The majority of Italians have voted against the constitutional reforms proposed in a national referendum and Italian Premier Matteo Renzi’s “experience of government” is now over as he steps down.
The Italian economy has been like a Ferrari with its wheels slashed – its economic performance has been the worst amongst any of the Eurozone country with the exception of Greece; it’s government loans sit at 130% of GDP and unemployment exceeds 11%.
This failure of the referendum is now akin to the Ferrari with its wheels completely off the axle – and the casualties won’t just be the Italians in the Ferrari but indeed the whole of the Eurozone.
Early indicators are that the Euro has fallen sharply against the Dollar and the Asian markets are spooked by what is to come from Europe.
What does this result mean for Italy, Europe and the world?
1. Brace for a hard landing of the banking sector.
We could see the demise of a few banks in Italy, starting with the Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) – the world’s oldest bank – which has already lost almost 90% of its value this year. MPS is already one of Europe’s weakest banks and they are subject to a bailout plan which may now not come to fruition.
Italian banks are struggling with about €360 billion of bad loans and are significantly undercapitalised. There will be a huge sell-off of Italian and European banking stock once the markets open.
The problem is that the scale of interconnectedness means that a hit to the Italian banking system will leave a trail of destruction across the rest of the European and global banking sector starting with the largest European lenders such as Deutsche Bank.
2. The EU and Euro are both going to go through an existentialist phase
Brexit dealt a big blow to the EU project. The rise of the Five Star Movement, a Eurosceptic opposition which has already claimed ‘victory’ in this referendum means that over time their views on EU and the Euro are going to gain even further traction. Even if the Five Star Movement do not win in any early elections called as a result of this referendum (they have a campaign promise to hold another referendum on Italy’s membership within the EU), their views are going to be, over time, become mainstream.
3. Imposition of capital controls?
In 2015 we saw capital controls applied in Greece to stop a run on the banking system and see a flood of capital out of the country. A run on the Italian banking sector will have a colossal impact and a pre-emptive series of capital controls, though damaging from a reputational perspective, may be required for reasons of survival.
4. An Italian sneeze will cause an European contagion.
This result will no doubt cause another slump in the Eurozone economy and will cause a negative investment sentiment. Unemployment will continue rising and living standards will fall, not just in Italy but across Europe.
The people have spoken and have demonstrated a willingness to face a hard landing. Whether they are prepared for a hard reset is another matter altogether and this is going to be the start of a period of extreme uncertainty, economic uncertainty and hardship.
What Italy needs now is an expert driver who is going to be able to manouvere the Ferrari with no wheels skillfully so that it causes the least damage both to the Ferrari’s passengers and other Eurozone travellers.
This is Thamba (in the photo next to me), originally from Swaziland but who was born and brought up in Soweto, Johannesburg. I had the pleasure of Thamba’s company as he showed me Soweto and helped me understand the history of South Africa, the impacts of apartheid era on society and on him personally. He went to school with Mandela’s daughter and therefore had the unique experience of having walked with Mandela and been very much a part of the struggle for equality as a young man.
Thamba recounted a very interesting anecdote about Nelson Mandela’s view on social cohesion and the need for harmony between the different races in post-apartheid South Africa. Madiba (as Mandela is known fondly in his homeland) used the parable of a piano to highlight why everyone needed to march together to achieve progress. He explained that playing the piano with just the white keys or just the black keys, whilst able to produce a tune, will never be as rich as the symphony one can create if one was to use both the black and white keys together. This, he explained, was the route towards a better and greater society and stressed the need for the white, black and other communities to all work together to achieve social progress.
A simple message, elegantly put and to very powerful effect!
AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner makes strategic sense for the shareholders of AT&T. The only surprise is that early rumours of Apple buying over Time Warner did not come to pass.
AT&T are primarily a telecommunications company. They already control the data flows and analytics and understand all the little things that make people/customers tick. However, what they’ve not had is the content that their customers require and monetise the flow of content to the people who need it most.
Through the acquisition of Time Warner, it reduces AT&T’s transaction cost of providing the content to customers which is supported by superior data.
It’s akin to an infrastructure company laying pipes to bring water to households actually now providing the water along with the pipes they already have rather than have a separate company providing the water.
Why content matters
You have data on the information and content your customers require. However, you cannot act on the data yourself if you do not control the development of the content and intellectual property (IP). You can either try and create the content on your own or simply buy the largest available content provider available for sale.
This is what AT&T have done and it allows them to suddenly use the data and deliver even larger profitability to their shareholders by giving their customers the data they seek.
