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What is leadership about? What makes it impossible to do it right?

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I have had my fair share of experience being in places and situations where I have had the opportunity to observe leadership emerge. Had amazing mentors, colleagues, friends and family and one hell of a team. Following are my lessons from the experiences. I don’t know how right it is and how wrong, and I’ll be sure to update it as I discover any better. But, with the however little experience, I have had; I have made notes of things that leadership is most certainly not about in one of my meditations on the matter as I retrospected on my learnings from the past decade. Please note that in the article herein are my personal opinions on the matter, to be taken with a grain of salt and to be substituted with your own independent research to act on, if you ever need some references.

In a nutshell, however, there is no 9-5 switch for it that you can turn on or off. It’s a way of living. And you live 24×7. That’s what makes it hard. It’s not a science, but an art. And true art of leadership, is in seeking the right balance for yourself and for your team.

It’s the ability to tap into intuition. Not to be confused with discarding logic and subject matter.

I am all for logical, data-driven, subject matter expertise-driven, decision making. Trust me. But more often than not, you’ll see that most successful people and leaders often are intuitive in nature. It’s only the human tendency to want what’s best. And what’s best is a certainty. However, there is no end to projections and frameworks. And in the end, it’s all probabilistic correlations, not causality. There’s always a variable or two that’ll screw things up. Like Steve Jobs famously said, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards in time”. So after a point, you need to be able to take the decision in the face of uncertainty. And there are times when you will be best positioned to do so. But that doesn’t mean, you’ll be certain. This often triggers “analysis-paralysis“. And leveraging whatever information is available at the time, some times, you’ll need to rely on your intuition. Honing and trusting your intuition is an essential skill. And like all good things, it takes times.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s a responsibility. Not to be confused with a role. The distinction is important.

Often I come across the term ‘leadership role’. But in every literal sense, it’s better represented with a responsibility. The distinction though may seem only literal, however, it’s a very consuming responsibility. Downplaying the term dilutes its essence to seemingly trivial bullets in a job description that can be found all over the internet. It’s important that the responsibility sinks in. I find the term ‘role’ trivializes the matter. Especially with the young inexperienced minds.

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1

It’s about coming to terms with your past to be able to project into the future.

One of the toughest things you’ll have to do as a leader has nothing to do with what you are working on, but has everything to do with who you are working with. It gets lonely at times and the only person you are left to work with will be you. It’s important you help yourself confront your past. You don’t have the luxury to play the victim for any traumatic experiences you have had. Like I have been saying, straightforward doesn’t make it easy. There are plenty of other roles and responsibilities for you to go explore if you are not up for this. Not being rude, just raw. It helps you detach from the problem at hand and see things for what they are, strengths or opportunities. Those are the only two. You’ll need to be comfortable with your past because that’s how you’ll hone your intuition in face of uncertainties. And that becomes your greatest asset in assessing what the future holds. A leader is constantly peeping into the future and attempting to structure some sort of causal feedback to ensure the team and the vision is prepared for what’s next, while they’ll be busy to execute what’s present. From gaps in estimations to the gazillion decision-making frameworks you’ll find; they all attempt to resolve this paradox in some form or the other. However if you are not at terms with your past, the lines between peeping and existing become blurry and it’s a slippery slope from thereon. It’s important to not take things personally. Even if they are.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s truly and deeply personal. And it’s not a choice.

Leadership is like parenting. One of my favourite quotes is from a television series called Vampire Diaries. Somewhere in the first season, Elena’s aunt is invited by her teacher to have a talk. And he casually slides in how easily the kids grow. Then hits her hard with reality. “Wrong! Being a parent is hard. Anything less and you are not doing your job right!”. A lot of those principles apply to leadership as well. You don’t get to pass the buck and you damn well get shit done. And things get personal from time to time. It’s bound to if you are so deeply and truly involved with what you are doing. Shake it off, and you affect morale. Try and fix it, and you’ll make it worse. Don’t get involved, and you’ll lose touch with the reality of what’s bothering your team. Get too involved, and the boundaries get hazy. It’s not a choice. And you can’t figure this maze out, till you are at peace with yourself. Leadership is truly and deeply personal. More so for your team than it’s for yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll have a hard time finding the balance when you are struggling with the hazy boundaries of paranoia and awareness.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2
Link 3

It’s about confronting your own demons and seeing the best in the people who trust you with the responsibility. Not to be confused with easy.

