The tragedy of leadership in business is that it is often seen as a toss-up between winning a popularity contest or running an authoritarian regime. A state naturally reached, if you put in a certain number of years and undergo minor fine-tuning by easily available expert coaches. The truth is that leadership is far less about any of the above. It is fundamentally an interplay of competence and values. Do you have the capability and insights to design the right decision for real impact? Do you have the courage, stamina and persuasion to see it through?
For the last several years, I have worked closely with high-profile global business leaders who manage large teams, and drive sales numbers. It is a high pressure, market-driven environment, wherein transforming the way we work is a tough challenge. The experience of working with them to build communication, engagement and an authentic voice has given me a powerful lens into what leadership really is.
Some qualities that I have distilled so far:
- Leaders focus on making tomorrow better than today. Words like ‘vision’ have been bandied about to the point of dilution. A vision-setting exercise is often replete with a lot of complicated data and high-sounding analysis. The best leaders however crunch all of it down to simple illustrations of how they ‘see’ the future. They never forget that the money you pay people manages their today; and the only reason they will follow you and not another – is because you hold for them a promise of tomorrow.
- Persuasion is arguably the most important quality of leadership. Leaders are constantly and consistently persuading people – customers, investors and employees – to buy into their vision, to support the strategy, and drive execution. Formal authority or a smart plan manages some situations. But on an everyday basis, you are literally pitching again and again, with unflagging energy and conviction.
- Bringing clarity into situations is the greatest advantage a leader can give their team. To help them see what’s really happening, beyond the obvious. Sometimes a process issue is actually a personality issue. Sometimes the real competition is from an unseen pocket. Sometimes a failsafe system you are mighty proud of, simply appears bureaucratic to your customers. And many a time, people say ‘yes’ in a meeting but walk out only with their opinion and not the agreement. To be a leader is to go beyond the metrics and to be able to identify and solve the real problem.
- We operate in a creative economy walking a tightrope between hyper-specialisation and the ever-evolving demand for cross-functional skills. Few people are doing jobs they are entirely qualified for. While ‘learning mindset’ is a buzzword, in reality people are hesitant to ask a how-to question, for fear of appearing incompetent. But if they do not know ‘how’ to do something, then irrespective of how well they buy into the leader’s ‘why’ – they cannot deliver. A leader who is able to address the unspoken ‘how-to’, either by their own knowledge or by designing an operating model that takes care of it, helps their team win.
- The Japanese say that to accomplish anything important, you need to have the courage to be disliked. Validation is a human need, but people who believe in operating through consensus paralyse a business. A business needs a vector to generate momentum. When you set one direction over another, some people are sure to dislike you. As a leader you need to expect it, accept it, and continue to do what you believe is right.
In a way, my entire career has been about a quest to find leadership, within and outside me. In the process I have discovered that only when you are ready to sculpt yourself into your finest version, that you have a chance of leading others. It’s not only how you are at work, it is really who you are even when not at work. It is tough, and only gets tougher. But it is also the only real way to create the change you want to see. That makes it worth it.
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