I don’t know what makes good leaders nor do I claim to be one myself. I have failed far more number of times than I have succeeded in meeting the standards that I set for myself. I don’t even know if I am even vaguely qualified to write on a subject like this. There are so many things that you read on leadership which are so powerful and yet seem so distant at times, from the possibility that each one of us inherently possess. There is no absolute truth and the fact that there is no absolute truth, is not an absolute truth in itself! So whatever you read is an impulsive interpretation and I am almost apologetic for even daring to subject you through it, considering that there are people who spend their entire life researching this fascinating area and are far more accomplished, credible in their backgrounds. It’s almost an atonement of sorts for my own failings at times, as a manager of the extraordinary teams, that I have had a privilege of managing so far, who tolerate and accept me, despite that.
But what the hell! Sometimes even a rookie can score by a stroke of luck and I am hoping that’s what happens for your sake, if not mine. The world and time are cyclic they say – whatever is said, has been said earlier and will be said again anyway.
The dominating and the wisest voice in the room
An uncomfortable thought to begin with - sometimes to lead you have to be willing to un-lead – which is simply get out of the way. A lot of overzealous , over eager and highly educated managers, start ‘managing’ the teams without making any effort to build a relationship with the teams – to understand them, to learn from them, before trying to get them to follow and dominate them. I guess ‘domination’ or ‘avoiding domination’ is a fundamental insecurity in every human being, that comes in the way, of what could have been and managers are no exception. This brings me to the first contradiction of the classical imagery of great leadership, that is built around a voice so strong, that dims everyone else’s.
Are you willing to allow others to dominate you? Or at least be with the semblance of the thought that you don’t need to worry about being dominated?
Whether it’s an argument or a criticism or a situation gone horribly wrong – the need to stamp your authority or to be proven right or not be proven wrong, shuts down the self-expression of the team and there is only one person who goes home completely expressed. However the cost of that facile victory is far more than the results that the silence or simply listening to everyone, could have brought. The key question that we need to ask is whether you and I have the generosity and the large heartedness to take criticism from our teams – do they feel empowered that they would not be subjugated or demolished if they bring in a counter view point or an unpleasant ugly truth, that we don’t like to hear really deep down but just have to pretend to.
Sometimes some of the worst communicators as leaders are oddly the ones, who have great command over the language and relatively are more eloquent. The problem is that they are too much in love with their own voice. Most people stop listening after forty five seconds anyway but they are in such awe of their own possible superior knowledge and wisdom – they just keep going on.
When Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely “– I wish he had also told us that while its inevitable, one of the symptoms to catch yourself from marching further into this self-serving glorious path of doom, was to observe – how we dominate others through the sound of our own voice as managers, leaders, administrators – whatever you may want to call them.
I have caught myself so many times when I suddenly realised how intoxicated I was in listening to my own voice in the meetings, trying to solve problems for everyone else, trying to sound smarter, wiser – only to realise later that I don’t need to. If only I listen to the teams or the person sitting next to me, the problem will solve itself and it did miraculously, the moment I started listening to what was being said and what was even not being said.
Sometimes it’s good to just shut up and listen. You don’t have all the answers and it’s all right. Of course even if you speak less, listen well but in your background, the little voice inside your head is saying something that is disempowering others and you – it still doesn’t help. That brings me to the next question that I constantly struggle with but that is where the magic of Un- Leading happens.
Why did you become, who you became?
The context with which we take an action is decisive- I had heard someone say that long time back. It is only much later that I really got how powerful that thought is. Not all of us get to serve the nation as soldiers or serve the sick as nurses or doctors and even in these noble professions, the background with which these professionals operate, will determine their own relative dedication and passion.
From a very early age, being the class prefect or class monitor or even the bus prefect ( we had one in our school with a fancy badge !) has greater association with the title and the power associated with these positions, rather than an opportunity or honour being given to make a difference or be of service to others.
The context is like our soul which drives the physical manifestation of our actions and behaviours.
Nothing wrong with being ambitious or having a goal but for a long time for me personally, getting a professional designation was acceptance of my own ability and validation of my insecure identity of the little tiny place that I hold in the world. It was later that I am realising that the pursuit of levels is an unending one and even when you reach a milestone, it doesn’t satisfy you beyond a point, because the next one opens up. And then the next.
