28 Apr 2016 20:06 IST

Beyond mere labels

The more self-aware we become, the better prepared we are to be real leaders

There was an uproar in a Chinese zoo in the Henan province in 2013, when a young boy and his mother discovered that the ‘lion’ that was supposed to be in its cage was, in fact, a dog!

The lion was apparently sent to a breeding centre. The zoo officials, not wanting to present an empty cage, decided to put in a Tibetan Mastiff! This fooled thousands of visitors until the mother-son duo exposed the zoo. The dog had the lion’s label on his cage but all he knew was barking.

Sometimes, we get caught up with the labels — about others and even about ourselves. The first is a big problem, the second is downright dangerous. A poor understanding of our own selves becomes one of the biggest hurdles in operating as effective and influential leaders.

Introspection

Peter Drucker’s seminal article "Managing Oneself" should be a must-read for every aspiring leader and manager. He outlines five questions that must be answered to manage ourselves better.

~ What are my strengths?

~ How do I perform?

~ What are my values?

~ Where do I belong?

~ What should I contribute?

In the spirit of continuing that journey of self-awareness and our personal effectiveness, here are four questions to add to that list. Two of them will be dealt with in this week’s column, and the next two, in my next column.

Who are my role models?

I remember asking a candidate at an interview who his role model was. He responded with “Adolf Hitler”. I had to restrain myself from a violent response. It wasn’t just that his answer destroyed his chances; it also explained several of his other responses, exposed his beliefs and predicted his behaviour.

Who our role models are, is a good self-awareness diagnostic to turn to. It provides us with a good insight into the type of person we would like to be. By its very definition, a role model is someone we try to emulate and so, it serves as a good proxy for the qualities we perceive as good and the skills we are keen to imbibe.

Many people go through life trying to become like their role models. In truth, there are no perfect human role models — they all have flaws and feet of clay. What we should really be looking to do, is picking up from a set of role models, qualities we’d like to possess — integrity from Gandhi; resilience from Lincoln; compassion from Mother Teresa; the ability to execute from Dhirubhai Ambani; a passion for high standards from Steve Jobs. This set of strengths becomes our goal, making us aware of how we spend our development time and resources.

Our deliberately chosen role models act as guideposts on our leadership journey. “What would Gandhi have done in this situation?”; “What would Ratan Tata have done in this situation?” become useful questions that will help us form wiser leadership responses.

What fulfils me?

Not everybody knows the answer to this, but it is a question that every leader must ask — and know the answer to. This is the ‘big prize’ that gives us our energy as leaders, that helps us get up in the morning and go to work. Woe to the leader who chooses a poor prize! Even if she sprints to short-term success, she will soon run out of road.

As Jesus aptly put it 2000 years ago: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. In essence, our treasure goes on to define us — how we respond in situations, who we spend time with, what compromises we’re willing to make and what convictions we are willing to stand for. It is important for us as leaders to be aware of what our personal treasures are and reflect on whether it is the right one for us — personally and professionally.

Some may choose money. “I want to be a millionaire before I’m 25”. There is a good lesson on this goal from Brad Bird of Pixar, the brain behind wonderful movies such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille, who said, “I want my films to make money, but money is just fuel for the rocket. What I really want to do is to go somewhere. I don’t want to just collect more fuel”.

What is the ‘go somewhere’ for you?

I have a personal example to share. Right after my MBA, I had offers from two companies. One was a role I was more comfortable with and that paid better; the second was a role that I was less comfortable taking, but that I knew would be great for my personal growth, building a better foundation for my career.

So even though it paid less, I opted for it because money wasn’t the treasure driving my choice. I’ve never had a cause to regret that decision.

Sometimes, we choose titles or badges of power as our treasure. I asked some MBA students about their goal, and their reply was: “I want to be a CEO in three years”.

While I was enthused by their ambition, I did caution them on the possible emptiness of that kind of a goal. CEO of what? What will you create? What difference will you make? How will you disturb the universe?

In my next column, we’ll reflect on two more questions that will help us be more aware and create a force-field for our leadership impact.

We have to be ruthlessly honest in asking and answering these questions. That will provide us the clarity to hone our strengths and confront our weaknesses. The more self-aware we become, the better prepared we are to be real leaders, beyond labels.

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