Having spent almost four decades in the corporate world, and now taking a pause, a well-deserved break for some time, in my quiet moments, I have been thinking – How does one teach someone leadership? This question comes to my mind again and again.
We can surely teach people skills, behaviors and processes that would make them better managers to head businesses, from divisions to companies, or even groups of companies. We can talk to people, mentor them about good, ethical existence.
But leadership, which more often than not, is mistaken and confused with managerial excellence, is a completely different playing field altogether. Because leadership goes way beyond just the corporate existence. It is visible in every sphere of life.
It is a known fact that across the world, huge sums of money are spent by corporates to teach and train leadership. Most of the times, the effects on the incumbents going through the learning process are not very long-lasting. For a majority of them.
Over the decades of my own experience, I came to this self-realisation – leadership is mainly self-incubated. It is an inner driven process. A close look at the lives of leaders across geographies throws up few characteristics that are common to most, if not all.
High level of ethics
Good leaders have this inherent desire to operate with a high level of ethics. Yes, it is a known fact that, in today’s world, it is difficult to operate at all times by being a hundred percent ethical. Yet, those with sound leadership qualities continue to remain at the higher end of the ethical band in almost all situations. Through a process which is self-incubated and self-disciplined. History also throws up names of leaders who have been infamously famous, or cruel. They too are remembered, but never for any good legacy they left behind.
Desire to learn
Good leaders are lifelong learners, and they have an insatiable desire to learn from a multitude of sources. They are voracious readers, and extremely willing to learn from the lives of other leaders. 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 high that the lines between formal and informal education are often blurred.
The two most salient features are their inextinguishable curiosity and humility. Even the most arrogant leaders, when they seek knowledge, are willing, and need to go down to grassroot levels to get it. Most importantly, a sign of good intellect and learning is the ability to change one’s mind in the face of new facts.
This too, as we would realise, is a self-incubated characteristic. The joy of learning something new, correcting a wrong, exceeds the pain of unlearning or sticking to the old.
Ability to reflect
Good leaders reflect often. Both on things that seem important to them, as well as on themselves as humans. To the extent that they can be honestly self-critical. Reflection is almost an extension of their quest for knowledge. It takes humility to consider information that contradicts their stated view. Their mark of wisdom is in accepting that they could be wrong, and open to correcting the wrongs.
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. 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.
Ability to experiment
Good leaders are willing to experiment without fear of failure. 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.
Managing people and resources, taking ideas through to execution can be taught and learnt. But not leadership.
Yes, 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.
Many organisations spend huge resources on trying to train employees for leadership.
Strangely, very few build a culture that can help create leaders. In fact, many cultures restrict the natural tendency of leadership by being over cautious, regimented and averse to experimentation. They penalise mistakes. They allow unethical behavior. They prevent honest feedback.
The words senior management and leadership are used so interchangeably that the distinction between them is completely lost. While management and managers can ably run the company and deliver on most business metrics, only quality leadership can guide countries, families, enterprises to cope with change and shape the future.
The journey of leadership self-incubation starts early. The right environment and exposure to different stimuli can help immensely. 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.
Here again, one of the best-case studies of building up and creating an incubation process of leadership is UAE and its rulers. For those who have spent decades living in this city, they would be a testimony to the fact that Dubai and the UAE actually have become role model incubator of incubating a new generation of quality leaders and women leaders. The new India is also headed the same way. Look around, and you will realise how many good Indian leaders head global entities these days.
Leadership is like a seed of a plant. This seed probably lies dormant in most of us. If the elements support it, it can grow into the most wondrous of trees. Yet, only the seed of leadership can grow into a leader. The seed of a cactus, no matter how well it is watered and looked after, can only grow into a cactus. Justifying that a cactus is generating better returns on money investments does not necessarily convert into a good leader.