The following script is taken from a recent assignment we undertook to highlight good and bad leaders, in the subject of Leading with Integrity – one of the most stimulating, and qualitatively constructive, topics I have encountered in the first few weeks of the course at Queen’s MBA.
As I write this note, I find myself facing a wall. I am not alone. It has been speculated that a perfect definition of leadership may lie beyond this wall. Many before me have tried to breach it. All variations of English vocabulary have been used. And yet, to some group or the other, the words always tend to fall short. I do not expect to break this frame by describing my experience and learnings from a leader I once engaged with. I do, however, intend to define the wall itself.
Time and again, I have found individuals in a leadership role to be humans first, with their deficiencies and drivers. To pick one among them may be unfair to others who are equally deserving. Nonetheless, I would like to discuss the time I shared with Abhay Upadhyay, my boss at Simi International – a niche corporate hospitality firm in Kolkata, India. His example is relevant, for I learnt much about the wall, under his tutelage. He is also my uncle and I consider him to be one of the best leaders.
I joined Simi International with an overarching task of positioning it as a niche in corporate hospitality. It was an unbranded market back then, with more focus on personal relations with clients than on a firm’s brand value. Over the course of three years, we changed that. However, Abhay also changed me – in perspective, if not in character. As a boss, he had the final word on each of company’s decisions but he gradually transferred some of those powers to me, thereby helping me transition form a marketing-only role to business development and its daily management. One of the main catalysts of this shift was a major corruption in the Indian Real Estate sector that had been brewing on the sidelines. Allow me to digress as I provide a brief overview of the ‘Fight for RERA’ movement.
Kolkata West International City was slated as the first FDI project in Real Estate sector in India. The investors secured land at throwaway prices from the Government of West Bengal and over eighty percent of unit prices from the home buyers in advance. Ten years on, far past the originally decided schedule, the project remained due. As one of the sufferers, Abhay had quickly realized and gathered the dispersed buyers to confront the builder. Soon, he turned it into the Kolkata West International City Buyers’ Welfare Association (KWICBWA). In a country where projects with thousands of sufferers incur only feeble associations of a hundred or so, KWICBWA soon encompassed over two hundred. When deep pockets and deeper “relations” on part of the foreign builder failed to yield over the next few years, Abhay gathered associations around the country and started a collective fight for the approval of a Real Estate Regulations and Development Bill by the Government. In late 2015, the draft bill was finally tabled in the Upper House of the Parliament.
The story above conceals many elements that testifies to Abhay’s leadership. First of those is the balance he showcased in delegating various aspects of his bread-and-butter company to me and nearly micromanaging some of the more delicate things from time to time, while he led the nationalist fight. He had been quick to assess my capability and to trust his assessment. That brings us to the second element – his anticipation of an oncoming requirement and initiative to do what was needed; KWICBWA is a case in point but he had not stopped there. As time passed and the obstacles grew bigger, so did the scope of his efforts. That necessitated motivating self before the inevitable, and frequent, task of motivating others. That is trait number three. Hidden somewhere in those achievements, though, is the fourth big trait of his leadership – an allegiance to his beliefs, even if it risked diversion from the norm. For instance, the exclusivity he brought to the Association by purposefully limiting membership played a big role in assimilating higher numbers than any other homeowner’s association in India had. On the other hand, in a relations-based hospitality industry that effectively turned vendors into virtual subordinates of demanding clients, he followed professionalism of far more stimulating and direct style – both in the nature and order of communications that were based not on an undelivered “yes-boss-whatever-you-say-boss” model, but on reason and mutual respect.
Why did Abhay act as if he had nothing to lose? From delegating tasks at the only company that fetched him his earnings, to stirring up a movement against the very system of governance in our country, he had managed to retrieve significant pending payments at the very firms that continued to owe big to our competitors; had garnered the support of senior management of one of Big Four consulting firms against a misbehaving guest; had worked his way through constructive meetings with three national legislators; and finally, had his firm sit atop the rankings on Tripadvisor in Kolkata.
Abhay often told me of the crippling uncertainties he faced upon introspection from time to time. He often found himself without an aswer to “Why” he did what he did. Perhaps, his reasons were embedded in his nature – his staunch disapproval of what was collectively unfair. I learnt so much from him because I saw not only his personal and professional sides but also the reactions he induced in others. That gave me a relatively holistic view. Interestingly, this is where the distinction between a good and bad leader tends to smudge. To understand how, let us go back to that wall I mentioned in the beginning.
To balance priorities and sentiments, to act fast by anticipating a requirement and initiating a corresponding strategy or goal, to keep both self and others motivated towards that goal, and to act without fear of risk or failure or even a fixation to norms – these were the four essential traits I found in Abhay. It is easy to notice that I have left ‘communication’ out of the list. While that particular trait leads me to my definition of leadership, it simultaneously creates the wall that keeps it from being perfect. I will try nonetheless, for both in Abhay’s example and in that of others through history and the present, I find one commonality. A leader is one who people look up to.
Did I break the wall with that definition? Not by a mile. To self-critique it, I could argue that people look up to celebrities too, which, in case of teenagers, may not be an ideal example of leadership. But then, that is why the wall stands as it does, for we are looking for an ideal in absolution. A leader should certainly be one, except that our sense of idealism differs across age, culture, religion, gender and a hundred other categories, including time itself. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler may be considered great leaders; both are certainly considered ideal by some group or the other. The world at large would agree with only one of those today but that makes ‘ideal leadership’ very much an equation of the majority in a given set of respondents.