“Thinking is hard, that’s why most people judge” – Someone. Causality and trust have a weird dynamic. I am yet to explore that one. But leadership responsibilities will often put you in uncomfortable spots. Limelights most often. And if you have any unresolved issues, you are bound to project them onto your colleagues. That’s not how leadership works! You’ll end up inviting more drama in your life than there needs to be. Hence mental health and clarity of thoughts is an absolute prerequisite of separating personal from professional. Objective attachment to the challenges at hand is the key. Dissolving into them is a choice. Whatever you do, it just absolutely won’t work in absence of trust. Understand that everyone is as human as you and they all fight these battles ever so often. Separating the personal from the professional is the key. Being loud doesn’t solve any problems. I have been guilty of this one most of all. Was the hardest realization for me.

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1

It’s about making hard calls and consensus.

Okay, I don’t like consensus. Wait! Hear me out. It’s because consensus is often confused with “giving everyone what they want” (including yourself). See, it’s about the buy-in. And as the leader, it’s your job to facilitate the collaboration for collective buy-ins. And no two people are the same. In an ideal world, you could spend as much time as you can to create it or it’s done in the first go, but in a real-world scenario, time is of the essence and there are hard calls.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2
Link 3

It’s about people and processes. Not to be confused with the objectives.

It’s important to have your metrics in place. And objectives as clearly and unambiguously documented, communicated, understood and acted on. Got it! But that’s management. Leadership is about creating people and processes frameworks that free, enable and empower your team to build frameworks for the future. Leadership fails when your team is busy fighting the challenges of today. It’s the job of the frameworks built yesterday to handle problems of today when you build frameworks for tomorrow and are not obsessing with the problem at hand. Not to confuse it with losing the touch with reality, just don’t forget the first part.

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1

It’s about trust. And selflessness.

Okay, this one’s straight forward. Do whatever the hell you guys have to, to develop trust. And if there is none, walk away. Leadership is an act of love on a very spiritual level. And none of the fancy frameworks or policies you can put into place will stop you from running into a wall, without the trust. And the thing with running into walls, the more mass you gain, the more painful it is. Leadership fails when trust fails. Doesn’t mean you resort to fascism or any of the isms for that matter. You’ll be amazed with what a simple honest conversation can do, provided you let your guards down. Again, straightforward, not easy.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s about the vision. And the execution of it.

Ah! The most misinterpreted one. It’s important that the entire team shares the same vision and it’s the job of the leader to empower them to achieve it, accept fault for when you don’t and make it bold enough till it scares you a bit. Again, it’s not about you or your vision. It’s about the vision that makes everyone committed to achieving it and gives joy when you finally do. A good vision ties everyone’s ikigai to it, or everyone ties their ikigai to it. Either way, as long as it’s mutual, agreed upon and audacious; it’s a job done right. The trick is, if done right, you won’t truly be able to achieve it. It’s always a stretched one. And that’s why you’ll fail many times. Which brings me to the second part, the execution. A leader is always obsessed with driving the team towards executing the vision. Everything else in the job description can be drawn out of it. The best organizations, imbibe this in their culture and not mere strategies. As a leader, you are the guardian of it, not the owner. The onus lies with the team that gives their blood and sweat to get there (that is if you have the rare opportunity to work with high octane performance and self-organized teams).

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s about emotional intelligence. And boundaries.

