I have had the good fortune to work with leaders who have had significant influence on me. In his address to the HBR graduates on ‘How will you measure your life’ by Clayton M. Christensen, he poses the following three questions
· How can I be happy in my career?
· How can I be sure that the relationship with my family is an enduring source of happiness?
· How can I live my life with Integrity?
He kind of summarizes by saying the following
Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.
The leaders that I have worked always helped me with the above questions and also made me better every day. I noticed a common set of behavioral patterns amongst these leaders in my years of following them. While the application of these patterns may vary with respect to the individual leaders, I find the pattern itself recurring in these leaders almost unconsciously. I have attempted to capture these patterns in a way that I have understood them. I will have to warn though, that knowing these patterns have not made me a leader, but being aware of these patterns have helped me a better follower.
Leaders make a difference to their people. The impact they create amongst the individuals they come across is lasting. In the movie ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ the protagonist British General (Alec Guinness in one of his finest performances) who builds a bridge for the enemy under inhuman conditions without losing his self-respect, finally wonders ‘What is the sum total of his life represent’, ‘Does his existence make a difference at all ?’ and leaves the answers to the viewers. In another movie ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ this kind of gets answered in a way. Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfus in what I would call as the best understated performance) the protagonist is a music teacher. Due to budget constraints there is a debate on if fine Arts have to be retained as a subject. After an unsuccessful bid to retain fine Arts as a subject in the school, he has to leave the school. In his farewell all his ex-students surprise him by asking him to conduct a symphony. In the farewell speech , one of his ex-students , who has become the governor of the state summarizes Mr. Holland’s achievement in a packed auditorium as follows “Mr. Holland is neither rich nor famous, but look amongst us, there is not a single life here, which he has not touched and that has made the difference”. There is no doubt in my mind that leaders irrespective of famous or silent, known or unknown, rich or ordinary, plant their seed of lasting influence into their people. They seem to know that the sum total of their life is about leaving lasting impressions.
I think we all know the story of King Robert. King Robert the Bruce of Scotland was defeated in battle. As he was in danger, he found safety by hiding in a cave, where he stayed as he recovered from all he had been through. He was extremely depressed and thought about giving up the Scottish throne and running away. Legend has it that as Robert the Bruce sat thinking, he noticed a spider building a web at the mouth of the cave. The spider kept falling but each time it got up again and continued with building its web until it was finished. Robert watched how the spider persevered. He realized that the spider did not give up; each time there was a problem he picked himself up until he succeeded. Robert the Bruce went back to his troops and tried again. And he successfully won back his throne.
Leaders persevere like the spiders. The harder they fall the faster they get up. I do not know enough physics to explain that. It is just impossible to make them ‘give up’ on something they believe in. When I was reading about designing high availability systems, I read somewhere, systems at Google or Amazon, the most dreaded moment is the test where they make their systems intentionally fail and see how fast it can come up. In that sense what matters more to them is how fast they can come up when there is a failure. Similarly leaders are not averse to failure, but makes them different is their ability to bounce back. You just cannot knock them down and this somehow trickles down to their people sub-consciously.
Ever heard the story of the one lakh car or the four minute mile? Everyone believed that a one lakh rupee car cannot be built. Now that it is built everyone is busy replicating the model in all industries bringing up terms like Reverse Innovation and Frugal Innovation. For years people believed that it is impossible for a human being to run a mile in less than four minutes until Roger Banister proved it wrong in 1954. Within one year, 37 runners broke the belief barrier. And the year after that, 300 other runners did the same thing.
In the movie Kungfu Panda, there comes a psychological moment, when Panda’s father reveals the secret ingredient of the secret sauce. He says ‘The secret ingredient of the secret sauce is nothing’. For something to be special, you just need to believe that it is special.
Leaders are deaf to their surroundings when it comes to questioning their belief systems. They have their clear internal moral compass guiding them when their belief systems are questioned. They create the necessary energy and sustain that during the peaks and troughs. They are aware that belief is the most potent pattern of human behavior and use it to transform their eco-systems. This is a pattern which is non-negotiable.
Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place. – Mark Twain
All leaders have this uncanny sense of humor that serves as an anti-dote to them and also to their people. Messages driven through humor, particularly self-deprecating humor reveals the personality behind those leaders. They use it to defuse tense situations and help everyone get back on track. Decades back, when going global was the mantra I checked out on ‘What going global meant for us’ as an organization, my boss quipped back, saying ‘Well, we are tired of creating domestic mess, let us mess up internationally’ and oh-boy we did mess up internationally. Humor reveals the human side of these leaders, keeps them and their people grounded. Especially in tough times Humor keeps people motivated.
Jim Collins in his work ‘Good to Great’ tells this.
Picture two animals: a fox and a hedgehog. Which are you? An ancient Greek parable distinguishes between foxes, which know many small things, and hedgehogs, which know one big thing. All good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs. They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions. That’s not to say hedgehogs are simplistic. Like great thinkers, who take complexities and boil them down into simple, yet profound, ideas (Adam Smith and the invisible hand, Darwin and evolution), leaders Hedgehog Concept that is simple but that reflects penetrating insight and deep understanding. ‘Building World Class Products or Touching One Billion Lives’ are simple but profound ideas.
Leaders always have a sense of demonstrating that they are responsible for making decisions especially the tougher ones. They always move to the fire stage from the static ‘Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim’ state and are prepared to accept the consequences of those decisions. They neither look up nor look down while making those decisions. They most probably look within to find the answers and are ready to set the momentum. The important thing is that they have not figured everything out when they make those decisions, but they are willing to march ahead and are willing to deal with ambiguity progressively.
Personally the best definition of equanimity can be found in the Chapter 2 Sloka 38 of ‘The Bhagavad Gita’.
“sukha dukhe same’ kritva labha labhou jaya jayou
tatho yuddhaya yujyasva naivam papam avapsyasi “
This roughly translates to,
“Having an equal mind in happiness-sorrow; gain-loss; victory-defeat; engage in battle and thereby you will not incur sin”.
Similar Idea is also reflected in Rudyard Kipling poem If
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
Leaders seem to have internalized this in their DNA. They do not allow success to get to their head nor defeat to bring them down. They seem to know that ‘This too shall pass’.
Leaders work themselves towards achieving the highest rung in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
(Picture Courtesy : Wikimedia)
I have always wondered most time
· Why is that they do, what they do?
· What keeps them awake?
· What makes them to preach work /life balance and yet practice making their work the statement of their life?
· When million others would have given up, why is that they keep running?
I believe the answers could be money, fame, power. They are all possibly legitimate reasons but I beg to differ. The answer that I am comfortable with is ‘They have a point to prove to themselves. Their only competition is their own selves’ and they want to be sure that they have extracted every ounce of their own selves in giving themselves to the causes that they have signed up for.
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – R W Emerson
Leaders sure are trail blazers.
I have examined these patterns in some form and I have wondered to myself if I would qualify as a leader. Apart from the above founding patterns leaders have so many other things that they do unconsciously like
· Talk the talk, walk the talk
· Endure character assassination
· Bear with unfulfilled commitments
· And possibly a zillion other parameters
I do feel it does get extremely lonely at the top and it is not for the faint hearted. Also I have come to understand that ‘Leadership is never given. It is taken’.
If I have to be honest enough to the person in the mirror, I can comfort myself with the words of Robert Frost
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. And I have miles to go before I sleep.
After all where would be leaders, if not for contended and committed followers like me?
Stay Tuned. Have Fun.