I graduated at a time, when all kind of bubble and bursts were on. Even the illustrious, IITians were having a tough time finding jobs. While that was humbling enough, I was fortunate to work with some of the best companies and leaders in the industry. This has helped me build a certain perspective on leadership in my corporate life of last decade or so.
I disagree to the common understanding that leadership is a skill that one can get trained on. I believe it is an ‘experience’ one attains by being in situations of success, failure, ambiguity, adversity and complexity. This need not be, the years spent in industry but the ‘experiences’ itself, both work as well as life. As rightly put across by Anil Sachdev (Ex Grow Talent Founder) in one of his interview,”Leadership is 70% experience, 20% right exposure and 10% classroom interventions”. I would like to think of leader as an artist who inspires people and their life with his or her creativity!
- Listens: This was written by a kid on the wall of our health club “5 communication skills are Listening , Reading ,Writing, Speaking ,Presenting”. I was about to pass it on as ‘oh how nice’, but realized, a lot of us follow the reverse of it. Tom Peter sums it up well in one of his videos, “Leaders should shut up and Listen” .There is a tendency to substitute listening with knowhow. Listening patiently to vendors, employees and customers is must for a market that changes faster than your Facebook update.
- Rolls up the sleeve: My first boss was a 60 year old sports crazy, corporate veteran. His enthusiasm to get hands on, while solving problems was contagious. We were bunch of 20 something and would always be amazed at the excitement with which he would say, “let me help you here” or “why don’t we try this?” I love leaders who can show how it is done, rather than “I can only show you the direction” kinds. Great example of this is demonstrated in my favourite movie “Matrix”, where Morpheus makes ‘Neo’ believe in his skills by actually showing how it is done through simulations. Going a step beyond is by helping people discover ‘why’ they might want to do it.
- Has the Patience of a Mother: Mothers go through 9 months of labor, followed by a painful delivery. All this while she does everything to nurture the child. She knows there is no shortcut and waits patiently. The idea is to have a healthy child which will grow and live for long. Like a mother, the patience of a leader is put to test constantly. Unfortunately, for many, the focus shifts from nurturing to achieving quarterly numbers. This quest for short term growth kills the process of nurturing, resulting in a weak child ready to fall sick any time.
- Thinks Blue Ocean: W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne summarize their 238 page book on Blue Ocean strategy in one phrase “Don’t compete with Rivals – make them Irrelevant”. Leaders have a choice to either focus on the obvious i.e. competition, constraints and contracts or on Blue ocean which is uncontested market space, ripe for growth. You can actually extend this thought process beyond markets to everything that Leaders do. The other way to look at it is, Leaders have to align their resources to opportunities rather than problems, as rightly said by Peter Drucker in his iconic book “Managing for Results”.
- Disconnects from Work: I recently interacted with Krish Ashok, who is an Innovation Leader at TCS. He is also an open source enthusiast, an amateur Rubyist, a classical violinist, guitarist, an amateur cellist, ex Radio Jockey and so on. In one of his talks, Ashok emphasizes, how active interests promote fresh thinking and creativity. Studies also confirm the same, that engaging in hobbies develop multiple parts of our brain and flexes the muscles that helps while facing complexities at work. No doubt, some of the best work ideas I get, are during my music sessions!
- Is a perennial learner: Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft, buys more books than he can read and signs up for more courses than he can complete. In his letter to employees Satya says, “I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things”. Learning is a lifelong act and continuous learning ensures that the Leader stays relevant and ready! One way to learn for life is, to be a follower first, as admitted by S. Dhanabalan, the high profile ex Chairman of Temasek Holdings, in one of his interview.
- Puts People before Profits: According to a survey conducted by PWC & Sratoga, India Inc’s investment in people is just about 1.6% of cost of wages. This is half of what is being done in US. “Given the realities it should be the opposite” says, Ravi Venkatesan in his book “Conquering the Chaos”. He further points out that, while talent management should be the priority for every CEO, the reality is very different. Hence the gaps in succession planning are evident and external hiring becomes the only choice, with companies chasing for the same talents. By Investment in talent, I don’t just mean training, but also caring for the team members to ensure they grow and unleash their real potential. John C. Maxwell, the author of 360 degree leadership sums it up really well “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
- Is not failure proof: I asked a friend from head hunting firm; “What are key areas she asses in a potential candidate?” She said “Work Experience, Competency and Job Fit”. I further probed, “What do you mean by Work Experience?” Her answer was “how successful the candidate has been in education and work?” More than 90 % of recruitment happen basis this principle. No one assess candidate’s failures in right context, leave alone the life experiences. The idea is not to uncover why he or she failed, but to see, if they jumped back from it! The world is filled with such examples of Leaders who first failed. Bill Gates (Microsoft), Henry Ford (Ford), Colnel Sanders (KFC) to name a few. Tea Bag analogy in Prakash Iyer’s book “The Secrets of Leadership” explains it wonderfully. The way the true flavor of a tea bag comes when put in hot water, the true character of a leader shines through adversity and complexity.
- Believes in disposition and not position: “I am looking for leadership role” said one of my peers during an informal chat. While I wondered what he meant, he rattled about open positions and titles like Director, VP et al. John C. Maxwell in his book 360 degree leadership puts it across rightly, “Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” Leadership is about disposition. The primary objective of a leader exhibiting disposition is to inspire and motivate the team. Ability to provide for the future, known as visioning, respecting diversity, accepting differences and being open to feedback are few other ways.
- Trusts like a child: As an alliances professional, I get to see the importance of trust almost every day, especially while managing conflicts. In scenarios where I see an established trust, the conflicts are less, sales cycles are smoother, and less time is spent on emails and arriving at agreements. The reverse is true for scenarios of Trust deficit! What is scary, which some leaders don’t realize, is that lack of trust has an economic cost. It impacts every part of the business value chain (employee, vendors, customers’ et al). For a Leader, there can’t be a better way of building trust, than meeting people, asking open ended question and listening intently. Dhoni, the celebrated Indian cricket captain has exemplified this. Most cricketing enthusiast would remember India’s match in 2007 ICC World T20 final against Pakistan, where Dhoni gives the last over to Joginder Sharma who doesn’t have much of a track record. India goes on win that crucial semi final match. It takes lot of guts to make such a decision. While most leaders are good at spotting good talent, it’s only the extraordinary, who trust them and give a chance to prove.
I believe leadership is an art and every leader is an artist. So like art it is very difficult to confine leadership to boundaries and its style varies depending on the context the leader operates in. But the fundamental principles I elaborated remain the same. It is about one life influencing other.