Duh! When things get personal, and you are confronted with your fears, it’s important to understand, refine and continually benchmark where these boundaries lie. Doing that effortlessly is emotional intelligence. We are nothing but the sum total of our experiences, and our experiences get more granular and diverse or narrower with each passing moment in each setting. Key is, understanding that it’s the same if not more, with each and every one. Empathy is your greatest asset. It takes years to perfect for some, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you screw things up here and there. As long as you are honest and are continually improving, everything else is fluff.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s about managing the chaos. And accepting the results.

My favourite. Honestly, chaos is your best friend. There will always be a variable or two that’ll screw up the calculations. Leadership is about working with people more so than the systems. And people are the most unpredictable element in your equation. What’s important is that you are comfortable with chaos. The more comfortable you are, the better positioned you are to respond. All the structures that you put in place for handling uncertainties, pay off one way or the other. Just be sure not to overdo it and you’ll be just fine. As they say, you can’t be constantly second-guessing yourself or your stimulus. Someone wise told me once, that as a leader you often find yourself in positions where you are best suited to take actions. You can only evaluate it based on the information available at the time. For the rest, you simply try to accept the results for what they are and improve with every iteration.

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s about making yourself redundant and being okay with it.

Remember, it’s not about you. And if you don’t free yourself from the hustle, you won’t be able to peep into the future. You can build all the sandcastles you want, but one wave of uncertainty and down it goes. All the time, money, emotions and learning, down the drain. You can, of course, hone your intuition for the next wave, but then that’s about it. And the cycle repeats. However, if you can find folks, who can then bring in their amazing expertise and experience to do what should be done, but better (it’s okay for the definitions to be different, remember – trust), and develop accountability along the way; you’ll succeed in what a leader is truly supposed to do. Dissolve your ego and yourself, into what your team executes, and empower them to do it better. The problem is, with coming to terms with the reality when on the off chances, you’ll succeed. We are all humans, and it’s important to be able to handle it responsibly. Or else, there are some serious withdrawal symptoms, waiting for you down the line. And make no mistakes, every action you take as a leader, has a direct consequence on your team’s well being. Hence, the stress, on the term responsibility, and starting with the end goal in mind.

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2

It’s about accepting failure and celebrating it.

A bitter pill to swallow, but do it. It’s about iterating and growing from your learnings. You won’t be able to do it if you are not celebrating your failures. The more you run away from your failures the more powerful they become over you. And over time, they have ripple effects in your ability to make decisions and act quickly. The point is, to make the process of accepting it, and celebrating it, as inviting as possible for yourself and your team. That’s what agility is all about.

Further, readings for the curious:
Link 1
Link 2
Link 3

It’s about losing yourself. To discover who you really are.

Okay, you can skip this one. It comes from a very spiritual place in my heart. It’s not for the faint-hearted and you’ll need help. What’s important is that as you dissolve yourself into the work, you should communicate as clearly and as honestly and as frequently as needed. That’s where you need help and your support group helps you keep touch with the reality and helps you make objective decisions and act on them quickly. It’s a slippery slope and takes a toll on your personal life the most. But trust me, you’ll be so much better off after it. And remember when you choose to do so, it’s not just your decision. Because it’s your inner circle that’ll tolerate you the most (even more than you yourself) when you act all irrationally. And as a leader, you don’t have the luxury to do that. So be responsible, if not for yourself, then for the sake of your loved ones. But it’s important to truly understand and empathize with every aspect of your team and their vision. Emotional intelligence is of the utmost importance.

It’s about accountability. And asking for help before it begins to burn you out.

You see, all of the above can be easily perceived as very dramatic, romantic exaggerations of an obsessed mind. I understand that completely. Would think the same. And that’s why I mentioned, to take it all with a grain of salt and do your independent research to substantiate it. But what stays true objectively is that the leader has the utmost accountability for any and all of the team’s challenges. And leadership is mostly about facilitation of communications to clear out the accountabilities for executing the solutions. Between the personal, professional and the vision of it all, you are bound to get burnt out as your team scales up (or even scales down for that matter) if you don’t ask for help in a timely manner. Asking for help is also your accountability.

