Thursday, September 11, 2008

Leadership and the Person - Qualities of an Aspiring Leader

There is a mindset to being a Leader – a way of being and a willingness to BE.

People on the journey of Leadership, need to prepare themselves for a number of things that will impact them personally. Leadership is personal. Anybody aspiring to be a professional Leader is fooling nobody but themselves. Being a Leader is much more than a lifestyle choice – it is a way of life and one has to choose such a life. As with all meaningful life-choices – Leadership and the journey to become a Leader takes commitment.

This is not for the faint of heart and neither is this a road for dabblers. As I have often said to people who have come to me for advice or direction – “Be careful what you ask for – You may actually get it”.

I personally started this journey based on a conscious choice. Having been in IT and the Technical side of it for many years, I came to a crossroads in my own growth that was driven by wanting to make a difference. As I gradually worked my way through the lessons in Leadership (and continue to do so) – culled from the school of hard knocks, I came to realize one fundamental truth for anybody on this journey. “You wanted it – You got it (Now deal with it)”.

There are very few experiences that can be as humbling as being a Leader. The fact of the matter is that you are not infallible. I call it the 80-20 rule. You can expect to get things right about 80% of the times – the remaining 20% - you are going to make mistakes (Of course there are more colorful ways to describe “mistakes”). The only choice Leaders have is picking and choosing the 20% that we are going to miss on. As long as the 20% are not things that are going to make a material impact to the Organization – this is acceptable.

One of the significant challenges of being a Leader is the fact that we are exposed and vulnerable at every moment of every day. We have to be willing to allow people to look into us, probe us and question all that we do and think. A big part of being a Leader is the willingness to allow others to second-guess us and yet stay the course defined by the Purpose we have set for ourselves.

The example I use with people who I talk to about Leadership is that “If you don’t think that everyday at somebody’s dinner table, you are not being discussed then you are fooling yourself.” Graphically the interaction can be illustrated thus:

The exposure that a Leader has is not just restricted to their immediate organization – but to the members’ families, social surroundings and in many cases the external environment as well. …And they are all experts…

The willingness and ability of a Leader to stay the course (not inflexibly) and stay focused on the goal through all of this takes a tremendous degree of belief, self-confidence and self-awareness. A Leader will usually exhibit such behavior openly when tough times come around. It is a truism that “When the going gets tough – the tough get going”. I have always wondered why we as a Human race exhibit our greatest qualities in moments of crisis.

One of the learning’s that I have got out of Leadership is that it is an intensely personal experience. You wind up growing as a person and most especially as a human being. The more open and accepting we are of experiences that Leadership bring us, the greater is our growth and the richer the rewards. The lasting rewards are those of the soul. The sense of responsibility that Leadership brings with it is far more lasting and universal than many other experiences as a working professional. The only experiences that come close are life-experiences such as living with a partner, having a child, losing someone you love…

Because Leadership is such an intensely personal experience and demands a lot from the individual, many of us are unwilling to go through this crucible beyond a point. There have been at least four separate occasions in my career that I have seriously contemplated stepping off this journey – but usually, there have been affirmations that enable me to continue this journey.

To lead is to Learn – and in my opinion the sheer joy of Learning differentiates good Leaders from Great ones. A Leader has to be constantly willing to learn – irrespective of where such learning comes from. Once, while I was an inexperienced Leader, struggling to find my purpose in life; I met a rickshaw driver – Phupuli. It had been one of those days, where I had been struggling to deal with some senior (in years) members of my team. I myself was a wet behind the ears Manager of a Sales force in a largely rural territory. I had more people telling me what I could not do than I could shake a stick at. At the end of a rough day, Phupuli had come to take me back to my little one-room, kitchen place. I was unusually quiet and meditative. Phupuli did not bother me. Finally, as a vocal sigh built up in me, I rhetorically asked out loud – “Why are people so difficult?” For a few moments there was silence broken only by the creaking of the rickshaw and then Phupuli answered – “Why are our five fingers different?”.

Everything just stopped and suddenly I realized that I was learning something. The “Something” was beyond the truism that each person was different – but that common-sense is really quite uncommon!! I have rarely seen commonsense either being used or revered. What I have found is that most people miss the obvious in the quest for a more complex explanation or solution.

One of the keys to successful Leadership is the ability to keep things simple. Relationships are usually simple, business problems are usually simple. It is the solutions that we naturally try to get to that are complex. I always say the “What” is always easy to get to and understand. As human beings who seemingly always want to get complex, the “How” usually gets out of hand.

The challenge for any Leader is to simplify the “How”. And if the exploration of the “What” is intensive, the “How” usually winds up becoming simple. Many aspiring Leaders spend very little effort in exploring the “What” and usually, being problem-solvers, jump to the “How”. This leads to complexity and a movement away from commonsense. The tendency to move towards complexity is usually caused by people dynamics. Questions such as, “How do I convince X person?”, “How is Y going to perceive this”, “How are we going to carry the people along on this path?”.

My thought is that “What” and “How” are two sides of the same coin. The challenge is to be able to balance both. Leaders often have a tendency to lean towards one or the other. The two must go hand-in-hand.

The willingness to explore these dimensions is the key to successful, differentiated Leadership. The difference a Leader makes to both themselves and the people they lead is this consistent desire, thought and action to improve and grow. This wanting to be different and to make a difference is critical to continually growing and evolving organizations.

Finally there is a little spice that needs to be added to the pot – Charisma. The ancient Greeks said that people with Charisma were the beloved of the Gods. I believe that every one of us has Charisma. Many of us simply do not know how to tap into it. I believe that the greatest surge of energy that comes from us is when we are true to ourselves. When that happens, I believe Charisma emerges. The struggle for many individuals is to allow that Energy itself to become visible. The only factor holding that back is reticence and conditioning. When you have grown up learning that “children must be seen and not heard” – you have a tendency to carry that forward as adults too.

My advice to all those who aspire to Leadership – be passionate about your Purpose and ensure you communicate that Passion. Once you do that, nothing can stop the charisma and energy from emerging and being visible to all.

Most times people mistake charisma for charm. Charisma is lasting and charm fades. In the highly short-term oriented times we live in, I think we all have a tendency to believe more in charm. I have seen it happen so often in organizations that are short-term focused that perceptions about people based on the “Charm factor” sometimes has a tendency to overpower substance.

This goes back to the old discussion of Form Vs Content. My take is that it is Form AND Content that is essential and lasting. As Leaders, all of us have to strive towards accomplishing and attaining both. This is an essential part of our roles in making a positive difference.

As you can see, there is a mindset required and a willingness to acquire that mindset in order to sustain this journey of Leadership. All I can say is – it is worth it.


Ramblings of a Randy Man said...

Good article. One of the interesting corollaries about the 80-20 rule that I have noticed is that 80% of your learning seem to come from the 20% of mistakes ! Maybe if you can take a case study and show how some of the concepts mentioned here can be applied would be really helpful.

Kavitta said...

I enjoyed reading this article and believe every word is true as also it is an article straight from expereince and the heart.. This i would think is applicable to a leader at any stage not necessarily the number one of the corporation.

Sripriya said...


Your philosophy is profound and the observations interesting. How do you connect it with content? Sometimes, content is half leadership?

Devang said...

I enjoyed reading article and gained insight from the experience you have shared in article. What you have mentioned is correct up to some extent that human being exhibit when they are in crises but there have been large instances that human being break down under crises. There are two outcomes while he/she is into crises or pressure. Either break down or break though.

Being leader it is upmost difficult while playing diff. role with diff. perception and purpose which lead to chaos if not managed effectively.