HBO (think Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, etc), CNN, DC Comics (Superman, Batman, and the new UN ambassador, Wonder Woman), Hulu (Netflix’s rivals) are all now going to be under AT&T’s control.
This will allow them to control the entire spectrum of services they provide to customers and create an ecosystem (of both infrastructure and content) that may be difficult or unfeasible to leave for any customer.
Big data just gotten bigger
You know HOW your customers access information. You now know WHAT information your customers seek. Bring the two together and you create superior propositions for customers which rivals are unable to match.
The advertising potential also has now grown exponentially as AT&T monetise the data analytics and provide superior insight to advertisers.
Bringing the fight to the competition
The moment Google and Facebook moved from being search engines or networking platforms to becoming media and content companies with their own telecommunications infrastructure, the fight was on.
Facebook and Google are already providing Internet and call facilities. They also started buying or developing content facilities (Youtube acquisition by Google or Facebook Video/live).
This mean either existing telecommunications companies get into the business of content development or acquisition or they themselves get acquired. I suspect this was a major impetus for AT&T in their decision to buy Time Warner.
It’s always easy to bite, but it’s important to be able to chew and swallow. It remains to be seen how well the merger itself works. Most mergers are fraught with complications, from realising business benefits to cultural differences.
It will be interesting to examine Apple and Google’s next reactions. Google have developed their own hardware (Pixel) and Apple have long wanted to get into the business of content and IP.
Perhaps a takeover of Netflix by Apple in the offing?
In the book, Abdul Kalam touched on the topic of books that shaped his worldview. I wanted to share his thoughts about books and the ones that shaped his life as he himself said: “the transfer of thoughts and ideas, ideals and principles is a part of the circle that is life.”
Abdul Kalam describes books having always been “close companions” in his life life and how he used them to help him“understand the world.”
The works of Leo Tolstoy, Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy were constant companions of Abdul Kalam. He also was moved profoundly by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Lewis Caroll and Wlliam Butler Yeats.
He however highlighted a few books that had a last impact of him.
The first was ‘Light from Many Lamps,’ which was an anthology of inspiring stories by various authors and edited by Lilian Eichler Watson. He describes the impact this book had on him as thus: “If I am ever in danger of being swept away by my own emotions, this book brings about a balance in my thinking.”
The second book was the Thirukural by Thiruvalluvar, a collection of Tamil rhyming couplets.
Written over 2000 years ago, the Thirukkural is arguably one of India’s greatest written work and discusses the human condition, ethics, morality and virtue.
He describes this particular kural (or rhyming couple) as one that has influenced him profoundly:
உள்ளுவ தெல்லாம் உயர்வுள்ளல் மற்றது
தள்ளினுந் தள்ளாமை நீர்த்து
(Think of rising higher. Let it be your only thought.
Even if your object be not attained, the thought itself will have raised you.)
Finally, the religious texts of India, including the Quran, the Vedas and the Bhagawat Gita were also instrumental in Abdul Kalam’s development.
He considered that these religious texts “all hold deep philosophical insights into the plight of man and have helped me resolve many dilemmas.”
From the Quran, he narrated how an excerpt from verse 35 of Surah An-Nur (‘The Light’) had a particularly profound impact on him,
“Light upon light. Allah guides to His Light to whom He wills”
From the Bhagavat Gita, Abdul Kalam narrates the words of Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the battle of Mahabharata (during another vision of the garden where all the flowers which blossomed in the morning now fall to the ground)
See the flower, how generously it distributes perfume and honey.
It gives to all, gives freely of its love.
When its work is done, it falls away quietly.
Try to be like the flower, unassuming despite all its qualities.
Abdul Kalam once wrote a poem which he used to recite to young people he met which best describes his feelings about the written word:
Books were always my friends Last more than fifty years
Books gave me dreams Dreams resulted in missions
Books helped me confidently take up the missions Books gave me courage at the time of failures
Good books were for me angels Touched my heart gently at the time
Hence I ask young friends to have books as friends Books are your good friends.
This was the legacy of the great Abdul Kalam.
“Hard work and piety, study and learning, compassion and forgiveness – these have been the cornerstones of my life.”
I would like to first thank the honourable members at the Mother Club for allowing me to be here this evening.
It is indeed my privilege and my honour to be able to address this esteemed audience.
I must also of course thank the boss and my mentor, Raymond Jack, for his support and for inviting me to my first Burns Supper earlier this year which was an eye-opening experience.