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1

It’s a pursuit of happiness. And about not having any regrets.

How do you know, you are doing it, right? No one can tell but for yourself. Look out for the signs. Biggest of them all, are you happy and do you have any regrets? If you attempt taking care of the responsibility, get results, meet all the checkboxes, everyone’s happy, you are happy and are without any regrets. Congratulations, you have done a good job. Again, straight forward, not easy!

It’s about learning, to walk the talk.

Be honest, when you fail. Get back up, and keep at it. It’s as simple as that 🙂

Further, reading for the curious:
Link 1

It’s a pretty tall order. And you don’t change the mission to adjust for capacity. You change the capacity, to adjust for the mission. That’s the job. (Though the last part may vary with the dynamics of your endeavour. And it’s a very subjective and situational decision. I have been an all-in or all-out kind of person for the major part of my life.) It forces you to confront your worst fears and it’s a slippery slope. You are never ready for it. You never ask for it. You just become. And it’s a journey. It’s more than enough to break you down to pieces again and again, only for you to build yourself up, better every time. Vulnerable every time.

It’s important to not lose sight of why you are doing it and what’s the ethical thing to do. Even if it means accepting your failures. Especially your failures. Failures by very definition, belong to the leader and success, to the teams. It will get lonely at times. And as it the pressure builds up, it’s important to understand that you can not constantly keep second-guessing yourself. You don’t have to be right every time. Somethings are more important than being right and wrong. It’s important to act and not just plan. And always, always remember, it’s not about you.

All of this sounds like the ramblings of a troubled mind. Which, is the downside of not asking for help when it gets too much. That’s where your friends and family help you the most. They care for you when you are all out of love to give to yourself. Every leader needs it. Because it’s a responsibility you earn. And you pay with scars. What matters is not how hard you fall. Because you will fall. What truly matters, is the journey of it all. And how you build yourself up, every time you fall. It’s important to stay raw and happy. And that’s the whole job.

Just because it’s straightforward, doesn’t make it easy. You have to devote yourself to it. Anything less and you are not doing it right or confusing management with leadership, or aren’t being ambitious enough for your capacity. Just don’t be an ungreatful and hurtful person and things will work out eventually. And for it to happen, you need to confront your own demons. They can be your own self image issues for all anyone cares. You can’t expect to make logical decisions, if your emotions get the better of you.

Of all the things said and done, what’s most important is, to ask yourself the following when an opportunity presents itself.

  1. Are you up for it?

    It’s okay to not be ready. Fact is, for the first time, you never know when you are. And every time after, it’s a leap of faith. You’ll be wrong many times before you even realize what’s right and what’s wrong. Eventually, you’ll understand the subjectivity and the spectrum of this dimension. People often mistake perception with experience. Two of the most abused words in our vocabulary. However, once you embark on this journey, you’ll know better.

  2. Would you make responsible and ethical choices when it gets too much?

    It’s amazing what courage you’ll discover within you when you start this journey. The most responsible and ethical thing, you can do; will be asking for help and discarding all the fluff. Being the vulnerable piece of existence that’s raw and polished with the weight of all the atomic decisions you take. With the ones, you don’t wish to ever let down. Even if, that one, is you 🙂

  3. Are you bold enough to face your worst fears?

    Remember, leadership is never about you. It’s about you becoming a better version of your self, so you can help your team achieve their vision. And it’s one hell of a journey.

To whosoever reading this and has reached this far, hang in there, and make sure that you do it right. There is no rush. People often have enough time and money to do things twice. Wouldn’t it be better if you take it slow, but do it right, the first time? What’s the point of it all if you get all burnt out, or worse fail to do it right?

Here is my favourite scene from a movie I love oh so very much. Hope it inspires you just as it inspires me. Have great day folks and let me know what are your thoughts on leadership!

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getHarsh.in() Student for life. Student of life.
Harsh Joshi

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Harsh here. Let's talk product, policy, design and maths. I am still figuring things out and am a student for life. Get in touch and follow the updates.

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