Dec 11, 2018

The Great Man & The Big Trends

When I was going through my Twitter timeline recently, I came across this post by Hindol Sengupta, the author of a recently published biography of Sardar Vallabhai Patel.

Reading his tweet and the article he linked to, I thought it seemed like a good example of the fight between two schools of history: The Great Man School and The Big Trends School.

The Great Man School believes that events happen because of the vision, strategy, execution, wisdom, skills and charisma of a leader. It’s the kind of stuff that Steve Jobs spoke about in this video.

The Big Trends School
believes that events happen because of political, economic, social and technological forces. Often these are like force of gravity. These forces shape an event, make it inevitable. This speech, by former McKinsey chairman Dominic Barton, is a good example of The Big Trends School.

In the tweet I quoted above, Hindol Sengupta was responding to what Swaminathan Aiyar said in his recent column on Patel. Swami’s argument came from The Big Trends school. He wrote: “Unification of the princely states with India and Pakistan was inevitable, with or without Patel.” Hindol’s response was from The Great Man School. There was nothing inevitable about unification of princely states. Sardar made it happen. The title of his book on Patel reads: The Man Who Saved India.

Which is right? The Great Man School or The Big Trends School.

When Charles Assisi and I were working on our book on Aadhaar, we didn’t think we were writing a history of the project. It’s too recent to provide that perspective. Our book is a journalistic account of the project and its impact. (Journalism is sometimes called the first draft of history. Then our book would probably be Version 1.5 of that).

Even so, we faced the very same question. Manish Sabharwal one of the many people we spoke to during our reporting described these two schools this way. He said, “one was literature view of the world, and the other was sociology view of the world.”

It’s a great way to put it.

Literature is about stories. A story has a hero. The hero has an ambitious goal. But, he has to cross several obstacles before he can achieve it. He fights them with great intelligence and courage, and finally gets what he wants. As readers, we prefer literature view of the world. It’s easy to relate to. It’s intuitive to think in those terms. That’s why we love movies.

However, the real world is more complex. Big political, social, economic and technological forces can lay waste the best laid plans of most capable men. (Warren Buffett once said, “I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.”) But then again, without a strong leader, these forces might come and go without making any considerable impact on the world. Things move because of both.

Thus, to frame it as ‘Great Man Vs Big Trends’ is a false dilemma.

In our book, if you look for it, you will find examples of how it took both - leadership of people like Nandan Nilekani and big political and technological trends - to make Aadhaar happen. If Nilekani (who figures prominently in at least three chapters of the book) had taken up a similar unique identification project 20 years ago, instead of 10 years ago, I really doubt we would have had something like Aadhaar today. (As John Kingdon says, a policy window needs to open). Similarly, if the project was led by someone with different sets of skills and attitude, I doubt if it would have touched over a billion people. (It nearly went that way, as you would read in the book).

We often think that an event has a single cause - (and often we make that single cause a person: “Gandhiji gave us independence”, “Sardar Patel unified India”). But the fact is, events have multiple causes, and those causes in turn are triggered by many other causes. It’s a chain. Some of these causes have disproportionate influence. (Butterfly flapping its wings causing tornado, and all that). Similarly, an event has multiple consequences - intended and unintended, short term and long term, first order and second order. And to make things even more complex, these often form a loop. A influences B, B influences C and C in turn influences A.

When we watch movies or read books, stories fall within this paradigm.

However, when try to understand how real world works, it looks more like this


The challenge that Charles and I faced while reporting and writing the book was to convert what resembled PICTURE B (above) in our heads, and in our notebooks into something that resembled PICTURE A (below) in the book.


Whether we succeeded or not, only you can say.

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