19 Oct 2017 17:20 IST

Gandhi vs. Rambo: What’s your leadership style?

Leaders want their legacy to endure. But they should ask themselves how they want to be remembered

Several high-profile CEOs and corporate chiefs have stepped down over the last few weeks — Uber’s Travis Kalanick resigned under investor and Board pressure; Samsung CEO Kwon Oh-hyun announced his resignation, despite the company making record profit; closer home, D Shivakumar resigned as CEO of PepsiCo India in the middle of single-digit growth and lower profitability; and Indian industry veteran, AM Naik finally hung up his boots at L&T.

Each case will provoke a discussion on the legacy that they leave behind. What was the value of their leadership to their organisations? Will it remain relevant and beneficial after they have gone?

It’s an interesting question, because a legacy is precisely that — leadership impact that endures. And leaders who seek legacy often have to choose between being a ‘Rambo’ or a ‘Gandhi’ — a comparison I coined for my own aspiration to transform myself from being a Rambo leader to more of a Gandhi leader. The comparison was inspired by movies with the same titles.

Invisible impact

For those who don’t know, Rambo was a big action hit during the 1980s, with Sylvester Stallone playing the macho hero. The best scenes in the film were those that had Sylvester aka Rambo onscreen, in the thick of the action.

On the other hand, when I watched Gandhi, some of my favourite scenes were those when Gandhi was nowhere on-screen, but his impact and influence could be deeply felt. There’s one scene where the satyagrahis are lining up to be lathi-charged and they take the blows without retaliating. This is a powerful scene, and yet, Gandhi is not even in the frame. His leadership changed hearts; it worked even in his absence.

And that is the test of the real leader — what happens when I’m not there? Let us look at how Gandhi leader differs from a Rambo leader?

Me vs mission

Henri Nouwen, a priest, professor and writer, said: “There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness.” A leader must deliver success — profits, scale, sustainability. But she must also go beyond success to be fruitful. That is, create results that outlast her presence.

For that, leaders must begin by asking themselves: “How can I make myself dispensable in this role, this assignment?” It takes a very secure leader to ask that question, but inevitably, those are the leaders who grow — both personally and professionally — and who have a lasting impact on their organisations.

The big picture

The Gandhi leader focuses on the mission, not on herself. She has a fierce commitment to ensuring that everything that is planned and done, furthers the mission and purpose of the organisation. She builds a strong culture that drives towards this goal. Gandhi leaders rarely focus on themselves. They are not keen on becoming legends themselves — they want that distinction for their organisation.

Ancient Greeks compared Pericles and Demosthenes. When Pericles spoke, they would say, “See how well he speaks”. But when Demosthenes spoke, they would say, “Let us march”.

The Gandhi leader also focuses on creating in her team a passion that manifests energy for the organisation and its mission. She goes beyond managing tasks to truly leading people by passing on that fire within her. She articulates the mission clearly and passionately and helps her team believe deeply in the big picture.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is credited with saying; “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Me vs others

The Rambo leader prides himself on the fact that the organisation and the team is dependent on him. He shows off every success as if it were only his, and if things go wrong when he isn’t physically around or just after he has moved on, he feels a sense of schadenfreude because it proves that without him, nothing succeeds. Such leaders grow so overbearing and dominant that other leaders find it difficult to emerge and grow. As Swami Vivekananda put it: “Plants always remain small under a big tree”.

But the Gandhi type of fruitful leader is passionate about creating more leaders. She creates an environment for leadership to flourish. She seeks out and hires people smarter than herself and spends time on finding and growing leaders, mentoring them and guiding them to their own greatness. David Ogilvy’s advice is sound here — “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Which kind of leader are we? Do I feel glad when others succeed, or is there a tinge of envy? Do I include others when credit has to be claimed for a success, or do I prefer to capture the spotlight?

Building clocks vs telling the time

Jim Collins coined this important contrast. A Rambo leader is at the centre of solving all the problems that his team or organisation has. He’s the magician who conjures up solutions to tough problems. He loves the applause that follows.

The Gandhi leader is different. She wants to build clocks that will help the organisation and the team tell the time. She focuses on systems, processes and tools that, once put in place, create an organisation that has moved up a level.

When a problem or an issue crops up, she doesn’t just solve it for the day to grasp at a short-term result. She looks for root causes. She encourages the team to dig below the surface, she asks questions and crafts a learning moment. Finally, when the team figures out a fix, it’s usually for good. The organisation gains, the team has grown and the leader has built a clock.

An Indian example

Ratan Tata, a Gandhi leader, put it best when he said: “I do not know how history will judge me, but let me say that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to transform the Tatas from a patriarchal concern to an institutional enterprise. It would, therefore, be a mark of failure if it were perceived that Ratan Tata epitomises the Group’s success. What I have done is establish growth mechanisms, play down individuals and play up the team that has made the companies what they are. I, for one, am not the kind who loves dwelling on the ‘I’. If history remembers me at all, I hope it will be for this transformation.”

Now that’s the type of stirring example of Gandhi leadership — quiet, dignified, high impact — we need more of. Let’s begin with ourselves.

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