Integrity is the Super Value

Integrity

A lot of years ago (around 2008-09) when I was at the Shri Ram Schools in Delhi, the leadership team invested a considerable amount of time thrashing out a set of core values. To us, it was vitally important that these should not just be some nice words, some posters and displays on walls, but should really be a set of values that could be lived and imbibed every day in the minutiae of school life.

I’m proud that, as a team, we cam up with a very good set of values. Over the following months it became very clear that they worked. They found strong resonance with students, teachers and staff and the parent community. There was wonderful energy in the processes of debating these core values – what they meant to us, what they DIDN’T mean to us and especially with children they became an important part of conversations, especially when things happened that gave ‘learnable moments.’

As the months wore on I had only one real regret. That was that we had listed these values as essentially equal, unweighted and with no hierarchy. It became increasingly important in my mind that one of them should have been deemed to be like the umbrella value, above all the others – the super value of all values.

That value was integrity.

So, I was delighted to come across this article recently about how Warren Buffett treats this as a completely non-negotiable when recruiting people for senior roles:

Inc – Warren Buffett Says He won’t Even Consider Hiring Someone Who Lacks This One Trait

It’s a relatively short article, but has some very useful thoughts on recruitment. I loved the way he highlights that if a candidate has the other two attributes he looks for (intelligence and initiative/ energy) but not integrity this is way more dangerous than if they lack all three.

 

Why Do Values Seem To Be Such Hard Work?

google

Leading by values, driven by values, the speed of trust, values education, living our values, smart trust, trust matters – these are all phrases (and book titles) that have been heard as much over the last 10-15 years at the tables of curriculum planners and education leaders as corporate honchos, HR Heads and even occasionally political strategists.

The principle has always, to me, appeared eminently logical and valuable – have children focus on acquiring strong values in their formative years and there’s an increased likelihood that they will grow up to be not just ‘educated’ but also good citizens – people who place a priority on practicing and living by positive and virtuous values, thereby making a more harmonious, positive and effective society.
(Note – this is very different to ideas of inculcating subservience, obedience and docility that have been barely veiled motivations of some of the arch-engineers of mass education over the last Century)

However, it’s also said that children learn from what we do more than what we say. Further, when there is inconsistency between the two, they will cease to believe our words and will even think less of us for our duplicity.  Generationally, there’s overwhelming evidence that this is where we are today – children and young people looking at adults, shaking their heads in horror and disinclined to hear too much more of our nonsense about trust, integrity and values.

Here, i’m not specifically talking of our destruction of the environment or crass economic policies – both of which ride a short term gravy train, all to be paid for on the never never by future generations. Nor am I talking of venal politicians who can barely get words between their lips before they let the side down with blatant and stupid lies (in this day it takes about 30 seconds to prove they’re lying). Here, I want to talk about the impact when a beacon of light held up to show the way to a promised land proves to have been a false light, deceptive with smoke and mirrors to conceal its ugliness.

I’m talking about Google (the picture at the top of the article was probably a clue. Not only does the story of Google appear to be showing all the signs of a massive let down to younger generations. it’s even leaving an old codger like me with the bitterest of tastes in my mouth.

Google has been a story of phenomenal  exponential growth. There probably isn’t another company that’s had more written about it, in popular media and in books. And, for years, almost universally, what was written was about a company that was tearing up the old rule books about company culture, about how companies behave in their relationship with their own employees. Here was a company who very publicly declared a key part of their mission was “don’t be evil.”

Books about Google have proliferated, but somehow I only got around to reading one of the best known, “Work Rules,”  by Laszlo Buck a few months ago. That reading feels almost redundant now and saddening for all the energy that went in to extolling to the rest of the corporate world that if companies would just be true to their vision and values they too would attract and have the pick of the very best of talent (and therefore grow to be phenomenally successful). In barely 21 years this company that started out as a Stanford University project by two allegedly reclusive and shy students; Larry Page and Sergey Brin has grown to be a worldwide colossus employing over 110,000 people. many things that Google did culturally have been adopted by other companies and even the 20% projects idea (allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to a project that intrigues them away from their main work) has been adopted in many schools worldwide to facilitate creativity and project based learning.

