Learning leadership from business & politics

Cover of

Cover of On Becoming a Leader

There are few things that have been written so much about and yet not understood well as leadership – okay possibly parenting, but that’s for another place and day. Stop the next six people you encounter today and ask them about their favorite leader and what it is that makes them a great leader. You are likely to get at last six different answers, possibly more. If we dig a little deeper we’ll also discover people expect different things from different leaders – as in what constitutes a great statesman, a successful business leader, a politician or a community or social leader. Whilst all this is natural and not unexpected, it is of little help for those of us looking to role models and to answer the question how do I become a leader and what should I do as a leader.

There is the common perception, quite widely held even in business circles, of an awe-inspiring, charismatic leader – gimlet eyed, firm jawed capable of making rapid decisions – sort of Churchill sans the cigar. Jack Welch of General Electric and Henry Nicholas, former CEO of Broadcom fall into this category of leader models. At the other extreme we have Bill Gates one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time, who till a few years back was underwhelming at best in his public presentations. Yet the leaders we meet everyday – even the few that we admire seem to be cut from as many different types of cloth as there are men and women.

Closer home, few Indian business leaders have gotten the same measure of public exposure or attention that Bollywood, cricket or politics gets, for us to easily draw definitive stands on leadership styles. Politics by virtue of its very nature, throws up a large share of leaders, at least ones that get a disproportionate share of air time. Interestingly Indian politics, especially recently, has thrown up a wide and varied share of leaders – particularly women leaders – J. Jayalalitha, Mamta Bannerjee, Mayawati and of course Sonia Gandhi. Fewer groups could be as dissimilar as these four women and yet they command respect with vast swathes of people and wield considerable power. Their styles are as varied as the regions the cuisines of India are. Similarly, for the first time since Independence, men and women such as Aruna Irani, Kiran Bedi and Anna Hazare, who are not politicians, movie stars or cricketers have captured our attention and imagination. Their use of social and new media in combination with old style street activism, itself offers some interesting lessons in both leading change and leadership styles.

The challenge of course in formulating our leadership lessons from politicians and business leaders, whether in India or overseas, particularly from what is written about them is in separating the myth from reality. The natural question is that how much of this is business, culture or country specific and should we look to Indian business leaders to draw lessons for ourselves? Unfortunately a good deal of writing about business leaders in India has been panegyric limiting their usefulness as lessons in leadership. Fortunately much of what has been written about business leaders overseas, even when not scholarly, has been done so in mostly an objective manner and occasionally in an outright critical manner.

Warren Bennis’ “On Becoming a Leader” was inspired in his own words “by the gap between theory and practice, the difference between what one thinks and teaches and what one does.” By covering 28 specific individuals – men and women, all American, across a variety of professions, helps identify the critical ingredients for leadership success. More importantly he outlines a way to grow those qualities in us and in the people we will lead. As he states up front in his introduction, in his first book “Leaders” he covered the “Whats” and in this book, he covers the “Hows.” In the mold of Tom Peters and Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis has carved himself a seminal role in business through his research on Leadership. This book of his, rooted as it is in the real world of practicing leaders can help each of us become the leader we are fully capable of being.

This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint.

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