Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

Her lip trembled as She considered her next step. The professor had just finished discussing a particularly challenging case study with the class. As he stood patiently, waiting for the discussion to start, the class quietly contemplated what the company they had discussed about should do next.

Looking at the data She did have a fair idea. But it would be a risky move — risky for the company in the case study to follow, riskier still for her to bring up in class.

Memories of her undergraduate class flooded her mind. The constant taunts of being a know-it-all, the impatient sighs whenever She got up to present. The eye-rolls. She remembered their faces as clear as day, their eyes indicating their frustration as her hand went up in the air once more.

But She was in business school now. Surely it was ok to discuss things and express your opinions here? The people in this class had probably faced eye-rolls of their own. Her mind raced as her hand did a dance on the desk, alternating between rising ever so slightly and cowering in the darkness below. Mustering all her courage, She shot her hand into the air.

Her answer flowed like a gentle stream. She was precise, interspersing her logic with facts and figures to enhance her credibility. Her tone was professional, her manner matter-of-fact and her argument watertight. She could see the proud smile plastered on her professor’s face and felt a little balloon of satisfaction inflate within her. Some of her classmates were nodding in silent approval.

She finished speaking and an excited murmur ran through the class. She couldn’t help feel a great sense of achievement. She had taken a risk, making herself vulnerable to her classmates and it had paid off. She felt the warmth rising from her chest and basked in the afterglow.

And then He spoke.

“Just to piggyback off what She said,” He began and launched into a monologue. Soon, the attention of the class turned from her to him. He had a way about him. He was passionate, articulate, charming even. He spoke as though he was kicking back at a cafe with his friends, discussing the last big football match. His hands didn’t tremble, they instead swayed and gestured like a graceful dancer to the music of his words.

And what words they were!

Tremendous words that She thought She was not worthy of using. Words that made him seem like He was ahead of the game. Words She had only heard being used by the top executives at her previous job.

“Paradigm shift,” He said and the class sat up straight. Damn, He was good. She looked at the faces of her classmates. They were all listening to him, rapt with attention. As they should, She thought. I mean, look at the words he uses!

“Low hanging fruit,” He suggested. She felt herself listening more carefully now. He mimed picking a fruit from a tree. And although there was nothing around him, She was transported immediately to an orchard with rows of apple trees, ready for the picking. He was there as well, in a billowy white shirt, the sun lending its warm glow to his face. He reached out and gripped the nearest apple. He pulled the red, juicy orb off the tree. The snap of the stalk caused little flecks of dew to scatter everywhere. It was as if all time had stopped and there was just him and the apple. Then, bringing the apple to his lips, He took a large bite, smiling smugly.

“Become a change agent.” She snapped back to reality. That was a good one. Why had She not thought of that? Or had She? She shook off the cobwebs and listened more attentively. He was speaking about changing organisational culture from the very top. The CEO would have to demonstrate the change first, He said.

Well, it was a valid point. But, had She not said that in her own argument?

“Synergy,” He continued. His tone seemed to suggest that this was a novel concept, one He had just realised could be applied in the current scenario. But how could that be? Had She not essentially said the same thing only a few minutes ago? Sure, her vocabulary was not as grandiose as his, but her suggestion had been the same.

His monologue was reaching a crescendo now. The words were getting fancier. “Customer journey!” That was a new one. “Bandwidth!” Oh, what a wonderful, technical term! “Deep dive!” Yes, we need to plunge into the ocean of detail. “Leverage!” This one was especially slick. “Agile!” There it was. The biggest key-word in the market.

She looked around the classroom. Her classmates’ eyes were glazed over. They had hopped off his train long back. Yet He continued to speak. There were no exasperated sighs, no snide remarks, no poorly disguised yawns. There were no eye rolls.

Suddenly, the magic had worn off and She could see what was happening in front of her. In a pride of lions, it was the lionesses that did most of the hunting. Yet, it was the lion that was called the King of the Jungle. Loud roars and a larger than life personality was valued more than stalking or hunting skills after all. Having great hair was also a huge bonus. And He certainly had great hair.

The roaring had turned into a kind of perverse chest-beating now. His lion had morphed into a silver-back gorilla fighting for territory. Except, his territory was a great chunk of the class’ respect and admiration. “Digital transformation!” He cried, the chest thumps getting louder. “Big data! Blockchain! Disruption!”

