On Success, Brilliance, Arrogance, and Avarice – Reflections on Rajat Gupta

It is a pity that a person with academic brilliance, who rose to become first Indian CEO of an American Corporation had found himself in this situation. Greed only could be the reason for his downfall.
Subhas Tipirneni (Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rajat Gupta since his conviction. I felt sorry for Rajat Gupta and his family. I couldn’t understand why. I wanted to write a piece which would try to answer the question, “Why am I feeling sorry for Rajat Gupta?” I didn’t think I had any emotional investment in Rajat Gupta’s plight. I knew that he was successful, bloody successful, but didn’t think too much about him otherwise. Even when I followed the trial via the New York Times and India Abroad, it was just another news story to me. I’ve never been a fan of identity politics, and don’t think that accidental geographical, social, and cultural connections call for deeper empathy. That couldn’t explain it. It couldn’t be because I thought white collar criminals deserved sympathy. I didn’t feel sorry for Raj Rajaratnam, or Martha Stewart when they got convicted, even though I thought the latter got a bum rap. As I sat to write the piece, it was difficult to explain it. And so I dug a little more into Rajat Gupta. The title of this piece changed from ‘Why Am I Feeling Sorry for Rajat Gupta’ to ‘On Success, Brilliance, Arrogance, and Avarice – Reflections on Rajat Gupta ’.

My central thesis is that the Rajat Guptas of the world are no different from a whole bunch of us, on the positive and negative sides of the ledger. While he did contribute to his success and downfall, luck, circumstances, and a whole bunch of other factors played a role in the rise and fall of Rajat Gupta. It behooves us not to think of ‘successful’ people as being more brilliant and deserving than most of us when we see them on top, and, we should stop thinking that we would have acted more appropriately than them if we were put in whatever situation brought them down.

The two broad bumper stickers versions of the Rajat Gupta story are either that he was a wonderful, brilliant, honest, person (see piece by Sandip Madan and a piece in India’s Economic Times), or that he was a man who thought the rules did not apply to him, and over time became greedy. Put simply, he was less than the picture of integrity that his supporters paint of him (for this narrative see Gupta Secretly Defied McKinsey Before SEC Tip Accusation and How Rajat Gupta Came Undone). However, I think it is a little more complicated.

On Success and Brilliance
In what follows I define success in very narrow terms – as accumulating money, power, and prestige. I do realize that this is a rather inadequate way to think about success, but it is appropriate for our present purposes, for more or less this is what people mean when they speak of people as being successful.

I contend that the brilliance attributed to Gupta is a function of his success in a world where the link between ability and success is readily assumed. I’d like to propose that in reality while Rajat Gupta was many good things, there was nothing unique about his brilliance or decency. Without ever having met him, I would like to suggest that I ‘know’ Rajat Gupta. I cannot relate to someone who grew up an orphan from when he was sixteen, or to someone whose net worth is more than a few million dollars. But I do know the type who went to Modern School, and IIT, and HBS, and then joined McKinsey. I knew plenty of those types. They were my school and college mates. And I am suggesting that a reasonable number of people of Rajat’s socio-economic ilk could have achieved the success that he did given a little luck and the right opportunity at the appropriate time. What I am saying is that when we were growing up, a number of my school mates (some of whom are my friends) would have been indistinguishable from Rajat Gupta. Ex-ante, I knew many Rajat Guptas. Their names are Ajay Shetty, Ramdas Nagarajan, Rajesh Gupta, Narendra Baliga, Rajeev Gowda, Senthil Chengalvarayan, Harish Devarajan, and the late Srinath Veeraraghavan, and… – all very bright and completely capable of being Rajat Guptas. And these were just the males.

What I am suggesting is that luck and events beyond Rajat Gupta’s control played an incredible role in his successful career. This is precisely the point that Michel Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball) made in his commencement speech at Princeton – “My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either. “

To equate success and brilliance is a mistake we make regularly. The attribution of brilliance to successful people is simply a case of the post hoc ergo procter hoc fallacy – because he is successful he must be brilliant, just like, the sun rose because the rooster crowed. The successful have an obvious reason to perpetuate this myth, and the not so successful do not point it out because, if they do, they will look like green eyed monsters trying to rationalize their lack of success. If there is one quality that might be a significant difference between those who achieve success (in the wealth, power, and prestige kind of way) and those who don’t, it might be that those who are successful are a lot more driven and ambitious, and care a lot more for fame and fortune. In many people’s books, that is not a positive.

