The traits of Great Leaders

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History has taught us repeatedly that leadership need not be limited to only those with authority or position. The New Normal has gone a step further in removing the prejudices associated with traditional leadership traits and has shown us a new way forward.

Based on my own experience, I came up with a simple definition for leadership: It is an opportunity to shape and influence a group’s thoughts, actions (small or big organisations, institutions, commercial or social, a nation or at the global level), attitudes and attributes for achieving common/collective outcomes. You can also create a successful group and be a successful leader of activities that may not pass the ethical or moral test. We are not considering them.

Who first, what next
Jim Collins, author of the book ‘Good to Great,’ tells us that one doesn’t need to have a goal and then assemble the good people. Instead, you assemble the right set of people and they will take the organization in the direction that is both feasible and desirable. So the ‘who’ part comes before the ‘what’. That may sound counterintuitive. Many organizations that have succeeded make sure that they have the right people to decide the right targets and goals. There will be an overarching broad purpose of the organization that is clear to everybody, but beyond that the specifics will be determined by having the right set of people. You simply have to make sure that they are motivated and have the framework to operate to the best of their abilities; in fact, they already have the intrinsic motivation and ability, so don’t have to treat them like school children, guiding them and shaping their behavior using positive and negative incentives and reinforcements. That’s not necessary.

Next, what are the key attributes of a leader? If I have to summarise many attributes into one word, it would be self-awareness. You must be aware of who you are, what you are doing and why you are doing. We are all very good at clinically dissecting other people’s attributes, but we don’t bring the same sort of rigour to ourselves. If you are self-aware and understand your words—including the unspoken ones—your thoughts, your reactions to different people, then you can evolve other attributes as well, such as confidence or commitment to a mission. Confidence also goes hand-in-hand with self-assurance and ability to take decisions. If you think you are a very self-confident and positive person, you don’t need to learn from anybody. The more confident you are, the less insecure you will be about receiving and taking criticisms. It is an insecure mind that basically resists criticisms and reacts with negativity. Observe how your body reacts when you receive a criticism. Observe how your muscles tighten. Observe yourself. Then you will be able to modulate your reaction to the criticism. It is not as if successful leaders don’t fail, they do. Failure is part and parcel of the journey. The important thing is how you bounce back.

Self-belief does not mean excessive optimism. In fact, the latter is not a pre-requisite for the former. People always think that it’s good to be optimistic. Optimism should not mean denial of reality.

Embrace conflict
Widen your circle of influence by turning disagreements into collaboration. Good leaders embrace conflicts. They don’t avoid or shun conflicts. A conflict situation enables you to clarify the organizational mission, your goals and their goals. Good leaders don’t try to bury the differences under the carpet. They confront them. They resolve them. So do not avoid conflicts. Somebody who brings up a conflicting thought into the open and be willing to discuss with you is far more trustworthy than one who simply avoids discussing conflicts to present an impression of false harmony. In the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ Stephen Covey mentions that good leaders tackle the most difficult problems first. Resolving conflicts is one of them.

Optimism may delude you into overestimating your capabilities and underestimating the power of your opponents—be it in the corporate world or in a sporting context.

Optimism and Scottsdale’s wisdom
What are the important caveats that we have to keep in mind? Self-belief does not mean excessive optimism. In fact, the latter is not a pre-requisite for the former. People always think that it’s good to be optimistic. Optimism should not mean denial of reality. One of the biggest gains of modern era is emphasis on the power of positive thinking. Everything in life has to be in balance. Your optimistic thinking should be grounded in reality. That is the story of James Scottsdale, a Vietnam War prisoner, who survived immense torture. In fact, he inflicted torture on himself to avoid being interrogated by his captors. Yet, he was one of the very few who emerged alive from the Vietnam POW camps. When asked, “Who are the people who didn’t survive the torture?” he said, “The optimists. Because they always expected that something would turn up next day and they would be freed from the prison. When that didn’t materialize, they got deflated.” In other words, optimism should not be in opposition to the realistic assessment of your odds. Optimism should not mean that you take your opponents lightly. If your opponents are formidable, if the form book suggests that they are stronger than you are, take that into consideration and prepare. Optimism may delude you into overestimating your capabilities and underestimating the power of your opponents—be it in the corporate world or in a sporting context. cottsdale, in his infinite wisdom, says:

  • Retain faith that you will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
  • Being in denial is not a feature of successful or great leadership
  • Over-emphasis on positive thinking is harmful in the long-run and can lead to delusion, despair, shock and depression, if things don’t materialize.

It is a very important learning because of the difficult situations that we face today. For example, with the pandemic, accept the reality. We should continue to engage in interaction and do what we have to do, but accept the reality that we are facing great uncertainty than before. There are times when the uncertainty band is much wider and sometimes narrower. Incorporate that into planning. In a corporate setup, it would mean creating a greater slack for yourself and greater working capital requirements. You have to accept that there are times when you have to negotiate a rough period.