So, what’s gone wrong at Google? Nothing at all, if the share price is the arbiter of good and bad. However, share prices and the maximisation of shareholder value are the currency of old-school companies, not the new youngbloods, like Google. However, here’s just some of the evidence for the prosecution;

  1. A ‘Censored search engine’ being developed on behalf of the Chinese Government:
    In late 2018 there were reports that after condemnation and bad feeling from employees within the company, and others outside, Google had stopped work on the project Dragonfly. To many it was shocking that they would even consider being part of such a project when their previous message to the world had always been about the power of the internet to give people free access to information.
    However, even in 2019, there have been strong suspicions that work on this project is still ongoing in secret:
    The Intercept – Ongoing Project Dragonfly
  2. Google Found to be Providing Funding to Climate Denier Organisations
    Evidence emerged in 2019 of money from Google going to organisations that included those who lobbied most effectively to encourage President Donald Trump to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. Again, to many Google employees with strong science backgrounds this is shocking and alarming, but especially disturbing in the clandestine way it’s been done:
    Salon – Report Reveals How Internet Giant Funds Climate Villains
  3. Google’s Willingness to Work Closely With the Trump Government on Border Agency Cloud and Other Projects
    Tech employees and their Californian neighbours tend to lean towards Democrat politics and for many of them this has driven their decisions to take their technical knowledge and skills to Silicon Valley rather than pursuing the big mega bonuses in the New York financial markets.
    Also, a high proportion of the employees are first or second generation immigrants themselves, so are disturbed and troubled by the Trump government’s treatment of immigrants:
    The Verge – Google Employees Refuse to Be Complicit in Border Agency Cloud Contract
    (Article also references another controversy related to a government contract for drone footage related software)
  4. Google Using Its Size and Power to Stifle Competition, Control Search and Drive Revenues – Being Evil
    The Federalist – Why Big Tech Companies Can’t Stop Being Evil

  5. Google’s Increasingly Confrontational Position With Dissenting Voices:
    Fast Company – Fired Google Employees Cite ‘Don’t Be Evil’
    The sort of dispute referred to in this article might seem humdrum and commonplace in so many other company environments. However, it’s the massive changes in a culture that was held up as a model for future business that has shocked many.
    This case has also highlighted what are perceived to be unfair and unreasonable ways to exploit casual and contract labour outside the company.
  6. Google Siding With the Big Bankers in Financial Markets
    The blockchain, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have partly come into existence as a backlash against the abuses of power and manipulations of the big banks. So, it doesn’t please many people to see Google siding with the big bankers to develop products and services that may undermine the development of unregulated crypto markets that have the potential to give citizens privacy and power over their own money, spending etc.
    Forbes – Perhaps Google Will Kill Bitcoin After All
  7. Google Changing the Rules Unilaterally
    One aspect of Google’s ‘community’ oriented culture was the infamous town hall meetings where every employee could attend in person or electronically and put any questions to the founders and senior officials.
    In Work Rules Buck talks openly about how this wasn’t always comfortable, but that it was a critical and vital part of the company’s culture. He even went as far as to title the second chapter – ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.’ The subtitle  – If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.). The subtitle of the sixth chapter was – ‘Take power from your managers and trust your people to run things.’

 

In the book he cites examples of where Sergey and Larry took very personal interest in preserving and building up these cultural aspects of the organisation and how it created a strong message that Google was the place to work for the most free-thinking, creative and talented programmers and computer scientists. It’s surely not a coincidence that Larry and Sergey announced they would be standing down from their executive roles in the companies (including the parent company Alphabet). They announced this in an open letter to all employees:
Blog – Google – A Letter From Larry and Sergey

The final word on Google today sums up the current situation, from a University Professor of Innovation:
Medium – Suddenly, at Google, it’s Get on the Programme or Get Out

Where does all this leave us as far as values are concerned. Should we continue to give such a high priority to values in education – both as guide rails for how we run our schools and what we expect our pupils to imbibe, practice and make their own. Yes, in fact, I believe that failures like this just reinforce that we need to give even more importance to values.