Nobody knew what He was talking about anymore, including Himself. She watched with disgust as her neatly packaged solution was torn apart, only to be reassembled into a grotesque Franken-solution of some sort. All her original logic, data and underlying facts were replaced with empty words and grand gestures. In the great circus that was the business school classroom, He had taken her beautifully crafted balloon animal, deflated it, shredded it to bits and had handed it back to her as though giving her an expensive gift.

And She was supposed to feel grateful. She was expected to giggle and flutter, squealing high praises for his brilliance. Suddenly, his elegant gestures and ornate words seemed not to be adding to his narrative, but compensating for the lack of it. He had a sickly smile on his face, the corners of his eyes were even crinkled, but there seemed to be a strange emptiness behind them. She could see that He had done this before and that He would do it again. With an air of entitlement that was sewn into the very fabric of his being, He would take someone else’s original thoughts and put a big old sticker on it to make it entirely his.

He was close to concluding his speech. The point of the discussion was long forgotten. But He still had one final flourish. “This company desperately needs a holistic approach to its digital transformation journey. One that effectively utilises purpose-driven software to deliver outcomes that matter. They need to change the landscape of their thinking and apply themselves to be the largest disruptors in the market.”

And with that generic, non-conclusion, his monologue finally ended. A swift look at the clock told her that there were precious few minutes left for the class to end. A couple of other students sulked in their seats. Their opinions and ideas would never be heard now. The professor hurriedly made his closing remarks. The student in the far corner had long nodded off into a deep slumber. Some were looking back through the case study, trying to make sense of it all. Meanwhile, He sat back in his chair, barely able to hide the pompous grin on his face.

He thought He had won. Even though He was the only one playing. She initially felt the same. Not only was She angry with him, but She was also disappointed in her classmates and her professor who had allowed this sort of thing to happen. He had stolen her idea, He had hijacked the class, He had made it so that the others’ ideas wouldn’t see the light of day and nobody had said anything. This was business school! This was supposed to be a place filled with professionals, with lionesses — not glorious-haired pretenders to the throne!

And then She finally saw it. The frustrated side glances, the rubbing of eyes, the blank stares and the stiff jaws. This was business school, after all. The class had seen right through Him.

Nothing was said because nothing needed telling. They might have been taken in at first, but they had all caught on pretty quickly. Wasn’t that the same process she had gone through as well? The world had been built as a safe haven for the lions to come out and roar while the lionesses kept them nourished. He had grown up in this world, preparing his whole life to be the lion that inherited everything. But it seemed that his glorious mane had obscured his vision and He had barely noticed as the world passed him by.

The rules of the jungle had changed and He had been too wrapped up in the past to see it.

The professor shuffled his notes and reminded everyone of their next paper due as the class trudged out. A few stragglers stayed behind to talk amongst themselves. A few rushed to the professor, no doubt presenting their untold ideas to him. She sat in her seat taking it all in. The cackling faces from her undergraduate class slowly faded from her memory where they had made an almost permanent spot for themselves. They would be replaced with a new challenger now.

She smiled fondly at the memories. Those days had been hard, sure. Cruel words and gestures leave a lasting impression, affecting the lives they touch long after they are uttered. The loneliness of the corner seat still felt harrowingly close. But through all the mockery and the lunch breaks spent with her nose buried in a novel, She had never stopped raising her hand. And for better or for worse She had continued putting herself through the same misery every single day, just to be heard. And now She knew that She would have to do the same here in this fancy business school, thousands of miles from home.

This time, She was ready. This time, She was not alone.

The classroom was now empty save for the professor who was buttoning up his jacket, ready to go home. “Are you alright?” he asked, approaching her seat with an empathetic look in his eyes. The years spent fighting off idea thieves in the world of academia were showing on his kind face.

“It happens you know,” he continued. “Some people can never see past themselves. Some people never get the point.”

“I’m alright,” She replied. And She really was.

The professor sensed her self-assuredness and let the topic slide. “What did you think of His great speech, though?” he asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

There were so many adjectives that came to her mind. Pretentious. Insolent. Unoriginal. While any of them would have been perfectly alright to use, She didn’t want to give the matter any more thought than it deserved.

She rolled her eyes instead.

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