Obesity is a bigger pandemic
Do not confuse positive thinking and the thinking that you shall eventually prevail. We all want India to become a very powerful economic nation, but we also have to understand that we face much greater challenges than other countries. Some of those countries became democratic after they became prosperous. We became democratic before we became prosperous. We all talk of the demographic boom in India. How many of you have taken the time to look at the national Family Health Survey number five that came out recently? What is the biggest pandemic in India? Not the Coronavirus; Obesity is the biggest pandemic! The proportion of people whose BMI is above 25 in India, both for women and men, is even higher than in developed countries and it is shocking!

People think that investments, capital formation, productivity and people’s literacy drive economic growth. What about health? Throughout history, nations’ evolutions have been driven by pandemics.

We have to confront the reality of what it means for India’s economic growth. The potential growth of a country depends on the health and well-being of its population. People think that investments, capital formation, productivity and people’s literacy drive economic growth. What about health? Throughout history, nations’ evolutions have been driven by pandemics. Obesity is a pandemic. We all have a goal that India has to become an economically prosperous nation, but we also need to be aware of the challenges and recognize them.

Level 5 leadership
Jim Collins talks about Level 5 leadership. He says that Level 5 leaders combine two important attributes—professional will and personal humility. When they want to attribute success, they look out of the window. When attributing responsibility for failures, they look into the mirror. That is one of the important traits of great managers who then progress to become great leaders. Here are other aspects of their personal humility:

  • Never being boastful or welcoming of public praise
  • Working with calm determination
  • Emphasizing a standard of excellence over ability to inspire through charisma
  • Using personal ambition to make the company great rather than aiming for personal success
  • Looking inward when things go wrong instead of at others, external factors, or bad luck
  • Remember, humble leaders are more concerned with what is right than being right.’
  • Being underestimated by others is no bad thing!

Bhagwat Gita says that you are only entitled to the duties but not to the fruits of the action. That is somewhat an incorrect interpretation of that sloka because you don’t undertake any action without having a purpose or an eventual goal in mind. What the Lord is telling Arjuna is to not associate one’s ego with the outcome. You should be motivated by the common good, but detach yourself from the outcome. That is the message of that sloka.

What is professional will?

  • Doing what must be done, no matter how difficult
  • Giving credit for your company’s success to others, to external factors, and to good luck, instead of your own actions
  • Generating excellence in the company’s outcomes
  • Taking actions to ensure that the company will endure beyond your tenure
  • A great leader eventually makes himself or herself dispensable.

If things work only when you are there and the roof collapses after you leave the place, then you have not been a great leader. Institutionalizing the changes and a culture that does well when you are around is the hallmark of great leaders. They ensure that success is attributable to the culture and organizational ethos that they leave behind.

The Kohli Slip
Communication must be firm, clear, total, truthful and prompt. We have stories of how Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol crisis. Very recently, we saw how BCCI handled poorly their dropping of Virat Kohli as the captain of the Indian one-day cricket team. While BCCI said that they communicated the decision, Kohli denied it. This is not something that characterizes professional organizations. BCCI has rights to change the captain but it is better to do so cleanly, correctly and communicate ex-ante, give the person a sense of importance, acknowledge his or her contribution to the cause until then and make them feel that they understand your decision. They may not accept it even then due to ego but, at least, they will be able to understand. Many times when an employee leaves an organization, ask yourself, “How do you make them feel?” Do you make them feel very bad? Do you make it tough for them to leave or do you make them feel in such a way that they are making the right decision in leaving the organization. Do not take their departure as a personal rejection or a slap on your ego.

Great leaders do these small things right. They give importance to the other person’s priorities and anxieties. It is a free world. A person leaving your organisation is just as somebody else leaving some other organization to come and join you. It works both ways. There’s nothing personal about it. You are playing a role; he or she is playing a role. That’s all. Do not personalize many things. The common cause is more important. So think about these small things in which we react; they will define whether you are a great leader or an ordinary person.

Great leaders do these small things right. They give importance to the other person’s priorities and anxieties. It is a free world.

J&J and BP Stories
The Tylenol experience of Johnson & Johnson is a case study in business schools in communicating very clearly and accepting responsibility upfront, rather than harking back on technicalities. They did not say, “We are not responsible. It is the packaging that went wrong. It is due to the storage processes or mishandling by our distributors.” They didn’t go into any of this. They said, “It’s our product that ultimately goes into people’s body. Therefore, we will take responsibility. We will fix the issues later. Responsibility is ours.”
This is an example of looking at the mirror when things go wrong. The exact opposite is British Petroleum’s handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. So you have two case studies. You have to read both. If you want to know how not to handle, how to prevaricate, how to deny, how to engage in lies and how to evade responsibility, then you look at the British Petroleum case study of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. If you want to understand how to handle it the right way, read the Tylenol case of Johnson & Johnson.

Of course, pharma companies are today earning a bad name considering the way the pandemic is being handled.

