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Ramesh Jude Thomas

The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory

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BW Businessworld

The Five Myths About Leaders

Great leaders manage failures. They encourage and celebrate success. But to really appreciate the potential impact of these on society and business, what we measure in our education needs a fundamental change.

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Last month, a dear friend who runs an international HR automation firm asked me if I could chat with his CXOs about the pitfalls of global leadership. Here’s what we deliberated over a glass of Belgian Pale:

Super achievers become leaders:
Even the most diehard Sachin Tendulkar fan will agree that he was hardly leadership material. Manmohan Singh was an extraordinary bureaucrat and a transformational economic thinker who was respected globally. But hardly a leader, as we saw. We will see this played out in most organisations and societies. Because the expected recognition and reward for great performance is a position of power.

Ironically, this error is oft repeated, in spite of our experiences to the contrary. Great leaders have one job only; and that is to create and manage super achievers. Alex Ferguson was a leader, but hardly a performer. Might we have lost out on a David Beckham without the leadership of Alex Ferguson?

Great leaders are recognised for what they know: Big mistake. How many times have we witnessed arrogant domain experts come to grief. At best they can be professors or researchers. But we are constantly tempted to promote them to leadership positions because they seem more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, if you test them for a difficult situation they will almost always fall back on domain knowledge.

Real leaders emerge in difficult situations. Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw wasn’t necessarily the best fighting man India had ever produced. Or even the most knowledgeable. But why was he Indira Gandhi’s go-to man? Because she knew that if it got tricky, he would reason his way out of it. Why is he still considered India’s most iconic defence chief? Because leaders are appointed for wisdom, not for wizcraft.

Leaders must set targets and goals: Absolute rubbish! Goals and targets are tangible things that can be set by most sincere people who can count. Good leaders will achieve target setting bottom up. Great leaders set and sustain standards, not targets.

For a quarter of a century, Ratan Tata did not interfere in numbers and business goals. Both were deeply conscious of the TATA standards of human conduct. These were non-negotiable. Remember they were inked only as recently as a decade ago. But they were expectations even a century ago.

Steve Jobs did not decide the number of phones to be sold. But he was manic about design and interface standards. And would just not yield on those.

Leaders have all the answers: Bigger fallacy. Google has all the answers. You don’t need quality leadership for that. We have argued this earlier in my first TED ( the bumblebee vs the spelling bee) but at the cost of repetition I will say this: our education and upbringing both somehow orient us to deliver answers like an ATM machine.

The mandate of a good leader is to ask all the right questions. I’m sure you too have worked with some outstanding bosses. As a sound professional, the reason you asked them to review your work was not to get their approval, but for them to ask the most penetrating questions that took your efforts to the next level.

Leaders manage success: The biggest myth of them all. The irrepressible Dr Kalam oft narrated the story of the disastrous SLV 3 launch in 1979, which was his baby. He used to recall how the then chairman of ISRO Dr Satish Dhawan dragged him reluctantly to the press conference. Dr Dhawan led the session, talking of the world class efforts of his team but how he hadn’t seen many things coming as the head of the organisation. A year later when SLV 3 did go into orbit, he asked Dr Kalam to lead the press conference.

Great leaders manage failures. They encourage and celebrate success. But to really appreciate the potential impact of these on society and business, what we measure in our education needs a fundamental change. Because the most evolved form of intelligence is empathy. Not intellect.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 11-01-2016)