Leadership is an extreme thing


  • Business
  • Saturday, 21 Mar 2009

It is about traits but not just about traits.

In 1997, while I was working at NBC News, Mother Teresa, Nobel Prize winner, died. While preparing for a special programme on her life as a tribute to her, I started browsing stories and facts about her. Here was a shy, introvert woman, born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuin, who impacted the world.

At the height of the siege of Beirut in 1982, she managed to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to cease fire long enough to allow the rescue of 37 children from a hospital.

A captivating story was when she went to an Indian bakery and insisted on getting free bread for her homeless children in Calcutta. The baker slapped her hard and asked her to get out of there. She did not become defensive or smack the baker for his assault on her. Instead, she calmly said, “I probably deserved that slap for asking for free bread. Now, please give me my bread.”

She harassed the baker for two hours until he could no longer tolerate her and just gave her the bread to get rid of her. Here, she displayed her extreme humility but also her extreme assertiveness in one situation. And I started to get a sense of what leadership was.

So, what is leadership? Being outspoken, charismatic, visionary, inspiring and passionate does not mean that you are a leader. Leadership is about traits but not just about traits. I have discovered that all leaders, from Mother Teresa to Jack Welch, have this same ability: They are experts at using the right traits at the right moment.

Here’s a quick question. Which is more important for leaders to have: The ability to listen or the ability to talk? The ability to be detail-oriented or the ability to see the big picture and be strategic? The ability to learn or to teach? The ability to be humble or to be assertive? To rule by authority or by influence? The ability to drive change oneself or to empower others to lead the change?

These traits are generally the polar opposites of each other. Ironically, the answer to each of the questions above is: Both. Leadership is about context and situation. It is the ability to behave in the right way at the right time and to do the right thing at the right moment.

In interviews, Mother Teresa said she learnt to move seamlessly between the two extremes from her studies of Jesus. He displayed such extreme contrast in behaviour when he authoritatively removed illegal sellers from the temple premises with a whip. And yet just after that, he humbles himself to wash the feet of his followers.

From my personal research and observation of top leaders in action, including Jack Welch, I find that great leaders are a peculiar bunch – almost like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when it comes to their leadership actions. They effortlessly move from opposite leadership traits with expertise.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War says: “Benevolence and righteousness may be used to govern a state but cannot be used to administer an army. Expediency and flexibility are used in administrating an army, but cannot be used in governing a state.”

Sun Tzu understood that leadership was contextual and situational. Leadership “tricks” cannot be applied in government as to military as to business. Context matters.

Jack Welch always said leadership was all about 4Es: Energy, Energises, Edge and Execute. Jack lied. (He forgot to mention the other E – Extreme).

Welch is a classic example whose entire leadership legacy is based on swinging between extreme leadership traits. Having worked at General Electric for more than 12 years, I have personally seen Welch constantly switch between extremes.

He swung from staying macro, visionary and discussing strategy to instantaneously digging deep, asking questions that enable him to plough through the details of a situation. That’s what real leaders do – swing from one extreme to another and be able to handle both extremes perfectly well.

I have also seen Welch use authority and fear to drive home a point or to ensure that an action is taken but, at the same time, he also encouraged his employees to have ownership, engagement and empowered them to take action by themselves. This seems rather contradictory but it is really situational.

Welch knew when positional power was necessary to get things done and when to use influence to empower his employees. That’s the power of great leaders – the ability to use both extremes of leadership traits to the fullest extent.

Great leaders know when to abandon or quit a failed idea and when to pursue it until it succeeds. Many would say that Nelson Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa was the way he chose to leave it. Mandela could have been president for life (and he had good reason to do so) but he chose not to.

Mandela knew that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they choose to do. Yet, he did not quit the fight in those 27 years he was in prison. He persevered. He knew when to quit and when not to.

Mahatma Gandhi led a fifth of humanity to independence in a leadership style that broke every political rule in the book. He took numerous beatings without a fight and readily accepted prison terms but, at the same time, he also mobilised a march against the British in the 240-mile Salt March and defied his colonial rulers by urging his fellow countrymen to burn their foreign-made clothing.

Gandhi was also wise enough to mobilise people from all walks of life to stand up for him.

Yet, he took personal leadership to a different level by inflicting himself with pain and fasting. Here was a man who was the epitome of leadership – leveraging the power of “extreme leadership.”

So what does this mean for me? Can you become the next Gandhi, Welch, Mandela or Moyes? Of course you can!

I met David Moyes, the manager of over-achieving football club Everton, and he mentioned how he learnt very early in his life the importance of decision-making and managing each situation differently. He said there is no formula for leadership. Leadership is about reading and reacting accordingly to every situation and knowing each is unique.

For example, if there is a decision that needs to be made, there are two ways to approach it: One, by using data and the other, by using intuition.

Great leaders know when to use what. Or managing your employees – should you use compliance or should you empower?

Great leaders know when to employ a directive style or when empowering leadership is needed. They react to each situation according to its context.

Markus Buckingham in his book, First Break all the Rules, did research on thousands of leaders. He found that the greatest managers in the world seem to have little in common, differing in sex, age, and race and employing vastly different styles.

Yet, despite their differences, they share a common trait: They do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom. And they break these rules because they understand that each situation faced is unique and requires leadership “flex”.

There is a time to be humble, yet there is a time to be assertive and take action. There is a time to ensure perfection, yet there is a time to go for speed and simplicity. There is a time to smile and a time to get serious. A time for discipline and a time for spontaneity.

Great leaders know the right time when to alternate between contrasting leadership traits. Decision-making based on context and situation lies at the heart of great leadership.

So, you want to be a leader? Learn to be extreme. Leadership is, after all, an extreme thing.

● Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise. You can hear him live every Monday at 1pm on his own radio show on BFM89.9. His dream is to see Malaysia produce its own Gandhi, Mother Teresa and, hopefully, a David Moyes to take Malaysian football out of its current state.

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