21 Mar 2019 14:37 IST

Being a minority leader needs courage

It takes conviction to go against the majority and stand up for what is right

There’s a great scene in the movie Gandhi. He’s addressing a crowd in South Africa. He’s explaining General Smuts’ new law, about identity cards for Indians and fingerprinting and policemen being able to enter homes without a warrant. Emotions run high and someone in the crowd soon talks about killing the policemen who dare offer such an insult. There is prolonged applause. For a leader fighting the authorities, this is exactly the kind of outcome they want — the crowd worked up and ready and to take strong action. The temptation is to stoke the passions, fan the rage. Instead Gandhi makes his stand clear. “In this cause, I too am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” This is sometimes the leader’s lonely task- to take a stand against the majority. The recent chest-thumping relating to the action with Pakistan, gives us occasion to reflect on when this kind of leadership is called for. Being the leadership minority.


Sometimes the majority doing or saying something, clouds what is right and what is wrong. “Everybody is doing it” becomes the justification for actions and decisions that are not right.

We recently had the case of an Indian IT major paying a large penalty in the US. The reason, was the alleged bribes that the company leadership had authorized for permissions relating to facilities they were building in Chennai. It is easy to see how the ‘everybody is doing it’ argument would have prevailed.

Steve Jobs often had to take the unpopular stand when he was pushing for excellence. The majority in his team were absolutely sure that what they had put together was good enough. But Steve Jobs pushed back. As Jim Collins puts it “Good is the enemy of great.” And Steve would veto the good design, the good idea and demand great. He was defending the principle of great design whenever the team was happy with mediocrity. It made him unpopular at times, but he made the Apple principle and his personal conviction clear.

The leader’s role is not to follow the majority but to lead it. This means sometimes asking the majority to turn away from a path they seem bent on. For this the leader’s own credibility must be high. She must be authentic. She must have the reputation of walking the talk. Then, even if her voice is a quiet voice, it will be heard.

When emotions run high

As in the scene in Gandhi, when passion runs high, the leadership minority needs to stand up and be counted. When a team becomes a mob baying for action, the leader has to pull back, not lead the mob. This means calming emotions, not fanning them. Emotion blinds us to logic, blinds us to facts, blinds us sometimes to a sense of right and wrong, blinds us to the greater good. Leadership requires us to rise above the fray. To help the team extricate itself from the emotion of the situation. The leader must be able to see clearly and then be the voice of reason. A crisis triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response in our brains — it is a normal human reaction. But leaders recognize this. They are more self-aware. They can see the storm of emotion coming and they make a decision not to get sucked in.

Our competitor has run a disparaging ad. The whole team is livid. In minutes they have a series of counter-attacking ads ready. Even viler, even more sarcastic and

demeaning. What does the leader do? If the leader falls into the same trap by encouraging the destructive emotions, by playing up the false bravado, by being egoistic then the leader has failed his team and himself.

It takes courage to talk peace, it only takes a bully to talk war. Hormones can hijack the majority. It takes courage to be the minority and stand up for what is right.

When people and purpose must be protected

Very often when a CEO is fired or a financial scandal comes to light, or an acquisition goes horribly wrong, the question hanging in the air is — what was the Board doing? What was the management team doing? Very often it was a case of an ultra-strong CEO bullying the Board into toeing the line, or Board members all agreeing when a controversial issue was discussed, and no one was willing to stand up and challenge the actions and play the leadership minority. Is our purpose being fulfilled? Are we putting the mission at risk? A real leader will not hesitate to butt in when the purpose of the team is being compromised.

Leaders also have to stand up for people. Sometimes when things go wrong, it is convenient to look for a scapegoat. It is convenient to hang someone. But leaders are willing to stand up and say No. In the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela has just taken over as President. It is a euphoric time for the country to see its first black president and for the black population to feel finally a sense of freedom and ownership. The temptation is high to “now that we’re in power let’s take it out on the whites, let’s give them a taste of what they gave us”. But Mandela leads differently — he insists that he is the President of all of South Africa — black and white. He discourages dropping the name ‘Springboks’, a predominantly white term for the South African football team. When his security team wants to fire all the white bodyguards, Mandela will not hear of it. He stands up for them and for his purpose of a united nation. This is what real leadership is.

Every one of us will face these moments when a principle is at stake, when emotions run high and when a person or purpose is at risk of being wrongly sacrificed. We could stay silent, we could add our voice to the mob — but that wouldn’t be leadership. Leadership is being willing to stand, even alone, for what is right.