I wonder sometimes: why talks about “leaders” often invoke awe and mystique ?
May be, because when we talk of ‘leaders’, we think about “revolutionary” leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Lurther King, Nelson Mandela and the like; OR a few people who have achieved extra-ordinary visible success in their fields; OR those who adorn the positions of power by virtue of being in ‘leadership roles’. Except the last category, there are very few people in the other two categories and more significantly, their accomplishments flow from their own super-ordinary personal qualities; hence, thought to be above the capabilities of an “ordinary” person. Hence, the high pedestal for them. As regards the third category, leadership roles come through some sort of organisational hierarchy – be it in Government or Corporate or any other formally assembled group; and therefore, it is not the cup of tea for anyone and everyone. Worse, the third category breeds huge confusion, as not everyone in a leadership role appeals to the heart as a true leader.
And this unnecessarily complicates our understanding and appreciation of some of rather simple and often-latent human traits associated with leaders, making these out as complex and not-in-everyone type qualities!!
Semantically, to “lead” is to move someone or something somewhere. In other words, making a difference to the existing status – as simple as that! When we qualify that difference with elements of desirability in terms of improvement, expansion of horizon, human development and ethics, we get the term “lead” with a spirit.
Interestingly,while not everyone in a ‘leadership role’ comes across as a true leader, the converse, i.e a leader is a person in a leadership role, is also not necessarily true. Yes !! A leader need not always be in a leadership role. This world is what it is and still kicking despite all the negativities/constraints/challenges, because there are many “leaders”, without titles, at every level of society, who, in effect, lead themselves and others towards better and desired conditions, even without an official tag or being acknowledged or acclaimed in public.
What, then, is leadership, or at least the crux of leadership?
By far, leadership is perhaps one of the most researched and written about theme in social science, that has engaged and intrigued thinking minds since inception of human civilisation.. Yet, it becomes so difficult to define leadership in brief, unambiguous, straight-jacketed, fit-for-all terms, like any other scientific concept. Leadership is about human traits; and hence subject to interpretations. Further, even though almost all studies/reseach/interpretations of ‘leadership qualilities’, point to at least a few key qualities like vision, courage, compassion, creativity, credibility etc. as the top-on-the-list traits, it is quite fascinating as well as intriguing to note that most of the so-called leaders ( i.e. people in leadership roles) actually lack all/most of these qualities and yet, have most of the times been riding on success waves. In time, they do crash on land, no doubt and the audience gets disenchanted; but by then, a lot of damage is done unfortunately. That’s why, instead of trying to list out traits that one has to possess to be a true leader, I find it makes more sense to me, when I look at leaders, I mean true leaders who make positive differences and say, leadership is what a leader does, and that includes getting done, in any situation.
So for me, the shortest-ever, position-neutral, situation-neutral definition of a “leader” is one who demonstrates what it takes to do what is needed to be done in any situation.
Here go some stories. Personally, I find these not just stories, but situations that illustrate what indeed leadership is and how an ordinary person can act like a true leader.
Story 1 :
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked,”What are you doing?” The boy replied,”Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they will die.” Surprised, the man said,”Son, don’t you realise there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference !”
As the boy listened, he bent down again, picked up another starfish and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said politely… “ I made a difference to that one .”
I am sure, the message is loud and clear. It does not matter whether the difference you make is small or big. What matters is: if you are truly concerned about a situation, whether you take those tiny steps to make a difference – without bothering whether your action would totally change the situation or not. Does not matter if the boy could not save all the starfishes affected. It is important to note that by his positive action, he could save at least a few starfishes out of hundreds about to die, and it did make all the difference to those few, who were saved by the boy .
Leadership is all about making a positive difference to someone, to some situation in the environment, which, you think, should not remain the same, without getting cowed down by the enormity of the problem.
Three hundred years ago Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London, wrote about three men he spoke to who were building his creation.
He asked the first worker what his job was, to which the worker wearily replied, "I'm laying bricks. Can't you see that?" Wren moved along and asked a second worker the same question. "I'm just earning a living," the second worker snapped back. He then asked a third worker the same question, who was engrossed in perfecting a statue that he had already completed and got a very different response. "Ohh, I'm building a Cathedral”, he said proudly.
While for the first two workers, it was just a ‘job’, for the 3rd sculptor, it was something entirely different – he took his work as a part of the whole – the cathedral. He was passionate about the fact that he was contributing towards building of a cathedral. For him, everything he did needed to be perfect, so that the cathedral could be built perfectly as envisioned.
