07 July 2022 21:02:22 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Leaders must aspire for no-agenda leadership

The hit HBO series Succession tracks the manoeuvres and scheming of Logan Roy and his family who own and run the Waystar media and entertainment empire. Every character has an agenda. Just when you start to like a character for what looks like an altruistic action or comment, the real reason for that action is soon exposed as one with an agenda.  

Even minor characters play their chess moves to ingratiate themselves or ‘helping out’ but with some payback expected. This kind of behaviour isn’t unusual in the business world. And business leaders are often praised for their ability to build networks, cultivate relationships and dole out favours, all with an agenda to cash in at a later time, either professionally or personally.  

But is there space to be a truly no-agenda leader — to help someone out with no expectation of return, to give credit to a colleague for something you may have done the heavy lifting on, to bail out a rival in a sticky position.  

These are intuitively the wrong things for business leaders to do, but it is a form of leadership that transcends the expected and therefore carries tremendous power and ability to influence and inspire. For a leader to stay in the shadows is perhaps one of the biggest ways she can cast her light. What are some ways we can practice this? 

Give anonymously  

I recall a senior managing director at one of my former employers. Tough as nails and rigorous in the way he led his teams, sometimes even abrasive. But what many did not know, was that he regularly donated large portions of his income to help orphaned girls get an education.  

He did this consistently over many years — even seeing some of the girls whom he had started helping as young children, graduate, and start working. He did this without fanfare and without any publicity-seeking. I admire him as a business leader but even more, I admire him for his generosity to help out and the humility and purity of doing so below the radar. 

Many of our large corporates engage in what I’d call helicopter-CSR. They fly in, hug some poor children, ensure a lot of photos and videos are shot and off they go back to their luxurious mansions and liveried ‘servants’. The Tata group is one exception. They did their social responsibility long before CSR was mandated. They did it with excellence and they did it through good times and bad. 

I often advise young students starting off in their first job to make saving and investing a habit. But I also encourage them to start early with the habit of giving — and to keep quiet about it. This is usually difficult. Human nature is to tom-tom our generosity, to engage in some selfie-charity with us the stars of the initiative. But could we pause and step into the shadows.

As Jesus would say: “When you give, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” We may lose out on the applause of people, but we gain something truly more precious and lasting. Ask someone who practices this, and they will validate this truth. 

Help a rival 

As edtech company Byju’s goes through some hiccups and some aggressive press articles, it’s difficult not to sense a certain schadenfreude that other edtech companies may feel. But is that wise? Look at what happened to the Chinese edtech industry that saw a heavy-handed crackdown by the government — everyone loses.  

So perhaps it’s not entirely unbusinesslike to wish that your competitors also do well. There’s often space for everyone to grow. To paraphrase John F Kennedy, a rising tide will lift many boats. It’s a rare event to see a company CEO praise a competitor or push her team to learn from them, but increasingly leaders must seek wisdom and learning even from the other side, must reach out to help rather than rejoice at the misfortune of a business rival. 

Arvind Virmani, the founder and CEO of Nao Spirits and Beverages, the makers of Greater Than Indian gin, in a recent press interview told of how in a tough time, he reached out to an on-the-surface competitor who generously pitched in to help him. 

This also applies personally when leaders compete for the same promotion or coveted role. It is a cut-throat competition. But could a leader take the high ground? Could she cast a rival in a positive light? Help him out in a gruelling assignment, volunteer time and resources and do it in a genuine, authentic way. There’s powerful karma unleashed in this giving, that’s even bigger than a mere promotion. 

Give away credit

To recall a quote I’ve referred to before, “When the best leader’s work is done, all the people say ‘We did it ourselves” (Lao Tzu) But this is an everyday challenge for most leaders. Leaders are sometimes too paranoid and possessive about ideas, achievements and learning. To part with something they consider their own especially without any visible reward is anathema.”

But as author John Maxwell would say: “A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.” This goes against our instinct, which is to take all the credit, to ensure we keep score of every achievement and jealously guard our ideas and learning. 

But leaders must test the true calibre of their leadership by building others up and if sharing the credit or spotlighting another, helps that process, they must do it more often and more willingly. Nelson Mandela practiced what he preached: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory, when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” 

To give without expectation of reward is the summit that real leaders must aspire for. To give without complaint, to reach out with no agenda other than to help another grow is a stiff standard. Let me close with a gold standard example. 

One of the most inspiring passages on giving and compassion that I’ve ever read is what David Ireland wrote to the unborn child in his wife’s womb partly because he knew he may never see the child since he was dying of a crippling neurological disease. Here is an excerpt from the book Letters to an Unborn Child: 

“Your mother is very special. Few men know what it is like to receive appreciation for taking their wives out to dinner when it entails what it does for us. It means that she has to dress me, shave me, brush my teeth, comb my hair, wheel me out of the house and down the steps, open the garage and put me in the car, take the pedals of the chair, stand me up, sit me down, turn me around in the seat so I’m comfortable, fold the wheelchair, put it in the car, go to the other side of the car, start it up, back it out, get out of the car, close the garage door, get back into the car and drive off to the restaurant. And then it starts all over again; she unfolds the wheelchair, opens the door, spins me around, stands me up, seats me in the wheelchair, pushes the pedals out, closes and locks the car, then wheels me into the restaurant, then takes the pedals off the wheelchair so I won’t be uncomfortable. We sit down to dinner, and she feeds me throughout the entire meal. And when it’s over she pays the bill, pushes the wheelchair out to the car again and reverses the whole routine. And when it’s over — finished — with real warmth she’ll say “Honey, thank you for taking me out to dinner”. I never know what quite to answer.”  

We may think this kind of giving does not belong in the workplace. We would be wrong.