Leadership is often a misunderstood concept. Who is really a leader? Are leaders nominated or self-established? I am sure most would say the latter. But does it really happen or is it just a popular belief?
In my decades-long management career, I have seen frequently in organisations that people who ensure they are in the limelight or try to keep themselves close to the boss get elevated as leaders. This is commonly called the “blue-eyed boy syndrome.” Such people generally turn out to be a failure at the first level or subsequent higher levels if they lack the qualities needed to lead. And then the fall is steep. A former colleague of mine often used to remark, “One must not be too close to the boss or too far away.”
In the absence of an honest self-evaluation, many people have giant-sized opinions about themselves. Hence, when they do not get the expected promotions or increments, it’s either “luck, or the boss does not like me, or I am in the wrong organisation.”
There may be people whose expertise lies in being an R&D specialist, an engineering pro, an ace designer, a financial wizard or for that matter an HR specialist; nothing wrong in that. Should they aim for leadership positions? They are more likely to succeed in such positions if they have the qualities required and struggle if they don’t.
So what does one need to do to cultivate the qualities required for leadership?
- Communicate clearly, precisely, and succinctly. Being able to communicate is one of the foremost qualities of a good leader. Strong communicators keep it clear, precise, and to the point. Talking on and on causes listeners to lose interest and focus.
Also,one should ensure that the communication is in a manner that is understood by the listener. Bombastic language or attempts to show off are absolute no-no’s. Being mindful of one’s vocal tone, body language, pronunciation, and delivery modulation are also important. Keeping the tone of the communication positive is equally important; done this way, even critical feedback will be perceived as being given for one’s improvement only and not for nit-picking. Periodic checks to get feedback on whether the message is getting through are a must.
Whenever conducting a meeting or discussion, it is good to start on a positive note, conveying some good news or appreciation for an achievement or good deed. This sets the right tone for a productive discussion or fruitful meeting to follow.
- Lead from the front. Those who lead from the front, step in to take on or assist with challenging and difficult jobs when it is clear that a task is beyond the capacity of their team members.
Illustrating this principle are stories of kings who rode ahead of the troops to meet the enemy or even recent anecdotes of army commanders who lead soldiers from the front and put their own lives in danger before putting the lives of their soldiers at risk.
Even in cricket, one hears of the captain resolutely staying put in the face of fierce and intimidating bowling from the opposition when wickets keep tumbling on the other side. On the other hand, there are instances where the boss asks a subordinate to handle an irate customer, knowing full well that promises made cannot be kept.
- Build team spirit. Success comes from teamwork and true leaders show team spirit and work seamlessly with their teams. They also get along with their peers.
A good leader recognises the strengths and weaknesses of team members in order to maximise the usefulness of each and to ensure that team members complement one another.
Even if one member of the team has a complaint against another, skilled leaders always hear out the complaint in the presence of both parties so that issues arising out of any misunderstanding can be sorted out. On the contrary, I have seen so-called bosses who play team members against one another, following the tenet of “divide and rule.”
- Show empathy. How can one who is always finding fault with team members find acceptance by them. There will only be discord all the time instead of a spirit of togetherness. Leaders who show empathy will have team members backing them up all the way. Genuine empathy from leaders inspires team members to take on difficult and even dangerous tasks voluntarily and with the fullest commitment.
- Stay cool-headed. Be an optimist. Balanced leaders know how to control their emotions and keep a cool head most of the time. An agitated mind limits the ability to think clearly, and temperamental people are likely to err in their judgement. Should a good leader be a pessimist or an optimist? While optimism is clearly the better choice for team morale, reckless optimism can be dangerous.
- Be innovative. Difficult or complicated situations call for the ability to quickly think and implement an “alternative route.” The ability to think out of the box clearly shows resourcefulness and demarcates the extraordinary leader from the ordinary.
- Be decisive. Procrastination is a luxury a good leader does not have. A decision taken in time has better chances of success than one which has been delayed beyond its usefulness. It is said that even successful people don’t get more than six out of ten decisions right. Once a decision is taken, one needs to remain firm and not be wishy-washy.
