Category Archives: Leadership

That slippery eel called decisiveness

“…But I must make decisions everyday that I hope are just. I don’t know right from wrong all the time. I wish I did. But what I can’t be is indecisive…”

I so agree with Frank Underwood, said the weary leader to me the other day. (You see, I am his inner compass that he often converses with).

Let me take half a minute to explain what the quote is all about. Frank Underwood, as the US President in the TV serial ‘House of Cards’, speaks these words. Yes, it is just a script. And yes, Underwood is Machiavellian to the core and not worthy of emulation.

And now, let us go back to my friend.

His burrowed forehead was etched with the burden of others’ expectations of him to be decisive. Of course, he knows that this burden came with his trophy of leadership. And he is trained to handle it too.

How easy is it to be just, ethical and decisive, I goaded him.

Not easy, duh – he was scathing. And not as simple as you think either. And here’s the scary part, he said. People are so unforgiving even if they perceive that we failed to vault over any of those three criteria.

That my friend, I said, is the crown of thorns you wear as a leader.

Tell me, he quizzed. What is it that people want of us as just and decisive leaders?

A mirror does not have all the answers. So I turned to the definitions in the Marine Corps Leadership book. Decisiveness, it summarizes, is the ability to weigh all facts, and act calmly and quickly to arrive at a sound decision. Justice, in their lexicon is the practice of being fair and consistent. Integrity means being honest and truthful in what you say or do.

Oh, please… he cringed. Can’t you see the how the power of perception is stacked against us? What seems calm to you may look like bristling to others. A sound decision to others may look like unhinged thinking to you. As for being consistent, once is good enough for some, while for others even ten can be ‘flashes in the pan’! Fair, honest, truthful – there are so many innovative interpretations!

Good points, I agreed. So why don’t we start with intent?

He warmed up to the idea. Let’s say I have the unquestionable intent of being just and ethical, he said. Depending on my personality and beliefs, my conviction gives me two broad ways to act.

Go on, I said.

I could want to achieve the most good for most people. I would then ask myself – what are the overall future effects of my action? Who are the people who will be impacted? My ethical decision will be to act for the best outcomes for most of the people.

Fair enough, I agreed.

Or I could be the leader to whom acting in the right manner is most important. What is the right thing to do, I will ask myself. What are the actions I never should take? This will be my lodestar for ethical decisiveness.

But intent is only half the story, isn’t it, I nudged. When you take decisions for others shouldn’t you smartly factor the impact of outcomes?

That’s where it gets muddled, he rued. I agreed with him.

Of course, there never will be a perfect decision. Even your most cynical critics will concede that. A good leader like you will be smart and intelligent to foresee all the implications of your decision – upside and downside. And I am sure you will also have plans to tackle the fallout in each case.

But what about the dangers of perception, he quizzed.

You cannot get away from that reality, I said. And integrity is your best shield here. Can you transparently maneuver the truth without manipulating it? Can you own your decision with conviction and without the arrogance of authority? Can you open some windows of hopeful change for those who see your decisions as closing doors for them? And can you live with the pain of not being liked by everyone – without hurt, rancor or derision?

His furrowed brows had straightened quite a bit as he set out on his next decision. I know he will be back again to look into me as his mirror. And I went back to my work of polishing it for clearer reflection.

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Are you your organization’s ‘poet’?

“We’re going to miss this man, America. Whatever his flaws, he’s been more than our president. Time and again, he’s been our national poet.”

Frank Bruni said this of President Obama in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

It set me thinking.

When unease ripples through your markets, when anxiety overtakes your organization, when your employees are either confused or believe the organization is not going in the right direction, how do you, as a leader, act? How do you energize your team?

Do you take the role of an organization ‘poet’?

Huh, you may ask. But I mean business. Literally and figuratively.

The ‘poet’ leader has a fierce, tough-minded optimism that lifts the spirit of his people. She has deep convictions, is resilient, and battles change and adversity with creative ideas. He creates positive energy in negative environments. She believes in the future and motivates purposeful performance through well thought out optimism.

Before the second ‘huh?’ escapes your lips on the seemingly oxymoronic phrase ‘well thought out optimism’, hit the pause button. There is a simple but powerful flow to this philosophy that lends it its power.

It starts with a vision of success for your organization. It is a conviction that defines something special. It is a passion that inspires others to stand with you. It goes beyond being the best. It makes you want to be the only ones doing something unique, and doing it in the unique way you do.

This philosophy spells uniqueness not as ‘exclusive’ but as ’care’. Colleagues, customers, partners, vendors…they all matter. As does conduct – both as an organizational credo and as traits of its individual representatives. Care and conduct places meaning above efficiency to weave an emotional connect into the fabric of corporate culture.

