Reluctant leadership

Sirajuddin Aziz
October 18, 2021

For the Purpose of this piece I am altering the often used adage about greatness being thrust upon; some are born leaders, some acquire leadership and some are thrust upon into leadership positions. This write-up is about the last category; that is leaders who are hoisted on the leadership position. The route to getting into leadership of this kind and type are several. The first and most common root is through inheritance, in the case of especially family owned businesses. The other most common path for the emergence of this type of a leader is through getting kicked into leadership position, by mere virtue of promotions based largely on the number of years spent in a position rather than any specialised skills.

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For the Purpose of this piece I am altering the often used adage about greatness being thrust upon; some are born leaders, some acquire leadership and some are thrust upon into leadership positions. This write-up is about the last category; that is leaders who are hoisted on the leadership position. The route to getting into leadership of this kind and type are several. The first and most common root is through inheritance, in the case of especially family owned businesses. The other most common path for the emergence of this type of a leader is through getting kicked into leadership position, by mere virtue of promotions based largely on the number of years spent in a position rather than any specialised skills.

Those who inherit leadership position aren’t necessarily all incompetent; but by and large many are. The exception is the rule. Great men usually are not very fortunate to have even greater offspring. Growing up under the Shadow of the Banyan tree, they gather no chlorophyll of their own, as the all encompassing shade prevents the sunlight to blaze upon them. Consequently, most are deformed (professionally) plants. They (such off-spring) are unable to experience the pangs of failure, which in itself is the greatest learning experience. After having a degree from any university, regardless of its standing or repute they are placed as heir- apparent to the business; and if there are more than one “heir- apparent” trouble is for sure on the anvil of the future. Corporate fights involving siblings or cousins, first or second or third, are worse. These can last for long, as the ‘war of roses’. In this bitter fight to dominate one another, the organisation (read Empire) bleeds the most. Leadership quality of creating cohesiveness is the missing ingredient in their persona.

The other major stream that brings to fore the reluctant leader is getting promoted to senior position at regular intervals by virtue of having remained in a particular slot on the hierarchy for some length of time; if there is no case of significance against such officials, they automatically get promoted to the next level of the ladder. This is most commonly seen in the government or state-owned enterprises, where the individual with a less than outstanding rating, is considered for promotion. This lot brings to the table a container load of incompetence, arising out of lack of preparation for the assignment at hand.

A senior colleague of mine asked our mutual boss rather belligerently, “Sir, you are at best mediocre, so how did you make it to the numero uno position?” Initially, the boss was baffled and looked ruffled and angry; but quickly regained his composure and in an extremely humble tone he said, “well, I joined the institution as a young man, while the institution was also in its nascent age- the organisation kept growing and I got pushed up the pyramid, because of the heavy induction at the base level of the pyramid”. An extremely honest response. Many come to occupy positions of authority through this process. Some are prepared, while most are half baked for the challenges of the assignment. The major fault in this mechanism is that even the unwilling manager is pushed into becoming a reluctant leader.

These reluctant leaders who get the coveted position by inheritance are most prone to develop sycophants around themselves. These are the clever sharks in the tank. They know precisely the art of manipulative management practices. They are able to inject heavy dosses of nepotism into the system; where blind loyalty to the leader is the characteristic required and not any professional attribute.

Inherited position is most conducive to the growth of nepotism. In view of the lack of ability, coupled with no interest to develop the incompetent leader, ensures, his own encirclement by the ever available, “yes men”. Those who perfect the art of “yes, sir” make their objectives appear to be the objectives of the leader, who is predominantly gullible to such overtures. This type of reluctant leaders are a bad example of the respectable concept of transactional leadership - here what is put on the table is rewards, praises, increments and bonuses,as a quid pro quo, not to performance, but to allegiance and loyalty (mis- perceived). The reluctant leader is a victim of this inherent trait of manipulation, of the sycophants, whose objectives are housed in the confines of ambiguity. The outcomes of a reluctant leadership are never positive. Those who get catapulted into leadership positions as a consequence of promotion and with no or at least amount of training and preparation, are most likely to be individuals, who will be scared to use the authority vested in them; they remain indecisive and have no resolve of their own.