That’s a different story. Even Johnson & Johnson’s culture may not have endured for 40 years. In today’s context, we come across stories of clotting, etc., with J&J vaccines in the US. That shows how even great organizations at some point lose the very culture that got them a positive name.

Just in case
For taking responsibility and looking at the mirror, the best example is General Dwight Eisenhower. He ordered the Allied troops to land in Normandy coast and take on the Germans by surprise. The mission, of course, became a spectacular success and eventually led to the end of the World War 2, but he also had prepared a letter, just in case the mission didn’t succeed. He had drafted the letter and wanted to announce to the country in case the mission failed. The letter simply said, ‘The troops, the Air Force and the Navy did all the bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.’ Thankfully for the world, he didn’t have to use it.

Defining hubris
The opposite of great leadership is the word ‘hubris.’ There is a website called the Daedalus Trust. Daedalus and his son Icaraus are Greek mythological characters. Icarus flew very close to the Sun with the wings given by his father and got himself burnt. The website of the Daedalus Trust has now become Daedalus Trust was started by Lord David Cohen, who is a psychiatrist by profession and who became the British government’s foreign secretary. He describes hubris not as a sort of an arrogant state of mind but as a medical condition. What is hubris? The simplest definition is dangerous overconfidence. The word has additional nuance complexities. It is an ancient Greek word that also includes taking pleasure out of humiliating others and even encompasses a connotation of sexual conquest and exploitation. Hubris, according to the Greeks, is an insult to humility and epitomizes insolence of the Gods.

When the fear of losing your power takes over the behavioural controls of your leadership, you will stop being a leader and start being a ruler.

There is a point at which all the special treatment and pampering can contort and pervert your leadership. Left unchecked, it can inflate your ego to the point that you shift from leading for the good of others to leading to acquire more for yourself. It is at this point that the opportunity to apply an influence for the benefit of others is eclipsed by the fear of losing all that you have gained for yourself, including all the special treatment that you get. When the fear of losing your power takes over the behavioural controls of your leadership, you will stop being a leader and start being a ruler. Both are two different things. The website gives a long list of 14 symptoms of hubris, as if it’s a medical condition.

Some of them are:

  • A messianic way of talking and a tendency to exaltation in speech and manner.
  • A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision,’ especially their conviction about the moral rectitude of a proposed course of action, to obviate the need to consider other aspects of it, such as its practicality, cost and the possibility of unwanted outcomes.

Ask yourself in small groups: Do you go out and talk? Do you become progressively isolated?

How open is your cabin? How open are you to meeting people and seeking feedback, either directly or indirectly? How often do you cross check yourself with others’ point of view? These are all the ways of finding out if you are isolating yourself or keeping yourself open to others’ influences.

Leadership from Thirukural
Three couplets from the Tamil poetry ‘Thirukural’ all convey the same meaning and they are very apt leadership lessons.

  • Somebody who is capable of surrounding himself with people who are better than himself (or herself), will be more powerful than anybody else. If you have confidence in yourself, you will then surround yourself with people who are better than yourself. That gives you the greatest power.
  • If you are surrounded by people who can actually poke criticism at you, you can’t be destroyed.
  • If you don’t have such people (who can poke criticism at you) around you, you don’t need external enemies. You are your own enemy. This is the converse of the second one.

You need to have Devil’s Advocates. You need to have somebody who can point out to you what you’re doing is wrong. Even among friends, you must have somebody who can talk to you and point out your wrongs. But these are not easy to do. Try speaking up in a room with everybody saying one point of view and you want to share a different point of view. Your body will resist. Because, we are social animals. We seek conformity. We want to belong to a group in a meeting. Similarly, imagine if somebody stands up and says, in front of others, “Sir, the action that you’re proposing may not work well. It has got the following complications. If you permit me, I suggest the following things…” Now, think of the team leader sitting in the chair. Everybody else has said that your idea is fantastic. And one person stands up and says that it could be problematic. Listening to such a message is not easy either. Your body doesn’t accept that. We are hard coded for conformity and to receive only affirmative messages. So that is why I said, you have to have self-awareness. You have to go out of your way to encourage people to speak up in meetings and to be able to receive such words.

The final denouement

  • The leader must be good at decision making under uncertainty and taking responsibility for failures.
  • Manage by exception. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get into too much of details.
  • Do not be the only person who makes all the calls. Let others make the calls, make mistakes and learn.
  • Empower and let good people get on with it. It creates a sense of ownership in the people towards the common cause.

Make yourself dispensable in all this. When we say attribute success to others and failure to yourself, also, remember to attribute success to luck. We all attribute failures to bad luck, but we never attribute success to good luck. Chance plays a very important role in all of our lives. That’s why we often say, ‘Success has many parents; failure is an orphan.’

To sum up, the traits of successful leaders are: self-awareness, commitment to a cause, personal humility, professional will and an ability to leave behind an enduring cultural organization, eventually making yourself dispensable.

Dr V Anantha Nageswaran
Former Dean, IFMR Business School & KREA University