Tag Archives: leadership skill

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”!


Character – the value beyond excellence

A recent HBR article drew attention to a study that revealed organizations with highly principled leaders performed significant notches better. Specifically, their average return on assets was five times over companies whose leadership did not enjoy confidence in their character.

Now that we have dispensed with the need to prove the obvious, let us turn to the trait we call character. The study identified four moral principles—integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion—as the cornerstones of character. Interesting aren’t they? Especially as we use the first two more as jargonized parlance, and look down on the next two as the very antithesis of strength and aggression to achieve results for shareholders.

Character. We are in awe of it when we feel it, and when the leader radiates it. Yet precision eludes us as we grapple to define or describe it.

A bulb tellingly flashes in my mind. Is my character where my head and heart joins? Where my thoughts, feelings and actions seamlessly move in total harmony into my behavior? A behavior that I do not hide in my self, but bring to life through my relationships with others?

Each of us constantly makes signature decisions about how we interact with others. When our behavior enhances the well being of others, character springs to life. It is the discovery and sustained practice of promoting the most good for the most people.

I hear the impatience. Sounds great, but can we be realistic please?

So here goes the realist’s argument. In a bottom-line-driven economy what role can character possibly play in organizational success? Honesty, compassion, forgiveness – don’t tell me these can help deliver the top-line and bottom-line goods.

But the HBR survey did just that, didn’t it? It found a strong and robust relationship between strength of character and business performance.

So, back to the annoying idealist.

Meet goals, crank profits? Hmmm…not enough. Use both head and heart to orchestrate an inclusive high-performance? Now we are talking!

For starters, let us look at the leadership competencies we spout, and tweak them to infuse ‘character’.

“Pursuit of Excellence” – going above and beyond the ordinary to achieve goals, is that what they say?

Character adds transcendence as a vital dimension – to display courage, creativity and positivity to do what is right rather than pursuing the expedient.

“Drive” – the vigor that achieves stretch goals through execution excellence, say the pundits.

Character weaves positive humility into it – self-awareness, the ability to reflect and motivate, and gratitude to colleagueship that makes success possible.

“Accountability” – we look at this as a broad umbrella of ownership.

Character threads humanity through empathy and magnanimity to forge followership as its fundamental strength.

“Results-driven decisiveness” – we define it as the ability to make sound, timely and defensible decisions, especially in crises.

Character percolates integrity, temperance and justice – and lends authenticity to success in today’s profit-maximizing context of business.

 The good news is that it is not important to ascertain if we are born with character. We just need to develop it and keep honing it as we act and lead. As the HBR study reveals, it is neither a subjective construct nor a ‘soft’ and non-quantifiable strength in a world that looks for hard data.

As we move up the ladder, we sometimes become unaware of the repercussions of the outward display of our character. Self-awareness is the key, especially to the nuances that infuse character to critical leadership competencies. Importantly, we do not have to wait for a destination for such awareness to kick in. Frontline and middle-level managers will do well to focus on social intelligence and integrity; senior leaders will do better to be open to honest feedback. For character is as much a winning differentiator by its presence as it is a crippling blind spot by its absence.

I belong. With pride. With purpose.

How does he do it?

I found myself asking this question as I watched him address diverse audiences. He has children, adults, teachers, industrialists and even the apathetic Indian (at home and abroad) involved and roused when they listen to him – and long after too.

Much has been talked and written about Narendra Modi’s speeches and his persona – I am not going to add my tuppence bit to that. But one phenomenal effect that seems to surge in the people he addresses seems to be a good lesson for all organizational leaders.

The pride of belonging.

Excuse me, it says, I am not the rhetoric of happy talk. I am the pride centered on purpose. I beat in the heart of every organization, team and individual. I beg to be tapped from the static company mission statements and brought alive.

Please, it pleads, I am far more profound than being merely appreciated through rewards and recognition programs. I spring from wells deeper than that.

It certainly does.

It is the culmination of the effort, the brainpower and all of the waking hours that people plough into their organizations. They need it to have meaning. They need it to matter.

It is the spirit of the happy people who sling frozen fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Market at slim wages. They want this spirit to find common ground and be part of something bigger than itself. To have an additional pride of membership and connectedness to causes and results that matter.

Belonging in people recognizes the truth that the things they create and craft carry little but sure pieces of their skill, will, heart and soul. For the fire of pride to be lit, the relationship has to be reciprocal. People must feel that they too are transformed in some way by all that they build.

How does this shift the telescope of leadership?

For starters, a considerable U-turn from the Cartesian focus on ‘I think, therefore I am’ to the Ubuntu assertion of ‘I am because you are’. The softness of the latter statement is deceptive, very deceptive. No belief in collective strength can be soft. Any shared intellectual, emotional and psychological power packs a whopping punch!

Two, it also changes leadership’s listening frequency. They need to tune in to their followers’ hopes, expectations and needs with an ethic of service, principles, knowledge, capability and astute alacrity.

Three, their aggression needs to be wise – built on passion, compassion and agility. They need to sense, reflect, resonate and harmonize with their followership.

More than anything else, any leadership can evoke the pride of belonging only if the steward has the moral authority to gain trust and approbation from the people who want to be led. Only if their people respect and appreciate their personhood, not just their persona.

In translating the here and now to their vision of the future, in carrying their people along as they link the organization’s history and destiny, leaders need to make the unerring connection between hope and achievement of their followers. Otherwise the Ubuntu philosophy aptly describes what will happen. ‘Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter’


I C – do you see?