I live between Singapore, Glasgow and London but am originally from the southern coast of India, from Tamil Nadu. Not unlike Robert Burns, I also come from a line of farmers!
I was based out in Glasgow for a big part of last year on work and during the time I had the opportunity to explore the different parts of Scotland and it was on one of those trips that I visited Ayrshire and explored Robert Burns’ home and got drawn into the fascinating life and times of Rabbie Burns. His depth and breadth of writing from nature to hardship to love to family demonstrated a mind and soul that was as unique as it was brilliant. His ability to recognise and more crucially to empathise with the nature of the human condition is something is what makes Robert Burns truly great.
It was then I came across the poem ‘A Man’s a Man for A That’ and was drawn to its messages of universal brotherhood, liberty and social equality.
It is also my view that Rabbie Burns’ egalitarian world view is the perfect antidote this deeply divided world needs.
It was with this in mind that I embarked on this journey of translating ‘A Man’s a Man For A That’ into Tamil as I thought promoting and propagating the virtues and ideals espoused in this poem will benefit the wider community. Tamil is the language of my birth, an ancient language, and one that is still spoken by over 70 million people today. It is my hope that this Tamil translation can be further improved by my peers and also further bring the genius and the universal and timeless messages of Robert Burns across southern India.
I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Oslo and the Fram Museum, which houses arguably one of the world’s most important polar ships, the Fram.
The Fram ship was captained by Captain Roald Amundsen as he led the first men towards the South Pole during an era considered the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This was an era of intense rivalry and competition as men and nations were competing to be the first to achieve feats of exploration.
The rivalry between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott are legendary as both men vied with one another to be the first to reach the South Pole.
Amundsen won and earned the distinction of being the first man to reach the South Pole. Scott who managed to reach the Pole later met with a tragic end and never made it back to his camp.
There are numerous accounts about their journeys and the historical reactions that followed both Amundsen and Scott’s achievements.
I want to highlight the six leadership lessons one can learn from Amundsen’s approach to his trip to the South Pole.
Amundsen was very clear that his primary objective was to be the first man to reach the South Pole. He expended his energy, his thoughts and his efforts to this one single endeavour.
On the other hand, Scott’s agenda was never very clear and he wanted to conduct scientific research, exploration and also reach the pole but nothing was clear defined. One example was when Scott and his team were returning from the Pole, defeated and already running low on supplies, he decided to stop at the top of the Beardmore glacier and deemed it fit to ‘geologise’ and subsequently add more than 15 kilograms of rock to their loads, which slowed them down further and precipitated the crew’s sad demise.
Amundsen was very clear about what his expedition’s objectives were and what his own ambition was and set out to dispassionately attain it.
A confused mission and vision will ultimately confuse your team and lead to misaligned goals and values which will scupper any business or programme.
2. Clear leadership
Scott was a product of his times and was extremely formal, conventional and hierarchical and this is what the English establishment demanded this of anyone who was leading an official British mission.
Amundsen on the other hand was an extremely competitive, relentless and focused individual who was also hugely innovative and was ruthlessly direct in his leadership.
As an example, most of Scott’s team (which was made up of sixty five men) was was picked by various external parties. Within that team included a Captain Oates with whom Scott clashed with on numerous ocassions. Oates was never silent about his conflict with Scott either which only served to undermine Scott further.
Amundsen on the other hand handpicked 19 men for his lean Fram expedition. In his team was a Hjalmar Johansen who was a noted explorer too. However, there was an incident where Amundsen made a mistake in setting off for a trek too early. This mistake almost cost the life of one of the men and Johansen publicly berated Amundsen in front of the other men. Amundsen dismissed Johansen from the expedition to preserve the unity and integrity of the team.
One may argue that Amundsen could have taken a different tact or approach. Ultimately, for an expedition into a great unknown, there has to be absolutely clarity and trust.
Constant undermining of leadership would have led to mistrust and confusion and in the end cost lives.
As the National Geographic puts it very eloquently, “Amundsen was also a man of towering ambition, prey to the same dangerous dreams and impulses that drive all explorers to risk their lives in wild places. Amundsen’s greatness is not that he lacked such driving forces but that he mastered them.”
It is vital that whilst there is space for disagreements and diversity of thought within any team, once a decision has been taken, it has to be followed through by everyone and anyone seeking to undermine a decision after it has been taken has to be either counselled or removed from the business.
3. Attention to detail
The clarity of the big picture is important. For any project or mission to succeed, the attention to detail, regardless of how minute, is also crucial.
