17 May 2018 20:52 IST

Leadership: A journey of unlearning

There are important lessons to be learnt from co-founder of Flipkart, Sachin Bansal's actions — the art of letting go as the rungs run out on the leadership ladder | triloks/iStock.com
There are important lessons to be learnt from co-founder of Flipkart, Sachin Bansal's actions — the art of letting go as the rungs run out on the leadership ladder | triloks/iStock.com

Sachin Bansal’s exit from Flipkart teaches us the importance of self-awareness and learning to let go

Last week turned exciting when Walmart announced that it intends to buy a majority stake in Flipkart, in a deal worth over $20 billion. This greatly validates the e-commerce space and comes as encouraging news to all start-ups as they continue to build and scale their enterprises, hoping for similar exits.

This development was bitter-sweet for one of the founders of the e-commerce platform, as he found himself side-lined in the process. Sachin Bansal stands to gain financially, but will have to let go of the baby he helped give birth to and grow. In this article, we will focus on the important lesson that can be gleaned from his actions — the art of letting go as the rungs run out on the leadership ladder.

Let’s look at three aspects:

Awareness

Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull, in their satirical yet important book, The Peter Principle, wrote about how employees (including leaders and entrepreneurs) demonstrate their competence, rising through the ranks, until they reach a level of incompetence and then plateau.

A brilliant salesperson who closed the toughest customer with ease is promoted to Sales Manager. Now, they struggle to motivate their team and deliver results. A start-up founder, who excelled when the organisation was bootstrapped and came up with breakthrough ideas, struggles to deal with the pains that come with growth, such as learning to delegate or bringing in new processes and systems. They have been promoted to their level of incompetence in both cases.

All of us have our levels of incompetence. Self-awareness helps us understand whether we are nearing it. A lack of self-awareness can trap leaders in the shadows of past glories.

President Trump is a good example of this phenomenon. He imagines that his skills as a businessman, and his negotiation smarts as a hotelier and real estate mogul, will help him in his role as President. The world watches with bated breath at each decision he makes, and each tweet he sends, because he has clearly been promoted to his level of incompetence.

Some leaders have this self-awareness that allows them to step aside gracefully when they realise that the organisation needs a fresh pair of hands. Google’s founders brought in adult supervision in the form of Eric Schmidt, and it wasn’t until 10 years later that Larry Page took back the reins.

Feedback

Awareness can also come through being open to feedback. The best criticism can come from customers, colleagues, friends, and family. The market often gives us immediate and undiluted feedback on the results of our decisions, strategies and tactics. Leaders must learn to listen.

We may have contributed and made a difference in a particular role, at a given time, when dealing with a situation. But everything changes; we tend to navigate on old maps. Our skills, which served us well when navigating those situations, may hamper us now, though we often don’t see this handicap.

As political economist FA Hayek, in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, said: “Those who, during a major war, ‘have tasted the powers of coercive control’ will always find it difficult ‘to reconcile themselves with the humbler roles they will have to play’ in the aftermath of the war”. Winston Churchill, who played a masterful role in leading Britain through World War II, was cast aside when peace time came.

In Flipkart, we saw both founders move on from their executive leadership roles, as the Board saw the need for a person with a different skill-set to lead the company, as it prepared to ‘dress up the bride’ before the acquisition.

In order to not be taken aback by such decisions, a leader must actively seek feedback on questions such as ‘Where am I still making an impact?’, ‘Where am I not?’, ‘What’s my run rate on decisions?’, ‘Am I getting more right than wrong?’, and ‘What are my blind spots in the changed circumstances?’. With the answers, they can choose to move on.

Learning

To extend our shelf life as leaders, we need to take the inputs we receive and focus on learning from them. This includes unlearning certain things. This is especially difficult for those who have been successful in the past as they have seen their skills deliver success after success, and to unlearn those skills can be terrifying.

Harvard professor emeritus Abraham Zaleznik put it brilliantly: “Leaders are ‘twice born’ individuals, who endure major events that lead to a sense of separateness, or perhaps estrangement from their environments. As a result, they turn inward in order to emerge with a created rather than an inherited sense of identity.”

It is this created identity that helps a leader make the leap to the next phase. This demands both humility and openness. If a leader’s sense of identity is stubbornly tied to their old skills, they will find themselves on the treadmill — running very hard but staying in the same place. If they can find the courage to leap into the abyss, they may find new wings to launch themselves to higher places.

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