Intelligent Fanatics and Their Love of Paradox



Science, spirituality and business seem to share a common interest: an inherent love for the paradox.

Consider this statement of Niels Bohr -

The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.

This rhymes quite well with the story below:

A man once went to a sage and asked him, “Must one leave one’s home – that is, give up one’s worldly duties and responsibilities as a householder – in order to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death)?”. The sage said, “Certainly not. King Janaka attained moksha while living in the palace, fulfilling his duties as a king; then where is the need for you to leave your home?

Later another man went to the sage and asked him, “Sir, can one attain moksha without leaving the home?” The sage replied, “Who says so? Had it been possible, were persons like Shuka fools to leave their homes – that is, worldly attachments – for the sake of moksha?

Later, they met each other and a dispute arose. While one asserted that the sage was in favour of leaving home, the other said that the sage had advised him against it. They again came to the sage who explained, “Both the advices are correct. What is important is to become detached. Then one can follow different ways in accordance with one’s disposition. The answer depends on the way the question is posed. It is true that one need not leave home for moksha and it is equally true that one has to leave home for attaining it.

As a friend told me – quotes and stories are powerful mental models. And for me the above quote and story is particularly instructive. I believe that it helps me understand the world a little better.

Let us take an example from the business context to understand how.

Kochouseph Chittilappilly (click for case study) was at the helm of V Guard for more than around three decades since he started the business in 1976. His son Mithun Chittilappilly has been at the forefront for the last decade. Despite being from the same family and running the same entity, they employed diametrically opposite approaches in many of their business strategies. For this post let us consider just their respective people strategies.

Kochouseph Chittilappilly founded V Guard in 1976. He built the organization from scratch and let it till around 2000s when he handed over the control to his son. His approach to building the organization was to hire ordinary people and then cultivate them into extraordinary individuals. He did this by trusting them with ever increasing responsibilities over time. This approach to hiring ordinary people was born out of necessity. V Guard was a start up based out of Kerala and thus top graduates tended to move on to other organizations quite quickly. Observing this, he hired people who were not necessarily from top colleges and focused on training them well, paying them well, aligning their incentives with the company and allowing them freedom to perform.

The end result is that majority of the senior management in the group have been employees for a decade or more.

Mithun Chittilappilly joined V Guard in mid 2000s. His approach to V Guard’s people is diametrically opposite to that of his father. Consider this excerpt from our case study:

Another area where Mithun’s approach differed from his father’s was the hiring strategy. While the latter was focused on grooming from within driven by his experience that top management graduates rarely stay long, Mithun believed that the company should change with time-
“If we wanted to take the company ahead, we have to hire laterally. We had good guys. But it was not possible for a company of our size to have functional knowledge about each segment of the business. So, be it HR, communications, IT or finance, I always pushed to get better guys.”

Mithun’s belief was if they hired good people from good companies with good practices, the company would benefit. According to him,
“I always believe that you should bring in as many professionals as possible. V Guard needed to move from being people dependent to process-dependent. So we needed someone to create processes and systems.”

To this end, the company hired Mr. Ramachandran as head of Sales and Marketing in 2012. Mr. Ramachandran, a veteran from HUL and LG, spearheaded multiple transformations in V Guard across departments including after-sales, HR, supply chain, etc. In recognition of his contribution, Mr. Ramachandran was soon elevated to the board of the company. An excellent indicator of the Chittilappilly family’s focus on recognizing talent is that Mr. Ramachandran earns more than 3x the annual salary earned by Mithun today.

“The intention is to build an institution, an institution that will last a couple of centuries.”

And how does he intend to do it?

“The first phase of V Guard’s life was about growing and consolidating it. Then, in the last ten years, it was driven by individuals like the COO, Mr. Ramachandran and me. But now we are in the process of institutionalizing these systems so that we can bring out better products faster. The company will be beyond any individual.”

The end goal of both Chittillappilly members was to build a long lasting institution. But they employed diametrically dissimilar approaches to ensuring the same. Can we say one was a more correct approach than the other? No, we cannot. Mr. Chitilappilly was intelligent enough to understand this paradox, and stay out of his son’s way as he implemented the changes. However, we can say that the essence of both their approaches was the same. They were detached and humble enough to delegate and empower their employees.

Here is Kochouseph Chittilappilly on his employees:

“Around late 1990s, I felt I had a lot of free time. V Guard was being run by people who I believed could run it better than I could.”

Here is Mithun Chittilappilly in 2012:

“I was heading sales and marketing till 2012. I then felt that to take the company to the next level we needed a seasoned hand, as I was finding myself out of depth”.

Another example that is similar to the story above is the story of Dabur here. In order to run the company effectively, the Burman family paradoxically decided to give up operational control of the business entirely.

A quote from Scott F Fitzgerald is an apt conclusion here:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


Special thanks to @Arpit_Ranka whose tweets were the inspiration for the article.

Book: The Consolidators

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Intelligent Fanatics July 2018 Digest