Finding a True Leader

It’s a crazy world out there!

All kinds of people are occupying leadership positions around the world, in governments and in companies! Yes, you probably could think of a few yourself. Perhaps some of you instantly thought of Trump, or Kim Jong, or even, Modi!

Yes, I know that’s a touchy topic but there are many who do not think Modi to be a good leader; an influential orator, but a leader? No, they say.

Be that as it may, my topic is not about political leaders but about leaders in the corporate world. Are all those who occupy leadership positions in the corporate world really worthy of that corner office?

You may say, well, if they got there, certainly they must have some merit to do that!

Good point.

But let’s examine this in some depth.

They say, cream rises to the top. And it’s true of milk, but also true of scum or slurry, the impurities that rise to the top when heat is applied! But is an organization so much like milk and is the process so natural, that it always throws up the best?

One must consider certain aspects of corporate ascents.

  1. Boss Management: A lot of climbing can be attributed to clever “boss management”. Yes, there is such a thing! If you have spent any amount of time in corporate life, you learn very quickly that not only do you need to manage your subordinates but more importantly, you need to manage your boss. What does he like, what pleases him, which things tick him off, etc. are things a clever subordinate learns fast and then uses that knowledge to push the right buttons. Such an underling, provided he makes no major mistakes or blunders, will be top in the list for promotions where his boss has a say.
  2. Climbing by Jumping or Hopping: One can move to higher levels by strategic shifts and job hops. Some people are experts at this, and they only stop when they have found a cushy position, where they can ride on the performance of the people under them. Then they will stay there and become the fat in that organization. Fat which should be cut but will never be cut.
  3. Growth By Seniority: Some people stay in one place so long that eventually, they are the last man standing! So they end up heading the place. I do not say that all are undeserving, but I must say that most are not. This often happens in closely-held, family-owned businesses, where trust is valued above all else. In such companies, talent leaves in frustration, while mediocrity clings on in desperation and is misidentified as loyalty. It is the classic case of the racehorse and the tonga horse, about which I have written elsewhere. One needs to be managed well to make it stay in one place; the other needs to be whipped or goaded to move!
  4. To The Manor Born: There are some who are at the top by birth – Nothing much can be done about this lot!
  5. Talent & Effort: There is also a group that has worked hard and has talent and has reached the upper layers through a combination of both. Compliments to such people, yet they may have a fatal flaw!

What’s that?

This is a flaw that creeps in and one must be alert and self-aware to keep it out. It is called satisfaction or contentment. This is when the fire has died out in the belly. There is no further ambition left. There is a feeling of having arrived, and consequently, a slackening off, a tendency to relax. This leads to dullness of wit, a numbing of instincts and a lack of the killer-spirit – that extra sharp edge that all winners have, which makes them winners and not runners-up.

While hiring for the top roles, management and founders should look for this drive. Is it still there? Is he still out to prove something? Does she still want to achieve?

When all is said and done, this is what will distinguish a leader from the rest.

Such a person will keep on learning. She or he will still love the race, the pursuit, the hunt and the thrill of battle. You will find these people walk briskly, speak with conviction, energy will exude from their pores and yet they will not overwhelm others, but inspire them.

A true leader will develop and nurture those around him, not speaking much but listening and watching a lot. He will not be in a hurry to prove a point because he is past scoring brownie points, thus he will not be drawn into arguments. His sights are higher up. He will want to win the people rather than the argument.

How do you select such a person?

First, you understand what NOT to look for;

You will often read, “under his leadership the topline of the company grew 70%”, or “profits more than doubled in her stint”, etc.

This does not really say a lot about the person’s own contribution. Revenues could have grown because of so many other reasons; for egs. During 2014 – 2018 fuel prices fell way below what they were in the earlier regime. Consequently, it was much easier to manage the economy and the fiscal deficit, which came down as import costs dropped drastically. But the credit was attributed to the PM/FM as if he had done something particularly clever! Actually, the reverse was true – the govt kept increasing taxes and duties and kept the fuel prices high even though they should have fallen way lower in rupee terms!

Yes, I love political examples. They are so sharply clear!

So examine minutely what was the actual contribution of the candidate. See what she herself brought to the table. Yes, it could be that she had some smart subordinates who did a great job, but we can still give her credit for enabling them to perform. That is a rare quality and one to be valued highly.

Study the market scenario for the industry or vertical in which the candidate was working. How did other companies perform? What did his peers achieve during the same time-frame? Is he a genuine outlier? Did he achieve something when all around him were faltering?

Did he develop a significant new endeavour when the industry was stuck?

These will give solid and substantive evidence of a person’s true calibre and potential.

When you meet them, look them in the eye. Look for hunger. Look for the fire-in-the-belly.

If you find it, check only one other thing, and hire the guy!

What’s that other thing?

Ethical integrity. How is his family life? How does he react to beautiful women? Or men?

Beware the single man who says he is doing well all by himself. Let’s be brutally clear about one thing – every person has a sexual need and a need for intimacy. It will come out, one way or other. We want someone who does it normally! You must have heard the witty reply that some offer – no minor vices!

Well, beware the major vices! They are well hidden. And can prove catastrophic.

Character is extremely important. We all know the downfalls of great achievers over such issues. I do not want to debate whether it is fine to have affairs, womanise, etc. The point is that it will adversely affect your business if it goes sideways!

Do you want to risk that? It can also cost you a packet, with laws becoming more stringent and society not willing to let things go easily. Do you want your company’s name to be in the limelight because of a MeTOO campaign?

I think not!

So check that. Usually, a person who has reached higher levels is not slack about handling financial responsibilities but one needs to check that too. High profile names in banking have come down because of this and it should not be ignored.

If you do all the above, you should be able to safely hire a great leader. All the best!


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