The Leadership Journey – 15. How Far? Part 1?

When I read a lot of tomes on leadership, I have often come across a whole bunch of literature that exhorts us to be like Sun Tzu, or Hannibal, or someone or the other. Then, there are lists that have been drawn up on what a good leader should do, and these are difficult to follow. Heck, most of us have a difficult time even making a truly effective ‘to do’ list, and completing the items on that list. While it feels good to make that list, I am sure none of us can live up to leadership lists. Neither can we be like Hannibal, because none of us really know what sort of leader he was.

The path to becoming a great leader is really a journey, and this is a journey of self-discovery, as is anything else. What worked when you were young, does not work as you get older, and this age factor does not entirely depend on your rank in the organization’s hierarchy. This is something that most people don’t always take into account. There is also the fact that, as a leader, you bring the whole baggage of your childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and possibly your collective subconscious with you. However, this is not so much about all these things.

Neither am I about to make a prescription, because there is none to make.

This musing takes me all the way back to Calcutta, or Kolkatta as it is now called. I had just joined the Agri-Businesses Division of a company called ITC Limited. ITC is a cigarette major, but the agri-business division was into the business of marketing edible oil. I had sworn that I would never market cigarettes, and I never have. I never will either.

Anyhow, I moved from Delhi to Calcutta, and started a new journey in my career as Area Sales Manager. I had a young team of Young Turks, and one of the things that I ought to do, I figured, to understand the team, was to understand Bengali culture. I did start on this journey, picked up Bengali with a modicum of fluency, though I was often shy to speak it, and learned to eat fish and rice the Bengali way.

So far, so good. While I was, I think, a reasonably hard task master, I tried to build in a degree of closeness with the team. I wanted to build a genuine bond, and I think that I was influenced by my boss who had, until then, a strong bond with the team. In some strange, sub-conscious way, I did compete with him to build my own connection with the team. Over time, this bond became closer, almost personal, and this was something my wife disagreed with. In her opinion, I needed to balance distance with closeness. I did not agree but, looking back, I think that I may have become too close.

I did not, thankfully, reach the point of becoming familiar and inviting “contempt” as the old saying goes, but I may have skirted the borders now and then.

This delicate balancing act has often been a wee bit of a problem, I must say. Sometimes, I have veered towards friendliness, and sometimes towards distance. There are times when the friendliness was counterbalanced with harshness, especially when I realized that I was too friendly. Over time, however, I did learn that some degree of distance must be maintained, and that the relationship that you have must be based on authenticity, and not a feigned friendliness.

There is no answer to this question – how distant, or how close, must a leader be to his/her team. Neither does it answer the question – how much more friendly should you be with some members of the team than to others. The fact is, that we will always have a greater chemistry with some than with others. When does this tip over into favoritism?

A balance needs to be maintained, and a leader needs a sounding board who can, sometimes, advise him/ her on these delicate matters. There is no easy answer.

It depends on the nature of the leader. It depends on the nature of the team. It also depends on the nature of the organization. It also depends on the situation

And, I would, subsequently, like to delve deeper into these four aspects.

I wish life were as simple as applying lists, or the model of Hannibal. It is not, but then if it were, it would not be as fascinating as it is!


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