“Waste no more time arguing about what a good leader should be. Be one” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
There is a whole industry devoted to the study and practice of leadership. Therefore, there is no dearth of material on leadership today. However, as Einstein once said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school” ergo experience is the best teacher. Based on my personal and professional experiences, I realized that the keys to successful leadership were available to me even before I began working. I am not disparaging research on leadership. What I am saying is that for me personally, a common sense approach was all I needed to define an ideal in both my personal and professional life. If my experience can help a single individual, I would consider my writings successful.
Without further ado, I believe that the following qualities are critical to successful leadership:
a) “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes” — Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 2006, I was a freshly minted Chartered Accountant. At the time, I was leading the audit engagement of a global multinational financial services conglomerate. As is today, the level of sophistication of financial products in 2006 was incredibly high. These instruments were often referred to as ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Financial engineering ensured oversight always fell short of business innovation. Derivatives were not only structured synthetically but were incredibly hard to account for in financial statements. One of my baffling experiences was that there were very few people who could explain these financial instruments to me in simple English. There were a lot of people who used technical words such as ‘hedge’, ‘contango’ etc. Some were self-explanatory, others made me question the moniker itself. I learnt that the simplest way was to go to the roots of the matter. Over countless cups of coffee and conversations with the product control group, I understood, in simple English, each derivative product and its accounting in the financial statements. The common sense questions I asked included the following: ‘what is the value of the product for the client?, what is the value of the product for the firm? How does the firm make money?, what affects the value of the product?, How does the value change if the factors affecting it change?
Ultimately, I understood the inner workings of financial instruments and therefore, the journal entries. I believe I was a much better leader because I had a grasp of the basic and gory details of each product. Quite often, in boardrooms and in offices, leaders hesitate in asking simple, common sense questions. A lot of emphasis is placed on speaking in parables to give the appearance of being wise and not as much on asking simple, leading questions that solidify understanding. The art of asking great questions is indeed a very difficult skill to master. The ingredient of a great question is strikingly simple — a healthy dose of common sense. On a macro scale, once you understand the basics, you can understand how the jigsaw is pieced together and therefore, the financial health of the firm.
b) Humility: “Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?” — Carl Sagan
It takes special courage to admit ‘I don’t know’. I have come across extremely rare personalities that have admitted they don’t know. However, with that realization begins the greatest journey called learning. Humility is often seen as a sign of weakness and Narcissism a sign of confidence even though the proverbial pied piper can lead the rats down a cliff.
c) An Open Mind: Throughout history, the largest empire created by a single individual was the Mongol empire created by Genghiz Khan and his marauding hordes. Genghiz is not the first name that comes to mind when I speak about humility. However, he had a very rare trait — an open mind. Throughout the lands he conquered, he would swap in the best practices of the cultures he subjugated and swap out the inferior Mongol practices. He was also open to all religions and allowed his subjects freedom to choose and practice their faith. In real life, if you can take the best from everyone and swap out your own inferior habits, I have no doubt you will be the sum of the best parts i.e. an assimilation of great traits. However, most people I have met have a very closed mind. The willingness to change long held beliefs in the light of new evidence is incredibly rare. Most of what we see is perception and not the truth. A seeker of truth, therefore begins with an unburdened conscience and an undying thirst for improvement. Without an open mind, there is no learning and without learning, there can be no growth and without growth, there can be no existence.
c) Empathy: There is an old concept in literature and drama called ‘everyman’. The everyman character is constructed so that the audience can imagine themselves in the same situation without having to possess knowledge, skills, or abilities that transcend human potential. Such characters react realistically in situations that are often taken for granted with traditional heroes (source: Wikipedia). Empathy is the ability to relate to and to have breakfast with the blue collar worker in a factory in work clothes, to have lunch in the boardroom with equal sophistication and to have dinner with your son by reducing your thoughts to his mental state. You can progress faster alone by losing the people in your organization or you can progress slowly but by taking people along. There is nothing more powerful than a group of people with a singular mission. This force truly creates a reality distortion field that can defy physics and lead the organization to glory. I have come across very few leaders who empathize, give second chances, and continue to strengthen relations while the sands of time slip by. Also, I might ask — where has the ability to laugh at one’s own self disappeared? i.e. to quote the Joker in Batman — why so serious?
Don’t misinterpret my article. There are other qualities that are also important. Hard work and intellect cannot be ignored. The reason I expounded on the ones above is because they are easy to understand, vital for success but rare to find in leaders today. For example, there have been many leaders who did not have a shred of humility and yet were tremendously successful. However, I would say that their success was, due a large part, to the humility of the other people in their lives (partners, employees, their better halves etc.) who tolerated their arrogance and supported them through good times and bad. Show me one leader without a follower and I will tell you that the term is redundant to begin with.
The simplest way to become a leader then, i would argue, is to become a good human being first.
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