This is how true leaders view their role in a bigger act; they see the larger whole much beyond their specified roles and work towards being a part of it, unleashing their best potential pursuing excellence and perfection in doing their bit. Because, in essence, they own up what they are a part of!! They show up not as a mere cog in the wheel, but as a valuable part that moves the wheel!
Each of us in the society, each employee in an organisation irrespective of organisational hierarchy can be a leader in one’s own right - title or no title.
Does this interpretation bring back memories of people in various roles and strata – from top management functionaries to menial workers, who show this exemplary quality and how much love and genuine respect they earn from people coming in contact with them ? Well, personally I have seen quite a lot and that keeps alive the hope and faith in leadership in simple, so-called ordinary individuals.
Leadership is owning up the bigger whole and showing up at your best, as a part thereof.
Once Sharu Ragnekar, a renowned Management Consultant, visited the Wagha Border near Amritsar. The unique thing about this border is that there are Indian soldiers and Pakistan soldiers on the two sides of the border. At sunset, both sides lower the flags and there is a drill. This is very interesting to see as the drills are identical on both sides of the border and looks like a mirror image.
Ragnekar saw on our side of the border a teacher with 20 students. She was telling them, “ When the flag moves in the evening, all of you sing Sare Jahan se achchha Hindostan hamara.. ” Curious, he asked her what she was doing. She replied, “ It is my practice to bring a batch of my students here on the first day of every month so that they can see the moving flag and sing. I do it every month – although this month, this was very difficult for me.” When asked why difficult that month, she explained how she bears the busfare of some children whose parents can not afford it and how that particular month being the month of transfers, she had also to pay(bribe), out of her humble salary, for staying in the same place.
“ When this is what is happening to you, why do you want the children to sing Sare Jahan se Achchha Hindostan hamara?”
She asked spiritedly,“Who is going to improve India? I have not been able to improve India; you have not been able to improve India. I have no influence over the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister, but I have some influence on these children and I am going to use it. These children believe in me – so I bring them here, let them look at the flag and let them sing Sare jahan se achchha Hindostan hamara. When they grow up, at least some of them will be proud of India and try to improve India.”
To me, this teacher is a true leader. From the problems in her own circumstances, she has taken a decision that things must change for better and she is committing herself through personal action to bring about that change – using her own resources – i.e. her own humble salary and her influence on her students, the future citizens. She is able to see a goal, much bigger than anyone in her position would see and is navigating through constraints – but towards the goal .
Above all, notwithstanding the fact that she herself is a victim of an undesirable situation(corrupt bureaucracy), she is spreading, not cynicism, but HOPE that things will change for better !! She is making a difference, trying to instill patriotism in the future citizens of the country.
Leadership is spreading hope and enthusiasm, undaunted by personal conditions of despair.
Story 4 : A short story that probably I had read in my childhood .
Once a boulder was lying in the middle of a roadway, much to the inconvenience of the passers-by. Most of the people who came by saw the boulder in the middle, uttered angry words, cursed the “someone” who did that mischief, loudly blamed the Government for not keeping the roads clear and simply passed around it. None stopped to clear it off the road. After sometimes, a farmer came along carrying a load of vegetables. On seeing the boulder, he stopped and tried to move the boulder from the middle of the road to the road-side. After much pushing and straining, he could move the big stone some way to the side, but it was getting strenuous for a single man to do this job. Slowly some of the people coming along the road started joining him one by one and finally, the boulder could be moved off the road.
The farmer, like others, could have just walked around the stone. But he chose to think about the others’ inconvenience and took pain to move the stone. Is not he a leader in his own right? He did what was required to be done in that situation rising above one’s own limited interest alone. Moreover, by his personal action, he inspired others to join the cause – to follow him.
The doers are the leaders. It is easy to preach; it is easy to blame others. It may take a specific skill to shirk and shift responsibility to avoid taking action. But true leaders are those, who act as necessary, not just preach or blame others! And inspire!
Leadership is solving a problem if it exists, even though it directly does not affect you, and inspiring others to join in.
In 2002, a high caste school teacher in Odisha’s Brahmagiri area, Baghambar Pattanaik, quit his job to fight against a sysyem of compulsory servitude under the bartan system, bonded labour by another name, which permits the upper caste people to force lower caste barbers and others to work for them, often at menial tasks, in exchange for 15 KGs of rice a year. The system was so rigid that if the lower castes refused, they faced a debilitating social boycott. For example, a 65 yr old lower caste person faced the ire of the whole village when he bravely decided in 2002 to stop working for one upper caste master under the bartan system. As a punishment for his defiance, he was made to serve 200 upper class families in the village. Stories abound involving similar oppressive inequity, against which the lone school teacher started fighting persistently, later garnering support from Human Rights Commissions. After nine years of persistent fight, the state govt. finally issued a notification abolishing bartan.