In the case of Amundsen, he had a laser-like focus on every aspect of the Fram expedition – from the food chosen to the mode of travel to the choice of clothing.
Amundsen knew that in order to travel the distances they were targeting, they had to be able to get around quicker than if they were to do so purely on foot. To this end, Amundsen spent considerable time perfecting their ski equipment and footwear. This was something Scott’s team did not do sufficiently and towards the later stages of Scott’s expedition, this proved to be fatal.
Amundsen also spent considerable time with the Inuits and adopted fur suits along with their windproof outfits. The Inuits also wore their clothing loosely to reduce sweating (which helps retain body heat and also prevent freezing of clothes).
Even the way the fuel cans were sealed played a big role in the Antarctic expeditions. Scott had used incorrect washers for the fuel cans which led to evaporation of the fuel – which is a critical component in turning ice to water for drinking. Amundsen had worked this out earlier and had ensured that the cans were sealed properly to prevent any loss of fuel.
Food was an important component in the expedition which Amundsen paid a great deal of attention to. Amundsen, following his time with the Innuits, understood that an exclusively meat diet consisting of penguin and fresh seal meat was vital to remaining healthy. Although this wasn’t understood scientifically then, fresh seal and penguin meat provided enough Vitamin C to prevent scurvy (an ailment that afflicted sailors in those days and which was fatal in the long run if not treated).
On the other hand, a number of historians have indicated that the lack of good nutrition was one of the many reasons for Scott’s failure. They also tended to overcook the penguin and seal meat (to remove the ‘fishy’ taste) which destroyed the Vitamin C present in them. Amundsen’s indifference to palate meant that his expedition ensured that they ate very unappetising biscuits (made from oatmeal, yeast – with enough Vitamin B, beef fat and pounded dried beef!) and which provided them with essential roughage. Again, this is something the British expedition team chose to ignore.
As Geir Klover, director of the Fram Museum in Oslo, explains, “”Amundsen had a tremendous reputation. He was a meticulous planner, easily the best organised explorer of his generation.”
The attention to detail, especially for major campaigns, is absolutely critical in not only determining the success or failure of the campaign, but between life and death.
4. Constant preparation
During the winter months, Amundsen and his team spent the days optimising their equipment, their clothing, their logistics and working to improve their efficiency. It was an extremely focused team with a clear view of what needed to be done to achieve the task at hand.
Scott’s team spent the time engaged in a series of meetings, lectures, reviews, and reading. This led to missed opportunities for the team to review their practical and operational needs and performance.
A clear vision, decisive leadership and attention to detail are matters which determine how well a team is prepared for a mission.
The need for constant preparation is vital and whilst it is easy to slip into a routine of meetings, conferences and discussions, without preparing for the tasks at hand, it will be near impossible to do a great job.
5. Avoid arm-chair experts (and get the right people into the team!)
Amundsen had one of Norway’s skiing champions in his team (despite the fact he wasn’t an explore or mountaineer). He also ensured that he had canine experts and dog handlers to choose the best dogs for his journey.
Scott chose not to use dogs – which he thought was more noble. This was also counter to the prevailing view in Britain in those days that dogs were of dubious value as a means of Antarctic transport (which was subsequently proven to be false).
To further compound matters, Scott had also instructed a member of his team who knew nothing about horses to choose the ponies for the expedition. The ponies chosen were of poor quality, age and condition and which only served to hinder Scott’s expedition.
Amundsen also made it a point to engage with the right people and subject matter experts (such as Fridtjof Nansen – another famous Nordic explorer) as he formulated his journey towards the South Pole.
6. Luck – is what you make of it
Amundsen summed it up best when he said:
“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it.
Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
I had the pleasure of watching a fantastic Japanese film, The Magnificent Nine (殿、利息でござる！ (Tono, Risoku de Gozaru!). The trailer can be viewed here.
The Seven Samurais have always captured the imagination of people with their valour and bravery. However, this riveting film based on a true story of the magnificent nine heroes – and theirs is a story that must be told and spread widely – is an important one.
This is a movie about sacrifice, about going beyond one’s own sense of privilege and thinking of the wider community and striving to support one’s people and community regardless of the hardships this may bring about. This remarkable tale was recorded by the priest Zuishi Eishu in his book, “Koko-on-ki.”
The story is set in the middle of the 18th century (1766 to be precise) during the Samurai era. The place is Yoshioka, a poor town, within the Kurokawa district in northern Japan. The people of Yoshioka were ruled at the time by a young feudal lord by the name of Shigemura Date.
