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Dark Roast Double Shot: Edifying Leaders
It is a known fact that across the world huge sum of money is spent by corporates to teach and train leadership with very little lasting effect on incumbents going through the process.
Photo Credit : Shutterstock
It was 10 AM, I was staring intently into the carafe as the drops came faster and faster streaming into a pool of bubbling aromatic brew of Dark Roast Double Shot. There was another hour to go before I got onto a video conference with seventy young leaders in an organisation for an hour-long discourse on leadership.
We were already two months into the first phase of the Covid lockdown when my ex-colleague and friend called me up and said that his company was going through a learning and engagement programme for all the young leaders in the company and the management would like me to talk to them on leadership for an hour or two. To my question "What exactly would you like me to convey to them?" his answer was "We want you to teach them leadership, I am sure you can help them along.". The fact that I would have to agree to his request was a forgone conclusion. I knew him too well to turn down the offer. And somehow those were not the times that you said no to any request for help, in any manner.
How do you teach someone leadership? That question came at me again and again. You can teach people skills, behaviours and processes that would make them better managers to head businesses from projects to companies or even groups of companies. But leadership, often mistaken with managerial excellence is a different playing field altogether. It is a known fact that across the world huge sum of money is spent by corporates to teach and train leadership with very little lasting effect on incumbents going through the process. Primarily because leadership is self-incubated. It is an inner driven process.
Leaders are people who engender the forces within, which when manifested, inspire others to follow. A close look at the lives of leaders both famous or infamous across geographies, areas of competence, levels in leadership throws up three characteristics that are common to most if not all.
APPETITE FOR LEARNING
The first and most powerful characteristic is their appetency for learning. Lifelong learners, they have an insatiable thirst that they quench from a multitude of sources. They read voraciously and learn from the lives of other leaders, they passionately study their area of interest, they observe with great inquisitiveness matters of culture, society and environment whether their own or that which others exist in. Their hunger for learning is so all consuming that the lines between formal and informal education is often blurred.
The two most salient features are their inextinguishable curiosity and humility. Even the most arrogant leaders when they seek knowledge are willing to go to grassroot levels to get it. No wonder stories abound of kings dressing up as commoners to understand their lives and marketing heads of large automakers sitting at roadside stalls to understand the problems of truck drivers.
ABILITY TO REFLECT
The second important aspect is their ability to reflect. Both on things that seem important to them as well as themselves. To the extent that they can be self-critical without being self-deprecating. Reflection is almost an extension of their quest for knowledge.
They are aware that they need to spend time with themselves, to help them connect the dots and evolve their own world view of things. Often, the emanating thought is unique and their conviction comes from the strength of this reflection. Seeking feedback is an integral part of this reflection and can be in groups or individual. Coaches and mentors often play an important role in guiding this process.
PROPENSITY TO EXPERIMENT
The third characteristic is the propensity to experiment. To put effect to thought. Their excitement to experiment overcomes any fear of failure. To them it is a further extension of their tryst with learning. If the experiment succeeds, they scale up. If the experiment fails, they take the learnings and move on. The desire to explore the unknown and the untested is a strong driving force. This is what helps them open up new thoughts, ideas and frontiers.
People who exhibit these characteristics often emerge as leaders. Some say that leadership can be learnt but that is inherently not true. Managing people and resources, taking ideas through to execution can be taught and learnt but not leadership. What is true is that more leaders can be created if we create the right environment to foster the characteristics of learning, reflection and experimentation. Great leaders though can even swim against the tide. Even in non-conducive circumstances their own passion overrides obstacles.
While many organisations spend resources on trying to train employees for leadership few propagate a culture that can help create leaders. In fact, many cultures inhibit the natural tendency of leadership by being over cautious, regimented and averse to experimentation. The words senior-management and leadership are used so interchangeably that the distinction between them is completely lost. While management can ably run the company and deliver on most business metrics only leadership can guide enterprises to cope with change and shape the future.
The most important role in fostering leadership is the privileged yet onerous responsibility of both parents and teachers. The journey of leadership starts early. The right environment and exposure to different stimuli can help immensely. The more they see and experience the more they learn. Interacting with people of different cultures, religion, ethnicity in an inclusive manner gives them invaluable insights. Enabling their curiosity and desire to try out and experience new things enhances their desire to know more.
Not every child grows up to lead, nor do they have to. Leadership is often innate and probably many have it. It is like the seed which falls on the earth and if the elements support it, it can grow into the most wonderous of trees. On the other hand, if it is not nourished it might just wither away or wait till the sun and rain come its way.
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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)