The traditional image of a leader was of someone who sat atop a mountain — at the culmination of his own personal growth and sadly alone; or the kind of leader who constantly “directed” or strongly criticised the actions of those following, and who may have thought to oppose him.
Charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk and others have held sway at the top of their respective companies. And, they were all founders of companies which ended up being most successful unicorns in their categories and of their times.
Even as contemporary society has evolved to become more egalitarian, leadership too has changed with the times; and the image of the lonely leader sitting at the top of the food chain has become a misnomer. Hierarchies have grown flatter, and leaders no longer want to sit in their ivory towers planning and inventing for consumers with whom they have no connection. Instead most leaders are down in the trenches with the rest of the employees, and seek to know directly what the consumer wants. New leaders are richer, mature and courageous in their individual personalities, setting new trend and are disrupting the archaic norms of leadership.
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Even unicorn companies of past are now being run by next generation leaders (examples Tim Cook, Sunder Pichai, Satya Nadella, Dara Khusrowshahi, etc.) with completely opposite leadership styles from those of the founders. In many case, these new leaders have brought even more success to the unicorn companies than the founders themselves.
I see this as a natural consequence of personal evolution. “For leadership to be effective, there must be humility, there must be a willingness to accept from others, and to grow alongside one’s team”. Today’s leaders listen. They seek refinement and exude care. They seek unfiltered feedback. It’s why actors sneak into movie theatres to watch their films with audiences.
As someone who has now filled a variety of leadership roles, I have some thoughts on leadership too from my own evolution as a leader in past 20+ years.
The days of blind faith in a leader are gone. Along with the need to being transparent in the vision and operations – with the advent of social media sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. – it seems we take delight in exposing the frailty of human nature. Unpleasantness ensues, making this a whole new form of banana leadership. It’s hard being a leader, lonely too, and waiting for someone to take the throne from you is a weary process. Today’s leaders believe strongly in their strengths, aspire to grow and nurture the people around them, instead of succumbing to the insecurity of someone else dethroning them. They embrace fellowship instead of singularity.
The thing is, bad leaders make for unhappy followers, who are constantly seeking for the bad leader to be deposed. And the time has come for a different kind of leadership.
Take the instance of a present-day football or baseball coach leading a team of individuals; every one of whom is accomplished in his own right. The coach has to underscore the best in each of the player while ensuring they perform as one unit. Here, the coach has no choice but to be self-effacing, because he (or she) must spend time listening to the players in order to get the best out of them. A coach must be honest about any faux pas while learning constantly from his own mistakes. “Only constant learning can allow for continued leadership, and for bringing out the best in the team. If the team succeeds as a whole, the coach succeeds; if it fails, the coach fails.”
Acceptance of failure, owning up to shortcomings, and sharing responsibility with team members, and having faith in the solidity of the team is not always an easy thing for a leader to do.
Early on in my managerial career, I did everything myself, believing in the adage that if I wanted something done right, I had to do it myself. I wanted to be successful and I wanted recognition. I closed deals myself and ran around and took care of business. I was successful, but tired.
With MSys, I’ve learned from my early days, “realising that no successful organisation is a one-man show”. It’s taken me a long time to understand and embrace empowerment. True leadership I’ve learned is about self-effacement – of humility. It means that the organisation and the team’s success is my own.
I may still pick up the phone and make the critical decisions myself. But otherwise, I want my team to know what it feels like to achieve those jubilant milestones we have all worked so hard towards. Taking a step back and letting someone else take the reins may not seem like a leadership strategy, but believe me it works. Having the humility to step aside and instead helping others to realize their potential by inspiring them is for me one of the most satisfying and rewarding attributes of being a true leader.
And while it makes for happier employees, in the long run it means more for sustainability, and for growth. Organisations must live beyond their leadership, and I intend for my legacy to live on.