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Seven leadership lessons I learnt from my leaders.

By G. Balasubramanian

Experience is the best teacher. One learns a lot of lesson while discharging their work and while interacting with others. Dealing with leaders in organizations and learning from their good and bad, gives one different perspectives about their leadership profile. I learnt a few such lessons alongside my professional journey. Here are a few:

1 . I had joined a National organization at a reasonably senior position in the mid-eighties. The job involved overseeing several issues which were time-bound, strategic and called for a high degree of sensitivity. Decision making competencies were critical to the individual who held the position. After a few weeks of my joining, I was walking along with the chief of the organization and I wanted to have his views on some issues to make a decision. He listened to me and turned around with a smile “See, you are not a clerk. You are an officer. You should start making decisions yourself. Out of your ten decisions one may go wrong. Never mind. I will stand by you. But do take decisions at your level. You will grow as a leader only when you start making decisions.” That was indeed a break-point in my career. I gained both the skill and wisdom in taking decisions over a period of time.

Lesson no: 1 - I learnt that a good leader grows leaders. He gives them opportunities, supports and stands by.

2. The chief of the organization was a highly professional person. He was popularly known as a 9 to 5 man, as he was quite punctual to the office and would never attend any external work during the office time. He was focused, sharp and absolutely professional. One can even describe him as a ‘No Nonsense person.” Whenever we had a discussion, he used to say ‘Everything is fine. But please put everything in writing . In officialdom, every communication needs to be documented, procedures followed and approved.” Whenever any document was presented to him, his comments on them were brief, focused and clear. Normally, he used to write “I agree” “I disagree.. (reason)``''please discuss.” Never a word more or less. I really learnt many lessons on leadership from him on maintaining the grace and the traits of a leader.

Lesson no: 2 – As a leader always stay focused, sharp and professional.

3. Heading one of the subunits of the organization, I was facing a tough legal battle with the local government. The situation was very fluid, volatile and was creating an overdose of news for a few political reasons. We had to face some tough questions from the legal side too. Unfortunately, I was not getting adequate support from two departments – one responsible for dealing with the legal cases and the other which was the nucleus for the issues involved in the case. Both units washed of their hands just passing the ball to the other. I was indeed stressed. The organization was headed by a senior official of the Government who held the additional charge. Having come to know the issue, the chief called me and said “Well, I know you are facing a tough time and not getting adequate support. I am directing both the heads to go over to your place and stay there till the problem is solved. If you don’t get the necessary support from them, please let me know. I will come myself. Believe me, wonders happened. I could see the firmness of the leader in setting things straight.

Lesson no: 3 - A good leader understands the challenges faced by the members of the team and acts on that without any hesitation. He knows when to be firm, without being rude. The firmness of the leader should be seen in actions and not merely in words.

4. I was attending an important meeting at the Government level two decades before to support my chief. As the meeting proceeded covering some very important points, I found that the data and the analytics being discussed were not correct. In order to set things right, I intervened to make the corrections. The moment I sought an intervention, the IAS officer who was heading the meeting made a caustic remark “When seniors are speaking, you should not intervene.” Though I was equally a senior officer, he meant the seniority in the hierarchy. Though I felt hurt, I withdrew to keep my calm. However, after two days of the meeting, they found themselves in a soup because the incorrect data. When I visited to set things write, the same person told me “when you know, things are not right, you should have corrected us.” I smiled and said “Sir, when seniors are speaking, I must keep my calm.”

Lesson no: 4 - If you are a leader, you should hold your humility and have the patience to listen to all. Every member of the team has the capacity to contribute. As such a good leader encourages participation.

5. Nearly three decades ago, I was attending an important meeting to discuss an issue raised about job opportunities in education. The question related to job vacancies for teachers in various disciplines in some parts of the country. Several senior officials representing various departments were in attendance.

Finally, the focus shifted to me and the leader was asking why this subject is not taught from the primary classes. I clarified to him that as per the policy, things are different. He was upset and said with anger “Don’t teach me the policy. I don’t want arguments. Please ensure that from next year my orders are complied.” I didn’t reply because I had seen a few episodes of the BBC series “Yes. Minister”. Honestly, nothing happened after that; as nothing of that kind could also be made possible.

Lesson no: 5 - Oftentimes, you might have to play the role of a fool, but you must graciously accept it in good humour, because that saves you from the pain of convincing others who are unwilling to listen and understand. As a leader, you don’t have to justify everything to everyone, so long you are on the right path and if you do things in a transparent manner. Comments, criticism, public anger are all a part of the leadership game. One must let wisdom prevail over, to ignore or marginalize a few things.

6. There are a number of occasions when you are put under pressure to do certain things. Having realized that you have the power to do certain things, people might approach with all kinds of provocations. A good leadership calls for moral strength, emotional strength and intellectual strength. I recall fondly, when a leader possessed of the power, threw back a file across the table (even without reading the content) in a meeting attended by over twenty senior persons. Though I was getting ready to react, a very senior official sitting by my side just pressed my lap and said “cool, don’t react, the leader is wanting you to react and take advantage of that.” On many occasions, when a leader wants to display authority, one could understand it was an outcome of ungratified ego. It might also be a drama to show to the world how concerned the person is.

Lesson no: 6 - I learnt the important lesson that a good leader should never lose temper or display emotions in meetings even under provocative situations and should keep the cool. Further, the leader never should hurt or react to any individual in the presence of others.

7. In the early eighties, while heading an institution, I had put in a proposal for introduction of Information technology in the institution. There was a flat ‘no’ from all the members of the management. “Young guys have a lot of dreams. But one must do what schools should do, and not do, what they should not do” was the comment I heard. Though I didn’t give up the idea, when I had the occasion to meet the chairman of the SMC who was in his mid-eighties, he asked me “ I heard some issue from the members. What happened?” I said “I wanted to use computers in schools” He asked “ how many other schools have them?” I replied “None”. He smiled and asked “then why are you doing it?” I looked at him and said “Because we need to be leaders and not followers”. He was stunned by my reply. He drew a long breath. “Please explain more about it.” I explained. “How much do you think we might have to spend?” he continued. I said “Rs. Two lakhs and fifty thousand.” He asked nothing more. “Have your coffee. I will be back.” He returned after about ten minutes and gave me a cheque “This is a cheque for Rs. Three lakhs. Go and do it. Do it well. Don’t come back and tell me that you couldn’t do it well because of the shortage of money.” I was in tears. I touched his feet and got back

Lesson no : 7- A leader should have confidence in his team; should give them the freedom and encouragement to perform to their best. The leader should be able to identify, nurture, appreciate and facilitate the growth of talents.