The flow of this philosophy creatively looks to the future by rediscovering the past. The ‘poet’ acknowledges that the past is a treasure trove of history, which can create momentum and confidence if not looked at with regret. Through rediscovery he ignites innovation in reinventing the future, even as he is consistent in his priorities.

The ‘poet’ thus starts a movement to take on what is possible. He does not debate why it cannot. She changes her organization’s climate in testing times to enrich its culture. They are resilient, not just to bounce back but bounce forward. They develop a unique perspective of the future. In seeing opportunities that others do not, they display both initiative and humility to tap into the collective intelligence and genius in their organizations.

Fittingly, the New York Times article was titled ‘Freedom from Fear’. Amidst challenges, doubts and fears, the poet leader talks calmly, authentically and forcefully about ‘what we can do’. They personally renew themselves to re-energize their employees. That is why the classic line “I have a dream” was a poetic foundation to historic change. Imagine if it had been “I have a fear”!


Listening to whispers amidst the bugles

“I found that the most rewarding moments of my work-life were not when I got attention, but when I felt good at the end of a hard day’s work”

 So nod the ‘invisibles’, as they are termed, of an organization.

 They are the ones leaders do not see, but experience their strength. The ones whose punch they feel without seeing their fists. They are the squares that do not need managers pegging them into the traditional round holes.

 As a manager, as a leader, how do you manage them? Recognize them? Reward them? Motivate them?

 “Puhleeez!” This is the ‘Invisible’ wincing. “Please do not think of me that way.”

 And that is why they are different. They defy typifying even in being different. So let us just take a tour of their psyche first – enjoying what we see, without even attempting to join any dots.

 Make no mistake, they are extremely crucial to your success. No organization can do without them. Yet, they do not hang their coats on the pegs of the conventional modes of rewards and recognition that an organization must execute to cater to the majority. Their traits are strongly tied to their unique and individual perceptions of achievement and life satisfaction – their benchmarks are as simple as they are exceptional!

 It is a no-brainer to assume that they do not like self-branding. Even as they pursue excellence, they are uncomfortable drawing attention to how good or essential they are. The “Aha” moments they create for themselves exhilarate them and make them feel satisfied in a way that a pat-on-the-back most certainly would not.

 Touch me? Touch me not?

That is the billion-dollar dilemma of managers and leaders. You cannot ignore them, you cannot blaze the spotlight on them. You cannot not see them, you cannot place them on a pedestal. They whisper, but come out louder than the bugles – and they cringe when you silence the noise to hear their whisper.

 And certainly you cannot let them go unrewarded. Like someone so aptly remarked, their lack of self-promotion is definitely not a lack of what they are worth.

 Perhaps a good place to start with would be the work environment itself. Can leaders create an environment that reassures there is no need to toot one’s horn? A team-oriented atmosphere that affirms the focus is on the collective energy of its members and not on individual image building?

 Maybe respect would be a good second on the list. Respect their need to raise performance across the team, not just being singled out for excellence. Acknowledge and allow, as invisibly as they keep their presence, their need to create (and not merely be given) intrinsically rewarding work for their team, not merely for themselves.

 Amidst the possible ‘Dos’ there could be one important ‘Don’t’ in dealing with them. And that is telling them in their performance reviews of the need to be more visible and more vocal for their success. Conditioned as we are to the success factors of relentless networking and stakeholder management, we may perceive the ‘invisibles’ as shy whispering individuals. In reality, theirs could be a powerful attitude and ability to quietly observe and listen to those around them, and guide them to finding the answers themselves.

 In so doing they could teach many a humbling lesson in leadership. Of how to influence with a quiet passion and love for work, and totally without authority.


Ladder, ladder, by the wall – who is climbing it to the top?

Say you are an acknowledged leader. As an individual you have chalked up indisputable achievements. As a team builder too, you have a motivated team that rocks. And you have set your ideals higher and backed a protégé who will perhaps be a perpetuation of your leadership legacy.

But people are fallible, right? Even if you do not think you are, your protégé could be. Could he stumble? Could she fall occasionally? Would you let him fail? So that she can show her mettle in getting up, dusting off her setback and finish the race?

Or would you protect him…hmmm…or yourself…from perceptions?

Tough egg to crack, do you think?

What if you shied away from finding a ‘right’ answer? What if you told yourself there can be no wrong one either?

What if you just gave in to an honest admission and choice?

Do I groom my protégé for my benefit, or his? Am I the ladder, or is she?

(Honestly, this is a totally non-judgmental exercise to tickle your thoughts on an interesting perspective. So that you may wrestle with the answers truthfully in the privacy of just your self as the audience.)

Back to the question.

Can you meet the truth of the answer without the guilt of selfishness or the smugness of selflessness?

Let us step back and dispassionately view this. In such a relationship, both the sponsor and the protégé benefit. The sponsor garners acclaim for leadership acumen through such ‘anointment’ of worthy successors. For the protégé, of course, it is a fairly protected access to success and the limelight.

