Thursday, August 20, 2009

True Leaders

" A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, We did this ourselves! "

Lao-tzu might have said this in the 6th Century BC, but it is so applicable even now. Each of us irrespective of what we do are or should be leaders in our own right. But how many of us are ready to forego the credit for something which we have done? Especially if it is something that garners a lot of positive attention?

A few incidents over the past few months have been nagging me and forcing me to think who you would term as a leader and what are the traits a of a good leader. What is it that some have and the others don't that the world calls them great leaders?

They are genuinely interested in their team

"Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration—of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.More than anything else today, followers believe they are part of a system, a process that lacks heart. If there is one thing a leader can do to connect with followers at a human, or better still a spiritual level, it is to become engaged with them fully, to share experiences and emotions, and to set aside the processes of leadership we have learned by rote" - Lance Secretan

You might have the best processes in the world, your technology might be cutting edge, but getting what you need and more are dependent on the people you have. Many leaders forget that what they deal with day to day are real men and women with very human emotions, needs and aspirations. To understand this, you have to have a genuine interest in your team.
The best leaders know what makes their team members tick, what motivates them and what are their issues. For this level of empathy with the team, first and foremost, the leader should own his/her team, in every sense. You can easily make out teams whose leaders have this sense of ownership and pride about them. Their members have a feeling of belonging and the faith that things are and will be taken care of.

Being genuinely interested is also a lot of responsibility. You are no more responsible for yourself, you have to take care of an entire team's needs. This is not as difficult as it might seem. Once others feel that your interest in them is genuine, it builds the confidence in them to come and discuss things with you, which are positive as well as negative. You start getting different perspectives on the same situation.

They are absolutely Ethical

"In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." - Warren Buffet

What lead to the mighty fall of many a buiness empire, be it Enron ealier or an AIG and Lehman Brothers recently? The discussed about causes might be numerous, but at the root, it boils down to just one thing - lack of ethics or integrity, the feeling that my returns today is more important than the lives of thousands tomorrow. Almost always, it starts with a small thing. When they get away with it, comes the next slightly bigger step. It keeps compounding and when the fall happens, many an innocent is crushed underneath.

It takes a person of a very high level of integrity to resist that first step. To know the real spirit of an organization, it is enough to know its leaders. As they are, so will be their followers be.

They have a clear vision and they share it

"Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion" - Jack Welch

Imagine a wonderful journey in an extremely comfortable vehicle with all amenities and your favourite food, but you have no clue where you are going. You will enjoy the journey in the beginning, get bored after sometime and then frustrated. That is what happens with teams where the leaders have no vision.

It is not only important that the leader has a clear vision, but also that he communicates it down to the team. A team that knows where it is going and why and how gets there really fast and in the shortest time.

They delegate and believe in freedom to work

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity" - General George S. Patton

The biggest mistake a leader can commit is not to delegate at the right time. If a leader has to spend time on strategies, he has to learn to entrust the practical mattters to others. The catch here is knowing when, how and who to delegate to. Going wrong in any of these could spell doom for the whole team.

Delegating does not mean that the leader is not involved in what is happening at the ground level. It has several sides to it. For one to grow in an organization, it is vital that a back up is created rightly. There are leaders who are control freaks who are scared of letting go, but they do not realize, they can grow only if their subordinates grow to take up the leader's current responsibilities. It is a win - win situation for everyone.

Another trait of the best leaders is that they don't intefere too much in their team member's work. You recruit a person after being convinced that he / she has the requisite knowledge and expertise for the requirement. To get the best out of people, good leaders tell them what is wanted and not how it is to be done.

They are quick to praise and slow to condemn

"I praise loudly, I blame softly" - Catherine the Great

If something goes wrong, I take the blame, if something goes right, it is the team - who wouldn't want to follow such a leader? The absolute faith and respect this attitude generates cannot be described. It is not that these great leaders do no take their team members to task. They know how and when to do it and without hurting the concerned person. Nothing is personal here. It is the conduct and not the person that is being judged.

A timely appreciation for a job well done, that too in front of others many a time maked an ordinary person great. And no one knows this better than a true leader.

They know and they are competent

"The leader must know, must know that he knows and must be able to make it abundantly clear to those around him that he knows" - Clarence Randall

You may love your team, give them absolute freedom to work, great motivators and so and so forth, but if you do not have the requisite knowledge of the job athand, you will still not be able to lead your team successfully. The passion to know, know more and to let the team also know is what makes the leader and the team he leads succeed.

"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on" - Walter Lippman

And this is what I aspire to be - a leader who is not visible with a team which is visible, and finally leave behind a team of true leaders!


  1. I enjoyed reading this list! And agree too, specially with Ethics.

    Such motivating lists, and a wish to do well, are also a sign of leaders :)

  2. Continue Leading the way, Boss! I couldn't agree more...

  3. Thanks IMH

    Sreeram - You know what prompted me to write this :-)

  4. Of course, I do ;-)