02 Nov 2017 19:53 IST

Choose to be a giving leader

Here are the main points that distinguish a giving leader from a taking one

There’s an old story about a band of thieves who take advantage of a power failure to break into the caravan of a group of travelling performers. In the dark, there’s quite a struggle as the performers put up a good fight. But the thieves manage to get their hands on some loot and speed away.

Later that night, they count the cash they managed to steal. The guy doing the counting gleefully announces to the chief, “We did good, boss! We got away with $500”. The chief smacks him on the head. “Idiot, we had $700 when we broke into their place.”

Some leaders are like that — they take more than they give. In our last post , we explored the difference between Rambo and Gandhi leaders. This article builds on that idea, by looking at giving versus taking leaders. We should watch ourselves so we don’t turn into the latter. Rather, we must constantly strive to be the former. What are some attitudes that the taking leader has vs the giving leader?

Power vs. impact

For the taking leader, it is always about power. The news of Harvey Weinstein being finally ejected from his company after decades of sexually harassing and abusing multiple actresses and employees is a good example.

Sexual harassment, more than sexually taking advantage of others, is an exhibition of power. Taking leaders want to constantly demonstrate who the boss is. They demand respect rather than earn it. They take criticism as a personal slight. They love their perks, such as the chauffeured car and the corner office, because each is a demonstration of power.

For giving leaders, on the other hand, it is all about influence and impact. They earn respect of others through who they are, not through their designations or the other superficial trappings of power. She is focused on what she can contribute to the team and the organisation. I remember at my wedding, I replied to a toast using the insightful quote: ‘Success in marriage is not about finding the right partner; it is about being the right partner’. The giving leader has the same attitude — she comes to work thinking about the difference she can make, be it a new product, a new market or a new strategy. Her focus is on impact, not power.

As business students today, it is important for us to be clear about why we’d like to be a CEO someday. Is it for power or impact? That says much about us and which category of leader we will fall under.

Perfection vs. excellence

The taking leader tends to be focused on perfection. This kind of leader obsesses about how he or the organisation comes across. They are more about PR than practice. They love the sound-bytes of success.

In our last reflection, we looked at Henri Nouwen’s quote about there being a great difference ‘between successfulness and fruitfulness’. Some of the remaining parts of that quote are equally instructive: ‘Success comes from strength, control, and respectability... Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness’.

The taking leader abhors mistakes and failures — he dents his image of invulnerability but the giving leader shoots for excellence. This means she accepts mistakes, harnesses them, learns from failure. She is not afraid to appear less than perfect. She is not afraid to own up a weakness. She also gives her team licence to be authentic and open. She wants excellence for its sake, not to burnish her profile.

Chase excellence, not perfection

One of the highlights of Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh is his personal story of his son Zain, who suffers from cerebral palsy. “My son’s condition,” he writes, “requires that I draw daily upon the very same passion for ideas and empathy that I learned from my parents.” Nadella leads Microsoft with that same empathy and humility.

Christopher Reeve played Superman on screen. But a riding accident left him paralysed from neck down and dependent on a portable ventilator for the rest of his life. But through his ‘weakness’, he showed the world what being a superman was really about. He coped with his condition admirably, campaigned for research and lived his life with enviable grace.

As aspiring leaders, we need to be driven by excellence, not perfection. That difference will influence our decisions, our communication, our leadership styles and the impact we make as leaders.

Pawns vs. people

The taking leader views people as pawns in his quest to win, and this is represented perfectly in the movie, Margin Call. In one scene, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) tells Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey): “So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That it’s all for naught. You’ve been doing that every day for almost forty years, Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong.”

Taking leaders often find themselves saying that the end justifies the means. They view people as rungs in the ladder they have to climb. Employees are moving parts in a revenue, growth or valuation machine. They rarely care about their employees as people.

Leaders don’t preach

During my college days, I was part of a leadership team that worked with schools conducting spiritual seminars. I was humbled to be in the company of some stalwarts of the movement, and once, I was on a team with two of the senior, most knowledgeable leaders. After a long, tiring day at a seminar for school students, we headed to rest for the night. The school was able to give only a single room for the three of us to share.

When we entered, we found that there were two beds and that one person would have to sleep on the floor. Just as I was piping up to volunteer to sleep without a bed and shout down any suggestions from them that they would sleep on the floor, both of them spoke almost in unison of backaches and tiredness and that they wanted the beds.

I was more amused than upset, because I had no intention of asking either of them to take the floor. But it was revealing that neither of these leaders cared enough about the junior-most member on their team to make a small sacrifice.

The ultimate gesture

After that, I took their preaching and leadership with a lot of salt because I hadn’t seen them practice it. As the saying goes, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’.

The giving leader lives this. She sees people winning together; she aligns the goals and interests and helps the team live out and fulfil their own aspirations through the vehicle of the organisation. When sacrifices have to be made, she starts with herself.

And lest we think of this as mere warm, fuzzy stuff, ill-suited to the rough and tumble of the business world, here’s what that doyen of management Peter Drucker had to say: Adult life begins when you ask yourself, ‘What do I want to be remembered for?’ What are theories? Nothing. The only thing that matters is how you touch people.

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