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3 Leadership Lessons From Modi's Surprise Visit To Lahore

30/12/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 25: Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, Pakistan on December 25, 2015. (Photo by Indian Press Information office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's sudden visit to Lahore is being hailed as an innovation in diplomacy, wherein he has gone out of his way to reset the thorny relationship between two nuclear nations. This is truly a masterstroke and even his fiercest critics will be hard-pressed to find concrete reasons to deride. Not surprisingly, the media in Pakistan has hailed the effort, as has that in the US.

Whether or not Modi's visit will thaw the relationship between two nations or not, only time will tell. However, it does provide lessons on leadership which can be adapted to the business context. A life in the world of business is riddled with uncertainties and thorny relationships that must be circumvented to achieve what is right for the stakeholders.

Here are three lessons that stand out.

1. Take purposeful bets to test ideas

Leadership is about taking purposeful bets even when you are not sure of the outcomes. Relations with Pakistan have been rocky since August 2014 when foreign secretary level talks were cancelled by India. There has also been plenty of criticism about the government's incoherent Pakistan strategy levelled not just by the opposition but by senior BJP leaders such as Yashwant Sinha too. Even certain sections of the media have taken the position that resumption of dialogue with Pakistan is futile due to the control of the military and due to failed efforts in the past.

The Paris handshake and Lahore visit are great examples of purposeful bets. A leader tries out an idea or thought, clearly knowing it may not work out.

When Modi decided to spend that less than two minutes with Nawaz Sharif in the sidelines of the COP21 summit in Paris, I don't think it was a chance event, but a conscious effort to take a purposeful bet and test uncharted waters. If media reports are to be believed that Mr Modi walked up to PM Nawaz Sharif. Not only did they shake hands but sat next to each other and spoke for some time. Though the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said it was just an "exchange of courtesies" my sense is Modi purposefully set the ball rolling by this gesture.

Even when he touched down in Lahore, I am sure he knew that there could be criticism at home for breaking protocol. He also probably knew that the talks may not yield something substantial going forward and could even cause damage in the event of a future terrorist attack.

The Paris handshake and Lahore visit are great examples of purposeful bets. A leader tries out an idea or thought, clearly knowing it may not work out. However, he puts his neck on the line and stakes his reputation as he believes it to be the best way forward to test what he strongly believes in. Even in business, leaders have to take such purposeful bets on ideas on which there may not be data of past success. Steve Jobs at Apple is a great example of a leader who took purposeful bets. He said that customers don't know what they want. He followed his convictions and tested his ideas through products that ultimately were a hit.

Personal chemistry can soften the thorniest equations

PM Modi is a firm believer in building personal chemistry to take relationships forward. Since he has taken office, he seems to have built brilliant chemistry with world leaders, including Barack Obama and David Cameron. This is one of the reasons why the Indian PM commands respect in many of the world's capitals. Gestures such as hugging his Pakistani counterpart and touching the feet of Sharif's mother all help to build and solidify the chemistry between them.

Gestures such as hugging his Pakistani counterpart and touching the feet of Sharif's mother all help to build and solidify the chemistry between them.

When two leaders have good chemistry this is built on mutual respect and trust. They can openly discuss problems, understand each other's position better and work towards their resolution. One of the outcomes of the Lahore trip was to solidify chemistry with a leader of a country with which India has had a fraught relationship.

Whether a CEO is heading an organisation, a sportsman leading a team or a community leader working in a village, there should be a conscious effort to build chemistry. There is no textbook approach for this, but one must remember that it must be done in both formal and informal settings. Without chemistry the relationship can never be deepened.

KV Kamath, the first chief of the New Development Bank and past chairman of ICICI Bank and Infosys shares a great chemistry with the Ambani brothers. If media reports are to be believed this chemistry helped to resolve the long-standing dispute between the tycoon brothers.

Do what's right even if it means undoing one's position

As leaders we take positions in public on issues which we then try to adhere to. This could be something that we do willingly or we are made to do because of the context or organisation wherein we operate. We also know from social psychology that once someone takes a stand there is a natural tendency to behave aligned with that stand. We as humans find it difficult to overcome cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort experienced by an individual when they act in contradiction to their ideas or beliefs. This is especially true when the situation changes and past ideas lose their relevance.

Modi often made uncharitable remarks about Pakistan before he became Prime Minister. However, he knows as PM that India's success is only possible when there is peace with neighbours.

Many politicians have made their career by whipping up an anti-Pakistan sentiment. So for them to look at Pakistan without bias can disappoint their voters - as a result, they continue along the same path.

Modi often made uncharitable remarks about Pakistan before he became Prime Minister. However, he knows as PM that India's success is only possible when there is peace with neighbours. Hence, he did not hesitate to reach out to the Pakistani establishment with open arms despite what he may have said in the past.

Leadership in the business world is about doing what's right even if it means undoing positions that one may have taken in the past.. It's also about overcoming the cognitive dissonance and learning to manage the psychological discomfort within.

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