So, toss the coin. Heads! I chose this person for my benefit.

I targeted this up-and-coming bright person because he is like me. I chose her because she will be my loyal lieutenant. My invaluable contributor. My ruthlessly efficient executor. My innovative problem-solver. Oh, and yes, supremely loyal. He may not fit the throne perfectly nor inarguably demonstrate all credentials. So what? No one is perfect, I have the prerogative of choice in running with levels of imperfection and I am a packaging expert.

Don’t run others down when you see this profile. Neither run yourself down if you are one such…just accept it.

What would I do if such a person fails to the extent he could jeopardize my climb?

The answer becomes easy when the shrouds are removed. Of course, I will give her political cover till it speaks creditably of me. But she is dispensable in the grander scheme of things. And she knows it too. When the heat gets intense, he will step down without a protest, falling on the sword to remain loyal to me. For you see, he knew from the beginning it was not his wont to prove to be the right person for the job. She was aware she was a brilliant pawn, right for my leadership legacy. And I will reward her in other ways that matter to her.

Let’s toss the coin again. Tails! I chose this person for her benefit.

I targeted this person not because I wanted to see myself in the mirror. I did so because she has terrific potential and has demonstrated all the required credentials. I know he can and I am committed to help him elevate his game, dream higher and take my job.

What would I do when such a person stands before the alligator pit?

I know there are pitfalls he will stumble on, and I will coach him ahead so that he knows to be prepared. I will give room for her to fail securely, with safety nets in place so that she is comfortable with and confident about taking risks. And when failure is career threatening, I will step in to totally protect them.

So go ahead, and look at the ladder closely. Do you see yourself climbing it, or your protégé? That is all the answer you need!


Can conviction and consensus shake hands?

“I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.”

For Margaret Thatcher, this was no rhetoric. It was the truth. A truth she lived with the same felicity that she believed in it.

Whether or not you liked her, whether or not you agreed with her, you cannot take away from the fact that she consistently demonstrated the immense power in the value of conviction.

This value lies in its unshakable belief without need for proof or evidence. Some may myopically term it pig headedness. But when the passion of conviction amalgamates with purpose, it unleashes a power that can change the self to change the world.

In the corporate world, this is the essence of leadership.

The leader must possess a vision, but above it, an unshakable faith in his vision. She should have expertise, focus, charisma, passion…but above them all must sit  conviction as the driver. For, as somebody so aptly put it, it is conviction that drives decision, promotes action, accepts risk, overcomes doubt, and draws others into the endeavor. Simply put, it is a firm persuasion of oneself that something is right, and so must be believed…and must be done.

Where does this then place the much-celebrated leadership by consensus? Do conviction and consensus confusedly conflict with each other?

Contrary to what the extreme conviction leader may think, consensus is not about abandoning beliefs, principles or values and policies. (Mrs Thatcher’s famous pronouncement about it being “something in which no one believes and to which no one objects” may be a little harsh).

Good leaders do not confuse the two. They take the road of conviction in their strategy but build consensus around it. They do not diminish their power of conviction to build consensus. They listen and take strong action down the path they believe to create the best performance. They unerringly keep the vision of their goal as the primary target.

Such ‘visioneering’, is a unique trait of a good leader. At all times he holds a clear picture of what could be, and fuels it ahead by the conviction that it should be. She compels herself to move forward and make bold and sometimes, disruptive decisions, no matter the cost. They clear the cobwebs around populism to instill competitive identity in their teams, a trait that makes their members proudly engaged in discovering a focussed belief and voluntary commitment to succeed in today’s hyper competitive scenarios.

True, we should not brush aside some real risks associated with strong convictions. Such as hubris that leads to arrogance and perhaps manipulative fostering of dissension for selfish ends. Here is where the true leader balances his conviction with responsibility. Responsibility, to understand with integrity the causal effect of a desired end. And conviction, to choose the right end. CK Prahalad’s message on this will remain eternally un-erasable – “Responsibility without conviction is amorally pragmatic and un-engaging; conviction without responsibility is impotent”.

And when the ‘conviction’ leader adds optimism in instilling competitive identity, he is on his way to becoming a charismatic leader. She is then seen as one who accepts both obligation and accountability to engage and enable her people to pursue the vision.

May such Pied Pipers start their journeys!


My peer – friend or foe?

My peers. Who exactly are they?

They are my teammates right? Our goals have a line of sight to that of the larger and common organizational vision and success, right? And if they looked good, I would look good too, right?

But wait a minute, aren’t they competition too? Aren’t they the ones with whom I have to play the jostling and nudging out game to get my performance ratings, salary raises and bonuses?

