Sunday, July 26, 2015

Yes, you are a Leader !

Modern thinkers believe that every human being has leadership qualities. It is about nurturing them and working on one’s weaknesses so that they don’t derail those qualities.

In the words of John Donahoe, CEO & President of eBay, “Leadership is a journey, not a destination. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a process, not an outcome.”

So, while embarking on this journey, it would be good for aspiring leaders, like us, to keep measuring ourselves against key tenets of leadership.

Here are some questions worth asking oneself.

What is my leadership impact?

My impact has to go beyond domain knowledge, accomplished goals and merit. No doubt that these are important but they will merely take a person to the threshold of leadership (at best be seen as an average leader). To cross the threshold of true leadership, one needs self-regulation. To what extent am I able to regulate my words, my actions and importantly, my emotions? Ultimately, it is these factors that would determine the rapport, trustworthiness and high morale that I am able to generate within the team.  

Always bear in mind – Leaders don’t react, they respond.

Do I command the complete trust of my team?

You bet, trust won’t come easily. It means team members admitting to mistakes, receiving/ providing feedback, asking for help, challenging the leader’s and each other’s ideas and, importantly, be willing to engage in difficult conversations. The leader has to lead by example on each of these. 

Another significant role that the leader would have to play is to limit background conversations by bringing them to the foreground. Background conversations can wreak havoc on a team’s morale.  Building such a culture needs clear ground rules to be set in advance.   

An article in Inc magazine titled 9 Ways to Win Employee Trust throws more light on the subject. To demonstrate the style of moving from commanding to coaching, Forbes magazine carried an interesting article titled The 13 Questions Great Leaders Ask Their Teams

How well am I able to manage conflicts?

Firstly, not all conflict is unproductive. Some conflict is inevitable and even desirable but the aspect to keep in mind is ‘constructive conflict’. The moment conflict begins to get personal or leads to non-cooperative behaviour, the leader has to step in and quickly. The five modes of handling conflict as articulated by Thomas Kilman are worth considering -

·         Competing: “My way or the highway” – Least desirable; only to be used in situations that need quick action and involve vital issues
·         Collaborating: “Win-Win” – Most preferred but involves time commitment from both sides
·         Compromising: “You lose some, I lose some. Let’s make a deal” – usually for temporary solutions
·         Avoiding: “Can we talk tomorrow”- basically meant to buy time, but the issue will have to be addressed eventually
·         Accommodating: “Giving in” – for low importance decisions till it does not start getting perceived as a person’s weakness

A leader needs to understand which mode to use at what time. In most cases, that is the leader’s toughest test. Some useful techniques to consider here are
  • Bringing emotional levels down first
  • Refocusing the group on the goal of the conversation
  • Generating options
  • Attacking issues, not personalities
  • Paraphrasing agreed upon actions  

Have I helped create more leaders?

A barometer that I’ve often held for leadership is “True leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders”. The surest way to do that is through motivation and empowerment. Motivation is closely related to the three innate psychological needs – Autonomy, Relatedness, Competence - as defined in the self-determination theory.

  • Autonomy: Is the universal urge to be causal agents of one's own life and act in harmony with one's integrated self; however, this does not mean to be independent of others
  • Competence: Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery
  • Relatedness: Is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others

True leaders understand how to meet these motivational needs of their followers and gradually move them to becoming leaders.

The journey of leadership essentially involves behavioural change.  Any behavioural change has to begin with self-awareness, move to self-evaluation and end in self-improvement. Self-evaluation drives the process of self-regulation, which determines how people control and direct their own actions.

My personal experience has been to learn leadership lessons by studying and analyzing the lives of great leaders - Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, among others. These are perhaps some of the best examples of leadership in action. A common thread that I notice among all great leaders is that they have had their weaknesses but they learnt to deal with them in a way that those don’t become roadblocks. Their focus has been on nurturing and making optimal use of their strengths.

Also, I’ve noticed that most successful leaders developed their leadership abilities much before they took any leadership positions. In fact, many leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, never held any formal leadership designations in their lives.

I believe that’s another important lesson for aspiring leaders. Move out of the trap of looking at leadership from the lens of a formal position. Leadership is using the power of one’s influence.  

An instance that I hold quite apt for leadership by influence is when Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a reporter to give his message to the people of India. His response was in five words – “My life is my message”. For me, that’s the most powerful message a leader can give.

Becoming a fully effective leader, by learning to exercise influence, is difficult and requires years of personal development. So the sooner one embarks on the journey, the better.

I've started. Have you?

As I publish my post, I'm saddened to hear about the passing away of one of India's most inspirational leaders, former President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. He embodied many of these leadership traits especially the last one of creating leaders through his tireless work with students. He breathed his last while addressing students at one of India's top B-schools. I dedicate this piece to him. RIP - Dr. Kalam, 'The People's President'.