14 Dec 2017 18:56 IST

The three bones of the leader

As students aspiring to be leaders, it is important that we cultivate these 'bones'

In a talk at IIM Bangalore, Abhinav Bindra spoke about his Olympic medals. “Out of all my five Olympic appearances, my absolute favourite is Rio.” Now, that sounds an ordinary enough claim — until you realise that he earned no medal at Rio! He didn’t mention Beijing as his favourite, where he did win gold. He continued, “Because I gave everything to it in terms of preparation… A medal is satisfying. It’s a nice ending, a reward, but it’s a mere outcome. The process, the journey is what stays with me. It’s what defines me. The medal is nice, but it has no life.”

What an outstanding insight from a remarkable sportsman! Reflection time is important — it helps us see the past. Importantly, how we view that past also helps define who we are today and gives us a foundation to fashion tomorrow.

As we near the end of the year, it’s worth looking back, through an insightful sentence from Reba McEntire, a singer and actor: ‘To succeed in life, you need three things — a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone’.

What does each bone mean for us as students aspiring to be leaders?

The wishbone

Leaders who don’t climb the peaks are content to settle down in the valleys. Their dreams aren’t big enough; they don’t wish enough. They are so busy sweating the small stuff of today that they don’t spend enough time with the wishbone for tomorrow. What did I wish for when I began the year? Was my wish big enough? Did I wish right? Did I plan my time and my resources to reflect those wishes?

Our wishes have great power that can have either a constructive or a destructive effect on our lives. As the Upanishads put it so prophetically, ‘You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny’.

What we wish for is, therefore, a good clue to the type of leader we will become. Did we wish for selfish stuff or were we ready to expand our personal space to include selfless stuff? Did our wish-list include only ‘get’ items or did it also have ‘give’ stuff? Did we wish for ‘discomfort’ or were we happy playing in the sandbox of ‘comfort’?

How did we do against those wishes? How many of them did we convert to reality? Often, wishes stay wishes. We need more to make them real. That’s where the next bone comes in.

The backbone

We could define this bone as the will — our determination to stay the course, to do what it takes to convert our wishes to reality. Did we make time to give these wishes power? Did we set aside time to read, learn, discuss a topic or subject outside our set academic list? Did we demonstrate the discipline to say ‘no’ so that we could focus our energies and time on pursuing our wish?

Rahul Dravid is one of the few true leader-cricketers that India has the good fortune of having. Listen carefully to what he says about the discipline of batting, that we can easily absorb into the practice of leadership.

“If you can blank the mind, suspend your thoughts and just watch the ball, and react to it without cluttering your thinking, that’s the ideal situation… It’s the closest you feel to being in the zone. And then you are able to respond to each ball purely on its merit. The best batting happens when you are batting in the present. It’s about controlling the ‘controllables’. You can’t control the last ball or the next ball, but if you can be fully present to play the ball at hand, bring all your mind, your concentration, to respond to that ball, then that’s it. You are not thinking about the state of the match, the condition of the pitch, or the previous ball. Your mind, energy, hands and eyes are responding only to that moment. It’s the closest you can come to purity. It’s a special feeling.”

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard validates what Dravid said: ‘Purity of heart to will one thing’. This is backbone stuff.

As the saying goes, ‘The Universe rewards action’. But sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. We fail, we make mistakes, we are laughed at. At those times, we need the help of the next bone to bounce right back up.

The funny-bone

This is our ability to not take ourselves too seriously. Can we laugh at ourselves when we need to? Can we see the funny side of situations, especially when the joke’s on us? Are we able to move on or do we dwell too much on failures, mistakes, slights and conflicts?

One artificial line a new year allows us to cross is the line of forgiveness — forgiving ourselves and others. Letting go of past mistakes — surely learning from them, but not dwelling on them. A new year gives us the opportunity for a fresh start.

As students today, are we making forgiveness a habit? Holding onto a grudge is often more harmful for the person holding it than for the person it is held against. The funny-bone helps us learn to let go by seeing things in perspective.

It also gives us the freedom to try. We learn to fear less and adventure more. We put less pressure on ourselves to always come out perfect, to always succeed. And with poet Robert Browning, we are able to say, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

So let’s count our wishbones, our backbones and our funny-bones from 2017. And let’s prepare to wish more, do more and laugh more as we step into 2018.

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