Understanding Leadership

Understanding Leadership

I am presenting here a gist of my presentation on ‘Understanding Leadership’ made recently to a group of medical professionals.

I chose two doctors who are in my opinion ‘leaders.’ Dr VT Ingalhalikar is not only the foremost orthopaedic surgeon but also a poet, an exponent of Hindustani classical music and an accomplished photographer. Dr Anand Nadkarni is a Psychiatrist who has authored several books, he is a playwright, poet, screenplay writer, and he speaks authoritatively on many subjects including philosophy. They have done everything to do justice to their innate talent. The range of their expression is not limited to the area of their specialisation – they have reinvented themselves truly. And they remain role models for many; they have also mentored many professionals.

Warren Bennis is a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies. His fundamental thought is that ‘A leader must be authentic, the word authentic is derived from its Latin root, which means being the author. So, a leader must be the author of his own creation.’ He should write his own life story. And that is why he says, “Becoming leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.” When we reflect on the careers of Dr Ingalhalikar and Dr Anand Nadkarni, or any leader for that matter, our understanding of how one can be the author of his own creation deepens.

My personal hero is Dr Bavaskar who invented the medicine to treat scorpion-bite cases and saved lives of several persons. Dr Bavaskar was born in a family which lived in abject poverty. The family survived on left-over food given by others. Through sheer hard work and a commitment to improve health of his patients, he became an inventor and a thought leader. It’s a great leadership story of an economically disadvantaged person attaining international recognition for his work. Dr Bavaskar’s autobiography is inspiring.

I am tempted to mention the biography of Dr Shrikhande, the original is in Marathi, and English version called ‘Reflections of a Surgeon’ is available on Amazon. It is also a story of how he created himself.  This audience will remember Dr Shrikhande as the Honorary Surgeon to the Governor of the State of Maharashtra. I will later quote one incident from it.

Biographies are a great source of leadership study material. Permit me to quote one more biography – that of Dr Narendra Jadhav. Like Dr Bavaskar he too grew up in a poor family.

Dr Narendra Jadhav is a Member of Rajya Sabha. He previously served as member of the Planning Commission of India and the National Advisory Council. He worked as Vice Chancellor of Savitribai Phule Pune University, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and headed economic research at the Reserve Bank of India. Jadhav is a recipient of 67 national and international awards including four Honorary D.Litt. Degrees. He holds a PhD from a US University. Dr Jadhav’s brother was an IAS Officer.

And here comes the twist – their father was an illiterate railway porter. The biography tells us that the father played a big role in the development of his two eminent sons. And Dr Jadhav and his brother could not have achieved high positions without being authors of their own creation. Dr Jadhav’s biography titled ‘Aamcha Baap Ani Aamhi’ meaning ‘We and Our Father’ is translated in fourteen languages and is replete with stories of how the illiterate father was actually a very evolved person.

When we examine lives of Dr Bavaskar, Dr Shrikhande and Dr Narendra Jadhav we understand the famous statement: “Growing old is automatic; Growing up is a choice.” When a person decides to be the author of what he must become, he is already on the path of leadership.

‘Lasting success’ is a hallmark of good leaders. You would have read the article ‘Success That Lasts’ which I have circulated. The research of the authors identified ‘four irreducible components of enduring success: happiness (feelings of pleasure or contentment about your life); achievement (accomplishments that compare favourably against similar goals others have strived for); significance (the sense that you’ve made a positive impact on people you care about); and legacy (a way to establish your values or accomplishments so as to help others find future success. Let us park this thought in our mind.

We have a long career span to work on all these four components. Broadly speaking, leaders tend to divide their career in three phases – Learn, Earn and Return. When you completed your education, you would be in your mid-twenties. The first ten years, say up to the age of thirty-five, make a strong ‘Learn’ phase in which we learn the skills and knowledge required to be a good professional. The next ten years, from thirty-five to forty-five years of age, make the ‘Earn’ phase. It is not as if learning stops, it will never stop, but the focus shifts on earning because you probably have a family now, and it is your duty to provide them a good life. The last phase starts from say, when you are forty-five, when you must mentor your juniors, and your children – they will also look up to you – you must mentor them so that they can be successful in their career or life.

I wish to tell you a story; it is not work of fiction but a real incident. Mr. Guru Narayana, the former Chairman Emeritus of Excel Industries Ltd asked P D Thosar, who was the HR head of that Company, to translate Bhagwadgita in Marathi verse. Thosar had never written any poetry so he was shocked at this suggestion. He laughed it off. Guru Narayana suggested Thosar to choose any one shloka and translate it in Marathi verse. Thosar did it with some effort. Guru Narayana then told Thosar, ‘If you can do one shloka, you can do all shlokas. I have proved to you that you can translate Gita in Marathi verse. It’s your choice to do or not to do it.’ Thosar had no answer, he proceeded to translate Bhagwadgita in Marathi verse. It is now published as a book.

You may have seen or heard similar incidents. Please think of the impact it leaves on the life of Thosar and also of Guru Narayana. When we impact lives of others, it leaves an indelible mark on our life too. If this is not leadership, what else it is?

This is the ‘return’ phase, they are engaging in ‘institution building.’ Several persons at this stage engage in activities which we call ‘giving back to the Society’ or giving back to the organisation.

Guru Narayana helped Thosar discover his hidden potential. Several persons at this stage engage in activities which we call ‘giving back to the Society’ or giving back to the organisation. This is the ‘return’ phase, they are engaging in ‘institution building.’ This is the second track, Learn-Earn-Return which runs parallel to or in a way supports the four components of lasting success.

John Maxwell identified five stages of leadership. I have put those on the slide. (I am quoting with modifications) “The first stage is ‘People follow you because they have to.’ When I was appointed as a Labour Officer at the beginning of my career, my staff had no choice but to accept me as the leader. Because it came out of my position, it gave them no clue about my leadership qualities. The second stage is where the person builds trust and credibility so people willingly follow him. In the third stage the leaders use their good relationships to make their vision a reality. And they have built good interpersonal equations which helps. At the fourth stage the leader thinks it is important to train his employees. That is why he delegates work to them. By delegating, he gives them confidence and empowers them to develop themselves. This is also the coaching and mentoring stage. The leader at the fifth level has reached the top of what is possible. His status is based on a foundation of respect. His employees and colleagues appreciate the leader in him and see an example in him. This is about leaders who remain in the employees’ thoughts even after they leave, making them live on as legends.”

So, we have seen three tracks of thought: The first one of Lasting Success- it focuses on the end result. We have discussed the second track of Learn-Earn-Return, the third track of Five Stages of Leadership. Both these tracks focus on the career progression, and you will surely notice underlying some common thoughts. The fourth track which I am going to discuss will deepen our insights: ‘Good leaders think about their role at various stages of the career and life.’ 

Osho says our role changes perceptibly (emphasis supplied) every seven years. It changes at the age of twenty-eight when you get married and a new person, actually a new family comes in your life. Seven years later, with having raised a family, your role of father or mother and even as husband or wife undergoes a change. Entry of as child changes the roles. Seven years later when you are forty-two, your parents are nearing seventy and you become de-facto head of the family. Seven years later when you are forty-nine, your role as a father or mother changes because your children are now teen-agers tugging at you for independence. And at this stage, you become a father or mother to your ageing parents, your role as a son or daughter has undergone complete change.

The moral of the story is that we must frequently introspect on what our role is. As a professional, a member of family, and as a member of any group of like-minded people. And a role is defined as a set of expectations – so we should think of what our relatives, our employees or staff expect from us. It is not what we want from them, but what they expect from us.

These four tracks emphasise different aspects of our role as a leader, but they are overlapping in their coverage. It is like solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle. We turn one side to move a square and turn the cube to check the remaining sides.

Nilu Phule was a highly accomplished and a very popular actor on Marathi stage and films. Nilu Phule received Sangeet Natak Akademi Award at the hands of the President of India; It is the highest Indian recognition given to practicing artists. Nilu Phule’s was interviewed on television. Here is a question and answer. (Excerpt from the book ‘Great Bhet’)

Q: Interviewer: “After your success in Marathi films you did many films in Hindi. ‘Mashaal’ with Dilip Kumar, ‘Wo saat din’ with Nasiruddin, Coolie with Amitabh – what was your experience doing Hindi films?”

Ans: Nilu Phule: “I could never enjoy doing Hindi cinema. I used to feel that I am speaking Hindi wrongly, my Hindi does not have the laheja of Hindi language. I felt I was translating Marathi script in Hindi, so I felt very awkward. That’s why I avoided doing Hindi films although I was receiving offers.”

Here is an accomplished actor speaking openly about what interferes with his performance. This is explained by a simple equation: Performance equals potential minus interference. So how do we identify and remove or reduce interference? Such interference could be stage fright. It could be a negative pattern of thinking that hampers your effectiveness.

Actors like Nilu Phule are able to put their finger on interference. Because they are in touch with their feelings. And they can look at their experience and feelings objectively. This comes out of reflection, introspection and meditation.

There are many ways to meditate. Writing diary regularly while having morning cup of tea is my way of meditating and I have found this exercise very useful. Sometimes it is cathartic. But it invariably helps.

There is a technique of learning continuously to improve ourselves, and it is meditation, introspection. No leader has moved to higher levels of leadership without it.

A paradox is a statement that is self-contradictory because it contains two components that are both true, but in general, cannot both be true at the same time.

I have given some paradoxical statements in the slide. They pose a big problem of leading people. Research recognises that recognising and learning to manage paradox is a core leadership skill.

Some companies have understood how paradoxes are interwoven into their culture. Lego, for example, has posted 11 paradoxes on its walls for more than a generation to remind managers of the tightrope they walk. Here are some of Lego’s managerial paradoxes:

“To take the lead and to recede into the background.”

“To plan the working day carefully and be flexible.”

“To be self-confident and humble.”  

We know that we can’t do this OR that, it has to be this AND that. I mentioned earlier that recognising and learning to manage paradox is a core leadership skill.

The question is how do we develop that important skill? One way to start developing skill of managing paradoxes is to learn to identify them. And then ask “If I had to score myself – which side of each paradox would be my preference?” The answer would lead you to greater awareness of your inclinations. Learning to manage paradoxes is also a product of listening to feedback and reflections.

(Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership )

The catchword is proactive. And the meaning we know: it is much more than taking initiative. It is about what we want to create.

My observation is that in many cases, people do not do any visioning exercise, unlike what we see in the corporate world. Leaders seem to develop a vision as they work. They realise unique possibilities in their situations. Unique possibilities. That becomes their dream or vision.

The story of Sewdass Sadhu is amazing. He was an indentured labourer who was taken from India to Trinidad. He decided to build a Shiva temple. He used to collect stones and started placing them near the beach when the landlord objected to building any structure on his property. So Sewdass used stones to reclaim about one hundred meters of land in the sea and seeing his efforts people joined him. The Shiva temple was constructed.

This is, of course, a very unusual but true story.

Let me talk about Dr MS Pillai who was the Director of a management institute. He wanted to create an outstanding institution, focusing on the development of students. His students often did not have enviable academic record like what you see of students of IIMs. Yet they are not only doing well in the industry, but they say, with gratitude, that Dr Pillai left an indelible mark in the way they think and behave.

Charles Handy writes and I quote. “We need a purpose…. There is, first, the elusive question of what success might mean. Nietzsche said that those who have a Why can endure any How, but it is Why that is difficult. The mother of the child with cerebral palsy could testify to the truth of that. We all need a dream of what might be, to give us energy for the journey.”

Before I move to next slide, here is a true story about Dr Pillai. He discovered that a section of employees was disgruntled when a survey was conducted in his institute. His response? He assured them of immediate response to their grievances. And then he prostrated before them and sought their whole hearted co-operation in creating an institution of his dream. That certainly was a very unusual response. Expect it from people who are proactive. They remain focused on their goal.

I am presenting my last slide. My thanks to Sujata who shared it with me.

Two qualities are important for a leader – Courage and Consideration. Courage, Aristotle said, is the mother of all virtues. And ‘empathy’ is hidden in the word consideration.

I had spoken about Dr Shrikhande’s biography in the earlier part of my presentation. He was invited to operate on the past President of India, His Excellency, Dr. Shanker Dayal Sharma at Army Hospital, New Delhi, in April 1994. Dr Shrikhande is a man of great distinction.

He writes about a shocking incident. A patient was taken to operation theatre and given anaesthesia. And for some reason, the patient fell down from the operation table. Surgery had not started and the patient was unaware of his fall because he was under the anaesthesia. The situation posed a huge problem for Dr Shrikhande.

Should he or should he not operate on the patient? It would be risky to operate if the patient’s condition was aggravated as a result of the fall. And if he chose not to operate on the patient, he would have to explain why he did not carry out the operation to the patient and the relatives. That was a huge reputational risk.

Dr Shrikhande chose not to operate on the patient. When the patient regained consciousness, he explained the situation to him and his family. An exemplary case of conviction, courage and consideration. A great example of practising cherished personal values. This approach actually resulted in increased level of trust!

One of the dictionary meaning of ‘consideration’ is ‘a matter weighed or taken into account when formulating an opinion or plan.’ (Merriam-Webster). And let us think of ‘empathy.’ Daniel Goleman mentions three types of empathy. ‘Cognitive Empathy’ is the ability to understand another person’s perspective. ‘Emotional Empathy’ is the ability to feel what someone else feels. And ‘Empathic Concern’ – this what Dr Shrikhande displayed courageously – is the ability to sense what another person needs from you.

The slide shows what people think of us if we do not employ both, courage and consideration, in good measure.

Leadership is not a question of nature. It is also not a question of nurture. Leadership is a question of choice. It is all about how we author our own life story.

Thanks for your attention.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Feature Pic: Courtesy AhmadOssayli-on-Unsplash