Everyone can be a leader for sure. But that is like saying anyone can quit smoking or everyone can go the gym and be super fit. The only thing that obstructs is intent.
Our education system doesn’t help either. We were never taught in school what exactly it meant to be a leader. Inevitably, it’s the outstanding performers in studies or sports who would be pegged as leaders. Leadership hence became associated only with better individual performance. That’s invariably true in corporates too – you perform better than others as an individual, and you are scaled up to a leadership position. I suspect that is probably how my leadership journey started too.
By watching some amazing mentors in this journey, I realized how important it is to demonstrate the “Five Exemplary Practices of Leadership” in my daily actions. Whether we like it or not, as leaders, team members are always looking to us for direction, inspiration, vision and appreciation – a leader’s credibility is on the line at all times.
It is still early in my leadership journey, but as I introspect – here is what I would want to teach someone just embarking on this journey:
- Leadership is all about building credibility. Stephen Covey spoke about the “emotional bank balance.” But what nobody told you is that there is also a “credibility bank balance” you run as a leader. Whenever you do what you said you would do, there is a credit, and if you slip, there is a debit. Sorry, no excuses allowed – it is unforgiving mathematics. If you have a reasonable credit balance, you are “modeling the way” often. Else you need to pull up soon!
- The journey of leadership starts with you. What do you stand for? What are your deepest values? Why so? Have you plumbed deep enough? These questions didn’t matter as much as an individual player, but before I could tell my team what I believed as a leader, I needed to find it myself! “But I don’t like to introspect” is a bad attitude and statement if you are in a leadership role.
- This may seem very basic, but it’s important – one size does NOT fit all. If you have 8 people in your team, chances are that each one is completely unique from the other in terms of attitude, temperament, communication style, and in what motivates them. The onus to understand and adjust to each one of them and communicate in different ways, specific to that person, lies with… you guessed it right: you as a leader!
- Having said the above, I realize leadership is not a popularity contest either. It takes courage to challenge people, their beliefs and behaviors, but sometimes the bitter medicine administered through openness and speaking the hard truth is what works best. Of course, you also need to choose your fights wisely – incremental works always better than drastic in my experience.
- Coming in with the legacy of being a star performer, sometimes the toughest challenge for me as a leader has been letting go! Having trust, putting faith, giving responsibility and “enabling others to act,” is easier said than done. Delegation is an art that I still struggle with. Letting others do tasks carries the risk that if the team fails to do the task well, it makes me as a manager look incompetent or not in control. But the risk is part of the terrain.When the risk placed turns out well, it not only frees my time for other work (of which there is always enough waiting), it also allows others to think independently and to innovate and ultimately builds the atmosphere of trust.
- There is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” As a leader, you need to inscribe that sentence on your heart as one of the best pieces of advice ever. For me, that has meant not just going through the motions but genuinely caring for the people that I work with. This meant getting to know each of them at a much deeper level, knowing what brings them to work, what are the challenges they face in life everyday, what keeps them up at night. Not just saying I care, but truly feeling it too.
Yes, leadership is a challenge – but it is one that each one of us should endeavor to take. Everyone can get super fit if they show the intent. Similarly, all of us can be leaders if we show the intent.