Leadership & Purpose in Turbulent Times

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At the outset, let me confide that this session has given me ‘purpose.’ Today is the 29th day of my being sick (down with Covid) and recuperating from intensive oxygen therapy. If not for this session, I would have been reluctant to get up from bed. But here I am, clean shaven and neatly dressed. The convention and the topic for my talk have given me purpose. In over 700 conversations that I have so far had on numerous topics, purpose has not featured significantly as a major issue. Now, having experienced its importance and effect, I will surely address it in all my future talks.
When you stand in front of your team and express an idea, you have to be prepared to accept that what you say may be wrong. It means that the other person could be right. Sound argument leads to great results.
Are We All Leaders?
How do we see ourselves—as employees, management students, researchers, supervisors or managers? Do we see ourselves as leaders? My argument is very simple. All of us are leaders.
Within a couple of minutes of being born, a child starts displaying the initial characteristics of leadership, which is an ability to influence people. When the child feels hungry, it starts crying. It quickly realises that this crying or communication is a means of influencing people around it. Getting them to do what it wants is leadership.
We go through life as leaders at various stages in various forms. We always analyse options and come to a decision. That is the essence of leadership. Is this leadership role proportional to a designation like CIO, CTO, CFO or CEO? Is the chef or security person in your college hostel a leader?
There is no contract in the world that obligates anybody to deliver leadership, because leadership is intangible. It functions at multiple levels across life. You can’t say that you will become a leader when you become a General Manager or Senior VP. Leadership is inherent in all of us. We need to be able to turn it on and once you do that, it becomes an automatic process.
Across organisations and structures, some of us are given the responsibility and authority to deliver leadership at multiple levels. However, everybody else in the organisation has a responsibility. The junior most employee in an organisation can display outstanding leadership skills, whereas, the top hierarchy of the organisation may suffer from inadequate displays of leadership.

Leadership comprises many things: ownership, great communication, happiness and purpose. Purpose means intention. It means a reason for doing something. If you’re an engineering student, why are you doing the engineering course? Is it just to be an engineer? Is it just to get a job?
Purpose is also determination. It is the reason for doing something. Only if you have purpose, you can become a good leader. You may be a great player in a cricket team, but if you don’t have a purpose, you may fail to become a great leader of that team.
Warren Bennis said that if he had to pick one factor that makes a difference in organisations, it would be leadership. A good leader can turn around a mediocre outfit into an outstanding unit. A mediocre leader can destroy a great unit and turn it into an average unit. Examples of this are aplenty. We can see this in everyday life.
Finding Meaning in a Clutter
Leadership is the ability to see through a clutter of random pieces—put them in a sequence within a specified time, at a specified expenditure of resources and human capital to make a profit and sustain this structure in the long term. These are traits of a technically skilled manager as well. To be a great leader, you must understand management skills adequately. It is possible that a great manager may not be a leader. In the pecking order of hierarchy, managers are those who provide the technical expertise to go to a desired destination and leader is a person who identifies the destination or the target and gets together the rest of the team to move from where they are to where the organisation desires them. That is leadership in a nutshell.
Replace All ‘I’ With ‘WE’
Leadership comprises many things. It is a state of mind because change begins in the mind. It is about character because leadership comprises so many different characters. It is the ability to create a bond and articulate a vision.
Leaders must believe that everything can be achieved only through partnership. So for a leader, the single most unimportant word is “I” and the single most important word is “WE.” “We can do this together. I made a mistake. You were great in what you did. Let’s make this happen.” These are common phrases which leaders must use. The more often you use them, the more robust your leadership skills will get.
The DNA of Leaders
All of us are leaders. But do we choose to be a leader is the critical question. In the leader’s DNA, we always see some important qualities:
• Drive and passion
• Ownership
• Integrity
• Intelligence
• Vision
• Mentoring and Helping Others to Achieve
• Motivation
• Communication
• Facilitating Change
If you have the drive and desire to achieve, give it the energy, show initiative, seize the opportunity and be persistent much like an ant, and do it with passion. Passion will be clearly visible in any role—be it a mechanic, a policeman or a CEO. When leaders show passion, it spreads across the team and enables success.
Ownership is the willingness to take responsibility. A lioness is a better example of a leader than a lion because a lioness takes ownership of the pride of cubs and it fosters them for the next generation.
There are four levels in leadership:
Authoritative, which does not discriminate and works only by law, not by heart. That’s the lowermost level.
The next level is Respect which is limited to anybody who is recognized as a leader in that field.
The next higher level is admiration. We consult people who may not have the right education but have the wisdom and experience and we admire them.
Selflessness is the highest level of leadership. Motherhood is an example of this. Ownership, mentoring and selfless leadership combine together to give the highest quality of leadership.
It is about doing the right things. Never ever lie. The day you have to lie as a leader is the day you start climbing down. Organisations will respect a leader who has the ability to stand up and say, ‘I made some mistakes. I will rectify them. Going forward, I need your support.’ It is better to fail with honour than to succeed by fraud.
All of us have intelligence. You are currently acquiring a wealth of knowledge in the institutions that you are studying in. Use all that knowledge to solve problems. If you can combine that knowledge with a little bit of vision, you will be able to predict the future. You will now be called a transformative leader or a thought leader. Once you chart a course, you will start making correct decisions by solving problems of tomorrow. You will become a leader very quickly in any organisation. So use your intelligence for what it is intended for.