When I first started watching the film, I’d assumed that it was a comedy; and whilst there were some laughs and warm-hearted moments, it could not make the deeply philosophical messages about the themes of sacrifice and noblesse oblige.
Yoshioka was a small ‘post town’ – so called because it was under the obligations of an old tradition (established 150 years earlier) called the “post horse duty” – where it was the duty of the folk of the ‘post town’ to transport all of their feudal lord’s goods at their own cost (including that of horses and labour) to the next unfortunate ‘post town’ which had to do the same until it got to its desired destination.
Due to the severe burden placed upon it, the little town of Yoshioka faced a growing exodus. The people of the town, already in dire straits, went bankrupt and fled. The remaining town folk faced an increasingly greater burden as more people left and had to deal with growing costs of the post-horse duties.
It was at this point, one of the remaining residents, a tea grower by the name of Sugawaraya, hit upon an idea of a collective solution that will reduce the burdens of the townsfolk.
The idea rested on a simple premise. A select group of investors will band together and raise 1000 ryos (an old Japanese denomination) or US$3 million in current day terms and loan that full amount to Lord Shigemura Date, who was in straightened financial circumstances.
Subsequently when their Lord pays the interest on the loan, the yearly interest income will cover the full costs of their ‘post town’ duties for each and every person in the town. This meant that all of the people of Yoshioka will be able to escape the debilitating effects of the post-down duties and be able to build better live for themselves.
These few men had a belief that since they have the means, the can band together and create a solution for all of the people in their society. This small group of men will receive no returns nor profit as a result of doing this and their only benefit is the collective well-being of their town.
The efforts of this small band of heroes meant that the town of Yoshioka flourished and grew for a hundred years as they were paid an interest by the Lord and his successors till the end of the Edo era. Yoshioka entered the Meiji era as a vibrant town with a healthy and prosperous community.
It was profoundly moving to watch the story of the sacrifices of these unassuming few. One of them, Kokudaya, stated in his will simply, “Do not tell others what I have done.”
However the legacy of these men has somehow endured the test of time due to the efforts of the aforementioned priest, Zuishi Eishu.
Kokuday (who came from the Asanoya clan who were famous for their sake brewery) has his name living on as a beer and sake brewery in Yoshioka to this day. Please see photo below.
The thoughts and words of Kokudaya’s brother, Jinnai Asanoya, also were very profound. When they were in the presence of a very powerful official of Lord Shigemura Date’s court and enquired why Jinnai had not used the horses or palanquin sent to fetch him, Jinnai demonstrated his Confucian belief system which guided him and formed the cornerstone of his values and attitudes towards life.
Jinnai explained to the powerful court official that he was taught that as Man is the lord of all creation, it was not right for one to ride on the back of an ox or a horse and cause it grief. He further explained that riding a palanquin was even worse as one man being carried by another man showed nothing but contempt. He also felt that one should not make use of men or cause suffering.
Jinnai spoke the truth, risking potential death, knowing fully well that Lord Shigemura Date himself often used the palanquin and horses! This virtuous quality of speaking the truth, even in the most dangerous of circumstances is one that one should seek to emulate.
Jinnai, who lost his sight from his middle age, also spent the rest of his life spending the profits of his business in building and repairing the roads and bridges of Yoshioka. His sake business grew from strength to strength despite at one point being almost bankrupt because he contributed the most money to fund the loan at the expense of his business.
However Lord Date, who heard of the selfless sacrifice made by these men, ensured that Jinnai remained in business and ensured that Jinnai followed his commandment that: “Your business must not be ruined. If you fail because of your lord, then my honour will be stained.”
Kokudaya, his brother Jinnai Asanoya, Kokudaya’s son Oteomon also embody the values of filial piety and honouring of parents. Kokudaya and Jinnai’s father, unknown to them, had previously already started collecting money to do precisely what they did – to loan money to their feudal lord and use the interest collected to offset the post-town burden. His sons, when they found out, were determined to complete the task their father started, to the point where Jinnai sacrificed his entire business to fulfil his father’s dreams and desires.
This fascinating tale (and beautifully captured movie) encapsulates the ingenuity of men in times of need. It also extols the timeless values of service, duty and sacrifice above one’s own needs. Values which transcend culture, language and faith.
The notion that ordinary men can indeed make a profound difference if they had the right set of values and the company of like-minded men is one that is made powerfully through this movie and story. Get the DVD!!
If you are keen to read a more detailed plot and summary of the film, the links below will be a good place to start: