Upon starting my blog in 2010, I did a comprehensive piece on Leadership (my three favourite words all start with L: Lyn (my wife), Love and Leadership): ‘Leadership In The Navy – Past, Present And Future’ and then later, having joined India’s largest corporate, I did another piece: ‘Ten Things To Avoid As A Leader’, which reflected my observations of the environment around me.
My fascination with Leadership continues. Many of you are already aware of my Facebook page (one of the sixteen groups and pages that I administer) called ‘Make Your Own Quotes’. I started it three years back in Feb 13 and on Facebook I see many people around the world sharing these quotes. I have maintained that even though great men and women inspire us, we can be our own teacher and be guided by our own quotes. The analogy of Law comes to mind. Despite all the complexities introduced by the lawyers and the judges and the other court officials to have exclusive right (and hence add to their income) over the wranglings in the courts, the fact is that all Law is Commonsense (Please read: ‘The Great Indian Judicial Circus’ and ‘Why Do Indian Lawyers Behave Like Gods?’) It is the same with lessons of life. As I have given in the description of the page: ‘There is nothing simpler than giving sane advice; you don’t have to follow great teachers. Make your own quotes and let others follow you!’
Leadership too is as easy as that. If you love what you are doing, you would be a great Leader and great Subordinate too; the fact is that good subordinates make good leaders too.
It has been over a year since I started with the Leadership Lessons series. Let me take you on the tour of the simple, common-sense quotes that I have made on the subject.
The first one is about the natural linkage of Leadership with Love. A mother, for example, loves her child. She would shower all her love on the child and yet correct his/her mistakes and make sure that he/she is able to stand on his/her feet on its own.
Lord Nelson, as an example, was like that. When he died there were tears in the eyes of his sailors. Indian Navy’s own former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral RL Pereira was like that too. After his demise, many who hadn’t even served under his command came to pay homage.
Your intention is read by people you command better when you love. There ia no confusion in their minds. They know that you mean well even when you are harsh with them sometimes. Here is, therefore, my first lesson in leadership. As a corollary permit me to bring out that a put-up act of love so as to enhance your leadership value can be disastrous.
The next quote is based on the same advice that came my way: Good Leaders have Good Men. When I listened to this advice for the first time, I started thinking that there appears to be something amiss and it cannot be a complete advice by itself. For example, what happens if a leader is stuck with bad men that he has to lead? And then gradually it dawned on me that good leaders always bring out the best in people and they emerge as good men even if they started being bad men.
Hence, if you ever come across a leader who constantly cribs about the caliber of people he is asked to lead, you can be certain that he isn’t quite the leader he pretends to be
In the corporate in which I worked (the largest corporate in India), I have come across the so-called leaders who would be fussy about such petty matters as Font Size and Font Colours of presentations. Indeed, I used to notice that discussions on other matters used to be stymied in comparison to such petty matters; the forte’ of some of the super-leaders. The desire to be somehow in control of everything through detailed instructions about such insignificant matters was the stuff they loved.
I noticed, to my dismay, that the style of Leadership with some of the people that I associated with was Leadership-for-Effect. It was as if there was a dire need to establish such relationship as would obtain the maximum influence. However, I was amazed how quickly people saw through all this. Indeed, my own assessment is that an average leader with good intent is much better than an outstanding leader with bad intent. In the latter variety was our former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with excellent communication skills and outstanding efficiency. She, however, did enormous damage to the long-established institutions in the country by declaring Emergency when her own election was set aside by the Allahabad High Court.
Yes indeed great leaders are blessed with great communication skills. However, I came across some with great communication skills and almost zero listening skills. These persons would give you a chance to speak about one or two percent of the time in a meeting. These people would then hog all the time in giving solutions to problems that they had perceived without listening to anyone fully. Every new situations were quickly compared by them with one of the previous ones in their previous appointments and solution provided. Most people didn’t quarrel with the solution lest they should embark on another of his self-congratulatory harangues.
