15 September 2022 13:58:07 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 .

Pass the credit to the leader who takes the blame

Former Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja  | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat | The Hindu

The former Health Minister of Kerala, KK Shailaja, was in the news recently. First, because she was selected for the Ramon Magsaysay award, and then because she refused it. It seemed clear that she was discouraged from accepting the award by the party. Whatever their reasons may have been, let’s use one reason that was given to explore the theme of leadership.

A key reason given was that it was collective leadership, and it was inappropriate to single out KK Shailaja for her leadership. Hmmm! In some way, that kind of throws into question the whole leadership thing, doesn’t it? Is it always collective leadership where everyone needs to be recognised or no one should be? Or is it the other end of the spectrum as we often see, where one great leader is credited with everything, and all his sycophants bask in his reflected glory?

Neither extreme is right. But to deny Shailaja recognition for her role as a leader was poor form by the party — it reeked of both insecurity and a poor understanding of what leaders do. Perhaps a few male leaders got jealous seeing a woman do a tough job better than many of them could have — and did it without the self-serving fanfare that most of our politicians employ.

To deny her and credit ‘collective leadership’ is to deny the essence of leadership itself. So, what exactly is it that only a leader must and can do and that no committee could?

Leading turnarounds

In the film Apollo 13, the ill-fated spacecraft’s mission to the moon must be aborted. Now the focus at Houston shifts to bringing the astronauts back safely. The whole team gives Gene Kranz, a masterful performance by actor Ed Harris, the prognosis. Whatever they do the spacecraft has just 45 hours. Gene draws a line on the blackboard, showing that the spacecraft, in that time, will only make it to about halfway to Earth. And now — leadership moment.

“Gentlemen, that’s not acceptable.” The scene closes with Kranz translating the impossibilities that his team has given him into a leadership demand for a possibility. He goes back to the line that terminates halfway — “I want this mark all the way back to Earth with time to spare. We’ve never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option!”

Now that is leadership magic. With that creation of a possibility, the whole team is galvanised to action, converting the impossible to reality. It’s the same way Gandhi or Mandela led or Steve Jobs, or today Elon Musk — they create a possibility. That can’t come from collective leadership.

“Now that is leadership magic. With that creation of a possibility, the whole team is galvanised to action, converting the impossible to reality. It’s the same way Gandhi or Mandela led or Steve Jobs, or today Elon Musk — they create a possibility. That can’t come from collective leadership.”

In the most hopeless situations, in a crisis like Shailaja faced — the leader has to own and articulate the vision, create the shared purpose and get her team to believe in it. Believe in it so hard, that they go beyond themselves in delivering never before efforts and results.

That’s exactly what Shailaja did, leading both the Nipah virus and Covid counterattacks. She ensured Nipah stayed within the borders of Kerala and brought rigour to the Covid numbers that perhaps no other state could match. Their numbers often looked higher, probably because they were one of the few states measuring it and doing it right.

Brad Bird, the inspirational leader at Pixar, said that “The first step in achieving the impossible is believing that the impossible can be achieved.”

There was a point during the making of The Incredibles where we had a company meeting. We have them about twice a year, and anybody can bring up concerns. Somebody raised their hand and said, “Is The Incredibles too ambitious?”

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull said, “I don’t know” and looked over at me. I just said, “No! If there’s one studio that needs to be doing stuff that is ‘too ambitious,’ it’s this one. You guys have had nothing but success. What do you do with it? You don’t play it safe— you do something that scares you, that’s at the edge of your capabilities, where you might fail. That’s what gets you up in the morning.” That’s a leader, leading.

Assigning credit right

It is the leader who makes a collection of people a team. As Goethe would put it: “A great person (leader) attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.” Several team members will provide inputs, and HR may provide recommendations but it’s the leader who takes the call on people. This is perhaps her most important contribution. Through it she is creating the capability of the team.

The people she chooses to keep off and bring on are her choices and she has to live with those consequences. There could be collective wisdom from the team but there’s no collective leadership decision, it’s the leader’s often lonely, often agonising call.

In a 1999 study, management consultant Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin from Fortune tried to isolate key factors behind a CEO failure. They studied 40 failed CEOs from Fortune 500 companies. The fatal flaw was execution but the reason behind that was their inability to have the right people in the right job.

Sometimes they held onto losers too long and sometimes they failed to provide the right coaching to potential winners. As Charan and Colvin summarised, “unsuccessful CEOs lacked emotional strength when it came down to personnel decisions.”

My point is that if we can blame the CEO for the flaw, we must credit her when she gets it right — not the ‘collective wisdom’.

Lonely at the top

Leaders make tough decisions. There is no group that can take those decisions. To use a military parallel — “the army is there to protect democracy, not practice it,” and hard decisions are one space where leaders may listen to inputs, but they can’t outsource the actual decision. I think one tough decision Shailaja would have had to take is whether to measure the real number of infections and to share that data.

With each of the other states competing to fudge the data and prove they were ahead in the battle against Covid, it must have taken conviction and courage to go with a fact-based approach. Surely, she would have had to insulate her team from political pressure. These are hard decisions that only the leader takes.

The ‘collective’ debates, discusses, ‘admires the problem’, and often hesitates to make a decision because of the enormous consequences of getting it wrong. It is here that the leader steps forward and puts her neck on the line. There is only one head on the guillotine, there’s no space for a committee. That’s what marks out a leader.

The leader often has to take on an unpopular task — to ‘twist arms and stiffen spines’.

Take Elon Musk’s email to his teams as they dithered about coming back to the office after months of work from home. “Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week…If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.” That’s a hard call — and only the leader can take it.

Often organisations and companies take the path of least resistance — they would like to present a front of equality — ‘everyone did this’ they proclaim so as to ruffle no egos. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are few things more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.

It is the leader who will face the fire when things go wrong, so give her the credit when things go right. It is she who walks the high wire holding that bar of leadership responsibility. That is both her cross and her crown. If she’s carried the former, let her wear the latter.