Perspective and De-Learning

Perspective and De-learning Audio version of today’s Reading for Leading

Listen to Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies share the remarkable story of his workplace democracy with Dan on the Everyday Leadership show. His interview is the first of the two podcasts in the “Democracy in the Workplace.”


Wildly different stories, same darned theme:

STORY ONE.  Had lunch with Mom on Friday. She said she’d gone to the annual women’s club luncheon at the city hall in Lathrup Village, and while there, she signed up to be an alternate driver for Meals on Wheels. She said, “I’d been meaning to do that for a long time.” I love the picture of my 79-1/2 year old mom delivering meals to 65 year olds. Mom keeps gaining new perspectives, and de-learning that she’s supposed to be old, inactive, taking from others and pulling back.

STORY TWO.  I was running my favorite training loop in a cemetery in Lansing on Saturday. After a quick trip to Sunoco to grab a Powerade I came back and having run hundreds of loops over the last couple years thought, “maybe I’ll run in the opposite direction.” As humans we have these unconscious habits of efficiency, repeating things the same way over and over again. So, the perspective shift was crazy: As I ran in the other direction, I felt I was in a completely different place; perspective changed almost everything!

STORY THREE.  I did one of the most fascinating interviews ever on my radio show on Saturday. It was all about workplace democracy – a completely different way of looking at workplace organization, productivity, innovation and even compensation. I spoke with Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, an Indian company with 60,000 employees (or transformers as he likes to call them) in 26 countries. Vineet had written in his Harvard Business Review blog: “executives tend to gravitate toward their zones of comfort as they grow older — and then wonder why the magic has disappeared from work.” He says it’s time to de-learn. Nayar, whose company grew 21% last year, says the only way to compete is to innovate, and the only way to innovate is to de-learn what you think you know.

He argues that democracy at work is the only way to generate enough and fast enough innovation.  This means de-learning how we work. Employees have to de-learn that they just follow directions, and instead must see the business as active owners and creators and collaborators. And instead of managers pretending they know everything, he wants his managers “to suck up to employees” to support their efforts and to learn from their perspective, which after all is at eye-level with the customer.

STORY FOUR.  You’ll begin this week like every other: same trip to coffee machine, same seat at staff meeting (same agenda?), same waiting for others.  To innovate, you’ve got to de-learn, to de-learn you need to find a new perspective.  Take it literally! Run the loop backwards. Sit in another chair. Shake it up to

Lead with your best self,


  • Love it. Love the vision of Mom doing the meals on wheels. May we could see some pics?

    Love the democracy at work. I call it synocracy though – since it’s not a majority rules scenario. It’s totally dynamic.

    • Synocracy? Maybe you need to write us a guest RFL, Meryl, because that sounds pretty interesting, and I don’t ever remember hearing the word before.

  • Great stories this week, Dan. Kudos to your mom for doing the Meals on Wheels work. I’m glad (but not surprised) that at the age of almost 80, she’s making changes in her own life in order to help others.

    I can also relate to your running-direction story. I used to run a lot, and after essentially a 20-year absence from the activity, I’m at it again. I’ve always found running to be a great way to see a city, whether it be my own Kalamazoo, or a town like Detroit or Chicago during a marathon. And reversing course, for example running the opposite direction on one-way streets, provides a whole new perspective. In addition to running, I’m starting to volunteer for running events again. Last week it was announced that Kalamazoo plans to conduct a marathon next May, and I’m looking forward to helping to plan the event. I’m re-discovering the joy that goes with volunteering for running events so that thousands of participants can better take advantage of the activity. I know how much I appreciate it when others do the same.

  • Dan – GREAT RfL this week! I actually started this practice in October with a group I volunteer with and it has really paid off. Now we have, new events, new faces and hopefully new revenue.
    Doing it in my business is a bit more complex and is taking much longer than expected. However if I had not tried it with the festival I would have never known of it’s power.
    Thanks for your weekly RfL newsletters; they have made a difference in my life!