Now, here one has to be very judicious. One has to stay focused on the objective with single-minded resolve. However, one doesn’t have to be rigid and continue with the selected plan even if one knows that it is leading to disaster. In case of contingencies, even if one’s plan is an excellent one, one has to have an alternate plan ready. Many people get emotionally involved with their plans and think that ditching the plan would be akin to a lover ditching his beloved.
When I was in school, in our Hindi class, we used to have an anecdote about a mathematician who, in his journey with his family, came across a river. He fathomed the depth next to the bank and then the slope; he did some quick calculations and asked his family to cross the river. Within no time, in front of his eyes, the complete family perished. Undeterred, he again fathomed the depth and the slope and did his calculations again and said: “Abhi to jyun kaa tyun, kunba dooba kyun?” (My calculations still hold true; why did the family perish?”
A good leader is always a good subordinate. He isn’t a megalomaniac who considers himself above the rest of his team. He is one of them. Hence, he never gives advice that he won’t follow himself.
When I was small, my dad told me this tale and I find it very relevant to the point that I am making:
In the hills of Kangra (in Himachal Pradesh) there once was a wise saint. He appeared to have miraculous powers. The ill and needy walked for several miles to seek his advice. Once, there was a middle-aged lady who walked all of eight miles in the hills and brought her seven years old boy with her. She stood in the queue whole day to see the saint. Finally, when her turn came, she told the saint that her son’s teeth were getting bad as he had a sweet-tooth and voraciously ate all kinds of sweets. She had told him several times to break the habit but it was of no avail. The saint told her to come the next week.
The next week she again went through the ordeal and when she narrated her son’s problem, the saint asked her to come the next week. This continued for four weeks and the woman was getting more and more annoyed with the saint for having made a simple problem complex. Finally, at the fifth visit, the saint kept a hand at the back of the lad and told him, “Son, tomorrow onward please give up eating sweets.”
The woman was quite cheesed off. She went home incensed. However, the next day onward she found that her son had given up eating sweets. She was elated but knew that she must get back to the saint and give him her piece of mind.
This time, she broke the queue, charged in with rage and let the saint have it: “Five times I walked eight miles each to seek your advice. At the end of it all that you did was to tell him not to eat sweets. If it was as simple an advice as that, why couldn’t you tell the first time?”
This is what the saint said calmly, “When you came the first time, and narrated your son’s problem, I realised I had the same problem. I thought, before giving him advice, I would be able to break the habit within a week and hence I called you. I then realised that though I had cut down a little on sweets, I still couldn’t give up. This continued and once I had finally abandoned sweets, I knew I could then give advice to your son with moral authority”.
Have a look at the following and recall all your seniors who gave you sane advice but never seemed to follow it themselves and see if that advice ever helped you:
I have come across many a leader who was quick to take the credit if things went right or met with success. However, he was quick to make a volt-face the moment things appeared to go askew.
It isn’t true that god leaders don’t make mistakes. However, they don’t make the same mistake twice and also shoulder responsibility for it.
Leaders are not super human beings. They are human beings. However, they never show they are overwhelmed by situations. One of the signs of being overwhelmed by a situation is to lose temper. The fact is that there is no situation so bad in which you can’t lose your temper and make it worse. A good leader does his home-work before handling a situation. He thinks of the situations and contingencies that may arise during the execution of his plan and is prepared when and if the situation develops. This becomes a second nature with him. As a result, even when a situation develops suddenly, he knows what to do.
I have come across many people who, in order to impress their subordinates about the complexity of the problem, keep driving into them how such problems required extremely intricate solutions. A good leader, on the other hand, puts himself in the shoes of his subordinates and gives them not the product of his confusion but of the clarity of his mind. A good leader never complicates things but explains to his people in simple terms.
When the modern trend of making simple things complex started in 1970s, by management experts who laughed all the way to their banks selling complex management jargon, there was an anecdote of door-to-door salesman selling toys. He came across what he called his most modern toy that was also most expensive. He explained to the mother, “The aim of the toy is to put together these pieces. Any which way your child would do it, would be wrong.”
The chips are down, all hell has broken loose, and the task is really very difficult. The team is getting increasingly frustrated and full of doubts whether they would be able to finally get it right. The leader himself has doubts but he doesn’t transmit these to his team. He transmits to them hope. He makes them see the silver lining.
Two examples come to my mind:
One is about Aamir Khan movie Lagaan (Tax). People of Aamir Khan’s village produce crops but do pay a substantial portion of their earnings as Lagaan to their British masters. Once, the British challenge them to play a game of cricket with them and if they (the villagers) would succeed, they would be excused Lagaan for three years. They had never played cricket before. They start learning. A few days before the match, they are full of doubts. That’s the time when Aamir Khan steps in and makes them see the silver lining. They eventually win.
The second is about Christopher Columbus:
“Behind him lay the grey Azores,
Behind the gates of Hercules.
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only the shore-less seas.
The good mate said, “Now must we pray,
For, lo, the very stars are gone.
Brave adm’ral, say, what should we pray.”
“Why, pray, sail on, sail on and on”.
Loyalty is something that can’t be demanded. It has to be earned. People may follow your instructions because of various compulsions such as you are their employer and responsible for their salary, promotions and retention. However, they are loyal to you only when they know you are deserving of it. It is the best gift they can give you. When they are loyal, they work in your best interest even when you haven’t given them specific instructions; and many a times they keep you from harming yourself by doing the right thing. Many a corporate follow hire-and-fire policies exploiting and manipulating their employees. The danger in those is that employees, when they find a better jobs, leave them.
The next one is a very natural one. A leader, if he has to constantly be in control and lead, would be devoid of the modern realities. A good leader, on the other hand, empowers his people to become leaders in their own right so that they innovate and lessen his burden. This is somewhat difficult because if not done with the right intent, it would amount to dispensing with one’s responsibility and accountability. However, with adequate finesse it can be done and yields dividends.
The next one came my way when I saw some of the leaders around me concentrating on the jargon of quick-wins. However, at the end of two years, I found that quick-wins, some of them with an eye to impress the organisation about their dynamic and charismatic leadership, were all that they achieved. There is only so much that you can get out of such tactics. Eventually, people find out that you are good at winning battles but lose sight of wars.
For all those petty leaders who want to be seen to be in control, there is nothing like endless series of meetings, con-calls and VCs. These meetings don’t really achieve much. However, their purpose is only to tell the subordinates how tight and great is your control. I have seen action-points of these meetings being made; and, after one year, action points are made again and both the earlier and later day action points appear to be the same except for jargon.
A good leader, on the other hand, first makes his team worthy of its trust. He simultaneously empowers them to make micro-plans on his broad instructions. He also lays down bottom lines and timelines and then leaves it to the team to translate his instructions into action. He doesn’t dissipate time and energy on endless meetings that deceptively look like progress when no progress is being made at all.
I spent six long years in a corporate. We had endless meetings about getting an integrated marine solution for one of our facilities. At the end of more than hundred meetings, con-calls and VCs, we were as close to square-one as one can get.
Commanding leaders is a much better option than commanding subordinates. A good leader, as I said earlier, is a good subordinate too. Everyone doesn’t have to look towards him all the while. He empowers his people to be leaders in their own right and they then have ownership mindset rather than doing it for someone.
The best example is that of the cricket team. A good captain doesn’t always have to score the maximum runs or take maximum wickets. He brings out the best in his team and his mere presence then ensures that there are eleven Captains in the team.
This is an unfortunate trend that has started in the corporate sector. One is a good leader if one knows all the definitions, tales and anecdotes and has one for every occasion and situation. I would call this style of leadership as Leadership by Anecdotes. Regrettably, so impressive is the effect of this style that many are carried away by the impression or illusion of having encountered a great leader. In sharp contrast Leadership is probably only ten percent in theory. Ninety percent of it needs to be practised.