- Be willing to learn. A good leader should be reasonably humble and be ready to learn from others who are better informed in their area of expertise. There are people who think they are “master of everything and jack of none.” I remember it took me almost six months to understand the product, business, and market when I shifted jobs from a company in one line of business to another in a totally different area.
- Take ownership. It’s easy for leaders to give the good news of a favourable appraisal or promotions and the like to their team. But what about delivering bad news? True leaders stand out in how they handle tough conversations. They come clean with the subordinate even if the final decision was thrust on them by someone above, rather than saying, “You know I fought for you, but …”
- Give credit where and when it is due. A good leader readily acknowledges others’ contributions. There are bosses whose motto might read, “Success is mine, and failure is yours.” And there are exceptional bosses who credit the subordinate for success and take responsibility for failure. The latter are true leaders.
- Groom your replacement. A good leader needs to constantly develop a second line, so to speak. Why do I say constantly? Leaders who don’t invest time and effort into developing a second line,can lose good team members to lateral moves within the company or to a different job or company altogether.
Some bosses may not develop a second line since they fear that the person so developed may overtake them. It’s likely these individuals rose to their position not by dint of merit but otherwise. On the flip side, if you don’t groom a subordinate to take your place, your own chances of further growth may get restricted or delayed because there’s no one to fill your shoes if you’re promoted.
- Treat the company as your own. My son-in-law once forwarded a letter from his boss that emphasised the need for all employees to look upon the company as their own. This is a very good concept. If a leader considers the company as his or her own and manages to instil the same feelings in the employees, that would turn out to be one of the best organisations to work for. Not only do employees contribute better than their best when they feel a sense of ownership, they also look up to the boss as their true leader.
I learnt from the best.
I must pay homage to the best leader I have had in my life. He was my boss when I started working after my MBA. It was from him that I learnt the fundamentals of leadership:
- If there was something to discuss, he would give a time and be ready for me — not a minute before or a minute late. Then he would listen attentively and give his precise opinion. During our discussions he would not encourage any interruptions by others or take phone calls. He would listen intently and comment sharply and to the point; (lesson in communication).
- If there was a difference of opinion and finger-pointing between me and my production counterpart, he would always call us together to resolve the issue (not playing one against the other).
- When my promotion was delayed, much against his recommendation, he urged me to keep doing my best, but did not shift the blame to his superiors for the decision (notpassing the buck).
- Once, contrary to his advice, my youthful bravado made me offer a higher package on a major project of critical importance to our company. Though I was on the verge of losing, he only urged me to strategise for winning the business (encouragement rather than reprimand); and when I was successful, he reported to management, acknowledging my role in the achievement (giving and not taking credit).
- The biggest auto company in India, which used to buy entirely from our competitors, approached us when a competitor’s unit was closed due to employee unrest. While I was keen to grab the opportunity, my boss made it clear we would not be interested in a “one-night stand” (firm in decision).
Those and many more were the lessons I learnt from him on qualities of true leadership.
Some questions to ponder
Is a person endowed with leadership qualities at birth? Or can these qualities be inculcated during the formative years? Can people learn by themselves or do they need to be trained? Is it right for family-owned businesses to position the owner’s sons and daughters or other family members to step into leadership roles in place of professionals with proven track records? We can debate these points till the cows come home.
Most of the above is true not only for good leaders but also worth applying to day-to-day life for everyone.
As in a cricket team, so in an organisation, there are the doers who are the backbone, and the captains or leaders who strategise, manage and inspire their teams. Needless to say, both have important roles to play.
About the Author
Thiagarajan has over 40 years of organizational experience including Harita Seating Systems Limited (formerly Harita Grammer) as CEO for one of their division ; was also Marketing Head of Best & Crompton . He is currently a Management Consultant for companies in Asia Pacific Region. Qualification include : BE Mechanical , MBA from IIM (Ahmedabad) ; specialized courses on Senior Management from Stanford University /NUS Singapore and TQM by AOTS Japan.