Newton: Lessons for young executives
On 22 September 2017, a rare intelligent Hindi film released in the theatres across India. On the very same day, the film was also selected as India’s entry for the Oscars. ‘Newton’ is the story of a young election officer called Newton, who comes up against the dark reality of Indian democracy deep within the forest area of Chattisgarh. There are no major spoilers below so you can safely read through the article if you haven’t yet seen the film.
It’s the story that showcases how many of us are wide-eyed and idealistic at the start our careers but over time become jaded and corrupt. Newton, the eponymous character in the film, is the new guy who is an idealist that wants to change the world. Others however, have gotten used to 'things' as they are. Their experiences have shaped their worldview, something that Newton is unable to see as a newbie. And so, he takes a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach and ends up rubbing people the wrong way. He reeks of, what another character in the film calls, ‘the arrogance of honesty’ and this is at the root of his problems. He’s not the one to humour others to get his work done. Just the fact that he’s doing his job gives him the confidence to tick people off.
Of course his is a difficult situation to be in. The reality of the forest is gruesome and depressing. The world cannot change in a day, and his actions, however noble and well-intentioned, are unlikely to make even a dent in the world of the tribals. But that is no reason to not try. The world has only moved forward only because of people like him.
There are some important lessons for all of us, who work in teams or lead them, to learn from the film. Here are 3 that I thought were the most important:
Except for the fact that Newton is the ranking officer in the crew, there is no reason for anyone to follow his orders. Of course there is an official obligation but it has its limits. Aatma Singh, the local army commander, has his troops with him and knows the forest and the rule book by heart, and yet that doesn’t cow down Newton. He believes in his cause and is willing to stand up against everyone. He doesn’t mind that he and his methods are unpopular. He is willing to be a stickler to rules, and in way is like a party pooper for them.
Many a times, we let go of our convictions in the face of hard reality. We turn crowd pleasers because we hate confrontations. That is not so with Newton. He backs himself, unmindful of the odds against him, and when push comes to shove, is willing to face death in the service of his ideals. If it wasn’t for the ‘rightness’ of the cause he espouses, he would be termed a fanatic. And that’s why it’s important to listen to the ‘other’ point of view.
Listen to the ‘other’ side
That’s easier said than done of course. In the film, Newton is dependent on Singh who’s spent years patrolling the forest. His world-view has been shaped by years of strife and violence. He’s seen young boys die under his command and doesn’t feel a 'silly' election is worth losing more. There’s the cynicism of a man who’s spent way too much time in the system to see through it and realises its meaninglessness.
Instead of trying to understand his point-of-view, Newton is brusque. His intentions are correct but his approach leaves a lot to be desired. It comes across as rude and immediately distances the commander from him, creating a rift between them, which leads to all sorts of complications going forward.
Maybe if Newton had not been so prickly, he might’ve gotten off on a better footing with Aatma Singh and a viable partnership of sorts could’ve been formed. He could then, have influenced Singh to do his bidding. Of course, it’s naïve to believe that the old pro that Singh is, would’ve been easily influenced by Newton. But at least he would have a channel of communication open that could’ve resulted in a less stressful working relationship.
Communicate with your team
Newton has a team of three election officials, two of whom are older and more experienced than him. With them too he is uncompromising but a little more friendly. His team doesn’t necessarily agree with him or his methods but goes along for he is the ranking officer. Newton doesn’t make a conscious attempt to befriend them but is forced to indulge in small chat.
Many undervalue the importance of small talk. It’s a great way of opening up a channel of communication between people as well as reveal their histories and motivations to us. Only when Newton is forced to talk with them does he get a better insight into his team and their stories. This helps humanise them and create a bond, however small, between them. It lightens the mood and creates a sort of camaraderie between them that would’ve otherwise been impossible.
Newton is acting as the boss who is fixated on getting the job done, whatever the cost. He doesn’t do a great job of communicating with his team and in the process loses their support too as they shift camp and begin to toe the line with Singh instead.
In the movie Newton is the ‘hero’, but not quite a ‘leader’ of people yet, and thats okay. But for you, it might make sense to see, how you could internalise these learnings.