The example that comes to mind is that of a learner of the game of tennis who is trying to learn by reading books. For a perfect shot the book tells you, “As you see the ball coming towards you, don’t run towards the ball; run towards the future position of the ball and reach there a split second before the ball reaches. Raise and take back your racquet arm to an angle of 135 degrees and as the ball is about to reach the estimated future position, bring down and forward the arm with the racquet in a continuous swing and connect to the ball and lob it with force across the net.” Now, if only the signals in your brain accumulated through such instructions are translated into action, you would indeed be the world’s best. As the great Indian cricket commentator of yesteryear: DN Chakrapani said in a test match that India had against the MCC (the England XI was known as that at one time) at Lords in London: “The last Indian batsman, Bishen Singh Bedi, has taken a mighty swing with his bat. If only it had connected, the ball would have gone all the way to the Ganges.”
Great leaders are always modest and humble. I have seen Dr. Abdul Kalam at close quarters; as Director of the College of Naval Warfare (now Naval War College) I had invited him to speak to my students. He never gave the impression of speaking to people from a height. He appeared to be one of us. His solutions were never the ones that he had read in some book or seen in some movie. These were everyday commonsense solutions. He didn’t have to remind us constantly through word and gesture what a great personality he was. I have given below the analogy of a bad or inexperienced driver who honks the most and curses the most. Have a look:
If you are a sanctioned leader such as monitor in a class or GM or VP in a company, people have to perforce follow you. However, as you emerge a great leader, even when your sanctioned powers have been withdrawn people still turn to you for advice, for leadership. The reason? You demonstrated that you are a natural leader.
I started off with Leadership and Love relationship and I have considered it important enough to reiterate in another manner. I really consider it the crux of leadership. Love automatically has ownership. You constantly remind yourself: These are my people. These are the best in the world. They will make me proud. I will never let them down and they will never let me down. I can write volumes about this relationship. The highest attainments of leadership are only possible through a feeling of love towards the people one commands. You can be harsh with them but you never make them the objects of derision and slant because they are your own. You give credit to them for the team’s achievements just as you shoulder responsibility for the team’s failure. As they say: Bouquets travel downwards; brickbats travel upwards and stop at you.
This follows naturally from the ability to win wars and not merely battles. Your quick-wins are not by taking short-cuts or unfair means. Today you are a small leader – say, a supervisor. Tomorrow you will be a big leader such as Vice President or President. You won’t be able to look people in the eye in case you used the wrong and unfair means to reach there. Remember, you are always being watched when you think no one is watching.
You cannot be expected to know every situation when you join. You cannot be constantly using previous knowledge of your earlier appointments when you take over as a leader whilst at the same time telling people to be rid of their previous knowledge which indeed is relevant in their job. You have the humility and modesty to learn about your new job. If from day one you start giving instructions, if from day one you show them down that their earlier knowledge is zilch, you will never learn and never emerge as a great leader. You would be like a hot air balloon; you would eventually come down when the gas runs out.
The next one is a natural extension of the previous one. When you make your people feel small, they cannot make you feel tall. It is not a see-saw; it is indeed a win-win or a lose-lose situation.
Aha, at the fag-end of the blog, I have given you this. You want people and the organisation to win and not your leadership style to be justified through Power-point Presentations. So, if people are going to win by no effort from your part, you want to make it difficult for them so that they’d remember that it is your dynamic leadership that made them win. This is indeed poor leadership and I have seen it often.
Lastly, before I come up with Part II of this blog sometimes later let me tell you about the ability to listen correctly if at all you have conditioned yourself to listen more than you speak. People interact with you at different levels of knowledge, bias and attitude. All that you listen to isn’t fact. It is laced with the perception of the speaker narrating his tale. So, if you ain’t skillful at sifting facts from perception and get carried away with the tale, you can’t be a good leader. A good leader respects emotions and attitudes but more often than not takes decisions based on facts.
That brings me to the end of Part I of the series on Leadership Lessons on my Facebook page ‘Make Your Own Quotes’. None of these can do wonders for you unless you practise them.
Here is wishing you a great and effective leadership wherever you are.
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