“In the global era, influence is not about proximity, it is about the power of t

Psychologist Howard Gardner explains why a successful business leader may not be a good business leader

Vishal Koul

Howard Gardner is one of the world’s most prominent educationalists and psychologists. He is the John H and Elisabeth A Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is the author of 25 books that have been translated into 28 languages. Gardner is best known for his theories on multiple intelligences. During his first trip to india, he spoke with Veena Venugopal on corporate leadership

Your theory suggests that talented people have various spikes in their intelligences. How does a normal person’s intelligence work?

The theory claims that human beings have a number of relatively independent computers. Every human being has those computers. Just like we all have two eyes, ears etc., we all have linguistic, musical and other abilities. According to my theory, the notion of the normal is a bit of a misnomer. All of us have a scattered profile and we all are stronger in some areas than we are in others. Life is not fair, some people are stronger in some things, some are weak in others, but no one is absolutely equal in all of them. What is often missed is that you can change your profile. If something is important to you or your culture, and you are motivated enough and you have resources, you can learn to be better than someone who has more talent in that area. Everyone understands that early life is the time to stimulate these intelligences. But the intelligences in young people should not be approached didactically. What we ought to do is give young people access to these and give them opportunities to try out music etc. You can understand what a child’s intelligences are by simply taking them and spending a day at a children’s museum. You can easily understand what their interests, talents and aptitudes are.  

Your theory of Five Minds identifies disciplined, synthesising, creative, respectful and ethical as kinds of minds. Which of these are more important for business leaders?

The successful business leader may not be the same as a good business leader. For me, of the five minds, ethics is very important. But ethics does not ensure that you have a stronger balance sheet one week over the next, although it might mean that over the long run you build a solid organisation. Ethics is so under-understood and under-striven for. 

It is interesting that the new dean of the Harvard Business School — who is Indian — has made ethics his calling card. And he will be judged by that and good for him for saying it and too bad if the next three scandals involve people who went to school while he was the dean. But if you make that your programme you have to be judged by it. 

Of the five minds, discipline is taken for granted, because without it you won’t be successful. And I feel, at least on a superficial level, respect is pretty alive in South Asia. So I would say the three most important are synthesising, creating and ethical minds.  

What is synthesising?

For me, the leader doesn’t have to be the expert at everything. But the leader has to integrate information from all sources. So he or she has to have represented all the types of expertise that are relevant to the sector and that involves synthesising. I am more acquainted with people in the political realm and people like [US president Barack Obama and [former US president Bill] Clinton are brilliant synthesisers. They can take a lot of different information and put it together. Good CEOs should also have this ability of processing vast amounts of sometimes disconnected information and seeing a pattern emerge out of that. 

How important is creativity, especially in the context of Indian businesses?

Many Indian fortunes are now made in IT. That calls for the creative mind, the mind that can think outside the box, take risks, pick themselves up if things fail and try again. Based on my meagre knowledge, 30 years ago I wouldn’t have thought of Indians or Chinese being good at this. We tend to think of creativity as something that is packaged in the West. That was wrong. I think what it really shows is that if you take East or South Asian traditional values and you put them in a market milieu, they do very well. 

How long will that continue nobody knows, but whether it is people from China or India or Bangladesh or Pakistan, when they come to Europe or US or Australia or Brazil, they tend to do quite well. Japan hasn’t been able to do that and it’s interesting to ask why. I think it’s because — here I am going to be a psychologist — Japan is the most groupie society. They tend to work well in a group and there is an embarrassment about individual assertiveness. I know much more about China than I do about India and in China, it is clear that Chinese groupiness is superimposed on a great deal of individuality. 

Are there any business leaders out there whom you admire?

People I know are people I read about and they are not ones I can vouch for personally. I admire Bill Gates tremendously for his philanthropy. I think he and George Soros are two amazing human beings who have made a fortune and are now using it for trying to improve the planet. They have different values and I don’t agree with everything Soros or Gates do, but I admire the way they do it. 

I like those business people and corporations that over the long run have an external social agenda, by which I mean they worry about the communities they are in. The Body Shop is one and Starbucks presents itself that way too. Also, I admire organisations that transcend the individual. IBM, for example, is a company that has reinvented itself almost three times and the organisation transcends any individual.

If Apple is only the shadow of Steve Jobs, then it will not be good for Apple or Steve Jobs. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg is being described as the person who is everything in Facebook; if he were to drop dead tomorrow, what will happen to Facebook? So my point is, let’s not look at leaders, but let’s look at companies that over the longer run have real value.  

You have said for a long time now that Gandhi is the most important figure to have emerged in the last 1,000 years. Do you think he is still relevant?

The reason I talk about Gandhi is because he introduced some new ways of thinking about human possibilities. It wasn’t scientific, it wasn’t technological, it was just new ways in which humans can conflict without killing each other. The influence of Gandhi today should be assessed not by how many people are spinning their own cloth in Indian villages, but by understanding what happened in South Africa with Nelson Mandela,  or what happened in the US with the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King came here in 1959, Steve Jobs also came here too, but not for Gandhi. Whether it is protestors in Tahrir Square or Tehran in 2009 or the solitary protestor at Tiananmen Square in 1989, these are all Gandhi-like. And I don’t know what’s going to happen to Anna Hazare, but the Occupy Wall Street protestors have changed the rhetoric in the US. In the global era, influence is not about proximity, it is about the power of the idea.


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