Friday, May 05, 2006

True Leader Need Not be the Boss

At the outset, I confess that this is not about MY leadership. I hardly qualify to claim possession of it when I think of those whom I worked in the industry and most of whom reported to me. Normally, when one hears the term “Leadership”, one immediately visualises Tatas, Birlas, Narayanamurthies, Premjies and so on. The term leadership is so intricately woven, in our minds, with business success that we tend to ignore that there are leadership qualities in many others whom we interact in our daily life.
In the film Munna Bhai MBBS, Munna gives a hug to the old man who has been working as a floor-cleaner for ages, and follows it up with an appreciation that people don’t actually recognise what an important job he was doing by cleaning the place regularly. This struck a familiar chord. In the organisation where I worked last before joining TAPMI, I had a colleague, designated as peon. This designation is a colonial legacy that our Babus have happily accepted and continued. His job was to carry out all odd jobs, which included remitting the bank-instruments, drawing cash for disbursement, despatching courier and sometimes even withdrawing cash form the bank for the employees in the office. Invariably, he was the first to enter the office in the morning; he ensured that the office was kept clean and neat. He brought in a loyal cleaner who kept doing the job for the branch for over ten years. One may well feel like asking, “What is so great about what he did? It’s such an ordinary work that millions of peons in the country do.” That is precisely the point. We compare his office jobs with those of the “big” names I mentioned. But, how important is what he does? When in a meeting at Anand, my CEO asked me, “When you are here, do you call back Hyderabad and check if everything is ok?” I responded, “Certainly not. I wish to say two things: One, when I am away from my head quarters, my branch performs better; and two, when Narasimha, my peon, goes on leave, hell falls off. So, I am hardly important in my branch.” Everybody laughed heartily and someone even commented, “Then we should swap the posts.” But, later during the evening, my CEO called me aside and said, “I liked the way you put it. Actually, we are all so governed by the designation, we respect authority. No one sees who the actual leader in a situation is.”
I should say a few things about Mr. Narasimha. He did not complete his SSLC. He could not speak English. He spoke only Telugu and Hyderabadi Hindi. He talked very little; but he communicated brilliantly. I never saw him—not even once—sitting idle. And, I never saw him upset or angry—the basic traits that I possess. He always had his hands filled with work. He had a subtle sense of humour that he used if he heard “The boss is in a foul mood today.” (You know who the “boss” was…). He was about 50 years old; had both his daughters married off; educated his sons and got them placed. He had a house constructed and paid off the loans. He was planning to buy a two-wheeler. He was an affectionate father. Whenever any problem arose in his joint family, he would get a phone call and he would take a few hours off and sorted out the mess and return to work…there were many instances when he was simply admirable...one had to only watch consciously. To me, he symbolised leadership; I watched him with envy when he spoke to some angry customers and pacified them and even solved the problem when I could not speak a sentence in Telugu. When I look back, I am happy to have done two things for him: I fought with my “higher-ups” to issue the promotion-order—which he deserved much longer before—and he became a daftari, another colonial designation, but a little higher in rank and little better pay; and when I left Hyderabad, I gave him my desert-cooler, saying to him,”For all that I gained and learned from you, this is a small guru dhakshna; please accept it.” I saw tears in his eyes that he tactfully hid from me; or, at least, I thought so.
I have seen executives—top level, middle level and even junior level—trying to “be in control” of every situation desperately. To them, letting off control means falling from the throne of leadership. I firmly believe that one doesn’t have to be in control of everything every time to be a successful leader. In fact, it is irrational to attempt so. The meaning of “team leader” does not imply that one should be always in command. It requires the maturity to “let go off control”, a hard to imagine, much harder to believe and even harder to carry out. I have always suffered from this paranoia of “being in control” until I learnt lessons from Narasimha. When the truth dawned upon me, I looked back at my own stupidity and was able to laugh at myself. There are people around us who are capable to rising up to the situation when demanded, and may be—and mostly are—capable of handling the situation better. I was lucky to have had the rare opportunity to see this coming true in my executive career.
I have come across terms such as “lead from the front,” and “lead from the back.” Narasimha, however, lead by just being there when needed, not once failing. Till date, he is the real worldly leader whom I had a close encounter with. I am proud to have worked with Narasimha for half a decade.

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