Looking for solutions

With ill-will towards none

In our school days, we were told that a clash of ideas sheds light (du choc des idées jaillit la lumière). It meant that where there were serious differences of opinion on issues, one should expect something positive to come out of the situation. So, when we participated in debates, we had a predisposition that the side which better defends its position will shed light on why its view of things is worthier of consideration. The public was a jury, other than the official jury, that would, after the debate, pick up and extol our valour for forceful arguments made or nice deliveries of language even though we lost a debate.

Two or three of us would team up in one of the debates but that did not prevent us from pairing the next time over with the person who we were opposed to in the previous debate. There was no personal rancour. No one was permanently banished from our ambit for having held views different from those we ourselves held.

Yes, because of their finer diction, eloquence or personalities, some were generally considered as better debaters from among whom our school champions would be picked up for the important battle of opinions later on with the “other school” we didn’t hold that high in esteem. The same culture of trying to convince the other side of the better worth of our ideas prevailed even as we matured up in college. But picking up the best among us was a mark of respect, not of superiority or inferiority. The lookout was always for the constructive middle ground of conciliation and progress. It became the stable base on which most of our convictions in life rested: there are at least two sides to each story.

When I think about those genuine moments of exchange, I cannot help regretting that the same spirit of fairness and seeking for a common solution to difficulties we face in life is becoming so absent today. The more so, when it is the international good standing of the nation and one of one of its key public institutions that is at stake.

Consider the Air Mauritius problem which came out in public last Friday. The board decided to sack the CEO. It appears to be tearing apart the two sides: i) those who hold that Megh Pillay was the best CEO Air Mauritius could have had in the airline’s present circumstances and that he should not have been revoked by the Board of the company; ii) those who see an embattled Board taking a hasty but expedient decision involving sacrificing the company’s CEO to be free of the ineluctable confrontational situation at the top.

Is Air Mauritius better off as a result of this fight of personalities in the public arena? Not many people would think that it was good strategy to expose publicly fissures in the decision-making process at the top of our national airline. At least, this is not a helpful image to project to the world at large. Despite the ramshackle state it has landed into from time to time due to wrong political choices made and dubious administrative decisions taken, landing the company into dire financial conditions, it has managed to keep its head above water so far. With the change of management, it appeared headed towards better financial conditions.

At a time when well-known airlines have gone bankrupt and ceased operations, one just has to go to influential international media like the BBC to see how even well-reputed airlines (Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Turkish, Etihad) are advertising themselves extensively and struggling to woo customers worldwide and thus protect themselves from impending danger in a lacklustre world economy fraught with terrorist risks. This is where Air Mauritius should have been going to. Not to prioritise infighting ending up exposing in public a clash between its management and its board. Not to expose a situation in which a section of its management might be taking questionable policy decisions outside its CEO’s knowledge but with tacit defiant support from the board.

A good business culture would have required in-house differences to be sorted out in a gentlemanly manner, not in favour of particular lobbies or interests, but in the overall best interests of the airline’s future. It was through a process of soft internal debate that differences should have been dealt with before they ever go public, if at all. The national airline, already affected by the poor culture of other airlines it is in alliance with, should have been given the chance to turn around and shine again by this kind of internal give-and-take process.

Who benefits, one may ask, with this unwholesome public display of internal discord? Surely, not Air Mauritius. Nor its board and management which immaturely exposed, to the utter discouragement of staff, stakeholders and the public at large, that the individuals over there were not apt to seek and obtain middle ground. In the best interests of the company and not for glorifying the personal quests of the individuals forming part of its management and board.

The public debate soon centred on which one of the two sides was to blame, not on identifying solutions that would immediately reconcile differences to repair the damage done by the board’s impetuous decision to go the whole hog to sack the CEO who dared challenge what he believed were miscalculated policies. Might is not always right and un-debated intolerance is the hallmark of weak boards. It was imperative to stop the harm and get back to normal again before the fight at the top had travelled to the irreparable region.

History has shown that neither Board nor CEO should have a dominant influence in the affairs of a company (or, what is the same, engage in a sterile fight-to-the-finish of exacerbated egos on either side) to the point of bringing the company to its knees. Parameters for both parties are clearly set out in our own National Code of Corporate Governance. The Board gives policies and the Management, in constant discussion with the Board, operates within those policy parameters. It is sheer poor opportunism to seek to drive unnecessary wedges between the two sides when reconciliation in the higher national interest should have been the priority.

No one side is infallible or endowed with superior enough wisdom or employed to neutralize each other. It’s a job of bouncing ideas around until the best ideas are found and everybody is comfortable to adopt them. Had the give-and-take debating virtues been cultivated and had the necessary discretion prevailed in-house, we could have avoided a scandal we can ill-afford at a moment our economy is beset by a tense international economic situation.

Anil Gujadhur

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