Perhaps, amongst management scientists, the most favoured subject to write upon is “leadership” - what it means, what it constitutes; is it an acquired trait, or is it a natural characteristic blessed by nature, or is it a virtue, skill or talent that stems out of an available or the then prevailing circumstances. Hence, there is a lot of material on leadership. It has to its attendance, as a subject of continuing inquiry, many formats and manifestations. In this short piece, leadership can at best, be only discussed, with a lot of foam on the surface; a deeper dive would require many more words than this allocated space. So, I intend to only do a skin-deep scratch on a few of its essentials, relating to some of its ingredients and dimensions.
If you are a leader because you are surrounded by nincompoops, then obviously, it is a case of “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. The weakness of others shouldn’t be the cause catapulting you into a leadership position; it must rather be your unique ability of skills and talents. And above all a leader has to be a people’s person. Leaders are dealers in hope, is a famous maxim.
Leaders must be avid readers of history and everything. In particular it is important to read autobiographies and biographies, of individuals, from all walks of life. There is so much to learn from the lives of great men and women. Haven’t we all written numerously, while at the high school essays on, “lives of great men, all remind us we can make our lives sublime”. We can do so, only if we submit our ego to the fact, that we are lesser men and women, than those we read about, for attaining self improvement.
If it cannot be imagined for a political leader he/she wouldn’t have read with passion the lives of men like Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Churchill, Alexander, Jinnah, or Mandela (I have deliberately avoided taking the religious route, here -which personally I think is the first and best source of amazing leadership traits). It is equally incomprehensible, how a business leader can hope to survive, without reading about leaders, who made an impact and left an impression of their persona, on the pages of human and world history. Absolutely imperative, that managers/leaders must read extensively, not merely for acquisition of technical skills, but more importantly, for broadening their horizon of understanding of the dynamics of human behavior, in differing, changing, and challenging times. What exercise is to body, is reading to the mind.
Leadership is never about your location on the organisation chart. It is all about having innate qualities that allow and push colleagues around you to respect you voluntarily, for your views, skills and abilities. Regardless of how talented an individual may be, success in leading will remain elusive; if there is a lack of positivity of thought, in the absence of it, such leaders are full of potential to be doomed; and not necessarily in the long-term!
While a leader must possess abilities to direct people and resources towards attainment of the joint vision and shared objectives, he/she must know the art of empowering people through trust and delegation. Promotion to the position of being a manager does not automatically confer upon anybody skills of leadership. Leadership is a journey that begins with understanding of one’s own strength and weaknesses. Those who fail to do so, falter even further in the judicious use of discretionary powers that may come as part of the position held. When the leader falls as prey to the sycophants surrounding his office, they will take charge and will ensure that no change in status quo occurs. For every new move, the leader wishes to introduce, they would create stumbling blocks with remarks, “it has never been done like this….”; “we will ruffle a lot of people” or ” it will not go down well, with the majority, so let’s not do anything new". The incompetent and inept thrive best in both status quo and chaotic conditions. The “yes-men” around their leaders will make him/her belief that he/she resembles Cary Grant, Tom Cruise, Audrey Hepburn or Demi Moore; Napoleon in ambition; Jinnah in resoluteness; Lincoln in diplomacy, etc. The greater likelihood is that such a leader will essentially over a period of time, start to appear to people, as, "the emperor in new clothing". They, i.e., corporate psychopaths, will denude their leader publicly and will also be present to join the clapping. Do not, as leader, ever be beguiled by the crafty and wily followers, who appear to mean good, but are actually good in being mean to you and others.
Leadership must not only be incorruptible but also should be seen to being nonnegotiable to any format of corruptibility. Character quotient must rank extremely high in the discharge of the responsibilities associated with the office held. An affair with an intern almost cost an otherwise intelligent and charismatic Bill Clinton his stay at the white House. Moments of temporary temptations, of all types, are an aspect that leaders must have an absolute control over. Scoring high on talent and low on credibility will surely make any individual lose, both his naturally gifted leadership skills and the de-jure powers of this office held. Never let, by any act, deed or word, to become the cause for impeachment to chase you.
Leaders must be possessed of reasonability, without comprising the instinct to be bold and creative. In the business world, those who dared without being unduly adventurous, to come up with different approaches to conducting business have invariably been a huge success. Steve Jobs was known for his impatience in the speed of execution; any of his colleagues, who couldn’t manage or match his pace, were waylaid, with no qualms. However, it is my belief the challenged business conditions require an empathetic leadership for the workforce to achieve even what plausibly may seem difficult. There has to be a solid foundation to the space between adventurism and caution; calculated risk assumption in business decision, have to be encouraged by the leader. Failure to do so will result in inertia or a wait-and-see attitude of colleagues across the spectrum of the entire organisation.
Micheal Jordan, the legendary and unstoppable scorer in netting, in basketball, is quoted to have said in “Nike culture the sign of swooish”, by Robert Goldman and Stephen Samson, the following. “I have missed over 9000 shots in my career. I have lost about 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in life”. Leadership knows nothing about failures as wound on their spirits to achieve, what it targets. Resilience in a leader should be the bedrock of character, just as ambition ought to be or is.
The most straying thought for a leader is to feel comforted, that all his negative responses to colleagues are for achieving a higher purpose. This pretence of virtue is the single most valued reason for leaders, who in handling day to day crises get too personal to the event, which ultimately leads them to discover their own waterloo! Great challenges produce great leader. In the midst of American Revolution, in a letter to John Quincy Adams, wrote his mother, “It is not in the still calm of life on the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed". Challenge will define and redefine character and response. What is bad in the bone will come out in the flesh. It is rare that a good cow will have an evil calf.
Loss or failure, the ability to handle the both is at the core of leadership. To encounter frustration against non-success of ambitions is not within the realm of weak leaders. The tenacity to face setbacks is a quality, which all leaders must necessarily possess. Their ability to handle reversal to be able to respond to changing realities is what distinguishes between a naturally gifted leadership and a leader who is saddled into the position either by inheritance or by a de-jure process.
A leader will have in him/her the following: kindness, empathy, humor, humility, passion and ambition to succeed.
The writer is a freelance columnist