They rely heavily on the opinion of their equally incompetent top management. Since their opinion is ‘soft’ on every aspect of decision-making, they remain malleable and therefore susceptible to the machinations of the senior colleagues - whose agenda can be to undo the reluctant leader. The reluctant leader of this type is extremely conscious of how he/she is perceived by the colleagues; some of their actions therefore represent that of a politician who is out to seek popularity. Corporate world neither admires populism nor demagoguery, but appreciates only results - where the bottom line has to be perennially in the black and positive zone. No less.

Both of these types of leaders fail the test of being strategic leaders, where they have neither the foresight nor the vision that can be shared with the followers. They remain rudderless in their daily pursuit.

The lack of direction yields to unrest in the ranks of the followers; this usually occurs over a period of time. The decay is already on, when this realisation dawns upon the reluctant leader. In turn, this eventually creates either of these two set of reactions; firstly the reluctant leader can become a recluse; a corporate Robinson Crusoe, where he masks his disappointments, by resorting to avoiding meeting colleagues and clients; becomes weak in fading resolve and is weak to take important decisions; the second possibility is that such a leader could turn aggressive in behavior, with both the internal stakeholders and the marketplace. The manifestation of aggression usually will be found in him/her losing the shirt at the drop of the hat; resorting to use a foul language, being dismissive to all suggestions and above all unwittingly and unknowingly create an environment of fear. The presence of dismally low motivation within the rank and file of staff members, is a major sign post of the organisational decline.

Since this type of leader crowns himself/herself with the status of being “know all”; they cease to listen to good counsel. Since they talk the most in the meetings or even otherwise, they put an additional badge of recognition on their shoulders as “great communicators”. This false perception of their own capabilities is the first step towards their self-created ‘waterloo’. To begin with, they have no strategic depth in their thought process and secondly have no vision, hence giving direction to the institution is a utopia, they chase!

Leaders are viewed as those individuals who are “merchants of dream and hope”. If they fail this basic test, they cease to qualify for a leadership position. Followers have to possess faith in their leaders to become units of productivity. It is a basic characteristic found in real leaders, who contribute towards the creation of an enabling environment, so that all constituents of an entity are able to chip in their bit towards better results. Real leaders resolve conflicts and control trends of unhealthy competition; the reluctant leader thrives on management chaos and confusion. Competent leaders fear not in taking decisions, while the reluctant leader for the wrong reasons procrastinate decisions, with hope that either they resolve by themselves or else, at least, there would be no responsibility should inertia cause any loss or damage to the entity.

Self centeredness is a major flaw that may coexist within a person of authority. This leads to looking through a very personalised lens, where everything that comes to their attention, is all about I, me and myself. This is a just, but a very poor reflection of an insecure leader.

The reluctant leader not only surrounds his/her office with nincompoops but also puts to the guillotine those found to be in possession of any talent to upstage them. Having sharp, intelligent and wise colleagues is the forte of the secure leader; who knows that his/her capabilities, talents and skills, can only be transferred to others, and that these cannot be permanently robbed of them. The most difficult task for any professional is to work for an incompetent leader. All the inadequacies have to be filled and plugged in by team mates -this is an additional burden.

We cannot have born corporate leaders; the closest is the inherited leadership, which has the propensity to become the reluctant leadership. Leadership that emerges from an effort to seek it out, through sheer hard work, skills, competence, talents and attitude has sustainability.

It lasts because it provides for direction, vision and mission to the institution for enhanced productivity and hence successful results. The corporate world requires leadership to be professionally trained, with the necessary skill set, backed equally by ‘attitude’. All good leaders are listened to; because they are ‘good listeners’. Leadership requires continuous growth in the broadening of horizons. Lincoln had remarked, “I don't think much of a man, who is not wiser today than he was yesterday”.


The writer is a senior banker and freelance columnist



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