They outnumber leaders in any organization by a large margin.

They satisfy customers, negotiate with suppliers, create and support innovation and provide the manpower for the most pressing business strategies.

The exceptional ones visibly demonstrate skills in the key high-performance imperatives of influence, personal effectiveness, collaboration, and building stakeholder loyalty.

Yet, we have no clue how to deal with their aspirations. Or more specifically, their non-aspiration to become the much-hyped leader!

I am referring to the Individual Contributor.

Of all the irritating stereotypes, this is the most destructive in an organization. We are apologetic at best, and disdainful at worst to this least understood, most valued and hopelessly misused group.

Question. Should we only think about advancing the careers of such individuals by moving them into manager positions? And then do them a disservice by confusedly asserting that they do not have leadership skills to be there, when we are the ones with blinkers on?

Today is an era of flat organizational structures to reduce costs and get more nimble. Management positions are getting fewer and rarer – so let us say thanks to the numerous professionals who opt for individual contributor roles. And recognize and salute the strengths they bring to the organization.

Individual contributors hold the key and wield tremendous influence on how an organization realizes its business strategy or sinks in its underperformance. Many of them will step up effortlessly to informal leadership roles, managing parts of a process, function or workgroup, and the high performers will be the ‘make-or-break’ stitch with their unique expertise.

Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? I would say “Yes.” And “YES”!

Let us see. What are the broad leadership competencies we tout and shout about?

Maintaining effectiveness in leading and dealing with change?

The individual superman does this everyday in his work responsibilities and environment. She adjusts efficiently to work within new work structures, processes, requirements, and cultures. But of course, they do not trumpet it in status reports.

 Taking accountability for customer loyalty?

She exceeds customer needs by building productive relationships. Clients stake their continued relationship with an organization based on his very presence.

 Engage stakeholders to make them understand, accept and retain critical messages?

He clearly conveys information and ideas through a variety of media to diverse stakeholders in a manner that convinces critical audiences for their voluntary buy-in. She personably and inspiringly influences her team toward the completion of goals.

Conceptualize strategic solutions, and display execution excellence to successfully close the last mile?

The individual star anticipates, identifies and understands both challenges and opportunities. She brilliantly culls data from different sources to draw conclusions and make efficient decisions. He factors facts, constraints, and probable consequences with telling precision.

Draw a meticulous roadmap for oneself and slot the stakeholders’ roles for successful closure of goals and objectives?

Our individual topper is very aware that he can shine only if he opens the canals of collaboration. And she does so with a sure belief in teamwork.

The conviction and responsibility must come from both sides. Individuals must believe in and explore ways to build credibility through developing expertise, demonstrating values, and articulating a vision. Organization leadership should  move out of its comfort zone to provide ‘feel-proud’ career advancement opportunities to such key individuals through credible specialist and expert ranks.

The traits of well-rounded and integrated leadership are a fine balance of essence and form. It matters not if my role is that of an individual contributor or a manager to demonstrate both character (essence) and competence (form). Peter Drucker’s incisive insight on this may well be our lodestar. “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, and raising performance to a higher standard”


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?


Can you handle your maverick@work?

He is abrasive, disruptive and a total individualist. He will not fit in with any one group. His is to challenge and push others to think differently.

She marches to her own beat, is irreverent of organizational control and cannot work as a team.

Fire them, say the bosses!

Welcome to the maverick at work, and every manager’s nightmare.

Risk taking, pundits say, is a leadership skill to be celebrated. As are independent thinking, creative problem solving, quick decision making, goal-oriented focus and execution and, yes courage under fire.

Whoa, wait a minute…Aren’t these the same traits mavericks display? So why do we slap them with unflattering labels such as unbridled indiscipline, disrespectful of team spirit or dysfunctional aggression?  And where does that place people like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Ricardo Semmler et al?

I read an interesting association of mavericks to the Pareto’s Principle – mavericks tend to be 20 per cent of the most talented employees, causing 80 per cent of the organization’s problems.  Which means, if companies do not harness this talent they are likely to lose productivity and increase their liabilities.

So how do we manage a maverick?

The fundamental trick is to rewrite the rulebook – yes, sometimes individuals are more important than the team.

We need to  acknowledge that it is mutual respect and not formal authority that will create rapport. We need to be a guide to them, willing to listen and have a dialog, letting them know that we respect them. Once this is achieved, they will be more than willing to be reminded that there are organizational limits and goals that define them

Mavericks do not set out to be obstructive or obnoxious – they simply are not aware of the ripples they cause. They need to hear feedback, and will take it with the import it deserves as long as they feel that it focuses on how they are doing. And it is not just about bad behavior – keep them appreciated and valued too

The maverick is vulnerable – he does not belong to any one group, and hence is bereft of group support. As a manager, champion and support his contributions, not his bad behavior.

The essence of true talent management is to walk the tightrope of encouragement and positive restraint of wild independence to keep the employees engaged and productive. The maverick’s contribution to an organization can be in multiples of what a conventional “Exceeds Expectations” performer can! We need to have the discretionary wisdom to sift the “difficult low performer” from the “maverick high performer”. Do not exclude the maverick from talent programs because of his behavior; do not pass her up for promotion despite her expertise and ability only because she is seen to be unpredictable.

In the current climate where businesses ask their employees to do more with less, three unique traits of mavericks will be the game changers – high self esteem, confidence and dislike for failure.

S/he is willing to take the risk. Are you?