As a child growing up in South India, the term "leadership" evoked images of Mahatma Gandhi leading thousands of freedom fighters in his non-violent movement against the British. My earliest memory of being in a leadership role was when I was class leader in Standard 6. My job was to note down the names of students who talked in class while the teacher was out, condemning them thus to a caning. I didn't like this role and it did not fit in with my image of what a leader should be. I was left with a lingering question: What is leadership?
Over the years, different definitions resonated with me at different stages of my life. After 2.5 years of the Global Leadership Fellows (GLF) program at the World Economic Forum, I graduated last week from the program.
Below are six reflections on leadership from my GLF journey.
1. What leadership is not
While I was trying to understand what leadership is, a former colleague Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo gave a beautiful farewell speech in 2013 in which he highlighted what is not leadership. Until that time, I used to think in terms of leadership and followership. What he said was very powerful - "The opposite of leadership is cynicism and not followership." It was a paradigm shift in my thinking. Followership is an integral component of leadership, and a person who is consumed by cynicism can neither lead nor follow. A leader needs to follow his vision, his values and even his followers to lead effectively.
"Instead of trying to change individual behaviours, a leader needs to work towards shaping contexts."
2. Leaders must understand and shape contexts
Instead of trying to change individual behaviours, a leader needs to work towards shaping contexts. In India, we see people breaking queues, throwing litter on the streets and not following traffic rules. But when the same people go to Singapore or the UAE or Switzerland, they do all the right things. What makes the same Indian stand in a queue and throw litter in a trashcan in Singapore? It is not just the law but the context that changes behaviour. Understanding and shaping contexts is key to creating positive engagement.
3. Leaders must accept their dark side too
We usually try to project only the brighter side of our lives -- our achievements, success stories, happy memories -- at work or in social situations. But our past failures and our difficult moments actually provide the character, insights and resilience required to become a successful leader. It is important to accept ourselves with all our bright and dark spots for peace in our everyday lives. As part of the Fellowship, we have this peer coaching group -- a group of four or five fellows who can share their difficulties and get coaching in a safe space. It is invaluable. Making ourselves vulnerable helps us to cleanse our egos and creates an authentic environment where peace and trust prevail.
4. Understand your lead question
Different organisations have different lead questions in terms of value creation. It is important to understand these lead questions to achieve balance as we create value. I started my career as a 3D animator where I was creating value using what I know (skills). Over the years, I started managing a large team and my question changed from what do I know to how do we do. It has since then moved to why and what if to who do we know. Each lead question requires us to present a new skill or dimension of ourselves. It informs us on how we have to organise ourselves to create value and it takes time. It is the awareness to understand the existence of these different lead questions and the ability to adapt and stay agile that makes a leader who can make good choices around resource allocation.
"Before others disrupt us, we need to disrupt and renew ourselves constantly."
5. Define or redefine for yourself
I met Andrés Piñeiro Coen , an amazing Global Shaper from Panama City during my trip to Panama last year. He shared his backpacking trip experience in South America during our drive from the Pacific to the Atlantic enroute to San Blas islands in Panama. Whenever he wanted to eat meat, he slaughtered and cooked it himself during the trip. After a while, he couldn't take the pain that living beings go through and he stopped eating meat. He said something profound - "If you can kill, you can eat. But if you cannot kill and eat, that is disrespectful." As a young child, I saw goats being slaughtered out in the open and could never eat the lamb curry my mother cooked at home. Over the years, I had started eating meat for various reasons and this sharing from Andres helped me to connect me to my roots. I was able to give up meat without any cravings for it. I defined what is vegetarian for me. I eat eggs and if no vegetarian food is available, I will eat meat fully respecting the fact that a living being gave its life to feed me. I have since then started to define - and redefine -- what anything means to me.
6. Disrupt yourself
One of the reasons why companies get disrupted is because they commit resources around a certain strategy. When the strategy fails, it hard to reallocate the resources. What companies need are resources that have "strategic flexibility" so that they can adapt and adjust. This is a problem for not just companies but also for individuals. An animator who becomes an expert by investing a significant amount of resources and time on a particular software can be disrupted easily when a new technology is introduced in the organisation. It is true for leadership also. We need to realise that whatever answer we have is not permanent. We need to stay detached from both the approach and outcome so that we can develop the flexibility to defend against disruptions. Before others disrupt us, we need to disrupt and renew ourselves constantly.
My favourite definition of leadership, by John Quincy Adams, is this: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, become more, you are a leader." To this I would add that leadership is a space in which people come together to express themselves fully to realise their individual and collective potentials.
The above reflections gave a feeling to me that I have found the answers. But I quickly realised that the answers are not permanent. When the questions stop or in other words, when there are "no more" questions, we have an answer. When the question resumes, the answers change. Keeping the questions going when we have an answer is the way to sustain the leadership journey and the growth process.
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