  • Good morning Dan,

    Your trilogy has a good message today. A lot of us are so mindset after programming ourselves to do the same things for years, we become afraid to change. Our psyche tells us this is the best way to do things or the only way to do things. For example, last year, this country elected it’s first African American President; This took some 303 years to make this change?

    As for your mother, she is a model example to say age is nothing but a number and is also leading by example by continuing to give back to the community.

    Thonmas K. Burke – Mentor

  • I just read RFL from two weeks ago. I cannot believe that you have not issued a public apology or been called on the table for using a disgusting term with all types of connotations to describe an upstart political movement. Has Frank Beckmann seen this? Surely, he wouldn’t stand for this.

    • Marci,

      What are you talkiong about? Did I miss something? Who are you talking about? I am lost, please give me some more direction on your comment.

    • Marci,
      First, read all the comments. There’s an apology in there from me for the inadvertent use of the Red Rose words.
      And who is this Frank Beckman you’re talking about. Must be a very powerful man that I should know about. Is he going to be punishing me or reporting me to the governor? He’s not like Rush Limbaugh or something is he?
      Please reply quickly so I know what is about to happen to me.
      In weak attempts to be jocular with my best self,

  • What a wonderful read this week, I love the fact that your mom is doing service at 79! I will share this with my 79 year old mother and suggest the same, she is full of life but she lives with older people and its taking a toll on her. Good ideals and I also love the reverse run!

  • One way for managers to stop “pretending that they know everything” is to learn a process known as dynamic governance. You can Google it or interview some green building companies who use it as a matter of policy. A great alternative to top-down mandates that disempower front-line staff. Dynamic governance shares the lead and makes everyone feel safe about contributing.

  • Great RFL this week. If one is a “Seinfeld” fan, your essay conjures up images of “opposite George” and the success he found by just “doing the opposite” of what he had always done, e.g., changing his lunch order or telling rude patrons in a movie theater to behave in an appropriate manner.

  • In all fairness to your Mom, she doesn’t view herself as old as you apparently did. To me it does not seem that she is doing any “de-learning”, rather it is we who must “de-learn” our mistaken prejudice that as people age they are less rather than more.

    Take a look at some of the vibrant people who have defied the sands of time on

    As always, thanks for making us think and rethink.

    • Greg,

      I love that you’re defending my mom!

      She is “old.” She knows it every day. But you’re right that she doesn’t accept the socially derisive connotations about her age. And neither do I. I am proud of her and amazed at how resilient some people are.

      At the ripe age of 52, I don’t have the energy I had at 22 or even 42. Mom’s a model to me to stay at it – despite what anything inside or outside tells me.

      Thanks for sharing the website and the great work you do on behalf of the people who made and make our world work.


  • Words like ‘shift’ and ‘transform’ are good for “de-learning” what might not be effective or sufficient anymore. How often have I heard “We tried that [10 or 15] years ago and it didn’t work.” Well, what have we tried recently? Why keep beating our heads against the masonry? It’s no fun (it hurts!), and I don’t think we have the time to waste our energy, or wait for change and solutions to climb the hierarchy. To paraphrase, at every level, we are the change. (B. Obama)
    Here are some examples. Washtenaw Sheriff Clayton is leading a transformation of his department by engaging those on the front lines of human services and justice. The shift in thinking is beginning to yield results.
    Grass roots environmental activism got Ann Arbor city officials to stop providing plastic-bottled water at public meetings, since award-winning city water is always available. It was a shift in thinking that cut costs and increases awareness of the environment at every meeting.
    The de facto obsolete idea of “building our way out of congestion” has fallen to new standards like “four lanes to three” that make local roads more efficient and promote safe alternative transportation, at the same time that funds to expand the roadways have all but dried up. Shifting our thinking about transportation also connects to health management, land use, density and sustainability.
    As a candidate for County Commissioner, biking and walking streets I don’t often go down, I’m looking forward to more shifts like these.
    And let’s not confuse “de-learning” with “destruction”. The shift-and-transformation part of learning (or leading) doesn’t just tear away the status quo, it opens to gates to imagination and great results. We hear a lot about the benefits of entrepreneurship. In these basic terms of everyday leadership, trying something that might work under very changed circumstances, we get more progress for everyone.