Leadership is displaying extra-ordinary courage of conviction in standing up for a cause even against a mighty opponent with determination to change the situation for better for the exploited !
A few months back, a horrific act of terrorism occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School ( Connecticut, USA), that claimed 27 lives, 20 of them childen. Victoria Soto, 27, a class teacher, managed to hide her pupils in cupboards and closets, as the gunman was on a killing spree. She was then confronted by the gunman, who asked where the kids were and she convinced him that her pupils were elsewhere- in the gym. The gunman then shot her dead and went away. But her action of hiding the kids and lying to the gunman led to the survival of those kids. Faced with the most horrifying experience of her life, she chose the heroic path of love and responsibility for those entrusted to her care, rising above her personal safety.
In crises, leadership is also about heroism – supreme sacrifice and courage emanating out of love, compassion and a complete sense of responsibility !!
Most of the greatest innovations begin with a simple idea. Paint lines in the highways is one of such great ideas, which was a safety innovation conceived in the year 1917 by Dr. June McCarroll, after having a narrow escape from an accident on a highway. Without lines on the road, there was no clearly delineated lane separation to help regulate the flow of traffic and avert side-swiping and collisions. McCarroll came up with the idea to paint lines on the road, separating lanes with a centre line. When she first told her idea to the local authorities concerned, no one listened, as is typical with a bureaucracy. Finally, she took upon herself to hand-paint a white stripe down the middle of the road.This later helped the drivers easily see the actual width of the lane and keep accidents due to sideswipes from happening.She took her idea to the local Women’s Club and with their help as well as campaigning by many similar groups for long 7 years, finally in Nov, 1924, the idea was adopted by California Highway Commission and highways got painted with middle lines. It was not long before the concept was accepted world wide – known as McCarroll lines.
So, leadership in many cases is also about innovation and persistence. A leader not only thinks out-of-box, but also displays persistence and perseverance to act/get others to act on the idea.
In our daily lives-both personal and professional, there are many instances in which we, the common people, solve problems innovatively. But once the implementation of our new or innovative ideas requires involvement of/owning up by others, it loses steam as many of us lack the needed persistence to go the whole hog. And there lies the difference.
The foregoing 7 stories are among innumerable such stories about true leadership. If you are conducting yourself this way, you too are a leader, whether you are acclaimed in public or not.
Yes, the life stories of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and the like exemplify some of the rare leadership qualities like time-defying vision, time-less values, mass following and ability to bring about iconoclastic changes, which we all know as they are always talked about and find place in literature. But such revolutionary leadership does not belittle the small differences that each of us can make in the lives of all we touch directly or indirectly. So, let us also ‘read’ our own book of life stories – our own life experiences as well as that of the people we know. We will understand that “leadership” is actually not something for a privileged few. We all have it in ourselves.
Many a renowned persons have said, to be a leader, you must have followers. Very correct. But do the “followers” have to be a visible gang? How about people, who lead their own self to higher levels of evolution and thereby ‘inspire’ many a souls whose life they touch-directly or indirectly? How about the ripple effect that an innately good & simple individual creates in the society through his personal actions ! Are they not “leaders” in their own right? Yes, they are. They may not be having their followers in a herd – but I am sure, here and there, without they themselves knowing about it, they are creating their followers in some way or other – through personal example, inspiration and sharing of ideas/ insights!!
I come back to where I started. There could be a million ways in which you ‘lead’ if you do whatever is needed to be done in any situation – in regard to your own self, others, the surroundings – any one or some or all of them. The more we try to comprehend the term ‘leadership” in simple ways without unwarranted awe and mystique, the more visible it will be in people. The more visible leadership becomes, the easier it will be to harness and groom it for overall, all-inclusive development. And harnessing leadership is another big leadership quality. As is said, good leaders create great followers; but great leaders create greater leaders.
At the end of it, leaders inspire and leaders make a difference!
Mahatma Gandhi (one of the best examples of leaders without a title ) once said, “We must become the change we seek in this world .” Very true. Titles may support your efforts – but not necessary for leading in a true sense .
What about us? Are we simply giving up whining ‘I am not in a position to do this’, ‘How can I alone change this’ etc. or taking committed action saying, ‘ Let me do whatever little I can’ and making the small & big differences to our world that we are capable of ?
Yes ! There is a leader in each of us; we just need to discover and act.