We need to be able to have open, transparent dialogue about what happens when values meet challenging and ambiguous situations. As the children in school become older and more mature, so it’s vital that we expose them to debate and discussion around the fact that values are nothing except when they are tested, challenged and that when truly and fervently held they actually do not fall and crumble under the weight of pragmatic flimflam, but are instead strengthened like steel cast in the fire.

Values are not just marketing tools, or nice words to adorn the walls. They have to burn at the very core of individuals and organisations. At times they must be defended and protected. So, for example, if institutional investors are going to be one-dimensional stakeholders ready to push for values to be jettisoned in the pursuit of more profit, then company founders should have the courage to grow slower and refuse to take the institutional money.

And the same for individuals. The person who can be tempted to cast aside flimsily held values will be hollow at the core, susceptible to vulnerabilities and destined to fail to be all that he/ she can be.

 

Cheats Pay a Heavy Price in the Long Term

cheating boxes

Many of us will have seen these recent images from a college exam room, as students were made to wear cardboard boxes on their heads to prevent cheating and copying (did anyone consider the scope for writing notes on the inside of one’s box?)

Whilst many were shocked at such inhumane and demeaning treatment of students, there were also no shortage of weary shrugs as people reflected that it’s really little surprise if this is what the system has been reduced to.

For my fourth article written for Gulf News 6 years ago, I turned to the issue of cheating and an aspect that doesn’t get enough attention – the long term effect and impact on the cheat themselves. In the article i highlighted three examples that had happened in some of the finest seats of learning in the world. Six years later we have new examples, including the collusion between well-heeled parents and agents to secure seats in top Ivy League universities in the US which have already seen one TV actress sent to prison with more to follow.

gulf-news-article 4-15092013

However, I’m still an optimist on the nature of humans. I do believe that as educators we need to be prepared to have the hard conversations with young people – to help them understand that it’s not consistent to believe in a right to high and lofty goals to be achieved by short cuts and acts of low integrity. High goals are great, if we’re prepared to put in the hard work, accept the tough journey for its own intrinsic value as well as the outcome. Young people need to be reminded that the people they put on pedestals have often been hurt, even scarred in the processes that took them to the top.

For proof that the journey is as important as the destination we need only look at all the lottery winners who declare bankruptcy later, failing to make the critical life changes of their new gains because they didn’t travel the road to their wealth. Their acts weren’t dishonest, but they lacked the learning of the journey that would enable them to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Tim Cook – Apple CEO

Tim Cook

“If you want to take credit, first learn to take responsibility.”

Tim Cook, Apple CEO
Stanford University Commencement, 2019

A highly relevant and timely message from the heart of Silicon Valley, where he acknowledged hard questions need to be asked about credit and responsibility. New generations can learn this lesson, so that they won’t repeat the mistakes of others.

 

 

EI – Superheroes

As Ahmedabad based Educational Initiatives set out to create a series of videos with insights in to the thoughts of some of India’s most important educators I can’t think of a better start than an interview between two of my favourite educators (and people) in India, educators I respect enormously and have known since about 2004.

Sudhir Ghodke interviews Kiran Bir Sethi, the founder of Riverside School.

Kiran, like many of the founders of the better schools in India took her initial motivation from the needs of her own children and the failures and inadequacies of the existing system. What she’s gone on to create in Riverside is a wonderful, bold and innovative school, with all the right motives. In the interview it quite rightly highlights many of the issues that challenge those who create schools in a climate where inertia forces conventional thinking.

I especially liked her matter of fact response to the issues of not simply delivering what parents ask for, but having the courage to deliver what’s needed, bold and worthwhile and to help the parents to adjust and understand why it’s right.

