01 Nov 2018 19:24 IST

The three stages of leadership

Is your ambition to earn a million-dollar salary and a private jet or change the world?

There is an outstanding scene towards the end of the 2002 Chinese movie Hero. As he reflects on the scroll of Broken Sword, one of the characters, the King of Qin, says, “This scroll isn’t about sword technique but about swordsmanship’s ultimate ideal. Swordsmanship’s first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained, even a blade of grass can be a weapon. The second achievement is when the sword exists in one’s heart when absent from one’s hand. One can strike an enemy at 100 paces, even with bare hands. Swordsmanship’s ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart. The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world.” Are there such parallels to leadership? Are there stages that a leader must reach and then cross in her journey to becoming a better leader?

The ‘results’ leader

This kind of leader is focussed on personal ambition. She seeks to master the techniques and skills of leadership and be recognised as the smartest person in the room. She delivers results in different situations, through the ups and downs of business and economic cycles. With the help of her personal skills, knowledge and experience she builds credibility. She handles tough problems, harnesses attractive opportunities and earns her stripes.

The challenge at this stage is what Swami Vivekananda warned about: “Plants always remain small under a big tree”. If a leader arrives at this stage, but chooses to sink roots, then she risks becoming larger than the organisation and avoiding the leadership duty of making oneself dispensable. These leaders often end up becoming Icarus leaders, so thrilled with their ability to fly high, that they fly too close to the sun and eventually fall to the ground as their wings of wax melt.

In some ways, Chanda Kochhar, the former CEO at ICICI Bank, achieved this. She won the leadership race against a strong set of contenders. Her ability to handle a crisis and knowledge of the business through different cycles helped position her as the leader whom the organisation could count on. As CEO, she helped ICICI expand the width and depth of its business and often beat market expectations. But she also built a reputation as the loner-leader who tends to dominate and micro-manage, unlike her predecessor. An article in The Economic Times highlighted a chink in her leadership armour: “Kochhar’s dominance at the institution was so pronounced that insiders say organisers of internal functions were often instructed to have just one seat on the podium, leaving little scope for any other colleague to share the stage with her.” As she leaves ICICI, her legacy is in under a cloud.

The ‘influence’ leader

This leader has moved beyond personal ambition. She is now ambitious for the organisation and the team. She can deliver results through the organisation and has moved past authority to influence. Her team looks up to her for not just her competence but also her character and convictions. She shifts the spotlight from herself to the team and is secure enough to bring in giants rather than dwarves. Philosopher Lao Tzu put it well: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Here, the leader measures her leadership abilities not by what she gets from the organisation — designation, salary, perks — but by the contribution she can make to the work place. She has transcended divisions that others may see. She looks at the big picture.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi achieved this at one point in her journey, where, through her courageous stand on her country’s politics, she eventually brought in change. But she failed to move to the next stage. In refusing to acknowledge the atrocities committed on the Rohingya Muslims, she displayed an ‘us vs them’ mentality that showed her to be a pettier version of the leader she could have been.

The ‘inspiration’ leader

This leader’s ambition is to harness the organisation’s powers to disturb the universe. To change the world. She has harmonised her personal purpose with that of the organisation and the difference she is making in the world. It is not just about what the leader does, but about who she is. She inspires people through her vision and the size of her dream. She thinks of a possibility and inspires the organisation to make that a reality. She sets standards that the team aspires to emulate, and her leadership is authentic and often life-changing for those around her.

When Pope John Paul II was a worker at a Polish camp, he had such a great influence on his fellow workers through the sheer force of his convictions, that they would never use foul language in his presence. I’ve heard South African whites talk in awe of Nelson Mandela, and are proud to call him their leader and were grief-stricken when he died. That was testament to the leadership peak Mandela scaled. He created change by who he was, the life he lived, and the authenticity of his example.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel displayed this leadership style when she chose to ensure that Germany embraced Syrian refugees. As Chancellor, it was political suicide, but as a leader, she inspired others because she chose to do the right thing, even at personal cost. Nadia Murad, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, has chosen to be the voice of the victims of genocide and human trafficking.

An attempted leap

Very few business leaders manage to reach this stage. Personal ambition and the requirements of business often constrain them. A few have tried to make the leap.

Indra Nooyi is a great example of someone who was able to influence the organisation and the industry because of her personal conviction that PepsiCo had to create healthier foods. Paul Polman sees Unilever playing a role in making the world a more sustainable place. Shaheen Mistri has changed lives through her work as CEO of Teach For India. Sairee Chahal, founder and CEO of Sheroes, has given women opportunities to stay engaged and involved in the work world. In each case, these leaders have embraced a purpose larger than themselves.

Steve Jobs was trying to get John Sculley to join Apple from Pepsi. “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” That’s the question aspiring leaders need to ask. What is the size of their ambition — is it as small as a million-dollar salary and a private jet or is it big enough to embrace changing the world?

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