Hard to gulp it down but the only job of a manager is to take care of its people and create an environment where people give their best every day and are truly happy. The egotistical satisfaction that modern corporations created as you move from being an Assistant Vice President to a Vice President to a Corporate Vice President (and more!) is momentary and doesn’t really create great leaders. Infact, commitment has no hierarchy- and so the little game of change of positional power that we play is a trap and keeps you away from the real purpose of being a true leader or a great manager.
Happiness is a funny thing – we spend our entire lives as professionals thinking that if we get to a certain professional level, we would be happy as we would be recognised as successful. The interesting bit is that your happiest moments are the ones where you do something for others selflessly. Now that is where being a manager or leading a large team is such a privilege. I don’t want to sound dreamy or idealistic, but if you are self-serving as a manager and see yourself as the reason for the success of your teams, than you will never be an excellent manager, even though you may be a successful one.
And that is where what drives us every day, becomes critical – between the profit and loss statements, the hard demands of the modern organisations. Can we step back and create a context for ourselves every single day that is not about us but about others, about our teams, our customers who we serve, about making a difference in whichever way, which is inspiring, even though we are not fighting a war or saving a life? Looks simple enough but one of the toughest things to do as we have to give up on what is core to what drives us – our lofty view of ourselves and our dear identity. But that is where we have access to a great leader within us – I think (!).
The Great Emperor and his Nine Jewels
Emperor Akbar was one of the greatest kings that we read about in the Indian history. Legend is that he had nine wonderful ministers in his administration who were called the ‘nine jewels’ of his crown, each one with their own unique skill and quality. If Tansen was a musical genius, Todarmal was an expert in Finance – If Birbal was a man of infinite wisdom and was the chief fun officer (!), Mansingh was the defense expert.
Each one of them brought in their own unique skill set and was valued for the contribution that they made. What made Akbar a great king was his understanding that you can bring together talent with different capabilities, as diverse as they may be and create magic, when these strengths unite.
I wonder if Birbal was given a B minus during his annual performance appraisal for not being good enough on Finance. And Tansen was given an individual development plan to improve on his warrior skills although he was exceed expectations on his musical skills, would Akbarstill be the great leader that he is still remembered as by many?
As managers and future leaders, we tend to become greedy. We may not be perfect ourselves although some of us live in the illusion that we are close enough, but we want our team members to be at great at delivery, great with people, have great planning skills and be able to adapt to any change that the organisation, may throw at them !
So what if the real strength of the person is that he or she is greatly resourceful and has a great sense of humour, which can bring in calmness to the most intense situations. But that is not in the key performance indicator document or the goal sheet, so such characters don’t fit into our mould, of what an ideal employee should be.
The question is whether you as a manager willing to live and prosper with the diversity that is offered to you in your team? Are we willing to work to the relative strengths of our people and nurture that one single extraordinary quality that they may have – are you willing to develop your own ‘ nine jewels’ ?
By the way, why do we want to change our teams when we haven’t been able to do that to ourselves?
Great managers and leaders allow their teams ‘ to be’. The freedom ‘to be’ is the greatest freedom that you can give to anyone whether in our offices, our homes, our societies and the larger world itself. Allowing people to be ‘more of’ who they are, makes them great at what they bring to the table. We break the very spirit of that beautiful, noble quality that a person has which if nurtured, would make us proud.
Just like the character Colonel Frank says in the extraordinary final scene from the movie ‘ Scent of a woman’ where he is defending the young protagonist Charlie :
“ As I came in here, I heard those words: "cradle of leadership." Well, when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and it has fallen here. It has fallen. Makers of men, creators of leaders. Be careful what kind of leaders you're producin' here. I don't know if Charlie's silence here today...is right or wrong; I'm not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: he won't sell anybody out... to buy his future!
And that, my friends, is called integrity. That's called courage.
Now that's the stuff leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew, but I never took it. You know why?
It was too damn hard.
Now here's Charlie. He's come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It's the right path. It's a path made of principle...that leads to character. Let him continue on his journey. You hold this boy's future in your hands, Committee. It's a valuable future, believe me. Don't destroy it. Protect it. Embrace it. It's gonna make you proud one day..
I promise you.