Lessons from the Past 96: Reflections on a ‘Yearning for Solitude’
There was a lot of media coverage on 30 November 2023, on the death of Charles Munger, the alter ego and foil of Warren Buffett for over 60 years, as they together built Berkshire Hathaway into an empire. Though many of us always heard about Mr Buffett, the name of Mr Munger hardly featured in any media reports. Mr Buffett generally spoke for both of them. Mr Munger was obviously an introvert (surprising for a lawyer). Closer home, I saw on YouTube a brief feature on Mukesh Ambani and how he is surrounded by tight security costing Rs15 lakh to Rs20 lakh a month, and how he travels in a chopper from his home to the office and back. Neither Mr Ambani nor Kumar Mangalam Birla is easy to meet. They are private people!
 
Some people are naturally extroverted and like to be with people all the time. Others are naturally introverted and seek longer periods of solitude or aloneness. As they go up the executive ladder, many senior executives get into a higher-stratified atmosphere and find ways to make periods of aloneness and exclusivity possible. 
 
An industrialist buys a small island off Reunion, to be used as his exclusive and private hideout. A five-star hotel tries to negotiate with the Maldives government for rights to the seaside outside the hotel to be used as a private beach, exclusively for its well-heeled clientele. The scion of a large industrial group in Mumbai hands me the keys to the chairman’s private toilet, which is for the exclusive use of the chairman and his guests. 
 
The managing director of a large multinational where I worked was never seen coming into or going out of his office. He had a private lift which brought him directly from the car park to his office. Two of the lifts at Maker Chambers (a large commercial building in Mumbai), cannot be used by the public. These are for the private use of the owners and directors of companies in this office block. It does not matter that the other lifts are overworked! 
 
The reserved lounge at the airport is to ensure privacy for ministers and ex-ministers so that they do not have to sit with the masses whom they represent. The tycoon yearns to have his own private plane, not just for convenience, but to allow personal stretch.
 
Someone once said to me, many years ago, “The higher you go up in life, the lonelier it gets.”  
 
At the pinnacle of success in any field—whether in politics as prime minister or in business conglomerates as chief executive—the feeling will possibly be of Edmond Hillary on Everest. It is the individual, not a group or a crowd. There is room for only one at the top of the pyramid. And the person who accepts this pristine position had better accept this as part of the package. 
 
Most people have to choose between loneliness and aloneness. Loneliness is negative. It is morose. The person yearns for company and does not find it. He feels depressed. It is the feeling of someone who is expecting a friend, but the friend cancels the appointment. And now it is too late to make any other arrangements. 
 
There are others who enjoy large doses of aloneness. Time to be by themselves. Time to think and to reflect. Perhaps, time to plan. They enjoy their own company. They believe that if you do not enjoy your own company, you have no business to inflict it on anyone else.
 
If you do not enjoy aloneness, you run a big risk in higher positions of responsibility. You may be inclined to be overfamiliar with subordinates who report to you. You may be tempted to expose confidences about persons or events. It can be a cause of erosion of authority and respect for the person and the position.  
 
People go to great lengths to protect their privacy and their personal space. Some succeed admirably. Others are not so successful. The duke and duchess of Windsor were quite high-profile people, but they managed to protect their aloneness. They came out and met the press and allowed exposure only when they chose to or wanted to. Princess Diana, on the other hand, found great difficulty in protecting her aloneness. She was constantly hounded by photographers, whether at the gymnasium or at the psychiatrist.
 
In recent times, Howard Hughes was a classic example of a high-profile billionaire who became obsessed with the idea of protecting his aloneness. It was probably his insecurity and the fear that others may rob him. In fact, he went to such lengths that there was a controversy about when he died and how he died!
 
My friend Shyam and his wife used to meet us often, generally on weekends over many years. We were in college at the same time and it was an old and enduring friendship. Either they would visit us, or we would visit them, or we would plan some outing together. Over a period of time, Shyam rose from junior executive to the director of a large company. He acquired a seaside cottage beyond Marve beach and that is where he went every Friday evening to return on Monday morning. We no longer saw him except a few times in the year. He missed most of the dinners/ parties that were planned by friends for the weekend. He had withdrawn himself from the circle of friends and colleagues, into the privacy of his seaside cottage and the luxury of his aloneness.
 
During this same period, my new boss, who had been promoted to director of the company and had come to Mumbai from Kolkata to take over, asked me if I could help him to become a member of a theatre group in the city. He wished to participate and act—something that he had been doing in Kolkata during his stay there. He wanted to be with others—because he enjoyed the company.
 
What is the choice for most of us? It depends on each one’s attitude and aptitude. But it will be good to remember the admonition of a subordinate to his boss who had told him that he could not see him because he had no time. “Sam,” he said, “I hope you never get too busy to meet people because you have built a wall around yourself.”
 
(Some of the material for the article is taken from the book The Winning Manager by Walter Vieira available from Sage/Amazon)
 
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are ‘Marketing in a Digital/Data World’ with Brian Almeida and ‘Customer Value Starvation Can Kill’ with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India)
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