16 Sep 2021 16:29 IST

Don’t be tone deaf in your leadership

Through a tone-deaf remark, we show what we care about and what we don’t.

There was a recent news article about an eight-year-old boy of a blind couple who took to driving an electric autorickshaw to support his parents and transport them around. The article seemed to focus on the fact that the boy was underage and the risks his traffic violation posed. To me it seemed like a tone-deaf view that ignored the enormously greater violation that society had committed on the boy and his family that gave a little child no recourse but to do an adult’s job so he could take care of his family. As leaders we must guard against being tone deaf. Tone deaf leaders lose the credibility to lead. Why does it matter so much?

Lopsided priorities

I must begin by confessing my own tone-deaf and shameful reactions in the early days of my leadership career. When a woman leader who handled critical customers and operations, doing a stellar job would come and with great delight announce to me. “Boss, I’m going to have a baby.” My stomach would do a somersault, and my expression would scream oh-my-dear-God — at the very thought of operations falling over, an unhappy client, team members lost without her capable guidance. It would take me a few seconds to recover and congratulate her on the amazing news. It caused me to reflect then, that through that reaction I valued the projects more than the people and it helped me re-prioritise to ensure that I could genuinely put my people first in my leadership.

This year I’ve had three colleagues take time off from key roles to have their babies and I can genuinely say I’ve made progress — I celebrated the news with them and encouraged them to take even more time off than they asked for. Tone deaf words and behaviour often happen because of lopsided priorities. Through a tone deaf remark we show what we care about and what we don’t.

Hardik Pandya was in the news for flaunting his rare Patek Philippe Nautilus Platinum 5711 wristwatch worth — hold your breath — ₹5 crore! While he’s absolutely entitled to do what he chooses to with his money — to make a show of it at a time when millions are still reeling from having lost their life savings, many have lost their lives or the lives of their family members because they could not afford treatment in time — his little act of showmanship qualifies as tone-deaf. Leaders need to watch even more whether they are being tone-deaf in their words, their behaviour, their reactions, and their decisions.

A joke, a throw-away line, even poorly chosen clothes — remember Melania Trump’s jacket line when she visited children in the prisons they were held in because of her husband’s lunatic decisions — “I really don't care do you?” — they all convey a leader having lost his way.

Context matters

Jeff Bezos at his post-space flight press conference made the well-intentioned but completely tone-deaf remark: “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez summed up what workers felt. “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this — with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic.” She also added, “Amazon customers are paying for it with Amazon abusing their market power to hurt small business.’ US Senator Elizabeth Warren sniped at Amazon’s approach to paying taxes: “Jeff Bezos forgot to thank all the hardworking Americans who actually paid taxes to keep this country running while he and Amazon paid nothing,” as quoted in news reports.

If Bezos through his policies and practices had shown genuine care for his employees, ensured they were taken care, demonstrated that they were a priority, did not just the correct thing but the right thing with his taxes — it is highly unlikely that anyone would have taken umbrage at his statement. It would have qualified as the all-embracing and statesmanlike declaration of a give-my-people-the-credit leader. Instead, it fell flat because the gratitude came across as insincere.

If we walk the talk, if we are authentic, if we say what we mean and mean what we say, if our team works with us rather than for us, then there’s a good chance we’ll avoid the tone-deaf gaffe or behaviour. It’s the context that shows up acts or words — that’s what the leader is judged against.

At one of the two-wheeler majors in India, shareholders rejected the reappointment of the current MD and what they saw as an undeserved and disproportionately high increase in pay proposed. Shareholders felt the context of a subdued overall performance at the group did not merit the hike. Again, the performance provided the context for marking the proposal as tone-deaf. In a different year, in different circumstances, on the back of a better business performance, the same proposal may have sailed through.

Listen with your eyes, ears, and heart

There’s an old Readers Digest anecdote I recall where a disabled lady was trying to get into a bus and was obviously taking more time and some passengers were close to showing their frustration at the delay. The bus driver noticing the situation, immediately feigned trouble with the engine, making several pretend attempts to get it to start. As soon as the lady was on board, the engine miraculously came to life. The lady gave a grateful smile to the understanding driver. Now that’s exactly the opposite of tone-deaf.

That bus driver was sensitive to those around him, cared enough to do something and creatively helped take the pressure of the disabled lady. He also through his compassion gave a little lesson to those impatient passengers. And that’s all it takes — a small dose of compassion. Am I so self-absorbed that I forget to notice those around me — their challenges, their needs, their priorities? Am I so obsessed with the transactions of business that I forgot the people and lives behind those transactions?All it needs is for us to pause having the world revolve around us and our priorities and our ambitions and look around with our eyes, ears, and hearts. That’s what great leaders do.

If we ever are guilty of being tone-deaf, it should serve as a leadership wakeup call to listen better, empathise more, make it less about us and more about them.