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This article was first published 16 years ago  » Business » To Sir, for dollars

To Sir, for dollars

By Devangshu Datta in New Delhi
November 10, 2007 14:19 IST
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Would you rather have $1 million or a knighthood?

One of India's better business schools recently asked hopefuls to write a 300-word essay on this subject. Given the format, there is no "right" answer. The school is seeking coherent, logical arguments couched grammatically.

However, there is a "right" answer that one can arrive at logically by asking two simple questions. One: Can you buy a knighthood for $1 million? The answer is no. It's handed out to serious achievers or to civil servants (the real-life equivalents of Sir Humphrey Appleby and George Smiley) who have done their bit for the British crown.

One famous knighthood involved a conversation between Cecil Rhodes and Maharani Victoria that went as follows. Queen V: "What have you been doing since we last met, Mr Rhodes?" Rhodes: "I have added two dominions to your majesty's empire." Queen V: "Thank you, Sir Cecil!"

Question Two: Do people with knighthoods generally possess net worth in excess of $1 million? The answer is yes. Some like Richard Branson and Paul McCartney possess a great deal more. Others like Tim Berner-Lees and Ian Botham are in a position to raise much larger sums due to the very achievements that brought them knighthoods.

Ergo, it makes more sense to grab the knighthood, assuming Mrs Philip Windsor is prepared to offer you one. I presume that this baldly mercenary answer can be framed in more acceptable terms that state the implicit brand value associated with a knighthood equates to more than $1 million. One could easily spend the required verbiage waffling about brand valuation and the like.

It was very interesting that both sides of the scale were denominated in foreign assets — the question is roughly  equivalent to:"Would you rather have a Bharat Ratna or Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million)?"

A knighthood is a British title; USD American currency. An Indian citizen cannot accept the former (it involves swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen Across the Water). Nor is he likely to possess the latter unless he's a successful exporter or hawala racketeer.

Is this denomination in terms of foreign assets a subtle and deliberate attempt to force B-School aspirants away from their cultural moorings and compel them to think globally? After all, the successful graduates of this institution will spend large portions of their lives grappling with cross-border transactions.

Whether you're bribing a Sudanese Warlord in USD to allow you to explore for oil and gas, or negotiating euro payments to a super-model to endorse your products, you need a globalised mindset to work out cost-benefit ratios. The sooner you move away from thinking in parochial terms the better.

Then again, framing it this way could be implicit acceptance of the fact that most B-School applicants belong to a demographic united primarily by a desire to find hard currency employment. Or it could be simply a reflection of the question-setter's own globalised mindset. 

To my mind, the subject pushes the boundaries of conventional thought just a bit but not enough to lead into heretical territory. It's a great pity it doesn't go further. One of my favourite essay questions of this type is: "Would you cheat on a business ethics exam rather than fail it?" 

In the era of Sarbanes-Oxley, Clause 49, Enron and Telgi, this is not a trivial subject and the answers could be very illuminating. Everyone will say "no" but they will say it in different ways. I actually know one gent who got caught cheating in an ethics exam. That episode continues to haunt his otherwise successful career because it caused much hilarity at his college and comes up on the front page of any Google search on his name.

Another question I have always wanted to ask: "Would you back a mass-murderer who wins votes because he is an efficient mass-murderer?" We already have answers to that one from the political establishment. I wonder what the answers would be in a B-School entrance exam?

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Devangshu Datta in New Delhi
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