The first step towards great leadership


  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Aug 2010

HAVE you ever met someone who became a parent without really wanting to be one? Can you imagine how difficult the task of bringing up a child would be for such a person? Anyone who has raised children knows well about the sleepless nights of the first year, the teething problems of the terrible twos, the challenges of adolescence, and the long-term toil of grooming a child into a fine human being.

For someone who has not signed up willingly for this hard work, parenting can be an endlessly tiring ordeal. And, of course, the experience is probably much worse for a child of unwilling parents.

Now flip the situation and consider a couple who genuinely want to be parents. For them, the sleepless nights, the terrible twos and the ongoing journey of parenting is the biggest gift of life. The difference? Knowing what you want, and going into it with eyes wide open.

A famous bodybuilder was once asked why he picked bodybuilding over another sport like football or hockey. “In football, if you dribble the ball all the way from your end of the field to the goal-post of the opposing team, you typically have to pass the ball to another player, who kicks or heads the ball past the goalkeeper. In other words, you do all the hard work, and someone else gets the credit for scoring,” he said without hesitation.

“I picked bodybuilding because I wanted to reap the full reward of my own hard work without sharing it with anyone else.”

Can you imagine this person in a football or hockey team? Not only would he be miserable, he would probably bring his team down too by not passing when needed.

Now consider the following. Have you ever worked for a boss who:

>Did not take the trouble to find out what you really wanted, and how to motivate you to the fullest?

>Behaved in unpredictable ways – happy one day and erratic or explosive on the next? You could never tell what reaction you would get from him.

>Drove his team hard, but claimed all the credit himself when presenting to his seniors?

>Was more concerned with his own success than that of the team?

Almost all of us have worked for at least a few such managers at some point in our careers. There is no shortage of bosses in the business world but unfortunately, very few of them make good leaders.

While it takes many attributes to make a good leader, the primal step is to know what you want, and be totally honest with yourself. Contrary to conventional wisdom, very few of us are honest with ourselves. This is the main reason, despite thousands of books about leadership and billions spent on leadership training, good leaders are few and far between.

The problem is knowing what you want, and being honest with yourself can neither be learned in a classroom nor automatically acquired upon accepting a leadership position. If there is one thing I have learned after studying leadership for over 20 years, it is this – without this primal step, you cannot be a leader.

Furthermore, if you continue to be in a leadership position without the level of self-awareness that I have described, you will make yourself (and the people you lead) miserable everyday.

Leadership is like parenting. Willing parents do not bring up a child with years of selfless love and caring because they hope to get a huge financial reward when they are old. They fully understand that the journey will be long and hard, but highly satisfying and fulfilling. Their reward is the journey itself.

Real leaders know that this is true about leadership as well – leadership is not about achieving success and getting rewarded yourself – it is about making others successful even if you get no credit for it.

The reward for leadership, like parenting, is the journey itself. It is the intrinsic satisfaction and warm feeling derived out of being a good parent. Most people accept (and stay in) leadership positions without asking themselves if leadership is for them, and without knowing what is really involved. If you’d rather be a bodybuilder, don’t join a hockey team!

Another problem with knowing what you want is that there are no shortcuts to finding out. Some people know very early in life what they want, and get focused on pursuing their goals.

There are very few people in the world that are so lucky. Most of us take a long time to find out – sometimes years or even decades. The trick is to keep trying until the answers become clear for you. The only way to do so is to keep looking for honest answers to the following questions:

1. What few things are important to me? What makes me happy? (Examples: money, love, happiness, power, achievement, social acceptance, being a good parent, brother, sister, son or daughter, leisure, hard work, meaningful work)

2. Do I want to:

a. Lead a simple life rich with everyday small pleasures?

b. Achieve great success in an individual endeavour? If so, which one?

c. Work with others towards creating a better future? If so, in what arena?

3. What specific results do I want to create?

4. What are my values and how will they guide my behaviour?

5. When my life is over, how do I want people to describe me?

For sure, these are tough questions to answer. This is why it can take years before you find honest answers. It is perfectly okay to struggle for the right answers, but you cannot go through life in blissful self-ignorance.

If you know where you want to go, any road will take you there. To find intrinsic happiness, you need to make this investment in yourself by going on a self-awareness quest. While it will take considerable time and effort to get to honest clarity, it will be the best investment you will ever make.

Becoming clear about who you are, what you want and the results you want to create are acts of self-leadership. If you cannot lead yourself, you can never lead others effectively.

The greatest leaders in history did not wait to be appointed to leadership positions before articulating a vision for the future. They took it upon themselves to solve the most pressing problems of their time and went about doing so. They first articulated their purpose and values, and then painted a picture of a better future. People who found the purpose, values and picture compelling enough, rewarded the leaders with their devoted followership.

Think about Mahatma Gandhi. He had no political office, military position, or any material wealth. If there was one thing he had, it was laser-sharp clarity about his purpose (freedom for all mankind) and values (truth, humility and non-violence). Millions were willing to lay down their lives for his cause because among other things, he had successfully completed the first step of leadership – knowing what you want and going into it with eyes wide open.

>Rajeev Peshawaria was formerly the global chief learning officer at Morgan Stanley and Coca-Cola. He is currently CEO of ICLIF, a strategic learning partner to Leaderonomics, with both organisations dedicated to the development of world-class leaders across Asia.

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