12 May 2016 21:36 IST

Awareness can never have an off switch

Leaders are defined by how they deal with power and influence and how they cope with failure

In our last column we reflected on a few questions that should help us, leaders and aspiring leaders, turn the searchlight on ourselves to become more self-aware. We had two questions last time

Who are my role models?

What makes me fulfilled?

Here are the next two:

How do I deal with having power and influence?

It may be as small as being captain of the university cricket team or leading a class project – but how we handle power and authority is an important gauge of our leadership potential.

There’s a scene in the movie, Mission Impossible 3 where Ethan Hunt, the good guy, hangs Owen Davian, the bad guy, out of the plane to get some tough questions answered. After Owen’s been pulled back in, he says something very striking,

“You can tell a lot about a person’s character by how they treat people they don't have to treat well.”

How do we treat those who do not have power, those who are not in positions or roles of authority? How do we wield our own power and authority — as a baton or as a torch? Does it become an ego-trip, does it lead to a ‘ my way or the highway’ type of leading? Does it make me deaf to the inputs of others? The answers will help us understand our own values and what our leadership really stands for.

Sir Richard Branson conducted an unusual part-recruitment, part-marketing drive through the reality show The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best. Through a series of several challenges, contestants aimed for the prize of a top job at one of Sir Branson’s companies. Two contestants were eliminated because they behaved rudely with the chauffeur who had gone to pick them up. Unknown to the them, the chauffeur was really Sir Branson in disguise. His rationale was simple – if you don’t know how to respect those who served with you, you aren’t qualified to lead them.

So, this question on power becomes both integrity test and character test.

Can we ensure our influence and confidence comes from the inside rather than from the artificial halo of authority conferred on us? Can we view positions of power and authority as opportunities to contribute rather than grandstand? Are we prepared to lead to make a difference to others and our organisation, rather than viewing others as minions in our quest for personal glory and achievement?

As Abraham Lincoln put it so aptly, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

How do I deal with failure?

This says a lot about how secure I am as an individual and as a leader.

Those who can’t handle failure well are more likely to seek external validation, depend on praise, become thin-skinned with criticism, and engage in dysfunctional behaviour to avoid the perception of failure.

A real leader sees failure not as a self-defining event but as a process of and an opportunity for personal growth. She seeks to understand herself better through it — what strengths could have been better used, what weaknesses came in the way, what learning can be harvested from it?

Jack Ma is today the second richest man in China. But before he become a roaring success as the founder and Chairman of Alibaba he endured many failures. In an interview, he revealed that he failed a college entrance exam three times. Once college was ruled out, he applied for 30 different jobs and was rejected. In his own words “I went for a job with the police; they said, you’re no good,’ I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy…”

Think about that — twenty-three out of twenty-four applicants accepted and he was the only reject. Yet he went on to found one of most successful businesses; impacting not just China, but the world. He did not let his failures define him but instead let the power of his quiet confidence and belief drive him on.

A good clue to our attitude in this area, is seen in how we react when others are praised. Do we genuinely feel happy for them and bask in their success or is there a tint of jealousy that colours our recognition of their achievement? Do we try to downplay the other person’s achievements? Do we feel pressured to highlight our own achievements and successes when those of others are discussed? If we do, it’s an alert to dig deeper into our sense of security and self-esteem and ask if our confidence is fragile.

Graduates who do not get into the MBA institute of their choice, or those who fail a sought-after placement interview, can often fall into a depressing “I’m a failure” mode. But if we truly dig for the truth in the failure moment we will find that “I failed in this interview” is very different from “I’m a failure”.

All these questions are intended to point us in the direction of one of the best paths to better leadership — awareness. Of ourselves, our thoughts, motivations, fears, passions. From that awareness we will find we can lead with much more impact and influence. This is an attitude and skill that we must always use in the situations we face, our interactions with others and in decisions we make. And this can never have an ‘off’ switch.

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