Vision & Goal
There is a need to create a vision. Once you create a vision, focus on the vision that you create. Don’t let that vision go away and let not the clutter of daily life take you away from the focus of your vision. Once you have a vision, set a goal. Goals must be simple. It is important to identify a right purpose. If you set your ambition at a level far beyond your capability, you will face failure. It must stretch you a little bit but not so much that your teams fail.
Mentoring and Helping Others to Achieve
Are you currently mentoring anybody? Are you able to make a difference to somebody’s life? If you are, you are well on your way to being a great leader.
Whom do I motivate? The answer is simple. Motivate yourself first. The rest of the organisation will be motivated automatically. If your office time is 9 o’ clock, you must reach the office five minutes to nine and be ready to start work. Do that for 10 days. You will see your entire team coming to the office at nine.
Now the question is, ‘How do I motivate?’
Find something in your organisation that is worthy of being woven into the fabric of history. It could be a brilliant clerk who came to the office despite illness. It could be a lady who came to work despite her children being sick. It could be a gentleman who came to the office despite his mother being admitted in the hospital. These are stories. Capture them; put them on the walls; put a sticker, a photograph. Give people social recognition. Rewind these stories again and again.
The more often you tell them, the more cement will be added to the foundation of your organisation. People will remember the legacy and the history of these organisations. Organisations are not made by iron and steel and big buildings of concrete but by human beings. If you are able to concentrate on human beings, your organisation will remain strong. That is the power of motivation and the power of sharing stories. Stories don’t have to involve death and bloodshed. Others’ dreams are most important. I may have got an MBA seat or a good job. Can I focus on somebody else’s dreams? That’s what will give purpose to our life. Celebrate others’ joys. Leaders must develop tasks and people. Involve everyone. Everybody in your team brings some strength. Everybody is not good at the same thing. Do not have a common filter through which you look at everybody. Have an individual lens through which you analyse and assess people’s strengths. Use their strengths and your team will prosper.

If you’re unable to communicate, you will not be a leader at all. In modern organisations, notwithstanding the power of e-communication that we have and the spread of social media tools, the power of the spoken word and gestures that accompany them and the warmth which you can convey in person remain priceless. 150 texts or emails can be replaced by one face-to-face conversation. Now, working from home makes things a little difficult. But whenever we get an opportunity, we must use personal conversations.
A leader may play multiple roles—a colleague, teacher, advocate, motivator, guide, judge, friend, critic, driver, advisor, follower or student. The last two are important, simply because no leader is perfect. The leader has to continuously learn from the rest of his / her team. The day we stop learning, we stop becoming a leader.
Facilitating Change
Much like in our DNA, change happens every moment. It is consistently constant. As a leader, you must identify your purpose and navigate through this change that is constantly occurring around you.
Leaders Must Create Leaders
You may come from a small village in Salem district, from an agricultural family. You may be the first person to get an MBA in your family. How many more can you create from your own family or your village? That will define your leadership status. Creating followers is a matter of structure. A general manager may develop an assistant general manager. But leaders create leaders. You have to anticipate changes and interpret them.
As a leader, you are also expected to display other leadership traits like wisdom, decisiveness, endurance, humility, being fair, having knowledge and so on. That is the challenge of modern-day leadership.
5 Attributes
If you can bring down your purpose to five attributes, you would have done extremely well to be a great leader. These attributes are:
• Generosity
• Respect for others
• Ability to take action
• Compassion
• Energy
If you are able deliver all these with grace, you will be a great leader. Spread happiness around you. A happy leader generates many followers.
The Iceberg
Organisational rules and systems are only 10% of the iceberg that is visible to a leader. But below the tip lie 90%, which contains emotions, culture and people. Though the visible 10% is important, the invisible 90% is equally, if not more, important. The 10% is the Head; the 90% is the Heart and Soul of an organisation.
The supreme lesson in all these is: enjoy what you do. Pursue your hobbies. Your life at work is a small component of your work outside. Don’t let work cloud your entire life. Identify the level at which you are on the leadership continuum. Are you authoritative, participative, democratic, communicative? Are you a specialist or a generalist? What is your style—coaching, teaching or mentoring? How do our teams see us? What is your leadership legacy?
Small positive changes made every day will give staggering results. Stretch the abilities of your members in such a way that they can deliver optimally.
Remember to keep the Key to Happiness with You always. If you keep it with you, you will not be upset by others who irritate you or situations that stress you out.