention 15.2

Technically we on the opposing side defeated the motion. However the house moved so dramatically towards uncertainty as well as greater confidence in the motion that the proposers rightly deserve great credit.

What I really think

When I was younger, I know I would have debated for the motion. Born an argumentative Indian, with a father who encouraged debating, independent thinking and autonomous decision-making, I have kept myself amused sharpening a Ciceronian ability to argue all sides of anything; indeed I feel teaching a child healthy scepticism is one of the toughest undertakings. Publicly I codify this inclination as being a “polyglot” and “epistemologically open-minded”.

I have had the privilege of formal education in some of the world’s best educational institutions. However the experiences that changed the view I held in my arrogant younger years have been two-fold: one, the experience of teaching young undergraduate and graduate students in my country of birth over the last decade (or longer), and two, the experience of serving as an independent governor on the board of London Metropolitan University where the shaping influence of access to higher education, for those who may normally be excluded from higher education, is so palpable and visible.

I am now painfully aware that outside my bubble, there are young persons growing up without shelves full of books, with parents who do not have the time leave alone the energy or inclination to engage in dining table debates, with poverty, with violence they cannot often speak of to anyone, with burdens of caregiving and holding down multiple jobs. These are formative influences with the power to make – or break – people.

When we say something has been the “making” of someone, we do not imply that person was made in the image of someone else’s ideal. But that their potential was discovered, nurtured by people around them and by circumstances both of their choosing and not.

What they need is an opportunity and access.

Gatekeepers of the old order and status quo sadly often withhold opportunities. Most of the listed boards in the UK do not advertise board openings arising, and yet others defend hiring from within the groups of people they already know as “savings for the shareholders” – a genius argument indeed /s. Many headhunters unfortunately rarely go out and look for people to grow their candidate network, except when under pressure to deliver on a brief. Discovery is the other side of the opportunity conundrum, something I have written about earlier.

The first board Chairman role too remains challenging to land. In a recent closed-door conversation with two stellar gentlemen, who have great and varied experience being chairman, they were asked about their first Chairman role. They said that they were approached for the first role but since then had also experienced many rejections. Their reputations on the basis of which they were approached was certainly something they made, and were likely not born with. Their motivation and resilience in the face of rejections? Harder call on whether it was born or made through the experiences that did not kill them but made them reflective and stronger.

This is my eighth year on boards. I would have never begun this journey had it not been for the Board Apprentice programme and an enlightened Chairman in Davina Walter. A discovery mechanism met an open-minded Chairman who taught me well about asset management and its regulatory, governance, and broader sector challenges. The opportunity translated into my first board being a JP Morgan subsidiary board, a gold-plated privilege, which then strengthened my resolve to bring Board Apprentices on to the board of London Metropolitan University; one of them now chairs our Finance & Resources committee.

“Born” or “made” is a false dichotomy – nearly everyone is “born” with the potential to be “made”. Whether they realise the potential is often a more complex function that framing the issue as a dichotomy cannot address.

I used to believe I was “born” a certain way but along the way I “became”. My stance has evolved to be against the motion. I want and endeavour to hold space to enable that kind of growth and opportunity for everyone else — as a teacher, as chairman of several board committees now, and as a future board chairman.

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, or Witan, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.)

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