22 Mar 2018 20:12 IST

Others before me — is that leadership?

Being responsible for growth and profits isn’t an excuse to abandon empathy and kindness

The story is told of Gandhiji travelling by train. Once, as he stepped aboard a train that had just begun to move, one of his slippers accidentally fell off on to the tracks. His instinctive reaction tells us a lot about his leadership style — instead of panicking, he quickly took off his other slipper and threw it out. To his astonished fellow passengers, who asked why he had done that, he said, “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”

Such behaviour does not come naturally to us. The tendency is to hold on, to accumulate. That is why a different type of leadership is important. We tend to think of leadership in terms of its benefits to us — the perks, the fame, and the sense of achievement. But real leadership is the kind that focuses on others.

Kinds of leadership

The greatest leaders rarely think about themselves but are driven by the value they bring to those around them. The need for this kind of leadership has never been greater than now, especially in the business world, as much of the world’s wealth is created there.

According to Oxfam’s 2017 report on inequality, 82 per cent of the world’s wealth generated last year went to the richest one per cent, while 3.7 billion people, who make up the poorest part of the population, saw no increase in their wealth. In India, the story is as bad, with the richest 1 per cent of the population accumulating as much as 73 per cent of the total wealth generated last year.

The report offers more stunning statistics. In 2017, 67 crore Indians, who form the poorest section of society, saw their wealth rise by just 1 per cent in 2017. The wealth of India’s richest 1 per cent increased by over ₹20.9 lakh crore during 2017 — about the same as the Central government’s entire budget in 2017-18! It will take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in rural India to earn what top executives at a leading Indian garment firm earns in a year. Today’s business leaders are partly to blame for this situation, and as aspiring business leaders we cannot escape the responsibility of bridging this gap.

How can we do this?

Rewards

Recently in Quebec, Canada, more than 500 doctors started an online petition to protest the pay hike given to them. The Médecins Québécois Pour le Régime (MQRP) petition read: “We, Quebec doctors who believe in a strong public system, oppose the recent salary increases negotiated by our medical federations.” They argued that good conscience prevented them from accepting a pay hike when working conditions for others in their profession remained difficult. Perhaps they were referring to protests from nurses’ unions demanding better conditions. “If our colleagues are happier, if our patients are getting better care, we’ll all be winners, and it’s not an increase in pay that will do that,” Dr Isabelle Leblanc, MQRP president, told CBC News.

Compare this with what our CEOs get paid in contrast with their staff. An analysis of remuneration disclosures made by top listed Indian companies, forming part of the blue-chip index Sensex, under directions of the capital markets regulator SEBI, in 2017, showed that the pay packages of top personnel, such as CEOs and executive chairmen, remained very high relative to what their staff were paid. The biggest listed blue-chip companies paid their top executives salary packages up to 1,200-times of what their median employee remunerations were.

Can we, as tomorrow’s business leaders, resolve to change such behaviour when we make decisions on rewards? Can we emulate the example of those doctors in Quebec instead of the overpaid CEOs? That behaviour will not magically appear in the future. We have to sow the seeds today — in classrooms, our homes and communities. Can we learn to put others first when it comes to rewards, compensation and perks, while still being practical and fair? Can we avoid attaching our role and position to the incentives associated with them, and stop treating rewards as a badge of power and influence? Can we ensure we reward effort and not create an artificial chasm within the ranks by merely recognising grade, rank or seniority?

Opportunities

As CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli had an opportunity to do good, to make an impact on HIV treatment through the company’s drug Daraprim. Priced at $13.50, it could have reached more people. Instead, Shkreli saw it as an opportunity to gouge his customers. He raised the price by 5,000 per cent to $750. Recently, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud and conspiracy.

In the same industry, GlaxoSmithKline’s leader, Andrew Witty, took a decision on intellectual property leniency in poor nations, releasing drugs from patent protection and thereby lowering prices. GSK not only did good by making others a priority, it also did very well on its business metrics.

In our choice of products and services, and the kinds of organisations we create and work for, can we provide opportunities to those who have been unfairly denied those opportunities? An NGO, whose founder and team I immensely admire, Youth4jobs, has been doing just that. It equips disabled youngsters with skills that will help them access better jobs. In many cases, employers discover how disabled people not just do as good a job, but often, an even better one than able-bodied employees.

When we come across opportunities for growth, would we selflessly share it with other colleagues or teams and not hog it all ourselves? This may seem counter-intuitive in the dog-eat-dog business world, but we may be surprised by the long-term benefits, not just to our organisation, but even to us personally. This creates an attitude of openness, of sharing, brings down barriers and unleashes the power of real leadership.

Resources

Corporate social responsibility is often used as a photo-op. Many business leaders use it as a convenient way to squirrel profits away, to give undue advantage to relatives or friends, or do it for its PR value. But some have set an example by deploying resources in meaningful ways. The Tata Group is an example — they dedicated resources for the community long before rules mandated it and set aside far more than the law required.

Bill and Melinda Gates created a great example when they launched the Giving Pledge in 2010. Warren Buffet was one of their biggest and earliest signatories. Together, Gates and Buffet have been encouraging billionaires across the world to sign up, to pledge half their wealth to charitable causes. That’s really putting your money where your mouth is. Seven years later, of the 171 signatories from 21 countries, there are only four Indians — Azim Premji, Kiran Majumdar Shaw, PNC Menon and Nandan Nilekani — on that list. This is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the ‘others’ focus in Indian industry, but it is a reminder that we need to do more.

Resources need not always be money. They could be measured in time, effort, in the way we guide the use of our organisation’s resources and through our decisions. Consider the recent farmers protest in Maharashtra. They could have chosen to stampede through Mumbai during the day. They could have extracted the best mileage from their resources, time and energy; they could have ensured maximum visibility. Yet, in consideration for Mumbaikars, ordinary citizens, and children who were in the middle of their exams, they chose to sacrifice their sleep and march through the city at night. This is what they taught us about powerful leadership.

We can become ‘changemeisters’ if we decide to be a different kind of leader. Being a business leader with responsibility for growth and profits cannot be an excuse to abandon these principles. In fact, being in business provides us a platform to creatively use our leadership to multiply the difference we can make. As Gandhiji said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

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