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Rethinking Leadership

Recently, my nephew Tanay, studying at a private school in Pittsburgh (in Pennsylvania, USA) was honoured with a Fides award by his peers as one of the “unsung heroes of their school community”. (Fides is a Roman goddess, the deification of good faith and honesty. Many of the oldest Roman deities were embodiments of high ideals (e.g., Honos, Libertas); it was the function of goddess Fides to oversee the moral integrity of the Romans.) The Fides award was a prize to honour those who exemplified the following qualities, all rolled into one:

  • Responsible citizenship
  • Quiet unassuming actions and positive attitude
  • Significant impact on those around him/ her
  • Inspires others to do the same

Greater than the delight of the recognition of my nephew, was the insight that this award was about commending “Leadership” attributes, and what better foundation could school kids to have than an early lesson in Leadership through this institution. 

But wait a minute, what is Leadership that we speak about here?  Leadership cannot be constrained into narrow definitions, yet undeniably, Leadership is about 3 I words – 2 of them mentioned above – Impact, Inspiration and Influence

The field of Leadership is rich with questions and perspectives, with much lesser answers. Let’s ponder over one of them. Is Leadership the dominion of large corporates alone?

While Leadership is likely to be scrutinized, evaluated, identified, developed and celebrated in global industrial houses with regularity, it is no less practised at the grass root level, where the common people are – that’s where the real-world challenges abound. Dr Jayanti Ravi, Principal Secretary and Commissioner, Rural Development, Government of Gujarat, India, is one such public Leader who is extremely well recognized for her public leadership.  She has a unique blend of educational qualifications –  a Master’s degree in Nuclear Physics, Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and a PhD in Technology-enhanced Education from the MS University, Baroda- which obviously positions her for influence across a range of people and issues. She has authored case studies, regularly publishes papers in International Journals, guides doctoral students and is a visiting Faculty at Harvard University. Her book on transforming Higher Education develops a Multiversity model, conceptualized and designed by her. She is also credited with initiating many transformations in the Education, Labour and Rural Development sectors.

Dr. Ravi in her current role is contributing to the design and implementation of a new paradigm of integrated, demand-based, information based rural development in Gujarat.  Gujarat is a state in India, which has seen remarkable development in the last couple of decades.

When Dr. Ravi spoke to an elite audience of HR Leaders and influencers of the MTHR Global Community (an associate of SABPP), at Academy of HRD, in the city of Ahmedabad, in India, she added manifold to the common knowledge of Leadership. The powerful idea, overarching them all was that a Leader is an individual who “Dreams Big,” but whose own ego is small, thus always acting with humility and authenticity.  How beautifully she captured this in her own words – “Leadership is not about gloss, but about glow”.

Needless to mention, she personified this. The audience did not hear a single mention of the big fat word “I” in her entire seminar, it was ‘we’ all the way in all the anecdotes she narrated about her work, and her projects. Not surprisingly, therefore, she spoke about three shades of this brand of Leadership:

  1. Followership – this, she said, was a critical contributor to be a good Leader. “It is important that we ask our best Team members how they are the best followers, and then practice it”. One of the greatest leaders of modern times, Gandhiji famously declared “Let no one say that he is a follower of Gandhi, it is enough that I should be by own follower”. Only those who learn followership can excel at Leadership.
  2. Baby Leadership – “a baby is entirely vulnerable but is the queen or king of their home, everything and everyone moves around them”, emphasized Dr. Ravi “ there is nothing wrong with accepting and showing dependence on the team and accepting what we do not know”. After all, authenticity is what makes for powerful leaders, right?
  3. Servant Leadership – “You know, you can only lead them from behind”, said Nelson Mandela, a world leader with the greatest influence in recent times. The phrase itself signifies service towards the people who look up to your Leadership and for that, Dr. Ravi suggested – “we need to practice listening more often” and “make no assumptions”. Though this concept has been popularized by Robert Greenleaf, it was well established in early cultures like China and India.

Dr. Ravi reinforced the above concepts through her three values – the 3 Cs:

Courage: to Act and make the change

Compassion: which is empathy and beyond, as the catalyst of change

Cultivation: The Leader needs to balance two styles: a style of Rice Cultivation – all about macro, the cause, the masses, with a style of Rose Cultivation – all about Micro, the details, the individual
Further reflection on this and we can relate all the above concepts to the Public/ Political Leadership- Abraham Lincoln in the West, to Nelson Mandela in Africa, and to M K Gandhi in the East. Can we afford to practice these styles in Corporates? The confusion in people’s minds is often whether the above-discussed approaches are soft or submissive approaches. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The leading Management Guru Jim Collins’ research and conclusions therein reveal to us uncanny similarities of the Followership, Baby Leadership and Servant Leadership approaches, to his own work –

Level 5 Leadership is a concept developed by Jim Collins. After several years of research, Collins discovered that all of the great organizations that he studied were headed by what he called “Level 5 Leaders.”

These Leaders have a unique combination of fierce resolve and humility. They were the first to own up to mistakes, and the last to take credit for success.

You can work on developing the following skills and characteristics to become a Level 5 Leader:

  • Develop humility.
  • Ask for help.
  • Take responsibility.
  • Develop discipline.
  • Find the right people.
  • Lead with passion.

(The concept of Level 5 was written about by Jim Collins in a well-respected 2001 Harvard Business Review article, later published in his popular book, “From Good to Great.” The concept came about during a study that began in 1996, when Collins began researching what makes a great company. He started by looking at 1,435 companies, and ended up choosing 11 truly great ones. These 11 companies were all headed by what Collins called “Level 5 Leaders.”)

In India, in 2009 and thereafter, during my consulting and HR community work, I had the opportunity to connect with, interact, interview and closely observe the conversations and behaviour of a Transformational Leader, whom I greatly admire – Dr. Anil K. Khandelwal.

Reams have been written about the sustained transformation he brought about in the organization he led – Bank of Baroda, a Public Sector behemoth -most popularly in “The India Way” by Peter Capelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Michael Useem of Wharton University and detailed in his own account “Dare to Lead”.  He exemplifies several of the behaviours proposed by Dr. Ravi. A particular favourite with Dr. Khandelwal is the concept of “Tough Love’ (one can read more at this Link Here is the idea in a nutshell, in his own words:

Maintaining a balance: In an environment of high-performance expectations, managers need to be tough regarding employee performance, and simultaneously compassionate, in dealing with employees’ problems. High performance can be sustained only in an environment of high compassion. This combination is what I call tough love and in my work experience I have hugely benefited from adopting this approach”. This tough love approach also aligns with the unassuming Leadership approaches discussed earlier.

Going back to the original story, Fides is synonymous with the twin qualities of trust and authenticity, with no compromise on goals, in the practice of any profession or role. Impact, Inspiration and Influence are its likely outcomes. Such is the style exemplified by Gandhi, Mandela, Lincoln, Dr. Khandelwal, Dr. Ravi and Collins Level 5 Leaders.

There are many Role Models but the key question is – can you be one? Let’s rethink Leadership in the light of the above.

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