22 Jul 2021 19:54 IST

Leadership is a contact sport

To earn the trust of your teammates, you have to be in the fray and show up when the going gets tough

Those of us who watched the Euro final surely felt the pain of England as three of their specialist penalty kickers missed scoring. While there will be many debates about the choice of players to take the kicks, I found it odd that Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were brought on literally at the end of extra time specifically for the job of taking the penalty kicks. It seemed like a smart decision bringing in the specialists, but it also failed to account for the fact that in a final, the players who should take the penalty kicks should be from those who’ve been on the pitch, spent time with the opposition players, felt the grass under their feet, listened to the roar of stadium as they played.

Even in T20 cricket, we’ve often seen one batsman carry his bat to the end and still end up with the scores tied — it’s a super over and instead of giving the over to the batsman who has spent time on the pitch, who has the momentum, a fresh face is called in and often fails to pull it off. To succeed in the critical moments of leadership you have to make a habit of being there, showing up, feeling the heat. Leadership is a contact sport.

Small moments prepare for the big moments

I’ve known some CEOs who would often check the size or profile of a crowd they were to address and decline to show up if they thought it didn’t measure up to their profile. But others are there even for the small moments — a birthday celebration, a difficult client meeting, an impromptu drop-in on a routine team meeting. These small moments prepare the way for the leader to have an impact when the big moments come.

Covid gave leaders the opportunities to lead through the small moments — a call to an employee who had lost a family member, taking a pay cut so that lay-offs could be avoided, extending a health benefit even to those not eligible because it was what was required, and writing a small note of encouragement.

When I was leaving my last corporate role in Singapore, one of my junior colleagues who had worked with me, was sharing on what he would remember from my time. I thought he was going to talk about the big multi-million dollar deal we both had worked on together and closed. Instead, he mentioned his strongest memory being my visits to him in hospital when he was sick. Even when several other leaders in the company were pushing for the deal to be taken in a particular direction, he followed mine simply because he trusted me because of the small moments and so was willing to follow my guidance for the big ones.

A leader will often find the big moments don’t come that often — when a thunder roll or lightning bolt of dramatic leadership is required. But what she will discover is that her impact is so much more effective for those rare big moments when she led by example in the small ones.

Credibility comes with being close

We’re hearing the news of a major political party deciding on their party chief for a major state. High command’s decision reeks of a lack of ‘being there’. When they should have bet on the younger leader in other states they didn’t — not just because it was a younger leader but because the younger leader had worked the ground, paid his dues in the trenches. Now when they should avoid the younger, hot-tempered, self-centred and mercenary upstart, they are opting for him. The perils of helicopter-leadership that tries to gain the wisdom from the ground without being on it, often through layers of multiple intermediaries, stands exposed. There’s no short cut to being a credible leader — you have to be in the fray not above it.

When I had an accident some years ago, there were the unfamiliar challenges of dealing with the police, dealing with a hostile crowd. The trauma ran over a few days. I had the opportunity in that difficult time, to compare the reactions of two friends. One lived just a few kilometres from where I do and was very generous with phone-advice, dishing out recommendations on what I should or should not do in the few calls he made. Another friend just came over — he stayed with me right through the ordeal, often just sitting quietly by my side, he was with me at the police station, visiting the accident victim at the hospital along with me. You can guess which friend’s advice I trusted and took. That trust came from being there, being close — that’s where leaders must earn their credibility, so they don’t have to demand it.

No business-class leadership

One of the simple rules I tried to follow when junior colleagues travelled with me, was that I would either get them an upgrade so they could sit with me in business-class, or I would downgrade so I could sit with them in economy. Seems like a small thing, but the team knew when they were in a tight corner, I’d be there to back them up and I knew they’d go above-and-beyond whenever I needed them to pull off a miracle. Something they’ve done so many times for me.

In their HBR article When CEOs Make Sales Calls, Noel Capon and Christoph Senn relate an incident when IBM and Accenture were locked in a final tiebreaker for a deal with Merck. Merck had decided to go with Accenture but shortly before the contract was signed, IBM’s then CEO Sam Palmisano personally called on Merck’s CEO. As someone who had risen through the sales rank’s, Palmisano showed no hesitancy in getting his hands dirty and showing up when it mattered. Merck awarded IBM the contract.

Pope Francis often asks leaders in the Catholic Church to regard it as a ‘field hospital’ — meaning go out and get to where the need is greatest. Don’t expect people to come to you – you go out and find, meet them, accompany them, care for them — where they are. It’s a significant shift in thinking that he has been demanding of leaders used to business-class leadership. Leading is not presiding. In start-ups, teams quickly learn to distinguish between the tourist co-founders and the ones who are around when things are tough, who are there for the daily grind and don’t just swoop in and out.

Often leaders will find they will need to lead from the front, showing the way. Sometimes the team needs them to be behind so that the team gets to shine and grow. But leaders need to listen to Albert Camus’ words — “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”