The Leadership Journey. Part 3. Arrogance and Blindness

Rolling, rolling, rolling down the long path towards trying to figure out the secrets of this elusive term called Leadership. There is another elusive term that is used quite often, and that is strategy. In many ways, the two go hand in hand, but there will be more of that at a later stage in life.

This entry is inspired by a book that I read recently, one called, “Why CEOs Fail”. The authors don’t seem to be fans of anecdote, but each anecdote is a reflection of the storyteller’s view of reality. I don’t want to go down the metaphysical path, but I seem to remember lines from the old rock opera, “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. During the trial of Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is Truth?”

Jesus replied with two questions. “What is truth? Is truth a changing law? What is truth? Is mine the same as yours?”

Again, without trying to be too metaphysical, there is a wealth of wisdom in those two questions. Politicians, lawyers, historians are all possibly well acquainted with the application of these two questions. Truth is a perception, and as the physicists say, here is a Many World’s theory, and at some level, each of us lives in our own world of perception.

So now, to move away from metaphysics to the anecdote, what you will get is a bit of my dose of reality.

Now, one of the behaviours that the authors talk about, is arrogance, which ultimately leads to blindness.

When I was undergoing my training as a sales representative, before becoming an Area Sales Manager, I had to work and live as a sales representative. I was given their allowance, and no quarter was ever given to me by my boss or, the other reps in the field. So, like all trainees before and since, I trod the hot and dusty path towards learning the life of a sales rep in India. Being a sales rep in India is freakishly difficult. The job is demanding, and the traveling and staying conditions don’t make it any easier. The reps are far away from the Regional Office, and while all Area Managers know that life on the field is tough, they can be quite ruthless with the reps. I have been that way as well, especially in matters of business. However, when the bosses go traveling, booze and dinner with the reps is something that becomes a part of the routine. It is the only way to connect the reps to the office.

However, maybe I shall follow that line of thought – managing the reps – in the next entry. This is about something else. These stories were their “revenge” against these bosses. Outwardly servile, they were often looking for quirks and stories to take back and embellish. Many of these reps were often rather cynical, and the more they were confronted with arrogant bosses, the further down they went on the path towards cynicism. Their actions would be more and more focussed on sabotaging the boss. This often played havoc with the performance of the company, but that was the price to be paid.

The trick, as I learned those early days, was to stay close to the ground, to be tough and fair but, not to let yourself get so close to the reps that you created contempt due to familiarity. This is a long, long journey that I embarked on those early days, and it was not an easy one.

When I was doing my training, I used to drink with the reps, work with them, and listen to their stories. No quarter was given, none was asked for. Some of the stories were, I must say, quite funny and, they were revealing enough in giving me an insight into how they regarded the bosses.

There were bosses who were respected and feared. These were bosses who would work shoulder to shoulder with the reps in the field, talk in their langage. These were bosses who, despite their relatively exalted status, had not lost sight of what happens in the trenches. These were bosses who, when in the trenches, worked with them.

And then, there were the bosses who would come into the field, work for an hour and disappear into their hotels for mysterious telephone calls. Evenings would find the bosses freshly bathed and laundered, inviting the dusty reps for dinner. Dinner would be preceded by drinks, which would be accompanied by snacks consisting almost entirely of detailed sales reviews and analysis of figures and data. I would often see some of these reps, sitting there on the edge of their seats, hesitatingly holding their whisky, while they would fend of questions about performance.

The younger reps would lose their appetites pretty quickly, but as they grew older and more grizzled, they would develop a ready set of excuses and reasons for not doing their targets. Some of these were hilarious, and while I never found out if the arrogant bosses ever bought the stories, I was regaled with anecdotes of how they had pulled wool over the boss’s eyes.

Arrogance does kill, I realized. At that young and tender age, I embarked on a path that I have tried to stay true to, which is, to try and stay close to the field, but not too close because familiarity breeds contempt; to keep my eyes and ears open to what is happening out there in the field; to be tough but to keep my humanity. A tough path, and like all others, I have stumbled on the way.

Leadership is born into you, but it has to be learned along the way.

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