On Arrogance and Avarice
What made Rajat Gupta’s reputation as a successful person different from a whole host of others was that he was seen as a man of integrity, who got unintentionally caught in unfortunate circumstances. Sandip Madan, says in a blog post, “The world is a better place because of his work at McKinsey and after, including with the Gates Foundation, the American India Foundation, and in his helping set up ISB, the best business school in India. And this is in addition to his grace, generosity and goodwill towards those who came into personal contact with him.” And in another blogpost, he says, “Rajat’s approachability and helpfulness has apparently proved to be his undoing.” The eminent economist, Jagdish Bhagwati said in an interview, “There will be cynicism among some people, but the vast majority will see him as a good man, who got caught on the wrong side of the street.” In fact, there is a website friendsofrajat.com, where a number of people have attested to his integrity, decency, and goodness.

In contrast to the good person who messed up perspective, a number of folks have argued that arrogance and avarice were his undoing. Once successful people are called brilliant and adulated by many, they start believing that they are brilliant. Gupta told the Chicago Tribune, “I know consensus says McKinsey is white and traditional, but I am testimony to the fact that image isn’t true.”  To India’s Business Today he said “McKinsey is truly a meritocracy. I don’t think anybody would have considered for too long whether I was Indian or American.” (as reported in mummbaimirror.com). And success also transforms their motivations and actions. Georges Ugeux, (a Wall Street type) is reported as having said, “They start to believe they are so brilliant, they are so powerful, and they behave like they are above the law.” Gurucharan Das, is reported to have said, “As head of McKinsey he was associating with CEOs and billionaires earning very large sums. His job was to advise people with a lot of capital, not to be an owner of capital. He got new ambitions.”

It was rather interesting to hear the conversations between Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta, and Raj Rajaratnam and Anil Kumar, which give indications of Rajat Gupta wanting to move from the millionaire’s circle to the billionaire’s circle. Both these conversations are evidence of a number of things including how slimy the underbelly of high finance is, and how the script for a show called ‘Real House Husbands of High Finance’ would read.

It seems to me that the hypothesis that Rajat Gupta became a victim of arrogance and avarice, while true in one sense, is both unkind and simplistic. I think once you cross certain thresholds of success you redefine the world in ways in which the rules that exist for some no longer exist for you. In some scenarios this redefinition is real, in others it isn’t. In some cases you can get away with your new found sense of the rules of the game, and in other cases you cannot. My guess is that this endogenous, psychological transformation and reframing of ones’ relations to the world by those who are bloody successful is something that those of us who have not tasted it cannot fathom. Which leads us to be judgmental and say things like, “If I had $80 million, I would never have,” or, “What makes them that greedy?”, or… But I think more humility, and a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ attitude amongst the less successful among us is worth contemplating.

David Brooks had a wonderful piece in the New York Times after the Penn State football scandal titled, ‘Lets All Feel Superior‘. In the piece Brooks argues, “First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults. Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption.”

While the context is different, I think that none of us can make the assumption that once we reach Guptaian heights of success our motivations and behavior will not change in ways which we cannot fathom now. None of us should claim that we would have acted more appropriately than Rajat Gupta if we found ourselves in his shoes. Note, that’s not the same as saying, we don’t hope that we would act differently. My guess is that now even Rajat Gupta hopes he had acted differently.

Conclusion

There is much more that one can reflect on in the context of the Rajat Gupta affair including the reaction of the Indian-American community and the Indian business community (in India). But I’ll stop here. For the record, I still feel a deep sense of sorrow for Rajat Gupta and his family. And I still cannot explain why.

P.S. I am grateful to Ajay Shetty for a helpful conversation as I was framing these thoughts.

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