01 Apr 2021 21:23 IST

Leadership is not ‘expedient’

Doing the right thing even when its not easy generates tremendous customer loyalty that no marketing campaign can

This week is celebrated in the Christian world as Holy Week. It begins with Palm Sunday moving to Good Friday — the day Jesus was crucified and ending with Easter Sunday when He rose from the dead. The Holy Week narrative is filled with some interesting examples of people in leadership positions and the things they said and did. One such, is the utterance by the High Priest Caiaphas who said: “It is expedient that one man should die rather than the whole nation should perish.” With that he set the stage for Jesus to be arrested and eventually crucified.

The Cambridge dictionary defines the meaning of expedient as “helpful or useful in a particular situation but sometimes not morally acceptable.” Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor was convinced that Jesus was innocent but yet as the Bible puts it “wishing to satisfy the crowd” and not wanting to be seen as doing something against the Emperor, he too did the expedient thing and gave orders for Jesus to be crucified. It is a tragic word in the Holy Week narrative as it shows leaders willing to go against what they know is the right and instead do the convenient and selfish thing.

Standing by people

Leaders in the business world are often faced with this dilemma. Should I do or say the expedient thing or the right thing? Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the former Vice-Chancellor at Asoka University paid the price for doing and saying the right thing, and choosing not to do the expedient thing. The University leadership on the other hand chose the expedient path. They knew they should stand up for Professor Bhanu and his right to challenge the political dispensation but instead they crumbled in the face or real or perceived political pressure. As Professor Bhanu put it in his resignation letter: “After meeting with the Founders, it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the university may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interests of the university, I resign.”

The university leadership had the choice of taking a stand. It would have meant standing by the person who, whether they agreed with him or not, had shown the courage of conviction and stood up for his principles. This is often what leaders will come across. Can you stand up for people when they need it? It may be a colleague who has been unfairly treated by the company. It may be a teammate who has chosen to speak up about harassment. It is at these times that leadership shows what it is made of.

The Indian Government has chosen the expedient path in dealing with the brutal atrocities of the Myanmar Government. They have seen it as politically expedient to support the generals, even though these generals instead of protecting their population are murdering them. Refugees who crossed over are living in fear that the Indian Government will send them back and refugees thinking of coming over know they will be ‘politely turned away.’

Contrast this with the stand that Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng took in Myanmar, kneeling before the heavily armed police. She begged them to spare the lives of the children who could be killed in the firing and instead take her life. One of the photos shows some of the police kneeling in response to her amazing act of courage and love. Real leaders will find that people remember the leaders who stand up for them, especially when it is difficult to. They will repay with loyalty, performance and commitment the leaders who are willing to stick their necks out to defend their team. The leaders who don’t and instead save their own skins or do something in their self-interest, lose the credibility and right to lead.

 

A police officer pays respect to Myanmar nun Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng as she kneels in front of police officers to ask security forces to refrain from violence against children and residents amid anti-coup protests in Myitkyina, Myanmar, March 8, 2021, in this still image taken from video.   -  Reuters

 

 

 

 

Standing by commitments

Recently the CEO of a leading vaccine producing company in India went back on their commitment on vaccine deliveries to several countries. The reason he gave was the fire at one of their facilities. This was exactly the opposite of what he said in January when he indicated that the fire took place in a building where no vaccine production was going on and would therefore not impact deliveries. But now he chose an expedient response rather than taking ownership and saying: “We’re sorry — we messed up.” Leaders often find a commitment is missed or that keeping a commitment costs more than originally anticipated. Do you go back on your commitment? Do you give an expedient excuse, or do you take ownership and keep your word — even if it costs you?

I remember my brothers and I running a chicken-home delivery business in our school summer break long before the days of Swiggy and Zomato. Orders would flow in the previous day; our supplier would deliver the next morning and we would be out on our bicycles delivering to customers the whole day. Customers loved the fact that we would deliver home and at prices that were often better than what they would get at the chicken-store. Once or twice, the unreliable supplier we had just didn’t show up and we were in a jam with orders that needed to be delivered and no chickens.

We quickly discussed and went round to the stores buying chickens at the retail rate and ensured we delivered every single order. We explained the issue to customers and stuck with our prices to them, even though we lost money on every single sale. Customers hugely respected the fact that four kids were willing to stick with their commitment, both on the product and on the price. We lost some money but gained respect and loyalty that even an expensive marketing campaign could not have bought.

Standing for the right thing

A picture taken in 1936 in Nazi Germany shows dockyard workers at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in Hamburg. Everyone in the picture has their arm raised in the Nazi salute — all except one man who stands with his arms firmly crossed, resolutely refusing to perform the Nazi salute. He has been identified as August Landmesser. One has only to think of the horrors inflicted by the Nazis on all dissenters to appreciate the enormous courage it took for August to refuse to raise his hand. He chose to stand against an evil regime at great personal risk.

 

A lone man with arms folded as others perform the Nazi salute, 1936 (possibly August Landmesser of Gustav Wegert)   -  Wikipedia

 

 

 

This dilemma will come up often. Should we pay the kickback and get the business? Should we tell the client about the data breach or just resolve it under the radar? Should we fire this top performer just because a few junior employees have complained of harassment at his hands? In each case, our legacy is whether we chose to stand for the right principle and not sacrifice our integrity at the altar of expediency.

Leaders will often face the temptation to do the practical thing instead of the principled thing. They will run through the justifications in their head — this will cost less, this will harm our reputation less, this is less messy, this will make the issue disappear from sight. In short, they are tempted to do the expedient thing. But real leaders know that taking a stand for the right thing especially when it is unpopular or difficult, is what defines the quality of your leadership. Are you willing to stand by your people, your principles, your commitments — even when it hurts?