The problem with the above is that while our judgment would work in case of Hitler, it would fail in case of the hundreds of everyday-heroes who made a sacrifice that went unseen, or even leaders who quietly did their job, made a difference and perished. Vera Woodhead at PWC makes a great case for these Quiet Leaders, something I will touch upon under in a different post. The wall exists because we discount factors like context and objective in any definition. My understanding of leadership stems from this view primarily owing to the first hand experience I have had with Abhay Upadhyay. The following paragraph explains this further.
Abhay’s passion for what he stood for, also fuelled an infamous short temper. It was only aggravated by an ego that had been assimilated through an upbringing he did not consider fair. The troika of trouble was rounded off by a judgmental attitude that followed his confident analyses of situations or people. At most times, he was right. Some times, he was not. And those few latter instances mattered because the unfair treatment he consequently bestowed upon ones around proved to be far more offensive than our view of an ideal leader would comply with.
It is fair to say that such observations made me question his role as a leader many times. The answer to my conundrum was always delivered by an accompanying observation: Despite everything, people – family, friends and external stakeholders – returned to his leadership. But why?
Because every day he missed interacting with his wife, she remembered the time he had stood against every single person, including her, to forcefully admit her father in a hospital, thereby saving his life from a latent illness whose symptoms only he had managed to foresee. For every outburst his KWICBWA committee suffered, it remembered that he had consistently put his livelihood on the back burner from the outset to get them their homes. For every thrashing public criticism he flayed at me, I remembered that he had put his faith in me in the very hours that I had nearly hit rock bottom. Most importantly, I realised that people had accepted him as a leader who had accepted his flaw. He was the one they were looking up to. But who was he looking up to? No one. Abhay Upadhyay was a leader because he was focused only on a passion that had a collective cause.
People all over the world seem to be craving for a leader, locally or globally. Yet, we seem to continuously choose politicians instead. This is because in every final instance of choice, we go back to a socially accepted understanding that an ideal leader should tick the boxes of good communication, diversity and power. The first of those three may lead to hypocrisy, the second can be inappropriate to a given circumstance, and the third often eclipses the more pressing requirement of ethics and morals. That is what eventually leads to a constant hunt for an ideal leader, thereby creating the Wall.
To bring home my definition of leadership in proper context, idealism and extremes aside, allow me to explain why, and how, people looking up to you turns you into a good leader. The assumption here is that while “good” is a relative term that can range from Gautam Buddha to Justin Bieber, things would be clearer if one considers the following two factors.
The first element of people looking up to you is the context in which they do so. Without a collective and productive motive, simple adoration amounts to nothing. In that situation, there is no need for leadership. Therefore, this omits casual celebrities from consideration and narrows our focus down to more meaningful scenarios. In such cases, when people look up to you, you are compelled to adjust certain deficient aspects of your behavior and maintain others that motivate and inspire them, even if you don’t know them at first. This is why you cannot aim to be a leader without passion, because you would never go great lengths or even change yourself for a collective cause if achieving something did not mean the world to you. That is the second element. In turn, it explains why one can not just turn into a leader at will in any situation. We automatically assume that role when we meet our passion at any point in our lives. This brings us to the legendary debate:
When we see one kid dominate a group of children playing in kindergarten, it is not because only he/she has leadership qualities. It is because he/she is passionate about managing people. The silent kid in the background could very well assume a leader’s role later in life. I understand this now because that is exactly what happened with Abhay – a quiet, overly-shy “nobody” at school, as he puts it, who is perhaps the most vocal and powerful leaders in action today on a national level. When the right opportunity and driver arrives, we are automatically forced to trust, inspire, respect, empower and do everything it takes to get a group of people to achieve a certain objective. We do it because we see no alternative. Whether we are good in that role remains a subject of debate across beliefs and time, first in our close circle of followers and competitors, then among the audience of those influenced by our acts and finally, in the general public domain.
To reiterate, Abhay Upadhyay showed me four traits of leadership – a sense of balance in things, quick anticipation and initiation of a strategy, motivation in self and others to act, and freedom from fears or fixations. More importantly, reflecting upon his example in this note has taught me that everyone is a leader. Leadership in us depends upon the context in which we meet our passion. This also means that a person may never emerge as a leader if he/she never meets a situation where the execution of his/her passion is crucial. We are leaders when people look up to us in a situation that is collectively/socially needed and leads to a productive result. Its qualification as “good” or “bad” is a matter of perspective and will remain so in this world unless we evolve as a race to one driven by a common scale of ethics and morals. Let us consider the following quote:
The question we have to answer is: what if we have a good destructive leader, creating many equally good destructive leaders, all of whom are saviours for one particular group of sufferers?
That thought puts our fascination with "good" in perspective. It is precisely to break this wall that we need humility and acceptance of knowledge that lies scattered or forgotten across space and time. I do not know how long it will take for us to achieve such idealism, or if we will achieve it at all. All we can do is try to tread on that path on our own. If we are passionate enough about this goal and meaningful in our execution, others will follow. Whether or not we reach my destination, we would have inspired many and changed much for the better. If enough people agree at end of that road, perhaps we are a good leader. If only one person agrees, we know that he or she may turn into a good leader someday. If, however, no one agrees, we will have at least learnt a bit more about this wall we are faced with.
Until then . . .
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© 2015 Malay Upadhyay