  • Dan,

    I am so pleased to hear that Mary is participating in Home Delivered Meals. Somehow I don’t think she ever had to unlearn that she was old, inactive, taking from others and …She is one of those older adults who understands that when we give and stay engaged with others, we stay healthier, happier and are fulfilling our purpose in life.

    Thanks Mary!

    Sharon Gire

  • Dan,

    Shifts in perspective can be a wonderful boost to creativity and clear thought, they can also gang up on you when the shifts are out of control. Millions across our great nation must have wondered when the seismic shifts in perspective would stop, as their economic and social worlds collapsed about their ears.

    There is fundamental truth in the old saying: “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” The last fifteen months have taught me that making concrete plans for the future is a fool’s errand, and creating a rigid hierachical structure for a business is a waste of your energy. Life is akin to sailing through the straits of Mackinac. Constant shifts in current and weather make sailing in a straight line impossible. You must choose your goal and constantly correct course to accomodate those “shifts in perspective.”

    Ultimately, storms may wreck your plans, and you learn to bail, to row, to paddle, or to swim to an unplanned destination rather than go down with your craft.

    I learned something about small changes in perspective many years ago, when I was on stage, as Mr. Bumble, in “Oliver!” On the first three nights of performance, I sang my first song, and marched around the stage right side of the soup kettle. On the fouth night, the prop was out of place…too far stage right…so I had to cross inside. I sang the second verse first, almost without realizing it.

    I have learned not to fret over missing my planned destination on the first try, to experience the journey to the fullest, and to enjoy sailing on life’s waters, because it is truly all about the journey…and, of course, your companions on the trip.


  • My key take away:

    Story One:
    People irrespective of age always be like a child having fresh perspectives in all life encounters. I feel so much happy to read the first story and I immediately recollected my grandmom. At the age of 90 she used to serve us breakfast, lunch, dinners and coffees. They are so passionate in serving others and I believe it is their passion that gives them fresh perspectives. Fantastic story.

    Story Two:
    I always had a question on how we bury ourselves so nicely usual things in the name of productivity. We have so many luxuries in the world simply because of someone being uncomfortable in usual way of operation. And I believe it starts from running reverse.

    Story Three:
    Yeah, being one among HCL is a fantastic journey.

    Thank you for the wonderful post and tweets.

    • Lakshmi,
      A guy who writes a blog called Unstuck knows exactly what I wrote about today!
      Nice to hear your take. There’s something about service which I KNOW keeps my mom young in heart and growing daily. Thanks for that connection.

  • My family owns a graveyard in W. VA. but I wouldn’t jog through it. Not to get you mad but, Why do you run through a cemetary? Your story on your mom is really sweet. Someone that age can do things to help others that can’t do for themselves. She’s a good role model, that you’re never too old to help others if able.

    • Anissa,
      1. No cars.
      2. Quiet.
      3. Curves and hills.
      4. A wonderful perspective on life – its transience and its gift. Finally:
      5. I remember my friends who have passed over, I wonder about the folks buried there, and I celebrate in my heart those who come to remember their loved one.
      Call me weird.

      • Dan,

        OK, you’re weird.

        Having said that, running to me is frequently a spiritual experience, and it sometimes offers the best opportunity of my entire week to really think, and to consider my life and its place within the universe. I believe that walking or running through a cemetary, because of the very reasons you mention, keeps me in touch with people that I care about who are now gone, as well as those who are still with me.

        And with the number of family members and friends who now lie in cemetaries, I believe they’d want us to be there, in the respectful manner we intend it to be.

  • Mr Mulhern, I wouldn’t call you weird, I was just wondering. And that’s a beautiful reason. Unfortunely I saw too many movies is all.

  • Dan,

    De-learning was thrust upon me recently when I lost a job I thought was a sure thing. It’s been a huge, perspective-altering education, and the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in many years.

    Kinda wish I’d made the change myself out of inner wisdom, but I’ll take it. In fact, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

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