As we move up the management ladder, positive interpersonal relationships, teamwork and influence become our mandated competencies. We learn it is imperative to work in co-operation and collaboration with our peers; that it is OK to direct praise their way without flinching even if it was our ideas; and that we need to be sportive and accepting if they were more successful, even if we helped them reach there.

I ain’t no saint, do I hear you say? I feel resentful if my manager gives them credit over me, do I hear you admit? I need to prove I am better than them, do I hear you confess?

Would you consider me stupid, if I asked why we feel so? My optimism tells me there could be a more positive perspective if I did.

The truth is, while we are taught in school and our initial work years on how to be smart, driven, and to develop valuable skills, we are not counseled on true relationship-building. While we grow up being praised for being the smartest in the team, we are not taught to share our knowledge or skills with our teammates. We are programmed to believe that success is individually achieved when we get the work done and grab our managers’ attention and praise.

Result? Our motivation does not stem from being involved in driving the organization forward, but from the need to be noticed and appreciated for our individual work. We seek opportunities to take credit for ideas, and sometimes even talk down our peers’ contributions. To be fair, we may not even be aware that we do so, immersed as we become in the rat race.

If this is true, would you say it is time to apply the brakes?

It does take tremendous maturing and growing up. We need to get to the point where we accept that our strengths lie in the work we do – and that they can stand on their own.  Most important, we need to be secure enough not to need or seek our managers’ validation and pats on the back. It needs true conviction that it is really about my organization succeeding, and it matters a whit not as to who is actually in the limelight to make it happen.

And we should not be looking to the organization to drive this – in fact, the organization cannot do anything if we do not. The power lies in our hands, both individually and collectively to shape a culture of workplace collaboration.

Let us…

…start by giving up control – and find ways to let others help us and impress us.

…give up the fallacious notion that their success diminishes ours

…be authentic in our relationships – yes to candid honesty, sharing, camaraderie and generosity in acknowledgment; no to hypocrisy, defensiveness politicking and grudges.

…understand them – what are their motives and perspectives? Can we also be the ones coming around to their points of view?

If you want a less selfless view, here is an undeniable truth. Your peers are today, and will be tomorrow, your most powerful advocates. They are the ones who cast the biggest impact on your future success. Do not ignore them because you cannot see their influence. Do not destroy them because you cannot engage them.

For spotlight is a short-term glow, and success is a long-term signature.


Give me a leadership of possibilities

Do you recollect your emotions as you stepped out to start the first day of your first job? And the first day of the subsequent jobs you went on to take?

 I can now earn, I said, in the case of my first job (and earn better, in the case of my subsequent jobs). And I want to make a difference.

 Agreed, said most, if not almost all, when I posed them this question (whew! I am not a freak!). Which really means this. People come with an intrinsic motivation at the beginning of any new assignment. There is a ‘looking forward’ to, there is a ‘wanting to’ and there is a ‘willing to’ attitude.

And so, it is not motivation that we look to our leaders for. At least, not in the beginning, and not as long as we have it. We look up to them for inspiration. We look to them for a leadership of possibilities, so that we can continue to motivate ourselves.

And we too become managers and leaders. Do we then remember this truth?  Do we step beyond mere projections and analyses to invoke the passion in our members to motivate themselves? Do we increase for them, their return on their emotional equity? So that they feel enthused to commit to something else other than the success of their own careers?

Today, the transience of the market place brings home the truth that it is anything but business as usual. The past is no indication of the future – it never was, for any breakthrough thoughts or actions, and it will continue not to be. What was not even imagined yesterday descends on us with impunity to create both success and failure. Step aside, replication, and make way for innovation. An innovation that allows my members to draw the future to the present, not constrain them to move forward only from the past.

Let us get back to the leadership of hope.

Do we have the courage of conviction to mesh inspired possibilities into the anchor of reality without grounding it to inaction? True reality is not misplaced or dreamy optimism for sure. But neither is it the illusory safety net of past predictors for future success. A leadership of hope first dares to see reality through its own eyes (and not through any other lens) and then search for accuracy.

Courage then moves from one of conviction to one of resilience. Do we have the tenacity to believe in what we see? To use the power of projections not merely to predict, but imagine too? To paint the canvas with a vision that keeps our members’ enthusiasm and motivation high without sacrificing them at the altar of meaningless competitiveness, internal and external?

And finally to the courage of charisma. Do we radiate the inner charisma that transfers our beliefs to our members? Not to direct them, but to inspire them to move higher, to resonate with their dreams of making a difference. Such charisma should help them move from the banalities of ‘change is good’ and ‘embrace change’ to a higher calling. One that has a cause and purpose and brings with it elements of change that they volunteer to.

 Oops! Does that move leadership uncomfortably from the structures of science to the waves of art? But why not? Science and art were not meant to be incompatible, were they? If, by doing so, business can influence and leadership can inspire to add the skills of creative improvisation, maybe the twain can meet between hope and reality.

What say?