28 Jun 2018 20:11 IST

Be ready when the leadership moment calls

Leaders must put in the work backstage, so that they are not found wanting, while taking decisions

The FIFA World Cup is in full swing. It’s an interesting watch because while the entire 90-minute match is enjoyable, the moments that people eagerly wait for are those critical seconds when a goal is scored. A player seizes an opportunity and strikes; in a match that lasts 90 minutes, the winner is decided in a few seconds.

But, there are also several other moments that impact the match: when a player causes a foul, resulting in a penalty; or misses a sitter on goal; or tries a deliberate handball; or assaults a member of the other team and is sent off, leaving the team handicapped. These moments decide the match.

In our leadership journey, it is often such leadership moments that decide our impact and effectiveness.

The turns matter more than the stretches

Less than 24 hours before the start of the World Cup, one of the tournament favourites dropped a bombshell — Spain fired its coach, Julen Lopetegui. This was a person who had worked on the team; he motivated them, inspired them. And yet, Spain’s football association head Luis Rubiales took the decision of firing him, potentially damaging Spain’s chances of doing well in the World Cup.

We won’t debate whether the decision was right or wrong, but there are important leadership lessons to be learnt. As a leader, Rubiales was sending a message — if we believe what the coach did was wrong, we will take the right action, even if it’s inconvenient, even if it damages our results. He showed that his principles were a matter of conviction, not convenience. Similarly, Lopetegui let a decision that lasted a few seconds — signing with his new club — upset his World Cup campaign.

When we drive, we know it is not the long stretches of straight roads that eventually decide where we end up, but the turns we make. These millisecond decisions are those turns — a student who chooses to exaggerate his achievements at a placement interview, who chooses a job merely because it pays more over what he is truly passionate about is one such example. A young executive who chooses to have a long night out instead of preparing for an important client presentation the next day is also making a split-second choice, will little regard for the consequences.

Long held values

Celebrity Chef Atul Kochhar was recently fired by the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel in Dubai, because of his bigoted tweet to actor Priyanka Chopra: “It is sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2000 years. Shame on you.”

He was responding to her apology for an episode of the television series Quantico, where she uncovers a terror plot by Hindu nationalists. This response, from a man who has run a successful restaurant for many years in the United Arab Emirates, where Islam is the official and majority religion. In this case too, it hardly took him a few seconds to send out that tweet. But it exposed his long-held bigoted views.

It is, therefore, important for us as leaders to examine our deeply held values — good or bad. Because these are what will create the successes or failures of our leadership moments. Contrary to how it may seem, these split-second decisions are not triggered suddenly; they are created by a lifetime of beliefs, attitudes and values.

Lack of action

Another Kochhar is in trouble because she was part of a team that took decisions allegedly benefiting her husband’s company. In her case, it may have been the split-second decision to not say or do something, to remove herself from the process. Her lack of action itself was a decision that impacted both, her personal leadership reputation and that of the bank she leads.

Earlier this month, luggage maker Samsonite’s CEO Ramesh Tainwala, resigned after accusations surfaced that he had padded-up his credentials. He had long described himself as a doctor with a PhD in Business Administration — a programme he registered for but, it seems, never completed. Again, it took a few seconds of dishonesty to create the lie and a few seconds of transparency to destroy the lie, to ruin a lifetime’s reputation.

Preparation and deliberation

While it may not be possible for leaders to prepare for these split-second decisions, they can count on their beliefs and values to hold fort for them. Leaders would do well to form and guard them fiercely.

The seconds of performance on the centre stage is created by years of backstage preparation . Usain Bolt held the tag of the fastest man alive — many may still call him the greatest athlete. His centre stage performance usually lasts under 10 seconds, but for him to hit the finish line ahead of others, it takes years of preparation.

If you watched his training videos and saw the way his coach Glen Mills kept pushing him — to practice, to raise the bar, to persist with his fitness regimen — you’d realise how many years of hard-work and consistent practice went into creating that flawless 9-10 seconds of performance.

Similarly, leadership moments need that kind of a preparation. Leaders who work on how to handle questions in a crisis find that they can respond calmly when crisis hits; leaders who practise refusing unreasonable, unethical or invasive requests will find it easy to say no when the situation demands it.

Just like every magician knows that the magic on-stage takes years of practice to perfect, leaders must learn to put in the work backstage so that when centre stage time comes, they are not found wanting.

If we are able to bring these three insights together, we can develop fertile ground for the leadership moments to grow. We can ensure that when the leadership moment calls, we are ready.

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