Both Sudhir and Kiran highlight in the discussion something that’s always been important to me – if you’re school’s doing the right things, the evidence will come through what you see, hear and feel with the children themselves. Kiran acknowledges the values in creating Riverside that she had the freedom of time and space to innovate without being rushed by others’ agendas and also that some of the right things are done intuitively and then you acquire the language to explain those things later.

It will always require courage to innovate, especially in a field like education where so many take so personally the work that you do. In such a scenario the world needs many more with the courage and dedication of Kiran and Sudhir.

Love you, guys.

Please Vote For Me – Or Else

This documentary, made 12 years ago, but still packed with relevance today is fascinating on so many levels, but also quite scary in terms of the underlying messages. The starting premise is a simple one – a class of 8 year olds who would in the past have had a class monitor imposed upon them by their teacher are to engage in an exercise in democracy to elect their own class monitor.

If you wish to watch the whole film (and it is well worth watching) I recommend you do so before reading any further – major spoiler alerts to follow!

Firstly, this has to be seen in the context of a country where perceptions of democracy and power, and how power is gained, used and retained, are very different to those portrayed in a western context (and therefore part of my upbringing and education). This is an environment where leadership equals power and the question becomes whether that power to control and direct is wielded benevolently or with with bad intent.

These are just children, but influenced and often guided by the adults in their lives their actions mimic the very worst, exploitative, crooked and dishonest machinations of politicians in the adult world. Whether it’s buying the votes, focusing on demeaning and belittling your opponent or plain dishonesty they will take any actions necessary to gain power.

One of the things that stands out for me is the passivity of the teacher. She seems frequently to be fully aware of how brutish, cruel, dishonest and wrong some of the actions are, but seems more than happy to stand passively by and observe. It’s almost as though she wants that these children will finish the process concluding that this democracy thing is hurtful, brutish and bad and be turned against it.

Early in the film the children are heard singing a lyric – “we are the successors of communism,” and we have to remember that this was seen as a time of new beginning, freedoms and liberty for the Chinese people, but many were surely unsure how long it would last, or what they were to do with these new-found freedoms. The power of being class monitor is equated clearly and simply with the right to be a legitimized bully, lauding it over others and making them act in accordance with your wishes. physical force to control others in the classroom or the home is legitimised.

At times it’s not easy to see the emotional pains that these children inflict on each other.  The reality is they are very young and some of this is hard to deal with. The presence of the cameras seems to do little to abate what seems to amount to bullying by anyone’s standards. There are clear signs of the pressures to perform and the levels of stress experienced by these children at such a young age. The weight of parental expectations in all their actions lays heavily upon their tiny shoulders.

There are some things that don’t change from one culture to another. the girl is encouraged to be pretty, demure and her emotional vulnerability is accepted. The boys are expected to take much more physical, aggressive and forceful steps and not to show their emotions (though at this age they’re not so good at hiding) – “Dry your tears, you’re big boys.”.

And the end result? Status quo and a level of comfort with the known. The boy Luo Lei who has been class monitor for the last two years is re-elected. These children may be young, but already they come across as bowed down by the responsibilities that self-determination place upon them. This boy may be a bully, a tyrant who rules roughly and with force, but the idea of choice and responsibility sits uncomfortably. with most of them. His winning margin is considerable and even as the votes are still being counted, his classmates begin to curry favour with him in the hope that he will remember they were ‘always on his side.’

The pain and trauma is clear – enough to put any self-respecting child off ideas of independence, self-determination and responsibility. Much easier to let others control life and take the big decisions.

Raising Children in the ‘Post Truth’ World

post-truth-world-p1

post-truth-world-p2

Here is an article that I wrote that was published in the January edition of Ipoh Valley of Dreams. I was provoked to write it in response to more and more media comments about the world we’re living in and the nature of politics in the world.

I found myself very conscious of the impact all this can potentially have on children and young people, growing up confronted by all this.

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