25 Jan 2018 21:32 IST

The understated leader

'Personal humility and professional will' is the paradoxical combination good leaders must aspire to

Which ODI batsman in the world is the fastest to 2000, 3000, 4000…7000 runs? Virat Kohli? Nope. In fact, this batsman, late last year beat Virat Kohli’s record of being the fastest to reach 26 centuries. His name is Hashim Amla. An extremely unlikely candidate. No flash, no tantrums, no drama. Affable, polite, endearing.

The year began with news of a new CEO taking over at one of India’s IT giants. The event lacked show and fanfare unlike the very public on boarding of their previous CEO. And the new CEO also made no grandiose announcements or fancy speeches – instead, he just started getting into the meat of the role. Neither style is right or wrong, but in a climate where change is constant, employees seek transparency, customers seek accountability and everyone values authenticity – the understated style seems to have an edge.

Take a look at some of the new breed of CEOs out there – Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Dara Khosrowshahi – they all represent a new style of leadership –understated leaders who achieve results but without losing the soul of leadership.

What are some of the characteristics of the understated leader that we can emulate?

It’s not about me

Varun Berry, one of India’s most successful CEOs has led Britannia through quite a turn around. “Collaboration within the team, working together, that is something he has been at aggressively for a very long time,” says Ali Harris Shere, Vice President, Marketing, at Britannia. “He builds strong personal relationships and invests time and effort to sustain them,” says a former boss. This marks out the understated leader. She is less about herself and more about how the whole team together can get the organization to its goals. Such leaders show humility, a willingness to listen and learn and an eagerness to shine the spotlight on the team.

A recent Bloomberg article, struck a telling contrast between Uber’s former brash and over-the-top CEO, Travis Kalanick and its new one. “Khosrowshahi was all that Kalanick wasn’t or couldn’t be: humble, a good listener, and a diplomat. In a pointed reversal of Kalanick’s mantra, he would say: “We don’t have a PR problem; we have an ‘us’ problem—we have behaved poorly.” The article quoted a former Uber President who had quit, highlighting Travis’ shotgun management style and unwillingness to listen as the key reasons behind his leaving.

Very often the aggressive style of start-up founders is praised as they pursue a growth at any cost agenda. Their take-no-prisoners attitude has VCs swooning – then reality hits, as employees, customers, the board and often the VCs themselves start feeling the cuts and bruises caused by the leader’s rough edges. They realize this solo buccaneering style works well for a while, but great companies and organisations need great teams to be built and teams need leaders who are willing to focus beyond themselves.

The understated CEO has a natural instinct for this approach. Their ambition is for the organization. They prize this over personal ambition. Often a good signal is the gap in the pay and perks between them and their junior colleagues. It is less pronounced, because that is less of a priority for them. They spend more time getting the organization ahead than focusing on their own pay check or stock options.

Show, then tell

The understated CEOs very often possess a ‘bias for action’ that belies their calm demeanour and unruffled styles. They are more about substance and less about style. They abhor the private jet, the headlines in the papers, getting on the cover of the magazine. They are less interested in soundbites and are hungry for the challenges of execution. They prize one ounce of action over pounds of talk.

Tuco, played by Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, had a great scene where he shoots down a hitman who gives a speech before attempting to shoot Tuco. Tuco’s one-liner was as powerful as his shot. “When you have to shoot….., shoot, don’t talk”. This is what the understated leader believes and lives by. The flamboyant leader often demonstrates a ready-fire-aim mentality – mouthing of grandiose goals before understanding the realities of the business, hiring or firing on whims, focusing on vanity acquisitions or projects. This often leads to distraction and the organisation’s results are often the victim.

These leaders are also comfortable being who they are. They do not live under the pressure of keeping up a pretence of building up a persona or image either internally or externally. Aditya Puri, the Chairman of HDFC Bank shows no signs of building a false image when he says; “I come to office at 9:15. I leave at 5:30. And I take all my holidays.” Contrast that with leaders who create an idol of perfection, only for the organization to later discover that it has feet of clay.

The understated leaders believe results speak for themselves. They gather people who value that principle around them and empower them to deliver. They lead by example so well that they hardly have to give the power packed motivational speeches that lesser leaders use as crutches. Their lives preach more powerful sermons than their lips.

Humility, tenacity

The understated leader displays an important trait that her more demonstrative counterpart sometimes lacks – tenacity. Some dogs bark, some dogs bite and then just hold on without letting go. It is difficult to do the latter if you’re busy doing the former. The understated leader is more focused on a relentless pursuit of the goal. They rarely lose their temper or throw things at people, but they convey a steeliness of conviction that the team quickly understands and aspires to. They value discipline over derring-do, they ask for resilience over perfection and consistent resolve over bouts of energy. It is often such tenacity that marks out the great organisation over the merely good.

Jim Collins, author of the leadership classic Good to great, highlighted that great companies are led by the highest level of Executive Leaders. And their defining trait was an almost paradoxical combination of ‘personal humility and professional will’. It is that combination that we must aspire to. The understated leader’s time has come.

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